Los Angeles

View of Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, “Bright White Underground,” 2010.

View of Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, “Bright White Underground,” 2010.

Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe

Country Club Projects

View of Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, “Bright White Underground,” 2010.

For anyone familiar with Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s previous collaborations—from their initial exploration of speed psychosis (Hello Meth Lab in the Sun, 2008) to the more hallucinogenic Black Acid Co-op, 2009—it would have been evident that, in their most recent effort, Bright White Underground, 2010, the drugs may have changed once more, but the song remained the same. Again we were shown the bitter fallout from a period of overextended euphoria, as manifested in architectural wreckage; the literal deconstruction of built space as a direct analogy to bodies flooded with toxins.

Up until now, Freeman and Lowe’s work has been staged within the confines of the “white cube,” where it enacts a millennial retro-reaction to institutional critique. Nothing is exposed of the gallery’s material base or ideological operations, for these no longer serve as the hidden source of the work’s truth; rather, the space is treated as an amenably generic set for dark fantasizing. On this point, the site of the artists’ first LA effort, R. M. Schindler’s Buck House, which cannot be disassociated from the particulars of its history, offered a measure of resistance. That history was converted into a complex backstory, delivered by way of photographs, posters, collages, books, and a free newspaper that together chronicled the vision quest of the psychiatrist and committed psychonaut Dr. Arthur Cook to spread “better living through chemistry.” A fiction nevertheless tethered to “facts” available to any student of counterculture lore and conspiracy theory, this story told how, in 1963, through the assistance of a defense fortune heiress named Norma Friedrich, the good doctor gained access to Schindler’s Hollywood villa to conduct “intimate gatherings and surreptitious drug testing” in open-plan splendor. Following a period of CIA-funded research that ended badly, Dr. Cook is said to have started a private practice in the home, but his downward spiral was merely delayed: Over the course of a four-year occupancy, the psychiatrist’s miracle cure (for everything from alcoholism to cancer) became the talk of the town, thereby attracting federal attention and leading to raid, seizure, and arrest.

The psychotropic agent in question, dubbed Marasa, is synthesized from crossbred cacti and succulents, which were the last living things in Cook’s abandoned digs, besides the black mold spreading across the walls. Oil canister–shaped vessels of the contraband Marasa lined the floors, along with unopened boxes of self-published books bearing titles such as The Mother of the Looking Glass. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors, all broken, reoriented the sight lines of the once environment-friendly Buck House entropically inward. Schindler’s spacious design, now subdivided into a mazelike configuration of cramped rooms connected by narrow hallways, was bugged throughout to perpetually play back the voices of visitors as ghostly white noise. From almost every point in the house one could peer into another, via telescoping devices passing through the walls, to see both where one was going and where one had already been.

Cook’s paranoid fixations no doubt took hold well before he was busted, and here again we are on the well-trodden ground of cautionary fable retold as camp. It was not, however, in the stoopid-clever Age of Aquarius parody that this show’s inspiration lay, but rather in the repeated theme of reflection and reversal. The name Marasa is itself derived from the Haitian voodoo slang for “twin” (presumably because of the drug’s disassociative effects): In the “mind’s eye” of the user, one appears to oneself as another, and from every indication this other must be a malicious double. Through the retro-reflective play of mind expansion and contraction that characterized Freeman and Lowe’s working script, one could imagine Schindler’s house meeting its own evil twin. Such a downside view of utopian ideals would typically furnish a film with its closing shot. But staged here as the opener, the duo’s attempt to work the brain-damaging crash into an aesthetic breakthrough continued apace.

Jan Tumlir