Los Angeles

William Leavitt, Dieter Rot

Eugenia Butler Gallery

Beside quality, ideas also have character or flavor or style; Los Angeles “concept art” bears the same general relation to the New York version as did its Abstract Expressionism (Hassel Smith v. de Kooning), Pop art (Ed Ruscha v. Warhol) or Minimal (McCracken v. Morris). That is, it’s comparatively slick, facile, pretty, light (as in “light verse”) and requires a little more hardware. The concept itself is usually a bright idea predicated on one or two conundrums of real-nonreal and/or art-nonart, roughly comparable in gravity to the spy stories Graham Greene classifies as “entertainments” rather than novels. In Los Angeles, the main source of ideological entertainments is Eugenia Butler’s gallery, which has, in exhibitions involving Dieter Rot and William Leavitt, devoted the last couple of months to environmental satire. Rot, a Swiss, filled three dozen suitcases of various forms and sizes with a thousand pounds of assorted cheeses (to the accompaniment of Thorstin Veblen spinning in his grave), sealed and dated the valises and let them sit in the gallery. When I saw the two rows, they were in various stages of decomposure, escorted by a pervading odor, a little puddled juice and a few wandering maggots. A sidecar work, Cheese Sandwich, consisting of several sectors of Camembert between two one-by-sixes, resided a few yards away. When opened, the suitcases presented several beautiful molds, esthetically in the same league as pebbled beaches, damp leaves and weathered barns, and the suitcases themselves, depending on what one brings to them, can pass as a deadpan, minimal-funkpop sort of sculpture. But the real thrust is ideational and didactic, concerning the surroundings and intent of art, most of which is a very old saw: 1) does it have to be permanent to be art? 2) does it have to be valuable to be art? and 3) does it have to be innately pleasant to be art? The same questions are/were posed by artists from Géricault to Oppenheim to such an extent that nobody would seriously propose that a definition of art which could stand up in court could be legislated by anybody without, eventually, including everything. Indeed, the prevailing philosophy is that intention-as-art is not only sufficient, but possibly redundant, which leaves us back where we started with a myriad greyscale of quality problems. Ephemeral art is simply anti-museum art: valueless art is only anti-market art. The cheese piece did not confront one’s esthetics directly enough. In fact, the smell itself, alone, tough, mysterious, would have made a better show.

William Leavitt, by comparison, deals in niceties. In the front gallery is a clump of plastic foliage with fake rocks and nestled speakers transmitting the amplified babble of electrically gurgled water in a box at the side. In the rear is a dirt mound forested with cement-based plastic trees lighted by a yellow spotlight and cooled by a recorded wind. The paradoxes stack up this way: a (real) art gallery contains a bit of (unreal) “nature” composed of real and unreal materials and intended as (real) art. Of course, if the given earth is the basis for “real, ”then the gallery is unreal: if the gallery is unreal, the artwork, by contrast is real—plastic trees as real nature—and real “nature” is, coming full circle, unreal. What it comes down to is a lesson: the nature of an object is dependent on its context, the context dependent on further context and so on into infinity. O.K. But the dichotomy is presented in an atmosphere of philosophical cuteness, without difficulty or profundity, as a simplistic, passive, intellectual funhouse.

Peter Plagens