PRINT January 2002

Dennis Cooper on Amy Sarkisian

SOMETIMES ART CROSSES WIRES WITH THE WRONG politician—I’m sure I needn’t name names—and winds up scandalizing the public. But art that offends the art world itself is so rare that it’s hard to imagine what such a thing would entail. I don’t mean the groans about this embarrassor that Yale grad’s inflated reputation or the snickers that greet some YBA’s cleverly executed “shocks.” I’m talking about an artwork that could horrify or at least seriously flummox those in the know. As it happens, I may have witnessed just such an occurrence last February, when Los Angeles sculptor Amy Sarkisian all but wrecked an otherwise sedate group show at Roberts & Tilton gallery with a work so, well, wrong and weird that arguments continue to erupt around its memory.

The agent provocateur in question was Toy Skull Reconstructions: Dark Version, 2000–2001. Sarkisian had gathered together five fake human skulls and, using a technique employed by forensic artists to reconstruct the visages of long-dead John and Jane Does, molded the heads of five imaginary young men and women onto these noggin-shaped frameworks. The nauseatingly lifelike, psychologically challenged busts were given heavy metal/goth wigs and collars and placed on looming pedestals draped in Draculean black robes. Lined up firing squad style along one of the gallery’s walls, they gazed with malevolent stupidity at passersby and at the gigantic, album cover-like portrait of themselves (White Queen, 2000) that hung on the opposite wall. The effect—a mixture of embarrassment, pity, disgust, laugh-out-loud amusement, and, finally, head-shaking respect—was so outrageous and unfamiliar that it turned even the world-weariest galleryhoppers into pre-apple Adams and Eves.

That exhibition may turn out to be a career breakthrough, having garnered this cultishly revered artist’s artist her first widespread recognition. An alumna of UCLA’s class of ’97, which gave us rising art stars like Evan Holloway and Liz Craft, Sarkisian determinedly pursues her peers’ shared interest in the physics of materiality and space, incorporating West Coast-brand post-Conceptualism into quasi novelty sculptures that filter cerebral thrills through black slapstick humor. Her crafty exploration of heavy metal and Halloween-related iconography has made her a hero to younger local artists if something of a problem child for market-driven gallerists. But thanks in part to the recent swell of horror-minded artists-from the evil Brooklyn-based Sue de Beer and Banks Violette to postgoth Angelenos Tom Allen and Cameron Jamie—Sarkisian may be reaching critical mass, with recent appearances in LA galleries like ACME and nibbles from dealers in New York and Europe.

Sarkisian’s homely, emotionally bizarre work is the most nagging art I’ve seen of late. Her nerviness coupled with the jangled nerves of LA’s art aficionados—should ensure that her impeccably off-the-wall sculptures will cause an even bigger ruckus in the months to come.

Novelist and Artforum contributing editor DENNIS COOPER has written widely on art and popular culture. An impassioned advocate of new West Coast talent, he has organized a number of exhibitions of contemporary art, including “The Temptations,” at Marc Foxx gallery, Los Angeles, in 1999; “Smallish” at greengrassi, London, 2000; and “The Funeral Home,” which appears this month at Marc Foxx. Cooper’s sixth novel. My Loose Thread, is forthcoming from Canongate Books this May. A film based on his original screenplay Warm, to be directed by photographer Carter Smith, is currently in preproduction.