It’s not often that the unfashionably early are rewarded in Los Angeles, but at the opening of “THING: New Sculpture from Los Angeles” at the UCLA Hammer Museum, those who showed up on time (myself included) were actually able to enjoy the exhibition, while latecomers were hustled through the crowded galleries in a scant five minutes by the officious guards. Five minutes? Actually, the drive-by viewing worked in the show’s favor, to the extent that “THING” curators Christopher Miles, James Elaine, and Aimee Chang predicated their choices on a generational return that reverses sculpture’s course from the late '60s expanded field to today’s discrete object-making. Call it sculpture in the imploded field. Though many of the works in the show seemingly relied on slowing down the viewer’s apprehensiontake Matt Johnson’s bronze orange peels, for exampletheatricality was out of the question on this particular night. Presentness may or may not be grace, but here it was the only option.
The usual funereal vibe of the Hammer’s two-level marble courtyard turned festive with a cast of thousands, including MoCA’s Ann Goldstein and Michael Darling; recent Hammer acquisition Gary Garrels; artists Christopher Williams, Liz Larner, Frances Stark, and Charles Long; gallerists Anna Helwing, David Kordansky, Susanne Vielmetter, and China Art Objects’s Steve Hanson; and more hungry young artists than one could possibly imagine. The archly laid-back crowd seemed more interested in the ebb and flow of the flash mob they had become part of than in making sense of the exhibition’s premise, though there were exceptions. Long, who essentially predicted this show with his quiet 2003 curatorial effort “Free Roaming,” helpfully noted that most of the things in “THING” were “roughly the size of household appliances.”
What, then, is “THING”? Or as Martin Heidegger might have asked, “What in the thing is thingly? We shall not reach the thing in itself until our thinking has first reached the thing as a thing.” My own theory perhaps owes more to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups than Heidegger: In “THING,” funk and finish fetish (the latter with its roots in custom-car culture) are the two great West Coast tastes that taste great together. Johnson’s Bread Face, for example, looks funk but was made with freakish exactitude using oil paint on cast plastic. Other artists venture off the proverbial map, offering up sculpture with a new (or, if not new, more oblique) syntactical structurefor example, Andy Ouchi and Taft Green folding unexpected painterly devices into their sculpture. In its relative openness, “THING” provides for such compelling detours. The show could have easily been called “WHAT THE FUCK? New Sculpture from Los Angeles”and I mean that in the nicest way possible.
The Hammer’s Russell Ferguson, who was talking to Dia’s Lynne Cooke when I butted into the conversation, seemed mildly intrigued by my theory about the unholy matrimony of finish and funk, conceding that “there seems to be some relationship to sculpture from Northern California” (meaning funk of the dustiest variety). Taking a different angle, Ferguson spent his own two cents on the pervasive influence of Charles Ray. Indeed, six of the artists in the exhibition had studied sculpture at UCLA (where Ray holds court), and it seems likely these kids were hip to Ray’s kookier inclinations like material misapprehension and scale manipulation. Though not a student of his, Kristen Morgin pays tribute to Ray’s ghostly fiberglass car from 1997, Unpainted Sculpture, with her eerie, full-scale lowrider Sweet and Low Down, made of unfired clay, wood, wire, and cementthough one could look back to Ed Kienholz’s sutured sedan tableaux from 1964, which is a popular, permanent fixture further down Wilshire Boulevard at LACMA. Chuck Moffit’s eros bruises thanatos also explicitly follows from LA’s car culture, with an assemblage of upholstery, a V-8 engine, and other parts resting on blocks. Nobody I talked to mentioned Heidegger but most agreed “nearness” was an issue; there was something particularly regional about “THING.” In fact, most of the works in the exhibition indicated that recent developments in West Coast sculpture were, in fact, part of a longer, idiosyncratic local lineage: Larner, John McCracken, George Herms, Ken Price, Michael C. McMillen . . . I could go on.
Otherwise, “THING” seemed to prove that the MFA programs of Southern California are doing their jobs turning students into artists, and sculpture students are, for their part, busy making, well, things. The bulk of the assembled throng represented some relationship to the thriving local MFA programs and clearly had no difficulty digesting the exhibitioneven in five minutes. It’s difficult to say if this “definition” of sculpture-at-this-moment would play so well elsewhere. Judging by the mostly ebullient mood, nobody seemed to think geographic specificity was much of a problem. DJ Eddie Ruscha, with his own unique claim to LA’s artistic genealogy, spun the Dead Kennedys’s “California Über Alles,” a fitting tribute to the night of the “THING.”