Los Angeles

“Lost and Found in California: Four Decades of Assemblage Art”

James Corcoran Gallery / Shoshana Wayne Gallery / Pen Gallery

An ordinary human life is cluttered with many common objects that are taken for granted—light bulbs, steering wheels, chairs, string, radios, street signs, clothing, etc. Assemblage art grew out of and capitalized on the inclination to personalize these kinds of objects, to make them our own, and to imbue them with meaning. In this century, artists have taken the idea one step further, by constructing self-portraits, political commentaries, and other works out of found objects.

“Lost and Found” was a museum-sized exhibit of the work of 85 artists who have focused on creating pieces using found objects. (Only 12 of these artists are women.) The show was broken up and crowded into three curatorial categories and three separate galleries, all of which were claustrophobically packed with work. (A fourth show at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery featured photographs of assemblage art.) The James Corcoran Gallery presented “The First Generation 1940–1962,” which featured the work of several of the genre’s founding fathers—including Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray—as well as five works by the main man of California assemblage, Wallace Berman. Three of these were full-scale photographs of pieces now destroyed. Berman’s work consistently projects an aura of religious ritual and mystery that is commanding and grave, with a terrifying theatrical power. There were also two big works by George Herms, The Meat Market, 1960–61, and The Berman Peace, 1986. The former is a classic of the genre, a series of five contiguous tableaux employing mannequins, picture frames, radio, sponges, butcher’s signs, and other sundry items: a graceful configuration of disparate elements that settle into one another forming a precise social and political tableau. The latter is an homage to Berman that reads like a formulaic rehashing of assemblage clichés. It’s a disturbing piece in the context of this show, because it lacks the bravado and guts that the best assemblage had during its heyday. Hence it comes off as a sentimental imitation of the artist’s earlier work. Five works by Bruce Conner demonstrated his gift for conveying the visceral: Arachne, 1959, in particular, looked like a souvenir from hell. His pieces are gruesome, malignant, and filthy, low and on target in their depiction of labyrinthine crimes of violence and passion.

The trouble began here. “The Second Generation: The Narrative 1959–1987,” at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, and “The Second Generation: Form and Idea 1960–1987,” at the Pence Gallery, were saddled with very specific titles, which forced the pieces in these shows into areas of inappropriate interpretation, and lumped together groupings that were often absurd, untrue, or completely beside the point. Richard Diebenkorn’s Fetish, 1954, a work made of painted wood and leather, was exhibited as part of “The First Generation,” though it didn’t seem to belong anywhere in the exhibition. And Laddie John Dill’s Untitled, 1970, a plate glass, sand, and argon piece which was included in the “Form and Idea” show also didn’t seem to fit any of the categories. (The Dill piece is noted for its use of “found”—as opposed to store bought?—sand.) Peripheral aspects of pieces were overemphasized to force a curatorial point, many times at the expense of the work itself. If, however, one ignored the labeling and categorization, and looked at the works in these shows for their own sake, it was readily apparent that they had been chosen with care and concentration.

Benjamin Weissman