PRE-OSCAR WEEKEND and its attendant art events always amplifies rifts in the Los Angeles art community. There are those who think mixing art and Hollywood is a terrible idea, and there are those who find the whole procedure enticing. For the rest of the year, those of us who are indifferent to the entertainment industry here can ignore it, hibernating in our Eastside studios, while occasional brushes with celebrity glamour (mostly at parties for exhibitions coordinated to honor art and cinema’s connections—our unique version of Carnival) remind us that only a few boulevards separate our worlds. But this weekend’s openings, at Gagosian and Regen Projects in Beverly Hills, felt more charged than ever, with artists and critics vociferously, even ferociously expressing polar opposite opinions, and we all know why. He, the Academy Awards host himself and poster boy for Hollywood run amok in the art world, has already been slathered with attention across the board. Does he need any more?
“It would be genius if you didn’t mention him at all,” artist Stanya Kahn wrote in a letter to me about why she was skipping the James Franco/Gus Van Sant opening at Gagosian Friday night. (Like a new spin on Carter’s video work, Erased James Franco?) Of those who did attend, not many people I knew had praise for the show itself; we moved on to other pleasantries. One critic, who was stuck with me behind the hordes of photographers and wall of Gagosian assistants armed with guest-list clipboards, glimpsed the show—Van Sant’s four large watercolor portraits copied from random Internet photos and two Franco videos, My Own Private River and Endless Idaho, the latter a twelve-hour barrage of outtakes and unused footage culled from Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho era—and suggested, with some jokey exaggeration, that our art community had been “raped.” Extreme, yes—especially since we’re all here, voluntarily eating it up—but the show did seem an overt rejection of the idea that artwork should stand on its own aesthetically. Worse, perhaps, than Franco’s inability to calibrate his role in the system is that the art industry has been too obvious in its stooping to the level of the cinema machine.
As I exited the “River room,” Jeffrey Deitch smiled ear to ear and described his love of “unexpected moments” in art. But didn’t we all see this coming? Sure, the crowd was exceedingly glamorous: Gallery habitués with crossover art-cinema talent, like Udo Kier and Harmony Korine, looked like cult heroes compared with looming mainstream personalities like Robert Duvall, Ron Howard, Adrien Brody, and Michael Stipe (who was responsible for the score of My Own Private River, not that anyone could hear it). Surrounded by fans and cameras, the most many of us saw of Franco was the back of his snazzy sport coat. (One assumes that he evinced, from the front, the same stoner irony he gave at the Oscars Sunday night.) Gagosian’s press release compares Franco’s film editing to Warhol’s, but I left wondering why these videos weren’t simply added as extras to a DVD rerelease of a movie everyone I know worshipped in 1991. Didn’t Slater Bradley already do this anyway? Seeing River Phoenix resurrected in this gaudy manner made me slightly nauseous—or was that the vodka gimlet I’d enjoyed sipping in the heated, carpeted tent out back, where curators like Russ Ferguson and art writers like Sarah Douglas and ex–LA Weekly journalist Tom Christie sought respite? Obviously, I can’t claim complete innocence here.
Gagosian got one big thing right this weekend, and that was Ed Ruscha’s timely and poignant exhibition next door, “Psycho Spaghetti Westerns,” which had opened the previous night. Ten tremendous new paintings, installed spaciously throughout three large rooms, exuded their own charisma with desert horizon lines jutting diagonally across horizontal canvases, painted as flatly as movie backdrops, trash littering their grounds. Ruscha invites the viewer to face the debris, up close and personal. Don’t try to disguise it, these paintings say, or, as painter Francesca Gabbiani put it with tongue-in-cheek fondness: “Art is a form of pollution.”
While Ruscha’s opening hosted many of the same celebrities as Franco and Van Sant’s, this opening was not about celebrity. When Drew Barrymore beheld the two-foot-tall, shredded lightbulb box strewn across the landscape in Psycho Spaghetti Western #6, others in the crowd looked at the painting, not at her. Musicians including the Band’s Robbie Robertson and the venerable Van Dyke Parks took a gander too. “People ask me what I’ve been up to,” Parks said to a ring of us folk-music fanatics, including Eddie Ruscha Jr., who hovered around to pay respects. “I try to describe playing first to an intimate crowd of forty people, then to seventeen thousand the next day. But still people ask what I’ve done lately.” Parks announced that he’ll soon be releasing a series of seven-inch records, reminded us that it was a privilege to be at such a grand celebration, and handed us each a business card before literally bowing out.
Friday night’s “Black Swan” opening at Regen Projects was almost tame by comparison, which is saying a lot, as it, too, was oozing with decadent style, and went lights out after one too many people intentionally stomped Walead Beshty’s mirrored-tile floor. “I’m glad we’re wearing underwear,” painter Allison Schulnik said to me as we entered the room together. I felt right at home when I saw Catherine Opie’s beaming smile amid a luscious group of alluring artworks, many of which were used on Black Swan sets. IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU, Douglas Gordon’s Mirror for Everyone spelled out in its top left corner; IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, it said backwards reading schizophrenically from the lower right. There was also Rachel Kneebone’s biomorphically sexy, opaque white ceramic wreath, Shield III, and Banks Violette’s cast-aluminum chandelier, anchored askew like a sunken ship on the floor.
The afterparty, at the cozy Italian restaurant Il Covo, also struck a familiar chord. LAXART curator Lauri Firstenberg sat nearby while I chatted with artists Elliott Hundley and Schulnik about the qualities of oil paint and the politics of historical abstract painting. “If you don’t put yourself fully into your art,” Hundley said, “then the work is merely decorative.” Bret Easton Ellis occupied a booth in the corner, but the party, like the opening, was more an art-for-art’s-sake crowd. No surprise, perhaps, that this was the primary goal of “Black Swan”’s curator, Dominic Sidhu, an aim that he recounted as we warmed beside the restaurant’s fireplace. “Regen Projects is first and foremost about the art,” Sidhu said, and I saluted him in agreement.