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Back to Reviews 97

Jim Carrey, 1997

Watts House Project, 1994

Freedom Hall,

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, 1997.

In the Name
of the Place,

Mel Chin and the
GALA Committee, 1997.

Richard Billingham
Photo from "Ray's a Laugh," 1996

Tony Oursler, 1996.
Photos by Douglas M.
Parker Studio,
Courtesy of Margo Levin Gallery.

Tony Oursler,1997.

report from los angeles

by Giovanni Intra

A coincidence? -- in the selfsame moment that residents of Los Angeles are bombarded with cheerful propaganda for the new Jim Carrey movie, Liar Liar -- equipped with its mendacious epigram, "Honest! Really!" -- curators for MOCA's Geffen Contemporary announce that their latest show, "Uncommon Sense," is designed to establish a "true dialogue" between contemporary art and its public. In a broad sweep, "Uncommon Sense" answers to, or kneels before, the "political art" and the "public art" questions, curators Tom Finkelpearl and Julie Lazar hoping to up the stakes on what they call "traditional" political art -- that which simply "attacks injustice" -- by introducing "alien elements" into the Geffen Contemporary's gigantic spaces.

On the one hand, this exhibition hopes to open the museum's doors to a wider and more diverse public -- and to involve them in the process of exhibition building. On the other it demonstrates an obscure form of longing for that absent crowd -- the public at large -- which the contemporary art museum can only begin to attract in its most "blockbuster" moments. In reality, the culture of Liar Liar owns that crowd, and shows no sign of loosening the muzzle, especially where matters of virture are concerned.

So what is "Uncommon Sense's" tonic? What are these "alien elements"? They are, of course, six newly commissioned works, produced by Ann Carlson and Mary Ellen Strom, Mel Chin and the GALA Committee, Cornerstone Theatre Company, Karen Finley, Rick Lowe, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles -- not to mention their numerous collaborators -- works which, we assume, are trying to reduce alienation and make friends with the contemporary museum's real extra-terrestrials: its lost public.

"Uncommon Sense's" attempt to establish real-time justice as a new form of political art is, as the curators state, "experimental" and open-ended: the promise being that vital principles of collaboration and interactivity are enacted -- a goal which plummets when the public is treated just like an art material. Finley's Go Figure, for example, which included a life-drawing studio where anybody could go and sketch the afternoon away, would have been a dead classroom if it weren't for last Sunday's batch of serious sketchers. When I saw it, the Finley-Academy looked like 30-or-so museum-objects with their heads down -- to intrude for more than a second was eyeball- suicide.

The more fascinating works here -- such as Lowe's and Ukeles's -- were like suburbs in themselves, brimming with the activity of multiple imaginations. But, to me, the best thing about "Uncommon Sense" was that it did provide occasion for something new under the sun: The GALA Committee's The Name of the Place. Brainchild of artist Mel Chin, most of the work making up The Name... was produced by his brainchildren, the aforementioned committee, which consisted of unidentified students and faculty from the University of Athens, Ga., and the California Institute of the Arts. In co-operation with the producers of the TV show, Melrose Place, they individually designed a number of props which were used in the series, and in pulling this off they blew the roof off what has previously been known as the "collaborative project," managing, as they did, to install their work in the heart (sic) of network television, which accepted their products with almost suspicious gratitude.

At the Geffen Contemporary this project took the form of a Melrose-style set. The works themselves were installed here and re-runs of the applicable episodes could be viewed. On screen or in gallery (and in some cases both) one could spot Jean-Francois Lyotard's Libidinal Economy somewhere on one of the character's bookshelves; a bedside lamp designed around the rotating profile of Newt Gingrich's head adorned a hotel room, scene of some adultery or other; a handbag with a silk-screened gun-pattern was offered as a prop for and a tribute to Jane, the paranoid gun toter; and poster-shop-style paintings of celebrated L.A. murder and death scenes were hung in various apartments as well as the offices of D&D Advertising.

I love the idea of producing tokens of adoration, or more especially concern, for a television star, and for those objects to be installed as furniture in the star's fake life. It is both a bathetic and heroic gesture, ultimately defeatist, but completely understandable, too. The creation of the dumb fan -- even the "critical" fan -- signals both the triumph of the Soap Opera and the work of art, and the GALA Committee was a fan club in both senses of the word. But, for all of its scale and ambition, The Name... did not gel formally as a museum installation because it lacked a sense of binding obsession, which is another way of saying that its "collectivity" was best ignored in order to appreciate its fragments. As an interventionist work, it's success was nugatory as well, because these "props," as clever as some of them were, were broadcast on the premise that they remained barely visible, in not invisible, to the television audience. As an entertainment, however, it was funnier than Melrose Place itself.

At two West Hollywood galleries, two very different family dramas were being enacted: the video-installation of Tony Oursler, "Heads, Tails and Organs", at Margot Leavin Gallery and the photographs of Richard Billingham at Regen Projects.

Much has been said about the social realism of Billingham's portraits, and the virtual unrealities of Oursler's. But whatever you may think, Billingham and Oursler's work is not that far apart. Billingham's family album -- like Oursler's -- is about collapsing, getting up again and asking for more: more drinks, more cigarettes, more fun and games, more "abuse," more photographs and more videos. Both Billingham and Oursler present collapse as an esthetic; collapse as a happy extended family. Neither of these families are truly "dysfunctional" because they function to engender interesting art. And of course their work is voyeuristic and entertaining, in a way comparable to Married with Children.

