Art fairs and alterna-rock music festivals operate in much the same way: The class of drugs may differ and designer duds are paired down a tad perhaps, but a few people get very rich and rather a lot get very ripped. At the two-day Coachella Valley Music and Art Festival, Apr. 29-30, 2006, over in Indio, Ca., real art was thin on the ground save for a selection of bizarre sculptures ranging from giant babies made of parachute silk to flame-throwing metal go-bots. We did, however, stumble across a British band, Art Brut, a quintet that takes its name from Jean Dubuffet.
Art Brut frontman Eddie Argos considers himself such a lousy singer that he took to calling his style of rhythmic shouting "art" as a means of getting away with "not sounding like Aretha Franklin." The group took five minutes to write Formed a Band, its first song -- and first hit. Choice lyrics: "Yes, this is my singing voice, it’s not irony." The art schooled band created itself out of the simple desire to get on the BBC’s Top of the Pops.
Taking place in the desert environs of Palm Springs, Coachella, like Art Basel Miami, is set amid golf cart riding retirees and blazing temperatures -- a perfect backdrop for debauchery. And as with all events of this nature, the best action is often found on the periphery -- namely, poolside at the rented Palm Springs pad of art dealer Kim Light (of Lightbox Gallery).
There, musicians such as Nick McCarthy of the Scottish art-rock band Franz Ferdinand (who was in town to headline Coachella and meet with Kim to talk about the show he’s organizing at her gallery in December), and Ben Lee Handler and Zachary Amos of L.A.-based indies Blood Arm -- and their respective female appreciators -- mingled with an art crowd that included San Francisco Art Institute "new genres" professor Keith Boadwee. Most people seemed to end up naked in or out of the pool. Well, it was hot.
Back in Culver City (but still in the groove, I hope), California artist Sean Duffy presented a skillfully arranged exhibition called "Group Show" at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects -- never mind that it was only his work on display. Upon entering, the viewer was confronted with a real if bashed up vintage motorbike, its seat dabbed with oil paint, and similarly bashed helmet tilted Third Motorcycle. The show included collaged album covers and two of Duffy’s signature works, his hybrid turntables. The best one, tilted The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, has not one but three arms, all playing a single record by Ennio Morricone. It’s better heard in triplicate, haunting and trippy both.
While still on our Coachella hippy high, we took a pew at Jen Liu’s four-screen video projection, Infinite Jam, at Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery. A bearded man in white robes -- not Osama Bin Laden -- hides behind a rock, contemplates in a giant amethyst crystal and madly deletes text from a newspaper with a Sharpie in scenes interspersed with psychedelic abstractions and sounds. From the monastic to the New Agey, Infinite Jam is silly, funny and mildly provocative.
If you’re planning to visit L.A., bring your bong. You may need it, as L.A. artists are flirting with the 1960s. On Chung King Road in Chinatown, two more shows play on transcendental hippie vibes. At Peres Projects, the Berlin-based duo Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom have installed "Ceremonies of Consummation," a very L.A. environment in Hollywood silver and gold with a meditative soundtrack, ostensibly exploring the forces of magic on earth. Mushrooms anyone?
Three blocks down at 4F Gallery, L.A. based artist Dani Tull found inspiration for his exhibition in his granny’s attic -- she was a renowned innovator of early childhood development. Tull makes wacky objects, carefully cartoonish drawings and photo-based assisted readymades, adding designs and text to family photos to give them sinister undertones, captions like "look what’s become of me," or scrawling "architect" on a photo of a boy. The show’s centerpiece is an obsessively detailed pencil drawing, which the gallery curators have been referring to as Odd Ark (though it is actually titled Victory of the Links), which has a 1970s feel -- as it might, since the nickname comes from the iconic Melrose Avenue vintage store Aardvark, co-founded by his parents.
At the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is a mid-career survey of Lorna Simpson, a traveling exhibition of 45 works organized by Helaine Posner of the American Federation of Arts and slated to appear later at the Miami Art Museum, the Whitney Museum and other venues. Simpson’s works -- romantic but elliptical photo-narratives and text pieces, some printed on felt, and photo and video installations that often focus on African American physicality -- allude to issues of race, gender, identity and history with a provocative, open-ended tone.
That tone is one of the things that makes Simpson’s work stand out -- her delivery is articulated so beautifully that it’s like an iron fist in a velvet glove. Museum visitors who are new to her sensibility, I imagine, will be momentarily overcome. Nearly all of the works make statements about race and gender that are outspoken if not overtly aggressive. The beautiful Wigs (1994) consists of 21 lithographs printed on cream felt panels featuring back views of hairstyles and hairpieces combined with text. Intensely tactile images, they depict various processes of weaving, dying or braiding that are identified with sometimes unruly African American locks. Like many of Simpson’s works, Wigs forces consideration of appearance as an entry point to much bigger issues.
One work that gets straight to the point and provides a moment of relief in a show shrouded in mystique and oblique references is, at roughly two inches square, the smallest thing in the show -- a newspaper clipping. It reads, "Asked whether he would now be afraid to be a black man in Los Angeles if he were not the Mayor, Mr. Bradley paused, then said: ‘No, I would not be scared. I would be angry.’"
Other standouts in the exhibition are Simpson’s 14-minute-long, two-screen projection Corridor, which contrasts the daily routine of a contemporary black woman and one from the Civil War era, and Easy to Remember (2001), a projection of a grid of 15 close-ups of lips humming the Rodgers and Hart song of the same name.
On a final note, Ori Gersht’s haunting photographs and powerful film The Forest, can’t help but serve as a reminder of the wasting environment. The film begins quietly, with the camera focused on a stretch of trees in a forest, swaying in the wind to the sound of bird calls -- a utopian dream of nature, suddenly shattered when a tree falls with a deafening thud, followed by a cascade of leaves hitting to the ground. The forest idyll is shattered and the absence of the noise highlighted. The exhibition, titled "The Clearing," was on view at Angles Gallery on Main Street in Santa Monica earlier this month, just two blocks from the Ocean.
To make her film, Gersht traveled to the southwest region of the Ukraine, an area that bore witness to the atrocities of genocide in World War II. The film and the photographs speak to the past lives wiped out; it is a simple and terrifying piece of art.
EMMA GRAY is West Coast editor of ArtReview.