Los Angeles

Jay Willis, Don Karwelis, Gary Lloyd

Brand Library Art Center

History, even that tiny, useless corner called art history, repeats itself exactly; what wasn’t thinkable in theory yesterday is available today, but what is theoretically feasible today may be ineffective, boring, insincere, and, in the worst sense, academic tomorrow. I am not talking just about object art becoming soporific tomorrow—it may well have happened yesterday—but I am talking about the whole business of modernist “progress,” the whole assumed chain of constant revolutionary betterment through radical treatment of “issues” (figurative yields to brushy-abstract yields to clean abstract yields to ephemeral structure yields to no-object-at-all yields to pure “information” yields to just thinking or remembering) becoming exactly what it was supposed to cure: predictability. But it depends, of course, on what the art itself has to say; certain critics maintain that, in spite of everything against it, formalist painting, for instance, is somehow ceaselessly entertaining, profound, and “important.” And it may well happen that, in spite of what I’ve indicated, enough ideas lurk within Conceptual art and enough material devices obtain in process art to keep them both afloat for a time. Three recent Los Angeles exhibitions offer some evidence on both sides of the question.

The closest to home is an exhibition of three sculptors, Jay Willis, Don Karwelis, and Gary Lloyd, at the Brand Library Art Center in Glendale. Jay Willis’ networks of foot-long thin rods with their looped ends hooked together, imprisoning those heavier poles coated with a kind of “lyric” color, hang on the wall, about painting size, and ask to be considered gently, with no great leaps of either engineering or esthetic daring. Willis’ sculptures are weak, but they’re unpretentious; they don’t beg the questions of tension or tensile strength, and they remain contentedly visual. Don Karwelis’ recent work, conversely, polemicizes itself into a disturbing middle ground between parody (I hope) and formalism. The works in question are three configurations fashioned by leaning 4' x 8' plywood sheets against each other to make the “walls” and then topping part of the structures with a “ceiling” of the same. Although the pieces are naturally similar in size, I could detect no serious “set” variation (e.g., open v. closed, as in Sol LeWitt), and was forced to regard them as slightly metronomic, unadorned sculptures. But what about Serra? He leaned tortuously heavy lead slabs together in similar manner five years ago (though, of course, without roofs); does he then forever possess a patent on unwelded (or unglued, or unnailed) leaning? Well . . . no. But these things look so much like the lead works, overcoming differences in material, weight, smell, and size. How about satire: poking fun at the blue collar macho involved in moving that industrial stuff around? A set of serious drawings in the hall obviates that possibility (studies in material combinations, shadows as pattern, trial schemata, etc.) and leaves only the conclusion that once again, as with de Kooning, Stella, and Judd, the single, looming personality has fostered its own academy.

Gary Lloyd is the best of the three; he articulates a whole wall much like John White, only with more decorative system: a primary covering of brown paper embellished with “shelves” of glass and corrugated board, tape, little piles of stuff (plaster, glass, rocks, a plumb line), and crisscrossed with drawn chalk lines and string. The piece is at least half visual, with moments when the plumb plunges into a glop Of plaster, or a sheet of large glass slices into a shelf. But, within its party line process-ishness, it’s victimized by a rightness of form applied to the wrong kind of art. Beyond that, and characteristic of the entire show, a broader fault inheres: what does this art speak of, and what are its passions? Abstract Expressionism was admittedly concerned with monkeying around with painting itself, but it reached out to a larger problem, that of American cultural tradition—could it be native or should it be borrowed?—and demanded that its adherents risk at least a part of their souls in producing art. A decade later the “cool” stuff possessed un deniably easy, decorative qualities (smoothness, simplicity, solidity, finish), but it demanded that artists think clearly about the simple “work” of making art. Minimalism was, however, more “inside,” being a product of art magazine communications and an overpopulated art world. Process and Conceptual art are narrower still: they address them selves increasingly to the art world, leading to art about critics’ theories, art about parodies of art-making, art about exhibition design and succeeding at international festivals, and worst, art about “making it” as an artist.

Peter Plagens