Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Billy Al Bengston’s new dentos are characteristically distant, professionally honed products, seemingly manufactured for garden-variety delectation (enjoyment, entertainment) rather than any theoretical position; the ten petite painted works and three “plain” (scratched, buffed) metal panels are comfortable in color, finish-orientation and size—but Bengston doesn’t usually work large, anyway. In the middle of everything, every time, is the central chevron, a device whose historical significance I think I understand (pioneer Pop enigma), but whose pictorial value escapes me. It’s obvious, exoteric, graphically lame and over-used. Perhaps the defiantly head-on kitsch quality of it, like Ed Ruscha’s parking lots or Mel Ramos’s girls, is part of it, but it goes flat amid all the formalism (color, paint splattering, crunkled picture plane). In the painted ones, the sergeant’s stripes are sometimes obscured by the metal-flake Pollock-like painting, which operates a la Ron Davis, in forcing one to see the picture plane either via its painted surface, or through its sculptural properties; one cannot do both simultaneously. (That effect, primary in Davis, is window-dressing with Bengston.) The painting, in itself eclectic—splatters, candy-apple, obfuscated margin, gossamer color transitions, etc.—has a recipe quality about it, and pervading the show is the notion that Bengston has merely updated his stuff, keeping the West Coast up with (well, six months behind) the “new” stain painting in New York. Whether it’s the result of inner necessity (“dealing with issues”) or strategy—heading the audience-clientele off at the pass—is unanswerable since the artist’s motivations are known only to the artist. What counts is that the “look” of the work brings up the question in the first place.

It could all be, however, a concern with “process.” (The word carries a different connotation out here than it does in the East—here it’s finding new physical-chemical means of reinforcing preciousness, craft, exotic surfaces, visual subtleties, permanence, i.e. the look of art, while there it means getting rid of all that.) Either direction can be vice or virtue, depending on how the idea is manipulated; after all, the esthetic contributions of, say, Pollock and Noland are bound up with discovering, literally, “new” ways of painting as well as with purging a supposed essential (in both cases, “composition”). The better artists have something, however vague, in mind a priori to discovery-through-process, and the lesser artists keep hoping to find a belief by playing around with manufacturing techniques. Bengston is, on the whole, a “better” artist, and there are accomplishments in his dent-plus-sparkle-plus-chevron-plus-drip working plan. The main one is the surface-object dilemma, which is not, unfortunately, exploited as well as could be; the forces are too evenly matched to create any surprises and, in the end, it’s a convenience (small size) which decides it in favor of objecthood. The best of the painted ones survive on one interesting property each—surface, opacity, the ranges of a yellow, or an eccentric drip movement. The “plain” dentos, however, really say something about drawing; they are tougher, and the best things in the show.

Arman, a facile academic French neo-Dadaist (a malevolent Cornell, a fey Kienholz), carries the reputation of bringing off a show in a short time, as his countryman, Mathieu, used to do. This time the topic is dope, announced by mailers consisting of Zig-Zag cigarette papers. The style is familiar Arman: pertinent items lifted from real-life’s inventory and fossilized in plastic boxes, either solid-cast polyester resin or, in a few instances, fabricated hollowly from plexiglass. In the “L.A. Dope Show,” the checklist reads: 1) a cast block of dollar bills (the nark market?), 2) a plexiglass box onto which are bolted upside-down amphetamine jars, with the spilled pills frozen flat in inverted bouquets of puddled resin, 3) what looks like peyote pellets cast in a small cube, 4) amyl nitrite in resin, 5) some unidentifiable staple-ended things in another cube, 6) a small, vertical resin bar, capsules, including mescaline, imprisoned within, 7) a shallow box of molds (?), 8) a big, thick, upright resin sheet suspending hundreds of joints, and 9) a resin-filled wooden cigar box containing hashish and appropriate paraphernalia.

The paradox intended has to do with art and dope: which? Are several hundred unsmokable reefers still contraband? (A deadpan announcement informs us that two of the scheduled works were glommed by customs agents.) What’s dangerous about entombed junk, the look of it? And so on and so on. Cutie-pie conundrums about drugs come easily in the slick Ace interior, where outside, in privileged Westwood, the bronze nymph collegians are chicly hip to the pleasures of small stashes. Where’s the plastic Sterno? The junior jet set toying with the giggles of Duchamp’s shadow cast upon the Now People’s Pharmacy remind me of the top-hatters in O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape doing that little dance in front of the couturiers advertising “monkey fur.” I may be wrong, but the exhibition is soaked in elitist cruelty. (Well, you say, dope is there; shouldn’t an artist deal with it? Sure, but I can’t see Kienholz, for instance, playing Madame Toussard for teenyboppers, whatever their ages.)

Last winter, Richard Artschwager came here to direct an art-guerilla project involving the placing of his (copyrighted) “blp” shape (a racetrack oval, about eight inches high) in various nooks of the Southern California landscape (freeway underpasses, etc.) by groups of hipper art students. This show is a concretion of that undertaking; the exhibited materials are further manifestations of the “blp.” The first group are sprayed, black enamel “blps” located high on the gallery walls (via aerosol cans and an “official” stencil); the second covey of things are three-dimensional “blps” (capsule-shaped), fabricated from industrial brush material. (I prefer the stencils; the brushes seem like an attempt to rely on raw materials, an unbecoming expediency.)

The front room of the gallery, a relatively rough-hewn place of white walls and a brick floor, is well articulated with four sprayed “blps” and two brushed ones; the conceptual-physical balance (necessary, I think, to combat simple boredom) is kept, and the intimations are of other than a naked parody of the brand-name syndrome (“Artschwager? Oh yeah, he’s the guy with the ‘blps’ ”). It’s difficult to say, however, what the profundity of the show is, and what Artschwager has accomplished en route from Pop-minimal marbleized constructions to Pop-conceptual “blps” (cf. 100 Locations in the 1968 Whitney Annual). So far, it seems that Artschwager has got himself a good, useable, durable shape (which has probably nothing to do with what he’s after), and he has wrung moderately interesting mannerist games from it.

Peter Plagens