PRINT December 2004


Los Angeles

WHEN DENNIS HOLLINGSWORTH MOVED OUT OF HIS CHINATOWN digs in late 2002, those left behind began, either eagerly or anxiously, proclaiming the end. After all, the painter and honorary “Mayor of Chinatown” was among the first wave of aesthetes to take advantage of the former tourist trap’s economic misfortunes, replacing cut-rate chinoiserie with contemporary art. Then, a few months later, Giovanni Intra, the genial artist/writer who with partner Steve Hanson effectively put the place on the map by opening China Art Objects Galleries, passed away at the tender age of thirty-four. And there went the neighborhood.

Or so we thought. For despite all portents to the contrary, the 2004 season started on a surprisingly determined up note. October 2003 witnessed the launch of a troika of new and promising galleries on Bernard Street, at the far end of Chung King Road, inaugurating “a clean-and-sober chapter two for Chinatown art,” as LA Weekly put it last December. They included Pruess Press, a combination print shop and publishing concern run by Joel Mesler, formerly of the Diane Pruess Gallery, who guaranteed a certain free-spirited continuity, while the Golinko Kordansky and Daniel Hug galleries set a somewhat more “professional” future agenda. Opening its doors shortly thereafter, Jorge Pardo’s bar The Mountain likewise seemed to grant Chinatown a longer life expectancy than many, or most, had assumed. Although hard-core old-timers still prefer the louche glamour of haunts like Hop Louie, this strikingly refurbished space, with its sharply swooping angles and dripping, blood-red walls, remains a compelling example of Pardo’s civic work, and unlike his house-that’s-also-a-sculpture on Sea View Lane, it’s actually open to the public. So, Chinatown remains an art mecca, and one that (unlike Chelsea, for instance) continues to cater to a living, breathing bohemia despite its steadily mounting fashionability. Somehow, the boom/bust cycle that provided the shaky materialist foundation of my worldly experience has been stalled by its artistic enablers, perhaps no longer oblivious to their role as the avant-garde of gentrification and real-estate redevelopment.

The case of Chinatown strikes me as exemplary of the LA art scene in 2004: It is precisely the fact that nothing really happened that’s so surprising. Rather, this was the year of reassessments, revivals, recuperations, and belated fulfillments. If history is the first casualty of progress, then art here seems increasingly determined to exempt itself from the process, to stay put and squat among the ruins. Although each new addition to Chung King Road is more upscale than the last, by and large they all still apply a distinctly ’90s version of the DIY template. And despite the fiscal policies of Bush fils, which everyone feared might repeat the withering of the LA art world seen under his father, every sector and niche of an ever-more-expansive scene registered growth, as if to foil leading economic indicators. Blum & Poe, once the “tiny gallery that could,” has moved into a space on La Cienega Boulevard that rivals Gagosian or LA Louver in sheer square footage as well as architectural aplomb (courtesy of Dia:Beacon’s OpenOffice team). No pause, no break, things just go on and on—and not only the ’90s but also the ’80s, the ’70s and, above all, the ’60s.

Endlessness, as opposed to infinity, let’s say, is at the crux of Michael Fried’s anti-Minimalist polemic, “Art and Objecthood.” Drawing on Tony Smith’s awestruck account of a nighttime drive on an unfinished section of the New Jersey turnpike, Fried would go on to diagnose the art that followed, be it Minimal, Pop or Conceptual, with a fatal case of overreaching its limits. Currently in LA we find his analysis confirmed in both spatial and temporal terms. For starters, the art world is now literally “all over the map,” stretching from Venice Beach to downtown, via Culver City and the burgeoning mid-Wilshire corridor. This places special demands on art’s patrons, who no longer even attempt to cover the field in a single outing, as well as on the gallerists, who must play against type as gracious hosts to each and every visitor. Often enough, this is not even an act: Starved for conversation and “news of the world,” they monopolize the attention of visitors continually checking their watches as traffic collects ominously outside. However, the sense that each gallery exists as a solitary island marooned behind the rising tide of rush hour was mitigated in 2004 by a kind of cohesion in terms of the work on view. Here again, radical change was consistently trumped by a desire to reinvestigate the aesthetic landscapes of late modernism and early postmodernism.

This year’s key events and exhibitions all took a page form the same history book, conveniently provided by the constellation of Ann Goldstein’s “A Minimal Future?” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Lynn Zelevansky’s “Beyond Geometry” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the arrival from out of town of Douglas Fogle’s conceptually oriented “The Last Picture Show” at the UCLA Hammer Museum. All three called up their chosen moments and movements in a distinctly programmatic fashion, as if to insist on their undiminished, perhaps even augmented, relevance for current theory and practice. Common assumptions concerning the funereal effects of the periodizing process were vigorously countered at every turn, above all by the refusal to bracket the object in any strict sense. Segues were consistently privileged over breaks, and accordingly the historical object—take, for instance, Dan Graham’s Homes for America, 1966–67, which appeared at both MoCA and the Hammer, as well as in most of my lectures this year—was granted a certain categorical leeway. “Rather than proposing a circumscribed definition, ‘A Minimal Future?’ features an expanded field of practices,” writes Goldstein in the introduction to her exhibition catalogue. This, too, is a recipe for endlessness, one that was applied to the most ambitious art made and seen in studios and galleries across LA this year, much of it casually reprising the language of modernist aesthetics in order to connect the once-autonomous forms of “advanced” art to the social reality of the built environment.

