Los Angeles

John Knight

Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art

For the past seven or eight years John Knight’s work has been concerned with design, with the presentation of the image. In a broad sense, that interest is a concern of any visual art, but Knight’s preoccupation is specific. The design he refers to, even aspires to, is “good” design, the sort that follows the words “commercial” or “graphic” or “interior.” And the image he presents is public; opposing itself to the artistic icon, whole and absolute, it packages, masks, and dissembles. Yet the subjects of Knight’s designs, the clients of his campaigns, are situated in the art world, where he forces into the open the connections between art’s images and the economics of design, inflecting one with the other.

Knight’s exhibition at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA) marked that institution’s tenth anniversary, and he allowed the Institute to celebrate itself, or perhaps condemned it to. He placed LAICA on show, made it his subject and uncovered it as the implicit subject of all its exhibitions. Knight spruced LAICA up, reshaping the reception area and even arranging the plants, but, in an ironic trade-off, he also closed off what is ostensibly the Institute’s substance. Beyond the low-ceilinged entrance and the massive L-shaped wood-and-chrome reception desk, the galleries lay blocked off behind a wall-sized mural of a Western landscape.

Knight’s monumental image of the old West, with its great blue sky and distant mountains, was taken from a billboard for the Wells Fargo Bank, and the bank’s familiar stagecoach drives through its dun-colored hills. But against the blue, Knight printed LAICA’s acronym as it appears on its letterhead, and beneath it added the tag line, “When the conversation turns to art.” The slogan was also added to the letterhead itself, pointedly but tastefully breaking the original designer’s margin. And Knight displayed a full line of the revised stationery—envelopes, business cards, press-release forms—in a blond-wood frame hanging just around the corner from the reception desk.

The installation used the businesslike, even corporate (if somewhat threadbare) look of LAICA’s lobby to implicate the usually invisible institution which most people take for granted but which filters and modifies, precedes and incorporates into itself the art that it shows. On a more banal level, Knight’s work labeled LAICA—or allowed it to label itself—as a business; and as a business, he insisted, LAICA must sell itself, or rather its image. Knight built his installation around the genuine and continuing image problem that is perhaps the reason the Institute called him in. His wall poster is a fitting one for an entrenched, ten-year-old “new art space”; an image of both risk and longevity, it romanticizes the established, self-interested institution with a mythic and marginal past, with the image of the pioneer.

The new LAICA, as Knight’s slogan implies, must be at the tip of one’s tongue. But the LAICA of his installation—or any art space, any cultural institution—at some point reduces the art it shows to a sign for itself, to an advertisement for its own up-to-dateness and effectiveness. And Knight suggests that it also reduces the work of art to the artist’s trademark, the artist to the proprietor of a small business. On a wall across from the reception desk, in a short hallway that leads back to the Institute’s offices, Knight hung two of the large and by now familiar wood reliefs that form his initials. These were papered over with sections of Wells Fargo posters, with fragments of Western landscapes and bits of words about checking and saving. (In the piece’s weakest link, Knight placed a third “JK” in a small alcove at a Wells Fargo branch in Santa Monica; the exchange seemed meant only to make his connections literal, to remove imagination from the viewer’s mental work.) Knight’s logos are works of art made for the institution. Emptied of content beforehand, they are art manqué, yet they fulfill the institution’s nominal definition of art: they stand for their maker as a public presence, a household word.

The definitions and labels in Knight’s installation were accurate, and its politics were “correct,” if familiar. More than that: by accepting Knight’s proposal LAICA proved itself guilty of his accusations of self-interest, of the banal villainy of being a business. And it accepted his image of its ten years of new art in Los Angeles—a literally inaccessible gallery and an overcharged lobby. Yet the work’s points were made too easily. It seemed written in advance: every detail was self-consciously significant, convertible almost instantly to a location in a familiar argument. The “JK” works surrender as art, their always only ironic existence and their redemption as politics coming too quickly. Finally, just as Knight made himself the Institute’s willing victim, LAICA was his willing victim too. This inexpensive, provocative, highly visible show proved LAICA’s hipness, its ability to take criticism—perhaps even preempted such criticism, inoculating the institution against it.

Howard Singerman