Los Angeles

 Llyn Foulkes, The Lost Frontier, 1997–2005, mixed media, 87 x 96 x 8".

Llyn Foulkes, The Lost Frontier, 1997–2005, mixed media, 87 x 96 x 8".

“Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A.”

Hammer Museum

 Llyn Foulkes, The Lost Frontier, 1997–2005, mixed media, 87 x 96 x 8".

A PAINTING BY LLYN FOULKES titled The Lost Frontier was the first thing one saw on entering “Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A.”—the fifth installment of the Hammer Museum’s series of biannual exhibitions devoted to delivering a zeitgeist overview of local tendencies and trends, this time curated by Ali Subotnick. Hung on the far wall of a little roped-off room, it served as the scintillating opening sentence of a very promising book. As with much of this artist’s work, the piece features his likeness, recognizable even when turned away from us; he occupies the foreground and looks out over landfill mountains at the receding smog-shrouded cityscape of metro LA. He would be granting us access into the great beyond, in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich’s stand-ins, were it not for the machine-gun-toting figure of Mickey Mouse that crops up farther in. A hybrid of the defense and entertainment industries, this sinister cartoon patrols the city gates, keeping the artist, and his audience, scrounging around in the junk.

The wall label noted the painting’s lengthy gestation of eight years, from 1997 to 2005; this is a labor that “shows.” The surface bows topographically outward, as if to meet the viewer with a meticulous incrustation of painted and found objects. Although the piece is exceptionally well executed, Foulkes’s technique still sits uneasily between the refined tastes of his peers in the assemblage movement of the 1960s and ’70s and all their gaudy craft-fair derivatives. No doubt Foulkes was also included in Paul Schimmel’s 1992 survey at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” as a missing link between the Ferus group devotees to the “Sunshine Muse,” such as Billy Al Bengston and Wallace Berman, and the noir-tinged anti-aesthetes who followed in the ’80s, from Mike Kelley to Meg Cranston.

In “Nine Lives,” as in “Helter Skelter,” Foulkes’s work served as supreme confirmation of the often-made claim that in LA, geography is destiny. Both exhibitions seized the isolation that “comes with the territory” as a productive principle, making for a range of involuted practices that consistently flout convention in their obsessive-compulsive zeal. And the isolated artist’s vacillations between postures of self-denigration and self-aggrandizement were again posited here as symptomatic of a larger national neurosis. Accordingly, the artists featured in “Nine Lives”—nine in all, each given his or her own mini solo show—ran the gamut between, on one end, cryptic doodlers like Julie Becker who stubbornly resist being “got,” and on the other, the eminently “gettable” Victoria Reynolds, who basically makes the same works (old-masterly paintings of meat framed in similarly visceral filigree) over and over again.

Although the artists in “Nine Lives” formed a somewhat arbitrary roster, they proved serviceable to the time-honored curatorial impulse to locate the regional sensibility ever farther outside a purported normative-aesthetic interior still associated with New York. But if authentic outsiders do not recognize any conventional boundary between art and life, their production impulsively answering only to need and desire, these nine are more borderline, and in this, they are like everyone else—only more so. Since the original generation of outsiders in “Helter Skelter” has found its way in, the inside—the mainstream of both art and popular culture—has in turn dispersed toward the aberrant and outré. The upshot is an “I told you so” normalization of once scarily extremist attitudes. Kaari Upson’s twisted theatrical reconstruction of the Playboy Mansion grotto nods toward the work of Kelley and of Paul McCarthy, but in a way that inclines more toward therapeutic self-help than anarchic release.

Lisa Anne Auerbach’s output of sloganeering knit-wear and zines is reminiscent of Cranston’s conflations of humble craft and rock ’n’ roll iconoclasm, just as Charles Irvin can be seen as this year’s model of Jim Shaw. The lines of succession hold firm, but with a corresponding depletion in the traumatic intensity of the inheritance itself. One transitioned from Irvin’s paranoid sub-comix-style mappings of the secret power structures of world domination to Jeffrey Vallance’s mantelpiece museum to his various attempts to intercede personally in our foreign policy as between two sides of a coin. Whether by way of the former project’s woeful inadequacy or the latter’s overcompensating generosity, what might have been a voyage into the heart of darkness wound up closer to Mister Rogers’s neighborhood.

In its persistent spaciness, “Nine Lives” also showed signs of the “millennial” spin that virtually every LA-themed exhibition has eagerly foreshadowed, and that has us all dividing our time between lives real and fantastic. This is a promising possibility, as it would allow us to consider these artists as a generic cross section of a community that has itself become a generic cross section of the public at large. Isolation compels the whole-cloth reinvention of the world as Baudelairean paradis artificiel; this remained the leitmotif here, but in the age of the Internet it does not seem so regionally specific. No one in “Nine Lives” can any longer claim sole ownership of his or her private obsessions. For all their monumental allure, not even Hirsch Perlman’s photographic studies of his cat as cinematic sphinx can be wholly disassociated from all those “kooky” websites people compose to the glory of their pets.

The show’s title, however, denied this everyday take on the artists by suggesting that they are in fact “visionaries.” A hard claim to sustain, it appeared only in tentative glimmers of affinity between those farthest out and closest in. In his stunning August Sander–esque double portraits of teenage girls and pre-op transgender women, Charlie White mobilizes exactly those high-tech industry resources that Foulkes is cut off from—a point that receives cruel emphasis in what the latter calls his “bloody head paintings”—but together the two artists give us a vision of life utterly transfigured by montage and plastic surgery. Building walls before walls and masks onto masks, they begin to suggest what our city’s crisis of stalled adolescence might look like as national destiny.

Jan Tumlir is an art writer who lives in Los Angeles.