Los Angeles

“Helter Skelter”

Temporary Contemporary

In “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” Paul Schimmel’s first major statement as MoCA’s new Chief Curator, he seems to have deliberately thrown the gauntlet in the face of traditional curatorial taboos. He has mounted a regional survey (read, “provincialism”); appended a historically dated title (Charles Manson, the Beatles, the ’60s); and has had the audacity to define the trends of the ’90s though the decade has barely begun. Despite this outward bravura, however, Schimmel’s main intent is more scholarly: a desire to invert the common conception of Los Angeles as “La-La Land”—the city that brought us Finish Fetish and Light and Space art—in favor of exploring the dark, psychotic, underbelly of the city’s culture. Thus, instead of Billy Al Bengston, Larry Bell, and James Turrell, we get Mike Kelley, Chris Burden, and Jim Shaw, as well as a representative array of local writers whose texts dominate the catalogue.

The problem with this concept is that Schimmel, for all his moxie, is not only making a grandiose statement of the obvious, he is also mining well-trodden artistic territory. Anyone familiar with film noir, Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, and James Ellroy has already met L.A.’s significant Other, while assemblagists such as Edward Kienholz and Wallace Berman constructed similar totems to sleaze and decay as early as the late ’50s. The crux of Schimmel’s revisionist intentions appears to lie in the sheer heterogeneity of work included in his attempt to create a visceral maelstrom of transgression. Unfortunately the show betrays its extemporized origins, as if he had hurriedly thrown it together without really thinking through the implications of his polemic.

Schimmel clearly feels that this work attacks with the body rather than the mind, thus forcing clear and valuable distinctions between, say, Paul McCarthy’s strangely pathetic mechanical figures humping nature (or Charles Ray’s creepy mannequins) and the overtly Conceptual work associated with the California Institute of the Arts. On closer examination, however, we discover an alarming hermeticism informing much of the work that allows it to be safely defined (and dismissed) as art rather than as sociopolitical discourse that transcends categorization and thrusts itself openly into the public arena. Most of the work (including that of Nancy Rubins and Liz Lamer) is of the “bad-boy” variety: overdetermined, cartoony, ironic, seemingly-indifferent, and mediated through several layers of appropriated popular iconography. Notably absent are video art and feminist or political analysis of either a subtle or a rigorous sort. Instead we get Meg Cranston’s twee Muzak, Robert Williams’ unrelievedly sexist “heavy metal” Amazons, Victor Estrada’s paeans to phallic power, and Manuel Ocampo’s multicultural sloganeering.

Apart from the inclusion of Mike Kelley’s Proposal for the Decoration of an lsland of Conference Rooms (with Copy Room) for an Advertising Agency Designed by Frank Gehry, 1991, which reduces the entire enterprise to appropriate equivalencies between sex, excrement, advertising, and power, MoCA itself (as opposed to Schimmel) proves to lack the courage of its own convictions. By placing the show in the cavernous industrial warehouse of the Temporary Contemporary instead of in the pristine galleries of the Arata Isozaki building, MoCA safely circumscribes the work spatially while subliminally relegating it to the status of art-historical marginalia. Moreover, the exhibit comes with its own parental advisory—a notice at both box office and main entrance warning that certain imagery and language might offend the unsuspecting visitor. Like the record companies that distribute N.W.A. and Public Enemy, MoCA exploits a sales strategy of titillation while conveniently covering its ass where the NEA is concerned. Once again, “transgression” is carefully shrink-wrapped in order to be more effectively co-opted by the exigencies of capitalism.

Colin Gardner