Los Angeles

“Love in the Ruins”

Long Beach Museum of Art

To most people, Los Angeles is a city of perpetual sunshine and eternal optimism. Historically, artists and the art business have stuck to the East Coast and West Coast art has always enjoyed a strangely tangential relationship to this “center” of the art world. Embracing a refreshing sense of the absurd that contrasts with the high-seriousness of the New York art world, and framed by a culture of unreality (the film business), art in California has often seemed like an antidote to the high-art ideals of the mainstream art world.

Artists like Edward Ruscha, John Baldessari, Alexis Smith, Llyn Foulkes and, more recently, Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, have all, at one time or another, been victims of this idea of the West Coast art world as marginal. With a somewhat jokey, self-parodying attitude that contrasts with the rigorous intellectualism of the international mainstream, these artists have also been key figures in making this marginality center stage.

After a year of violent earthquakes, debilitating floods, and uncontrollable forest fires, Los Angeles seems to be a culture in crisis, on the verge of collapse. Informed by this sense of an impending crisis, “Love in the Ruins: Art and the Inspiration of L.A.,” poses a challenge to older mythologies of the city. Here the harsh realities of a city in economic and cultural crisis, one built in an environment hostile to human beings (the desert), is depicted as a volatile place that can no longer sustain a mirage born of dreams, blinding sunlight, and historical innocence. Borrowing its title from Walker Percy’s novel of the same name, which prophesied the current crisis of living and working in Los Angeles, this show is a powerful, edgy statement that focuses on a diversity of images that reflect the current social, spiritual, and cultural confusion. L.A. as an inhospitable environment—a quality evoked by the works of Robert Yarber, Ed Kienholz, and Anthony Hernandez—is juxtaposed with the poetry of ecstasy, spiritual disquiet, and dystopia that characterizes the works of Vija Celmins, Catherine Opie, Jorge Pardo, Lari Pittman, and Max Almy and Teri Yarbrow. The sense of dark humor, irony, and witty playfulness that has always been present in the best of Californian art is never very far away either, which is evident in the pieces by Larry Johnson, Karen Carson, John Baldessari, and Edward Ruscha that were selected for this exhibition.

Of course, there’s nothing new about Californians striving to forge a common identity out of a shared location with the hope of disabusing the art world of its familiar perceptions about art from Southern California. Because of the modesty of its aims, the diversity of work in the exhibition, as well as the curators’ ability to refrain from didacticism and dogmatism, “Love in the Ruins” succeeds where other such ventures have been relatively unsuccessful.

Rosetta Brooks