This summer, “Supersonic,” the first semicomprehensive exhibition of graduating MFAs from eight southern California art schools, was full of “expanded field” aesthetes. On the painterly front, for instance, UCLA’s Kirsten Everberg (featured in April at 1301PE) weaves Pollock-style drips and pours of oil and enamel paints within representational matrices that at a distance snap into near-Photorealist focus as hotel lobbies and dining rooms. Similarly, CalArts’s Brett Cody Rogers (signed to the David Kordansky Gallery stable) deploys an outwardly “literal” technique of dry-brush smears and scrapes that doubles, paradoxically, as a mode of architectural rendering. The show’s “new media” proponents simply reversed the process, submerging their photomechanical and/or electronic image sources beneath layers of stylized gesture. John Richey converts footage of freeway pileups into animated cartoons dominated by a tautly quivering line that continually threatens to collapse background/ foreground distinctions. Gil Omry (who showed in February at Overtones gallery in Culver City) processes the ultramundane view of a surveillance camera overlooking a dark, urban plaza through a series of eerie, abstract permutations reminiscent of computer games.

As might be expected, “Supersonic” inspired much talk of “selling out” and reignited the late-’90s art-school controversies recounted in articles such as Dennis Cooper’s “Too Cool for School,” Andrew Hultkrans’s “Surf and Turf,” and Deborah Solomon’s “How to Succeed in Art.” But considering that a good number of the show’s works were already signed off to local galleries and, moreover, that none of its participants seemed genuinely determined to resist a similar fate for their art, these complaints seemed more than ever tinged with sour grapes. Mounted in the massive Wind Tunnel hall of Art Center College of Design’s new South Campus building, the exhibition itself served as a training ground for artists destined for a nomadic future of international art fairs and biennales, where their work will have to stand out in similarly expansive (and crowded) halls. At the same time, though, the venue endowed these various meditations on the place of art in architecture and urban design (and vice versa) with an almost site-specific flavor.

A consciousness of space as a kind of social content both shaping and shaped by abstract form also dominated some of LA’s most ambitious gallery exhibitions. Jennifer Pastor’s sculptural triptych The Perfect Ride, 2003, shown at Regen Projects in May, takes its cue in part from such monuments to modern engineering as the Hoover Dam. Instead of using the finished structure as the basis for a formal reduction or extrapolating from a detail of it, Pastor completely reformulated its shape in an attempt to understand and externalize its complex circulatory system. Taft Green’s Reaction Facets: international airport, 2004, accomplished a similarly convulsive operation on LAX. A single, freestanding piece that commandeered the narrow confines of Richard Telles Fine Art much like Pastor’s Christmas Flood, 1994, did a decade ago, Green’s work trades the normally grounded consciousness that comes with the territory of sculpture for a highly contingent, mobile point of view. For both Pastor and Green, it is movement through the built environment that yields the armature of their respective constructions. This structure is gestural, seemingly free-form, yet at the same time wholly objective and empirical—a concrete remainder of impressions gathered “on the fly.”

No longer in the service of a comprehensive view, this sort of in-transit abstraction inclines either toward a mind-boggling complexity or to its opposite, either to the horror vacuii or the void. The latter option was explored in three more historical overviews, which together spanned the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s: Yves Klein’s air, water, and fire architecture, shown at the MAK Center Los Angeles Schindler House; Ant Farm’s soft and inflatable architecture seen at the Santa Monica Museum of Art; and Superstudio’s antiarchitecture, exhibited at Art Center’s Williamson Gallery. In this disaster-prone capital of nomadism and obsolescence, these attempts to translate the strategies of dematerialization into an urban program could only be greeted as imminently utilitarian. Clearly it’s a very similar mixture of spacey poetics and millenarian pragmatism that motivates the series of High Desert Test Sites organized by Andrea Zittel and others in and around Joshua Tree. Besides acting as a literal “museum without walls,” this event, already in its third act last October, doubles as a boosterish push for a full-scale cultural relocation to the Mansonian hinterlands. Presented as a prototype, Zittel’s own dwelling actually comes off as a chic rejoinder to the Independent Group’s New Brutalist program, in particular Alison and Peter Smithson’s postapocalyptic Patio and Pavillion for the seminal “This is Tomorrow” exhibition of 1956. Ostensibly conducive to a highly productive yet ecologically viable lifestyle, it takes Frank Gehry’s former fetishism of recycled and retooled low materials to the extreme. Gehry, too, recently took things to the extreme—but precisely in the opposite direction. His Walt Disney Concert Hall debuted late last year before a literally delirious public as perhaps the definitive monument to aesthetic overreaching. The outcome of a design process that generates not only a plan but its very own means of construction, this is a building that rejects the discourse of functionalism on principle, and with it any responsibility to worldly givens. Here, as in much of LA this year, abstraction is preeminent. Reality will just have to follow.

Jan Tumlir is a critic based in Los Angeles.