PRINT December 2011

Michael Ned Holte

Asco, Instant Mural, 1974, color photograph. Gronk and Patssi Valdez.

1 “Asco: Elite of the Obscure, a Retrospective, 1972–1987” (Los Angeles County Museum of Art; curated by C. Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez) Strangest art sighting of the past year? How about an image of Asco’s Patssi Valdez, glimpsed on a Bank of America ATM the same day Occupy Wall Street’s Los Angeles splinter mobilized in the downtown financial district? It turns out the corporate monster directed some trickle-down loot toward “Pacific Standard Time,” the Getty’s dizzyingly ambitious reconsideration of postwar and contemporary art in Southern California. Perhaps no show better summed up the initiative’s scholarly acumen than LACMA’s survey of this Chicano collaborative. Dense with photographs, performance documents, props, paintings, and ephemera, the show reveals a wildly energetic band of outsiders from East LA—initially Harry Gamboa Jr., Glugio Nicandro (aka Gronk), Willie F. Herrón III, and Valdez—defying and occasionally defacing hallowed institutional boundaries.

Noah Purifoy, Unknown, 1967, mixed media, 43 x 43". From “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980.”

2 “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980” (Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; curated by Kellie Jones) Like Asco, many of the artists in “Now Dig This!” invented opportunities to make and exhibit their work rather than waiting for an invitation. While putting into perspective the social and cultural upheaval from which much of this art emerged, Jones strikes an impressive balance between elucidating the historical context and spotlighting the remarkable objects on display. It will be impossible, after this exhibition, to think of West Coast assemblage without thinking immediately not only about Ed Kienholz and George Herms but also about Melvin Edwards, Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, and Noah Purifoy, to name only a few standouts.

Simon Leung, War After War, 2011, still from a color video, 90 minutes.

3 Simon Leung, War after War A Pole born in a German displaced persons’ camp, Warren Niesłuchowski immigrated to the United States as a young man and joined the army, only to desert during Vietnam. Today he remains a globe-trotting nomad who relies on the hospitality of friends and strangers, frequently appearing at art openings all over the world without ever seeming to desire anything more than a smart conversation or an opportunity to burst into song. War After War, Leung’s 2011 video portrait of Niesłuchowski, works quietly, entirely avoiding didacticism while gently framing its subject—part flaneur, part monk—as an idiosyncratic model of resistance.

Stephanie Taylor performing at the Schindler House, Los Angeles, July 23, 2011. Photo: Don Lewis.

4 Stephanie Taylor, “Stephanie Taylor Songbook” (Schindler House, Los Angeles, July 23, 2011) On this summer evening (presented by the Society for the Activation of Social Space Through Art and Sound and the MAK Center for Art and Architecture), the polymath Taylor was joined by a dozen or so friends and colleagues for a recital of her greatest hits, including “Valsalhalal’s Tin Gun,” “Gutter Foal,” and “A Leash for Fritz and Kale for Stray Bunny.” The last of these off-kilter yarns (all generated via the artist’s arcane self-invented rhyme-based system) was performed by Alice Könitz and Taylor, who, in tandem and in costume, seemed to channel Captain Beefheart, Red Krayola, and Kurt Schwitters all at once.

View of “Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective,” 2011, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest.

5 Paul Thek (Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; curated by Elisabeth Sussman, Sondra Gilman, and Lynn Zelevansky) Years in the works, this retrospective was worth the wait, revealing a staggering talent who navigated a path through Pop and Minimalism into brave new territory that was deeply personal and distinctly his own.

Organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

William Leavitt, California Patio, 1972, artificial plants, Malibu lights, flagstone, slider, curtains, wooden wall, text. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2011. Photo: Brian Forrest.

6 William Leavitt (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; curated by Ann Goldstein and Bennett Simpson) For more than forty years, Leavitt’s work has framed and reflected the specific qualities of Los Angeles as well as anyone’s. His deadpan paintings of vernacular architecture rhyme with those by Hockney and Ruscha, but his uncanny stage-set installations, such as California Patio, 1972, were the highlight here, capturing the blank artifice of “movie magic” with an economy that any producer would envy.

View of “Alexis Smith: Works from the 1970s,” 2011, Thomas Solomon Gallery, Los Angeles. From left: Isadora, 1980–81; Masculine/Feminine, 1975–76. Photo: Brian Forrest.

7 “Alexis Smith: Works From the 1970s” (Thomas Solomon Gallery, Los Angeles) Like her peer Leavitt, Smith has mined the movie industry, but she has done so through her own brand of collage and assemblage, often threaded though loose narratives. Take Masculine/Feminine, 1975–76, a serial arrangement of pink and blue sheets of typing paper on which a fractured screenplay is interwoven with found photographs and objects. The work unavoidably alludes to Godard’s 1966 film of a similar name and theme, gender roles being the frequent subject of Smith’s cheeky scripting. For example: “ROBERT (off): Have you noticed, in the word ‘masculine’ there is ‘mask’ and there’s ‘ass.’”

View of “Scott Benzel: Maldistribution,” 2011, Human Resources at Cottage Home, Los Angeles. From left: Lipstick Pipe, 2011; “Love Roses” Pipe, 2011. Photo: Jennie Warren.

8 Scott Benzel (Human Resources at Cottage Home, Los Angeles) Riddled with double takes (crack pipes posing as vases holding decorative roses), knockoffs (counterfeit Nike high-tops based on those worn by the ill-fated Heaven’s Gate cult), and near misses (a video of the Beach Boys performing a song written by Charles Manson), Benzel’s poker-faced, Wunderkammer-ish show was the bad trip I couldn’t take often enough this summer.

Judy Fiskin, Guided Tour, 2010, still from a black-and-white video, 11 minutes 29 seconds.

9 Judy Fiskin (Angles Gallery, Los Angeles) Since 1998, Fiskin has used film and video in unfussy ways in order to level some intractable hierarchies, particularly those of the art world. See, for example, her hilarious take on the ivory tower—and disaster-obsessed Los Angeles media—in My Getty Center, 1999; or the recent Guided Tour, 2010, in which the ostensibly authoritative, frequently highfalutin musings of two docents (heard but not seen here) are juxtaposed with images of completely unrelated artworks, to slyly comic effect.

Hennessy Youngman and Tamara Suber in the “Female Gaze” episode of Youngman’s Internet series Art Thoughtz, 2011.

10 Hennessy Youngman, Art Thoughtz Speaking of hierarchies, nobody “enwisened” us to the mechanics of the art world more deftly than Youngman, aka the Pharaoh Hennessy, a world-weary artist-cum-theorist with a talent for pointed malapropisms who has guided his YouTube viewers and Tumblr followers through the intricacies of relational aesthetics, institutional critique, and the sublime with remarkable efficiency. His take on the female gaze—hilariously hijacked by Tamara Suber, who delivers an acute analysis of Olympia and of various male members—is a critical one-uppance of the highest order.

Michael Ned Holte is a member of the art program faculty at the California Institute of the Arts and a frequent contributor to Artforum. His writing has recently appeared in the exhibition catalogue for “Hany Armanious: The Golden Thread” (Australian Council for the Arts) and will be included in the forthcoming volume Live Art in LA: Performance Art in Southern California, 1970–1983 (Routledge).