Los Angeles

Katie Grinnan

MAK Center for Art and Architecture

In recent years, Katie Grinnan has shown an almost magnetic attraction to ruins. In the summer of 2006, the Los Angeles–based artist navigated Rubble Division–Interstate, a ruinous parade-float sculpture, from the High Desert Test Sites in California to the Socrates Sculpture Park in New York (as part of the exhibition “Interstate: The American Road Trip”). Tugged behind a large passenger van, Rubble Division was constructed of photographic panels depicting fragmentary images of two buildings—one a demolished building supply store, hence the title—mounted on a twisted rebar skeleton. Along the way, Grinnan and an entourage of artists and musicians stopped at ruins including Nevada ghost town Rhyolite and hurricane-devastated New Orleans—often giving impromptu performances against these scenic “backdrops” while mining their allegorical potential.

As critic Craig Owens once noted, “Allegory is consistently attracted to the fragmentary, the imperfect, the incomplete—an affinity which finds its most comprehensive expression in the ruin, which Benjamin identified as the allegorical emblem par excellence. Here the works of man are reabsorbed into the landscape; ruins thus stand for history as an irreversible process of dissolution and decay.” Somewhat paradoxically, Grinnan has consistently exploited the constructive potential of ruins—or fragments thereof—and her recent body of work inspired by Mayan architecture and cosmology is no exception.

This show, titled “Polaris,” follows from a trip the artist took to the Mayan city of Chichén-Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and, more specifically, from the iconic Pyramid of Kukulkán, which is used as a module throughout the works on view. In the installation Alignment (all works 2008), for example, the stepped form, having been made into a number of Friendly Plastic sculptures ornamented with paint and ink-jet prints, is variously positioned on its side or stacked and inverted—the latter strategy recalling Brancusi’s Endless Column. Two other mixed-media sculptures, Henge and Between Worlds—comprising far-flung materials such as palm fronds, paint, metal, inkjet prints on Friendly Plastic, and bamboo with dried flower sealant—reclaim relatively familiar territory for Grinnan, but here became almost naturalized by blending so seamlessly into the surroundings; indeed, it would be hard to imagine these pieces working so effectively outside this context.

The MAK Center, housed in an experimental two-family residence designed by Rudolf M. Schindler in the early 1920s, has, since 1994, provided a refreshing alternative to the familiar white cube: More often than not, contemporary exhibitions in this low-slung modernist masterpiece of redwood, canvas, and tilt-slab concrete provide a jarring juxtaposition to the given context. But just as Grinnan’s Rubble Division intensified the decayed appearances, of Rhyolite and New Orleans, her modular redeployment of Mayan ruins around Schindler’s slightly ramshackle building revealed a strikingly symbiotic relationship between architecture of the past and distant past. (And, adding a layer of connective tissue, one might also note that Schindler supervised the construction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s series of Mayan-inspired concrete-block buildings in Los Angeles while he was designing his own house.)

With Portal, for example, Grinnan laid a translucent image of the Kukulkán pyramid over the MAK Center’s windows, and in Excavation 1, in an adjacent courtyard, she positioned a small-scale version of the stepped monument in a symmetrical relationship with its inverse: a temporary ziggurat-shaped pond carved out like a miniature Earth- work. With subtle humor, Excavation 1 riffed on Schindler’s pioneering integration of interior and exterior space—a trope that largely defines California modernism. While the methodological connections between Grinnan’s research and the resulting objects remained largely obscure, the selection served as a compelling counterpoint to the Schindler House, one that, as Owens suggested of allegory, was clearly “attracted to the fragmentary, the imperfect, the incomplete.” The strength of this show was the artist’s willingness to let the fragments be guided by the surroundings. Like Polaris—the North Star—the Schindler House acted as a fixed point, toward which Grinnan directed her explorations.

Michael Ned Holte