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L.A. CONFIDENTIAL
by Walter Robinson
 
"That’s enough bad art for one weekend," said Frank Bernarducci, a New York dealer whose West 57th Street gallery, Bernarducci Meisel, specializes in realist painting. We had come to Los Angeles to visit two art fairs -- ART LA 2008 and the Los Angeles Art Show, both in Santa Monica -- and tour the many local galleries and museums.

"Continue 2.2 miles on Santa Monica Boulevard," said our GPS in its intoxicatingly robotic feminine voice. With hypercritical comments from Frank and neutral if sexy remarks from the GPS added to my sunny Pollyanna views, any worries about conflicts-of-interest in reporting on our trip should be kicked to the curb.

Rain fell for three of the four days of our visit, alarming weather drama queens, while the temperature never dropped below 50 degrees and Saturday was bright, sunny and warm. Traffic was mild. What the Maybach and Escalade are to NYC, the BMW Z4 Roadster is to L.A.

Michael Asher at SMMoA
I was in town on a junket courtesy of Elsa Longhauser, the hard-working director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA), the venturesome kunsthalle located in the Bergamot Station gallery complex a few miles from the beach. A remarkable advocate for contemporary art and artists, Longhauser greets artistic peculiarity with enthusiasm and good cheer. Shows organized during her tenure, which started in 2000, have featured works by Valie Export, Mary Kelly, Alfred Jensen, Kim MacConnel, Fred Wilson, Terry Allen, Ant Farm, George Herms, Wallace Berman and William Pope.L, among others, an impressive lineup for any museum director anywhere. "She’s nice," said Bernarducci.

I remember visiting a show Longhauser organized 25 years ago at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, where the artist Christoph Köhlhofer had installed stencil-print portraits of all 40 presidents, each painted on its own stolen hotel towel. The exhibition was called "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves," and also featured punctured bags of sugar spilling their contents and pennies strewn across the floor. It was a Pop bacchanal, courtesy of a young veteran of the 1970s Düsseldorf School.

This time around, the event is more somber and intellectually fueled -- an installation by Michael Asher, a major figure of the 1960s Conceptual Art movement and long an influential teacher at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. The untitled work, "a conceptual history of SMMoA’s exhibitions from 1998 to the present," fills the museum’s 4,000 square feet of space with a reconstruction of all the temporary walls made for exhibitions during the last ten years, done in wide aluminum studs, but no plasterboard. That’s 44 shows in all.

The result gives a strangely dystopian experience, a series of square chambers with no doorways, open but hard to get into, as each room is typically surrounded by two or three rows of thicker-than-normal studs, which are set only 16 inches apart at most. Someone like me can turn sideways and squeeze through, scraping the aluminum with his clothes, thus adding a sound component to the experience. A masterpiece of "institutional critique," Asher’s work engendered critical self-awareness, all right -- I should be thinner and smaller!  

"What a great idea for a show," said Frank, insincerely. "I’m going outside to smoke."

Deep thought was provided by Harvard University professor Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, who delivered a paper titled "Strategies of Voiding the Void" to a standing-room-only audience in a nearby auditorium. Say what you will about Buchloh’s signature aversion to art that might actually be fun, the guy’s nothing if not thoughtful.

Buchloh pointed out Asher’s "modernist self-reflexivity," "his vandalized reconstruction of the very material of the space itself" in earlier works, notably in 1973 when the artist sandblasted the entire Galleria Toselli in Milan down to bare concrete. By removing all trace of the civilizing fixtures of cultural display, Buchloh suggested, Asher provided the viewer with an experience of withdrawal and loss rather than one of esthetic gratification. Attention was turned, instead, to conditions of perception and social interaction, as well as toward an analysis of the installation devices of the 20th century. 

In 1982, in an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Asher hung the museum’s most popular picture, a Pierre-Auguste Renoir nude, next to the AIC’s least exhibited painting, which turned out to be a little-known figure by Marcel Duchamp. He then hired spectators and paid them a fee to stand in front of the Duchamp picture and look at it, a "scandalous" proposition that undermines the idea of esthetic experience as the sole salvation for a model of non-alienated subjectivity.

The illusion of change is a central component of the culture machine, and Buchloh also noted Asher’s resistance to this notion in his almost comic participation in the Münster Sculpture Project, exhibiting the exact same work -- a small camper parked anonymously on the street -- four times over 30 years as part of the show in 1977, 1987, 1997 and 2007.

Did Buchloh approve of "Asher’s mannerist labyrinth" at SMMoA, which he also called an "allegorical accumulation of display devices"? Hard to say. One thing Buchloh doesn’t like, apparently, is "the estheticization of daily life," which involves "massive, monolithic delivery of cultural production without resistance." Tsk-tsk.