In Billingham's better-known pictures the artist's father, Ray, a sodden but acrobatic figure, pickled in his own home-brew, bounces from side to side of the family's Birmingham, UK, council estate. Ray's a space alien in a Nintendo video game -- a splatter of tomato sauce constituting a "hit"; or he's Jackson Pollock in Hans Namuth's photographs -- a drunk action painter expressing himself to the floor. Ray crashes into Mom, Liz Billingham, or he gets whacked in the schnozz by Liz Billingham. He chucks the cat from one side of the room to the other, then mops the blood from off of his forehead. Is the house drunk, too? This family life is like a boxing ring and a circus side-show all at once: cats, dogs, peas, humans, carrots, jigsaw puzzles and decorative porcelains all jostle for space; their crammings are fascinating, and in the viewer's mind, an abominable sound-track -- and smell-track -- is imagined. However it's nothing more abominable than what went on inside the Cedar Tavern, I'm sure.

"I'm very glad I'm not Billingham" -- this is what the esthete is allowed to think. Billingham's pictures are dark enough and real enough, I suppose. But on the other hand, it's not unfair or otherwise condemnatory to say that the Regen Projects Billingham exhibition was a very pretty show. In fact it provided a nice counterpoint to what has recently been said on behalf of the artist. Billingham's work has been hailed by critics as the kind of sociological therapy which is achieved by viewing the slum. The prosthetic glamour of these arguments is fastidiously documented in the letters section of the March Artforum, but also in the July 1996 issue of Dazed and Confused, where the artist himself says of his amanuenses, "if they want to do it it's up to them. It doesn't really bother me that much."

Regen Projects' very good Billingham exhibition was almost as pretty as the Elizabeth Peyton one which had preceded it. This comparison is not entirely spurious or sarcastic: both bodies of work, after all, were life-studies, portraits gleaned from the artists' respective milieus. On the back cover of his new book (Ray's a Laugh, Scalo, 1996), Billingham says of his father, "He doesn't like to go out much." Out, perhaps not, but out-of-it, yes, a lot, and out into magazines and galleries, yes, very much indeed -- more than socialite-Peyton herself, perhaps. I have read that the Billingham family has resented this exposure. I wouldn't hold this against Billingham the artist, though.

"I wish I was Oursler" -- this is what all the video artists think. This is because Oursler's tactical pessimism embodies artistic success. Oursler's particular genius is that he is somehow outside of his work: it's admittedly theatrical.

Oursler's exhibition most compellingly featured animal organs which were pickled by his video-diatribes: a heart belonging to an unspecified mammal, a sheep's brain, and a bull's testicle. Each daintily dismembered specimen was floating, Ray-like, in a puddle of "Carosafe preservative," enunciating the usual run of celebrated Our- slurs: the soap opera in reverse, the paranoid manifesto, or horror movie script, whichever you prefer. This Margot Leavin exhibition also included examples of the artist's "eyeball" and lightbulb pieces; it came across as a mini-retrospective.

Oursler's was a noisy show, and in real life it made about as much racket as one would expect from the Billingham family. "Don't push pins into me," "aaarrggghh, the pain," his creatures ranted, sounding like amateur snuff-movies fed through a home computer. Cries of pain were followed by deep sighs of post-orgasmic satisfaction: Oursler's audio-visual esthetic. Come to me (1996), the crater-faced star of the show enacted this drama precisely -- he expressed about as much agony as your average newsreader.

Across famously artificial Los Angeles the honesty debate continued, this time in the Persian-rug field paintings of Julian Schnabel on show at PaceWildenstein in Beverly Hills. Doug Harvey, writing in Art Issues. (Jan.-Feb. 1997), chose to condemn Christopher Williams' "antiseptic" exhibition at Margot Leavin last October by announcing that Williams work was "as distastefully expressionistic (but far less honest)" than Schnabel's. Let's pause to consider this conveniently perverted comment for a moment. To begin with, what does Schnabel "express," if anything? Well, he expressed to the Los Angeles Times that the most "beautiful" object/thing in the world was his wife, but as far as his paintings and sculptures are concerned, there was little angst -- beautiful or otherwise -- bespoken from their surfaces. And what about the "expressionism" of the critic, Mr. Harvey?

David Pagel, also in the L.A. Times, politely passed on Schnabel's show by suggesting it was something of a second-rate one, a collection of leftovers from the artist's glory days (read: what hadn't been snatched up in the `80s). This has proven to be the general opinion. However, to be fair to Schnabel, whose Basquiat was a surprising coup of pathos, this show did prove, yet again, that the artist has the ability to make the grand, grander and grandest non-statements ever -- exactly the same sin that conceptualism is so frequently accused of. Funnily enough, the question of honesty did not appear to be one of Schnabel's more pressing concerns. Schnabel's burly, Stallonean, nine-foot-square canvases were decoratively marked with the same tomato-sauce stains and topsy-turvy gestures as Billingham's Ray: not so much expressionism as decalcomania without preconceived intention.

Highly recommended from L.A. comes the new artist-run Website Striking Distance. Operated as an online gallery and magazine, it differs somewhat from more project-based sites such as New York's ädaweb. Striking Distance presents a quite startling array of new and recent work by artists and writers from here and other cities. One can see especially commissioned works and quickly snap them up with a credit-card! "Solo Shows" by Ben Chase and Jory Felice complement "Group Shows" curated by Andrea Bowers, Steven Criqui, Robert Wedemeyer, and Richard Wearn. A "Studio Visit" with Tim Ebner can be arranged, or one can discover an alarmingly curious project by David Bailey, part of the "Test Site" series. On the purely textual side of things is Mike Kelley's extraordinary essay on Douglas Huebler -- "Shall We Kill Daddy?" -- as well as some brilliant and entertaining criticism by Sande Cohen and Holly Willis. Dial and prepare yourself for an afternoon of new and curious Los Angeles Production.

GIOVANNI INTRA is a graduate candidate in criticism and theory at ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena.