Los Angeles

Billy Al Bengston

James Corcoran Gallery

“Thirty Years of Work I Shouldn’t Sell” was the title of Billy Al Bengston’s show here. It recalls the title of Ed Ruscha’s “I Don’t Want No Retrospective” show. The title speaks for itself, doesn’t it? It’s the junk, right? The stuff he “shouldn’t sell,” and the joke’s on the art-pedestrian. Or is it the crème de la crème, his most personal works, the priceless collection? Either way, it’s an arrogant, egotistical title for a show. It’s also provocative, and that’s what Bengston is known for in Los Angeles—not necessarily his work, but the details surrounding it. A gallery opening at 7 A.M. serving breakfast; another where greased-down male and female body-builders served Day-Glo–colored cocktails; a catalogue cover made of sandpaper (designed by Ruscha); an exhibition of paintings lit only by candles, another of paintings hung on raw plywood walls. Outrageous, something to talk about, but in the end, only distracting. Bengston’s stance, as an artist, is that of a showman. But what about the work?

This exhibition consisted of 36 paintings and one table, all made over the past 30 years. Bengston has worked in a variety of mediums: canvas, acrylic on canvas, watercolor on paper. Bengston used lacquer and polyester resin on aluminum to make what he called his “dentos,” 1966–70. They are sheets of aluminum, meticulously punctured, wrinkled, dented, and finally spray painted. These pieces have a nasty, unsociable edge, both literally (cut yourself) and otherwise. They’re crude, muddy-looking, dense, and loud, yet there’s a softness in their icy mechanical surfaces. Most important, in the context of a show dominated by overtly palatable pictures, they’re terrifically ugly. A’u Variation, 1984, consists of a small wooden table whose top is in the shape of a funny face. It has a knot as an eyeball, and two of its three legs form a kind of heart shape. The piece looks like something between an innocuous student project and a cloying designer prop.

The newer paintings (Bolivar, Kamiah, Natoma, September Watercolor, and August Watercolor, all 1987) are all glimpses of planets. Bengston has painted these gaudy spheres to be viewed through the illusion of a window, which he suggests by painting hard-edge bands of vertical and horizontal stripes near the tops and sides of the pieces. These stripes end up looking more like pastel-colored suspenders clinging to a floral print than a window. The paintings are sappy, bland, and juvenile.

There’s something banal about this collection of work. Unfortunately, this is not work that examines or comments upon banality. Thirty years of painting irises, chevrons, and hearts: a conservative, antiintellectual commitment. Bengston’s pretty pictures and naughty style of presentation fit perfectly into the theatricality of an affluent, film-industry town. These works are meant to be embodiments of the cool L.A. style, paintings from the land of car culture. But it’s a fallacy. It’s like saying artists working in Wisconsin are practitioners of cheese.

Benjamin Weissman