Also on view at SMMoA in a small project gallery is a digital projection by the New York artist Brody Condon that renders Hans Memling’s The Last Judgment (1467-71) into a stuttering still from a video game, giving the Archangel Michael peacock feathers instead of wings, and leaving naked peasants in spasmodic ecstasy, as if they had eaten too much ergot.

Art Fairs in Los Angeles
With Los Angeles now home to two successful homegrown art fairs, can a race to colonize the town by the global art-fair brands -- Art Basel and Merchandise Mart -- be far behind? Watch this space.

In the meantime, ART LA 2008, Jan. 25-27, 2008, which is in its fourth year but evolving fast, billing itself as "the new Los Angeles International contemporary art fair, had set up at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium -- a scrappy venue last used for an "ultimate wrestling" competition and a Lenny Kravitz concert. The floors are bare concrete and the booths have minimal architecture, a down-market installation perfect for the avant-garde wares on display.

ART LA has 64 galleries, half locals, half imports, and practically all dressed in black. In his booth, Javier Peres of Peres Projects set up a smaller version of Terence Koh’s Blame Canada bar, a classic punk dive serving Canadian beer (it’s €75,000), and passed out the new issue of his free magazine, which is titled Daddy (one highlight -- full-page pictures of Demi Moore’s old family with Bruce Willis and her new one with Ashton Kutcher). Gavin Brown’s booth held a bunch of Aeron Chairs in various colors -- no sitting, please! -- while a crashed bus by the Italian artist Piero Golia filled the booth of Bortolami from New York (it was bought by collector Eugenio Lopez).

"All the booths look like bus crashes," said Bernarducci.

Anna Helwing Gallery gave pride of place in its booth to a surprising object by Mindy Shapero, a kind of large black lumpy form, suggestive of both a heart and a handbag, covered with stiff paper spines and sprouting a pair of looped handles or arterial extensions surfaced with an irregular black mosaic of buttons and beads. This thing, whatever it is, is ominous and fairly compelling, and seems today like a kind of anti-Jeff Koons or anti-Jim Dine, those two masters of the flashy valentine. It’s $35,000, said Helwing.

A relatively new gallery at the fair was Redling Fine Art, which was opened last fall at 990 North Hill Street in Los Angeles by Erica Redling (and who was at her second art fair in four months, having appeared at NADA in Miami). Her booth is filled with sign sculptures by Jeff Kopp, lightweight, handmade geometric structures that seem to merge the Japanese lantern with the lightbox. The texts seem focused on plumbing and plays on words, viz., "just because you shit in it" on one side, "doesn’t mean it’ll flush" on the other. Now there’s a slogan to think about. Bigger ones are $6,000.

Reports of sales were mixed. Sandroni Rey sold a muscular, automatic drawing by Chloe Piene for $14,000 at the opening. And Roberts and Tilton had a "hold" on a $20,000, mural-sized allover work on paper by the young San Francisco cartoon-based artist Andrew Schoultz.

But rumors of unhappy experiences persisted. Back in Manhattan, a young New York dealer called the fair a "disaster," blaming the bad business on torrential rains.

The other art fair, the Los Angeles Art Show at the Barker Hangar at Santa Monica airport, Jan. 23-27, 2008, was a larger affair, with more than 125 exhibitors in a rather deluxe, carpeted space. Selections could be quite blue chip, such as at the elegant booth jointly set up by Neffe-Degandt Fine Art from London and Jill Newhouse from New York. Among the works by Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and 19th- and 20th-century American masters, pride of place was given to a large blonde washing herself (nude save for her high heels) by Pierre Bonnard. The price: $2 million.

Many of the dealers specialize in various types of realism. Jack Cacciola, whose J. Cacciola Gallery is on West 25th Street in Manhattan, repeated what would be a familiar refrain from successful dealers -- "our biggest problem has been supply," meaning that they can sell the paintings as soon as their artists are finished painting them. Cacciola said he had already sold five works, and the busy fair weekend had yet to begin. The booth was hung with paintings by Mark Beck, Richard Bunkall, Alex Kanevsky, James Lahey, Ray Turner and others.

"Now this is what I’m talking about!" said Bernarducci.

An interesting contrast, fruits of the art-fair bazaar experience, could be found at the booth of Spanierman Modern, where a 1964 painting by Mel Ramos of a sultry nude with a towel, seen through a keyhole, titled Peek-a-boo Raven #2, was juxtaposed with several small, precise Neo-Plasticist drawings by Ilya Bolotowsky. That’s interdisciplinary. The Ramos was priced at $1.7 million.

One work introduced specially at the fair was a new print of a 1964 photograph by Nat Finkelstein -- who has just turned 75 -- of the ultracool Edie Sedgwick with the ultrahip Velvet Underground. Printed in an edition of five, the work is available for $2,500 from Wooster Projects on West 15th Street in Manhattan.

