“Baja to Vancouver”

Is West Coast contemporary art synonymous with Los Angeles? “Baja to Vancouver: The West Coast and Contemporary Art,” which brings together five curators and thirty-three artists from Tijuana, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, means to reassess this idea. Each curator—Ralph Rugoff and Matthew Higgs of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts San Francisco, Toby Kamps from the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, Lisa Corrin of the Seattle Art Museum, and Daina Augaitis of the Vancouver Art Gallery—has the opportunity to champion artists from his or her own region (as well as from others), while the show overall takes on the myth of the once glorious West Coast.

With only a handful of works by each artist, the show manages to be more aesthetically cohesive than other high-profile curatorial team efforts of recent memory. But, though the curators state their intention to “provoke us to reimagine the ways that specific social landscapes can be understood through the visual arts,” as Rugoff writes in his catalogue essay, the locations are so vast and varied that the show is almost too compact to address this idea satisfyingly. (The week the show opened, the sun shone on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Los Angeles victory party while a chilly rain fell on Bill Gates’s Seattle palace.)

Marcos Ramírez ERRE’s sculpture takes the California/Mexico border as a sort of ground zero. Crossroads (Tijuana/ San Diego), 2003, is a metal signpost with ten arrows, each pointing to a different city, noting its distance from Tijuana, and including a quote from an artist from each town. The arrow pointing to Los Angeles quotes Ed Ruscha—“Words without thoughts never to heaven go”—whose cool SoCal ethos and use of signage and language echo throughout the show as one evident mainstay of West Coast contemporary art. The piece also suggests that places (or this particular place, at least) are defined by outside influences rather than by indigenous voices.

In the exhibition’s first gallery, Ron Terada’s full-scale replica of a green and white highway sign offers an ambiguous welcome: ENTERING CITY OF VANCOUVER. (Meanwhile, the smooth soul sounds of Delia Brown’s seductive faux rock video, Pastorale, 2002, fill the room with Laurel Canyon vibes. Where are we anyway?) Ken Lum, also from Vancouver, turns strip-mall business signs into platforms for direct expressions of cultural struggle (Grace Chung Financial, 2002, challenges an unnamed tormentor to “deal with me”). Sam Durant’s Return, 2002, a large color photograph of a multiracial quartet of fashion models holding up protest placards emblazoned with paired words like CHORUS/CHAOS and REVOLT/RETURN, gives off more ambivalent signals. Stan Douglas also nods to Ruscha with Every Building on 100 West Hastings, 2001, a twelve-foot-wide color photograph of a blighted Vancouver block illuminated with the moody splendor of movie lights. The works above are among the few with overt political consciousness.

A steady stream of artworks appropriate and remake forms of popular cinema and music video. Michele O’Marah’s LAmade two-channel White Diamonds and Agent Orange, 2001, taps into the spirit of Vietnam War epics and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s lifelong rivalry—culturally iconic events that the artist has re-created in backyard settings. Bay Area– based Kota Ezawa turns the final moments of O. J. Simpson’s telecast trial into a candy-colored, flatly rendered animated cartoon, Tim Lee (of Vancouver) expressionlessly recites Beastie Boys lyrics, while fellow Vancouverite Althea Thauberger’s aspiring female singer-songwriters lipsynch against the beautiful Canadian landscape, and the Bay Area’s Trisha Donnelly uses a trampoline to help herself achieve Iggy Pop’s famous contortions. These works exude a deep ambivalence—no matter where they’re from, these artists are coolly observant, dryly funny, and inconclusive. In the quantities served here, this adds up to an oddly numbing feeling that is this exhibition’s most noticeable effect.

Glen Helfand