Los Angeles

“Snapshot”

Hammer Museum

In the slim catalogue to this latest overview of “New Art from Los Angeles,” all twenty-five participants are said to be either “investigating” or “exploring” something. First up, Mark Bradford is “investigating the mixed, contradictory and hybrid space of the popular.” Next comes Edgar Bryan, who “has taken his investigation of this traditional medium [i.e., painting] to an unusual depth.” Tessa Chasteen, meanwhile, is herself proposed as the object of inquiry with “drawings [that] reflect the role that drawing plays in self-discovery.” With Lecia Dole-Recio we are back to investigation, pure and simple, of the “space between two and three dimensions.” Thomas Eggerer, Deb Lacusta, Bea Sclhgelhoff, Alex Slade, and Eric Wesley are all explorers. Linda Kim, Won Ju Lim, and Kori Newkirk are, again, investigators. Christie Frields seems to gain something of an advantage over her peers by both exploring and investigating. The rest are engaged in some related endeavor, like, say, “examining.”

Now, I would be the last to deny that the above activities represent a serious purpose in this era of rapidly diminishing expectations for art, but seriousness is just what seems to be lacking in this work. Admittedly, the lessening gravitas of so much recent West Coast art is being greeted with a great collective sigh of relief from local critics like Dave Hickey and MaLin Wilson who see the last thirty or forty years as one big art-historical wrong turn. Duchamp is still considered the prime culprit, out here, for distracting so many earnest practitioners from their God-given duty to provide visual pleasure. And with the failures of the Conceptual ’70s, the Appropriation ’80s, and the identity-based ’90s being accepted by even some of their former proponents, the closet-aesthetes are coming out en masse to celebrate their good fortune. And why not?

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, whose recent Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime argues persuasively for the value of frivolity, could have made a claim for this show that would stick. What distinguishes current practice is not merely the “return to beauty” over and above the Conceptual, according to him, but a shift from the formal straitjacket of “one-idea art” to a kind of generalized multitasking whereby the work is no longer “obliged to any particular logic” (as Gilbert-Rolfe puts it) of production, it being rather a matter of forging “linkages”—so that, for instance, a Minimalist sensibility might be countered with baroque detail. This holds true for most of the artists in “Snapshot,” who seem to be pursuing two or more distinct programs at once. The tendency exemplified by Peter Halley and Ronald Jones to abstract patterns from social facts, and vice versa, remains a primary modus here, but with a crucial difference: It no longer matters so much if the artist’s references can be deciphered. The Kantian universal (“the rule, the principle, the law”) has become almost irrelevant, and the work, as a consequence, is all about the particular. These investigations are meandering and deliberately impractical; the evidence piles up haphazardly, as though in defiance of any lingering wish for conceptual consistency and direction.

The presence in the show of Florian Maier-Aichen and Slade, both engaged with themes of travel and leisure, the exotic and banal, establishes the central POV of “Snapshot” as explicitly touristic. These artists scan the cultural landscape with wide-eyed disinterest, taking in a profusion of details and fragments, which are then reassembled upon return to the studio according to evermore bewildering schemes. Lisa Lapinski typifies this hypercryptic assemblagist sensibility in a piece that blends, to delirious effect, passages of absurdist mini-mall architecture with the panoply of exotic, obscure products that might be found within. Frields, Katie Grinnan, and Lim are similarly inclined toward an all but impenetrable density, planting their respective sign-forests in a lateral sweep or an ascending cluster. Semiotic play becomes politically motivated, to some degree, in the work of Kim, Bradford, and Newkirk, all of whom address the sex- and race-specific politics of grooming. Even here, however, it is less about dislodging the stereotype than teasing it into ingenious patterns, as in Bradford’s painterly grid of permanent-wave tissues.

As with any grouping of this scale, there are bound to be some spectacular duds, but then also some standouts. For my money, Schlingelhoff’s custom-drawn bios of all the included artists are heartbreakingly apt in their mixture of hyperbolic flash and crude, transient materiality. In her single-channel video piece, Lacusta similarly plays mouthpiece for the language of others—in this case, intoning the phrase “You’re a lousy lover” every which way, without ever ceasing to implicate LA’s fickle, star-crazy audience. And, finally, there are the drawings by Chasteen, which strike a beguiling pose between infantilism and hypersophistication. As muddy ink blobs and smudges give way to delicate line drawings of floating ships and locomotives, one is reminded that the process of artistic maturation can be imbued with the everyday sadness of leaving home.

These standouts exemplify certain tendencies shared by the lot, especially in terms of process: a semi-random accretion of repetitive elements with mutation built-in over time, in which the source material, though not insignificant, is typically overshadowed, and occasionally subsumed, by its unapologetically lightweight buildup. There is, in fact, a sort of automatism at work here, however highly diluted, that suggests a renewed confidence in the potential of the creative self, in the eye to see and the hand to transform—ideology be damned. The artist who strung along an audience from one work, one show, to the next, always concerned with the evolution of the “big picture,” is fading into the distance as the consistency required to render the long-term ambitions of authentic investigation or exploration legible becomes a thing of the past. Only the language remains behind, marooned in the catalogue copy, a holdover from the Enlightenment that has never seemed more inappropriate and basically lost.

Jan Tumlir is a critic living in Los Angeles.