In the fair’s print section, one highlight was a new book of poems by Emily Dickinson illustrated by Kiki Smith (my sister-in-law), published by Arion Press in San Francisco. Titled Sampler, the book includes a selection of 200 poems, with drawings made right on the plates by Smith. The price for the book, edition 400, is $1,200. A version including a print, and priced at $3,500 in an edition of 40, was already sold out.

Venice, Culver City & more
Despite predictions from the television weather lady of "an unprecedented amount of rain," Saturday was all blue skies, so we headed over for a quick tour of some of the galleries in Venice, Culver City and Hollywood with Ruth Fruehauf, Artnet’s tireless California sales chief.

Impressive at LA Louver was a show of new works by Mark di Suvero, including a giant room-sized swing called Luck’s Prime (2008), yours for $950,000, and several other steel sculptures that move or gong when banged on with a hammer. In the stacks are examples of my favorite works by Ed Kienholz, drawings stenciled with their own price and marked by the artist’s fingerprint. The work titled For $455.00, made in 1990 (his third suite of drawings originally sold for their title price), is now $10,000. Also on hand are some exquisite small paintings of trees by Lucas Reiner, available for only a few thousand dollars each.

My favorite architectural anomaly about Culver City is the way the galleries sit on the avenue like a minimalist strip mall, with their more practical entries off the funky alley that extends behind them.

At Koplin del Rio Gallery at 6031 Washington Boulevard is "New Colonies in the New World," a show of energetic and comical blown-glass sculptures by brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre, who live in San Diego but indulge in a wild Mestizo sensibility that combines Mexican, Spanish and Aztec imagery. A charming statue of a horned she-devil, titled Double Agent, is $7,000.

Dealer Walter Maciel worked for Rena Branstein in San Francisco before he opened his gallery two years ago on La Cienega Boulevard. On view during our visit was "Generalized Anxiety Disorder," a group show that included a large cloth sculpture of a cactus made from a border patrol uniform by Margarita Cabrera.

Maciel said that the work was still available (at $10,000), though he’d sold several like it to Paige West’s West Collection in Pennsylvania, along with one of Cabrera’s life-sized sewn Hummer sculptures.

Another work spotted in a group show at Kim Light Gallery was a kind of painting construction by Joe Bradley, who shows with Canada in New York.  He uses classic minimalist monochromes and aligns them to resemble a block figure, to fairly comic effect.  This one is rather ornate, as Bradley’s pared-down figures go, with red legs, a white body, a horizontal black arm and a square red head. It’s sold, at about $20,000.

A second Canada artist out on La Cienega Boulevard is the Texas native Rosson Crow, a 2006 Yale MFA whose show of large expressionist paintings at Honor Fraser is called "Night at the Palomino." Scenes of interiors -- lodges, bars, drawing rooms -- marked by fluorescent colors, scrawls, graffiti, wild drips and idle abstract elements, her pictures capture a neon energy that blows out the fuses. Her paintings are priced at $28,000-$35,000, and moving fast.

*     *     *
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which unveils its new $50-million, Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum with a free, three-day weekend Feb. 16-18, 2008, has special commissions from artists all over its sprawling campus -- banners by John Baldessari, a solar-powered streetlight array by Chris Burden, palm plantings by Robert Irwin, a polychromed steel sculpture of tulips by Jeff Koons.

But for our money, the new installation of Tony Smith’s 1962 Smoke in the atrium of the museum’s 1965 Ahmanson Building steals the show. A soaring latticework construction, Smoke made Smith’s national reputation back in 1962, when it was installed among the classical columns of the Corcoran Gallery and grandly reproduced in Time Magazine. This time around, the fabrication is black-painted aluminum, and on loan from the artist’s family. How much does LACMA director Michael Govan have to raise to make it permanent? $5 million or so?

Egypt-born artist Y.Z. Kami’s sand-toned, scaled-up portraits of passive people at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills are mostly sold at around $350,000 each. . . .

The Louis Vuitton boutique at the "© Murakami" show at the Geffen Contemporary in L.A.’s Little Tokyo neighborhood is completely sold out of the three custom-designed "© Murakami" agendas, the coin purse and two handbags. All that remains is the small bag, which is $910. . . . Dustin Yellin, the New York artist who entombs drawings of plants and such in slabs of plastic, did $200,000 in business on opening night of his show at Patricia Faure Gallery.

The 4,500-square-foot Scion Space, open in Culver City since last fall, is sponsored by the car company and "dedicated to fostering independent artistic expression." See www.scion.com. . . . Roberts & Tilton doubles its exhibition space this May, when it moves to new digs designed by johnstonmarklee architects at 5801 West Washington Boulevard in Culver City. The gallery remains at 6150 Wilshire Boulevard complex till May 1, 2008.

Application deadline for the Frieze Art Fair is Feb. 4, 2008.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.