PRINT October 2011


Eleanor Antin, 100 BOOTS Move On, 1972, black-and-white photograph, 8 x 10". From the series “100 BOOTS,” 1971–73.


David and I arrived in Solana Beach, a coastal town north of San Diego, after driving cross-country from New York in an old beat-up Caddy with our one-year-old son, Blaise. Robert Kennedy was dying of gunshot wounds in an LA hospital after winning the California primary, and it was twenty-four hours after Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol back in New York. A hot sunny day in June 1968, and there were huge juicy oranges in the back garden. A year later Manson and company went on their rampage in the Hollywood Hills, and the Hells Angels went on theirs at Altamont a couple of months after that. That beautiful poisoned ocean began sickening the surfers, and most of the time we managed to ignore the earthquakes, the fires, the droughts, and, less than fifty miles away, the San Onofre nuclear plant sitting on a fault line facing the sea with open arms like a lover. The beautiful and the damned.

There was always something of the Old West about Southern California. In those days, everybody in San Diego came from someplace else. We were, and still are, part of the sprawl coming down from Los Angeles on the way to Mexico with only Camp Pendleton, the marine base, protecting what’s left of old California chaparral and sand cliffs. We anarchists and pacifists hope they never leave. The developers are waiting in the wings with their bulldozers.

We were all explorers and pioneers. For artists, it was open country—you could do anything you wanted to do. Nobody was standing over you to see whether you made the right move. None of that New York totalitarianism. Was Bob’s new move right? Was he stealing from Dick? Was Joseph rigorous enough? None of it mattered down here where we were inventing a new avant-garde. Our fledgling UC San Diego art department of New York immigrants exploded into the first experimental art department in the country to include performance, video, film, photography, ecological art, writing, you name it. The orgy of new feminist possibilities—we questioned everything, sometimes absurdly, perhaps, but always bravely, with chutzpah and originality. Gay rights, Chicano rights. We were flexing our muscles, seeing how far we could go to cause trouble, to remake the world, and maybe, just maybe, end that dreadful Vietnam War in the bargain. You see, nobody cared what we did, except us. Even Artforum, which started out here, had its eyes on the East Coast and ran away from us as soon as it got the chance. But we knew the rest of the world was out there. Sometimes we even sent messages, like 100 Boots [1971–73], my photo picaresque of the adventures of one hundred boots mailed out to artists around the world. They were messages to the world that said, Hello, we’re here, and even if you don’t know it, you need us. And they did, of course. We were inventing the postmodern world and laughing all the way.

Kaari Upson’s Mirrored Staircase Inversion (San Bernardino) being fabricated on a residential lot in San Bernardino, CA, 2011. Photo: Chadwick Rantanen.


You drive past five scorched lots that can’t withstand rebuilding. The luxury two-story burned down three times and blew down once, which is too hard to explain. A crystal-meth explosion started an internal fire, and police spent months searching for a dead woman’s body, digging hole after hole after hole. My grandmother shot her own oleander bush because one of the guys there threw a brick through her window. The San Andreas Fault apparently runs through the backyard, so the house will become beachfront property when the big one comes, which sounds like a punch line but no one says it that way.

Every time I have to drive on the 10-E, the list repeats itself, information shifting a little bit each time. Why did he return? Did he throw a wrench, or something similar and heavy?

Here is a place of contradiction, overgrowth, and release. It folds in on itself, and I fold in on it. The swimming pool burns. There is smoldering and looting and starting over again. Holes don’t ever get filled, but they aren’t empty, either.

A few years ago, a stranger appeared on a lot, asking about a two-story house that wasn’t there anymore. The stranger then asked my brother whether he recognized him, thinking he was someone else. When the misrecognized answered no, the stranger went on to apologize for the incident, but reassured him that he had seen the light and was now free.

Jim Shaw, Untitled, 1979, still from an unfinished color video.


When I got out of CalArts in 1978, no one was trolling the LA schools for new art stars, the rents were cheap, you could find work in the film biz, and nobody cared too much about what you did. It was a great time and place to make art if you didn’t need to make a living off of it or have a gallery, as there were very few. You could take your time, make mistakes, and argue with your friends. I developed slowly by today’s standards, occasionally exhibiting in group shows at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions or the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, absorbing influences, seeing shows (work by artists like Judy Pfaff, Laurie Anderson, and Jonathan Borofsky comes to mind), and doing special-effects jobs that funded my art production until they started to get in the way (this list includes Moonwalker, The Abyss, the first Tron, Earth Girls Are Easy, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, and lots of TV commercials). Thirty-plus years have gone by since I graduated, and today there are galleries, collectors, and an audience paying attention to what you do the minute you put up your thesis show. Rents are expensive, tuitions are criminally high (though the schools are still a major magnet for newcomers, as they were for me when I came here from Michigan during the financial downturn of the early 1970s). There’s no time left to be a slacker anymore, and it helps to be born rich. However, it’s still warm in the winter, music is easy to come by, you can still find work in the film biz, and the gene pool is now a lot less incestuous.

Charles Ray in his studio, Los Angeles, 2011.


Q: How do you start your day, and is it uniquely Californian?

A: It’s still very dark when I wake up each day. When I arrive at the trailhead of Temescal Canyon it seems even darker. I start my morning hike up the canyon; I meet the first light of day halfway up the mountain. At a place called Skull Rock I begin to meet people along the trail. Usually I say hi.

Q: How long have you lived in California?

A: For thirty years. I came to Los Angeles in 1981 to take up the opportunities offered me by UCLA. The university filled the landscape with people. I have worked with more than fifteen hundred art students and met scores of interesting artists who taught in the program over the years. I should add that I have owned several boats that have berthed in various West Coast harbors. I have spent a lot of hours thinking about the West Coast by looking east from the Pacific Ocean.

Q: Who is the first person you met in California?

A: A postdoc sociologist at UCLA named David Davis, who wrote his dissertation on bail bondsmen. He showed me how our preconceived ideas about people, places, and events are more often wrong than right.

Q: Have you ever considered leaving California?

A: The greatest cliché about California is attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright: Something to the effect that “America is on a tilt, and everything loose rolls to California.”

Piero Golia, Luminous Sphere, 2008–10, mixed media. Installation view, Standard Hotel, Los Angeles, 2010. Photo: Joshua White.


Whether by manifest destiny or on a quest for gold, I set out for what was supposed to be a two-week LA vacation and stayed for ten years. And it didn’t take long, driving the never-ending stretches of freeway and boulevards that run back and forth across the City of Angels, to feel its disproportionate, almost inhuman scale. I’m not sure what Mason Williams and Ed Ruscha were thinking when they decided to drive Ruscha’s black Ford sedan from Oklahoma to Los Angeles in 1956, but it set into motion what would become an epic future for them. By the time I arrived, the landscape had changed some—the studio that Richard Jackson occupied on Colorado Boulevard had become a Victoria’s Secret—but just like any actor, LA has weathered its ups and downs.

I remember, early on, meeting Eric Wesley. We were at La Buca on Melrose and started talking about what would become the Mountain School. It was the time of Black Pussy and the Dub Club. And then, everything started happening so fast, and with all of the perfect, Hollywood-style tears and joy you might expect. O brave new world!