Boston

“LA Hot and Cool—The Eighties”

MIT List Visual Arts Center

In the introduction to the catalogue for this exhibition of recent work by 23 Los Angeles-based artists, curator Dana Friis-Hansen started off by asking the question “Has Los Angeles art hit the Big Time?” Pushing the naive notion of a regional art movement to an extreme, he went on to present his thesis that cool conceptual work and warmer representational work exist side by side there, embodying the city’s “two distinct temperaments.” Big surprise. With this ersatz intellectual baggage in tow, “LA Hot and Cool—The Eighties” became a grandiose travelogue for “the new art capital.”

To be sure, there was exceptional work in this show. Jim Isermann’s stood out front and center. A large flower mobile that hung in midair in the lobby outside the exhibition galleries (Flower Mobile, 1986) greeted all visitors to the exhibition. Like a huge earring, this multicolored, painted-steel sculpture awash with an industrial bouquet of flowers subtly referenced the history of postwar American art from Alexander Calder to Andy Warhol to Elaine Sturtevant. However, its tongue-in-cheek sensibility seemed totally lost in this context. To see Isermann as the quintessential Los Angeles artist is to miss the point of his ironic project. Admittedly, there is a certain Disneyland-inspired view of “the utopia” in Isermann’s work, but its discursive objective has little or nothing to do with a Los Angeles-inspired regionalism. Inside the galleries, Isermann was represented by three untitled flower paintings from 1986. Painted on eight-sided wood panels, the flowers are abstract images deconstructed in such a way that, despite their psychedelic “flower power” colors, they are more sinister than friendly. Veiled and fragmented by geometric patterns, they become a strangely haunting testament both to and against nature. That Friis-Hansen sees “style” as “Isermann’s content” best summarizes what was wrong with this exhibition.

Likewise, in the context of “LA Hot and Cool—The Eighties,” Mike Kelley came off as some kind of Los Angeles zany, although his installation here was a particularly fine representation of his nonperformance work (paintings, drawings, mixed media). Mounted above an opening in a wall was a painting titled Exploring, 1985, which incorporated the following bit of text: “WHEN SPELUNKING SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO STOOP. . . SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO GO ON ALL FOURS. . . . SOMETIMES EVEN CRAWL. . . . CRAWL WORM!!” The latter turned out to be instructions for viewing the installation, which was in a small dark room behind the wall. In order to see the eight works mounted there, viewers had to crawl into the space on all fours. This perfectly epitomized the symbolic motion of Kelley’s project—to bring the world to its knees. Once inside, viewers found themselves in the dark, steamy “cave,” face-to-face with Kelley’s perverse oeuvre. Kelley’s world is filled with a darkness masquerading as amusement. He mixes in-jokes with openly scatalogical references in an attempt to have the last laugh. To be a part of Kelley’s world, the viewers must accept their own imperfections and lay open the most vulnerable part of their egos to his attack. There is a dark side to his humor that is more than “black humor”—the provocative jabbings of a sadistic court jester on the make.

Several of the works included in the exhibition do seem indigenous to Los Angeles. Barbara Carrasco and Daniel J. Martinez were both represented here by visually appealing yet politicized works that cast a much needed light on the citizens of Los Angeles’ Chicano ghettos and their cultural histories. Carrasco’s mural LA History, A Mexican Perspective, 1981 (unfinished), a large section of which was shown here, worked very well within the context of the exhibition. So did Martinez’s The Death of Manifest Destiny, The Birth of a New Human Race, 1984, a mixed-media work featuring seven smallish gnomelike department-store mannequins painted white and installed on a carpet of Astroturf with a few props. Behind “the children,” Martinez had placed a realistic backdrop of a meadow scene (wallpaper, in fact), and, above their heads, a row of inflatable plastic swans. The mannequins were arranged in a way that suggested a group of heavenly children romping in a playground; one even sat on a swing. At first, their bulging gogglelike eyes seemed to reflect light from an unknown source. On closer inspection, however, it became apparent that the “eyes” were actually tiny stereoscopic viewing devices, and as one bent down to look, photos of Los Angeles kids were illuminated behind the lenses—a rather unsettling effect. Other works that were successful within the limited constraints of the exhibition’s thesis included Jim Shaw’s “Pop” drawings in the styles of other illustrators, Brad Dunning’s automobile-infatuated sculpture, Lari Pittman’s wallpaperlike abstractions, and Stephen Prina and Christopher Williams’ often-shown photographs of the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles.

Although Friis-Hansen did his best to disguise the exhibition as thematic, the result was really little more than an incomplete survey show. And, if his intention was to present the most interesting work by young Los Angeles artists, why were Larry Johnson, John Boskovich, and Jeffrey Valiance not included? Unfortunately, the bad work in this show far outweighed the good. That art from cities other than New York should be considered and exhibited more often in an art world that continues to close itself off is an extremely important issue, but ghettoizing that art as regional rather than as part of a larger international discourse is a grave mistake. Los Angeles is an extremely important city for art at this time. The same can be said for Chicago, Düsseldorf, and Tokyo. The city or country in which a work of art is conceived or made does provide some insight into its creation, but as an idea for how or why art is made, the connections are trivial at best. Despite its painstaking installation, “LA Hot and Cool—The Eighties” held little interest beyond the success or failure of individual works.

Christian Leigh