Los Angeles

View of “Merlin Carpenter,” 2011.

View of “Merlin Carpenter,” 2011.

Merlin Carpenter

Overduin & Co.

View of “Merlin Carpenter,” 2011.

On January 30 (coinciding with the Art Los Angeles Contemporary fair), Merlin Carpenter opened his second show at Overduin & Kite. The premise was simple: A friend asked the artist for an old painting that Carpenter had made in 1990. In return, Carpenter asked the friend to take the original and make twenty copies (“1990 Repainted 1–20,” 2010), all of which were put on view for the show. The works could be described as a nauseatingly polychromatic antidote to his recent three-year, multivenue project, The Opening, which featured smug phrases (among other markings) scrawled, predominantly in black, across invariably white stretchers. Offering generic gestural abstractions that read like attempts to (paradoxically) replicate the idea of “authentic” painting, this LA show also included treadmills, four brand-new machines axially aligned with the art as though facing flat-screen TVs at a fitness center.

This past season, Carpenter wasn’t the only one rehashing old material, mixing screens with painting, trading on an archaeology of desire. Opening across town, midway through Carpenter’s show (and timed to overlap with Oscar weekend) was Gus Van Sant and James Franco’s exhibition, “Unfinished,” at Gagosian Gallery. This project’s premise was likewise simple: Van Sant asked Franco to reedit the unused dailies and outtakes from his 1991 film My Own Private Idaho; the director also painted seven untitled watercolor portraits inspired by the same sorts of hustlers and street kids depicted in the film. These paintings lined a wall opposite a red curtain concealing My Own Private River, 2011, a sizable installation, with Franco’s nonlinear video (trained on one of the film’s stars, River Phoenix) projected over checkered linoleum flooring, rusted folding chairs, tables, secondhand couches, podiums, and other miscellaneous equipment. It looked like the setting for an AA meeting, or maybe the high school drama club rehearsal. That Van Sant permitted golden boy Franco to direct and restructure Phoenix’s early-’90s portrayal of a gay hustler might best be described in the terms Carpenter used to speak about the power relation at work in his own exhibition—something approaching “ethical pure exploitation.”

Franco’s hundred-minute edit jumps back and forth in the story’s narrative, variably synchronized with parts of the full-length feature playing (on a VCR) elsewhere in the room. But any dissonance is buffered by the periodic alt-rock tempos of Michael Stipe. Filtered through Franco (among other generators of mainstream desire, namely, Gagosian, with “support” from Gucci), the adolescent trauma and latent gay politic of Phoenix and his troubled character, Mike Waters, appear markedly sanitized—Van Sant’s obsessive, voyeuristic focus diffused. Perhaps the only thing perverse here is that Van Sant took an iconic early-’90s figure of his own creation and (knowingly or not) stripped it of its cult (and cultural?) value through replication and re-presentation, via Franco and Gagosian—icons that the intervening years produced. A similar operation was in play at Overduin & Kite: Through duplication, Carpenter willfully divested an early work of its singularity. Like Franco, Carpenter’s friend was granted access to something from-the-vault special (we’re told that the original work had been hanging in the artist’s own London flat), only to redeploy it bearing all of the “net” knowledge and post-nonirony (to again use Carpenter’s terms) that the past two decades of painting discourse have given us.

Catherine Taft