The L.A.-Word

Linda Yablonsky around Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Left: Still from Francesco Vezzoli's Gore Vidal's Caligula. (Photo: Matthias Vriens) Right: Stephen Gyllenhaal and Lisa Cholodenko.

Ever since the obscene $254 million that The Gates brought New York made art tourism the new pornography, I've felt a little funny about traveling to other cities just to visit exhibitions. Of course, I wasn't jumping on a private jet to preview the Venice Biennale or to shop early at Art Basel. I was going to LA to attend the first National Critics Conference. So what if the lead-off speaker was a TV Hall of Famer (All in the Family producer Norman Lear)? The USC/Annenberg School for Communication sponsored the event. Surely I would be safe in the arms of academe.

Can you hear me laughing?

Actually, my week on the LA art scene was by turns surprising, stimulating, and sickening—in other words, totally fab. First, at the Broad Art Foundation in Santa Monica, I discovered where contemporary art is hiding. (The collection is 1,100 pieces strong.) The Warhols alone could put any museum to shame, but by the time I had plowed through the largest collection of Cindy Shermans in captivity, more Ruschas and Lichtensteins than I could count on two hands, and the world's most voluminous installation of Leon Golubs, I no longer cared about art. I needed air.

Staggering out to my rented Pop-mobile, a purple Kia, I drove off to join Francesco Vezzoli for dinner at Lucques, a posh, friendly place in West Hollywood with a pitilessly challenging menu: Grilled poussin with fava bean purée and suckling pig with saffron farro-lentil pilaf—stuff I'd never try at home. Thus sustained for the short night ahead, we repaired to the apartment building where he was staying—a bizarre cross between a Chinese temple and a Swiss chalet—for a Powerbook preview of Gore Vidal's Caligula, the video that Prada-backed Vezzoli will introduce in Venice.

Yes, Karen Black, Helen Mirren, and Courtney Love all appear in this thoroughly professional, ninety-second movie trailer for a nonexistent film. Still, the Milanese diva-worshipper has used it to bring his appropriation-esque art closer to institutional critique, of all things, drawing out the heart of art tourism as a theme-park amusement worthy of its own sex-sells-style advertisement. I laughed out loud several times—and felt nicely set up for the filmic bent of the Lisa Yuskavage/Lisa Cholodenko conversation at the Hammer the following night. Though the Hammer is part of UCLA, this event did not appear to attract any students. Instead, the audience included Rob Storr and, if looks mean anything, the real-life counterparts of characters on The L-Word (Anne Philbin, et al.), episodes of which Cholodenko (High Art and Laurel Canyon) has directed.

Left: Norman Lear. Middle: Eli Broad. Right: Robert Storr.

Against a backdrop of Nan Goldin photos, and scenes from Cholodenko's films and Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Yuskavage kicked off the program with a nod toward seduction in art, a goal that would be repudiated on the same stage only days later by the writer Michel Houellebecq. (More on that to come.) Noting that no sex in her movies was ever consummated, Cholodenko held the audience in thrall—mystifying, as Yuskavage was far more interesting (her father drove a truck for Mrs. Smith's pies) and articulate. “If you really believe in art,” Yuskavage said, “you don't seek a moral. I think artists should just fuck all and do everything.” (In art, she added. Not life.) At the dinner afterward, filmmaker Stephen Gyllenhaal (Maggie and Jake's dad) confessed that until Cholodenko showed some of Yuskavage's images, he didn't know who the artist was or why she was there. After that, he said, he loved her.

In this context, moral rigor could have suffered greatly. Instead, it triumphed in Norman Lear's Thursday morning address to the art, music, and theater critics gathered downtown at the Omni Hotel near Thom Mayne's new CalTrans building, the most astonishing piece of architecture I have seen since the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao. An outspoken free expressionist, Lear exhorted us (artists and critics) to “speak truth to power,” a phrase that quickly took on “May be the force be with you” overtones among the crowd from New York. The following day, Eli Broad himself showed up for lunch. In a speech that baldly equated art and money, he shamelessly exploited the financial success of The Gates to promote “Arts + Culture LA,” his latest attempt to grow the downtown LA economy by marketing art as entertainment, rather than “an elitist pursuit.”

The very idea sent the higher-minded New York critics into paroxysms of outrage. “Inappropriate!” they shouted. The speech, said one, was like that of an actuarial intent on reducing art to numbers. But before any of the critics could speak any other truth to the power that is Broad, the most influential billionaire in LA, he was gone and they were flummoxed—an unusual sight indeed. As Lear put it, “It should be no secret that our country is awash in bullshit.” Oooh baby, I thought. May the force be with us.

(To be continued. . .)