September in Los Angeles had a jam-packed list of events and openings matched only by the huge forest fires that were blazing in the hills above the city. Fortunately for the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, the skies cleared on Sept. 12, 2009, for the performance of a long-delayed Bruce Nauman skywriting work, Untitled (Leave the Land Alone), originally conceived in 1969 but not realized till now. The local art world assembled at a lovely late morning garden party hosted by Molly Munger and Steve English at their Pasadena home.
Armory Center curator Andrew Berardini, who organized the event, was on his cell phone at the first sign of delay -- was he cheering on the pilot, or volunteering to fly the plane himself?
Nauman himself was conspicuously absent, but his studio manager, Juliet Myers, who is also director of public programs at SITE Santa Fe, was on hand, and told me that Nauman’s proposal was in fact a serious message to Earthworks artists like Robert Smithson, James Turrell and Michael Heizer.
Typically for Los Angeles, almost every gallery in the city opened that night, so you needed a Star Trek transporter to get around, or at least a Jetson’s "Aerocar." At Honor Fraser Gallery, Kenny Scharf had filled two rooms with "Barberadise," a mayhem-inspired series of paintings in which the Flintstones and the Jetsons have become neighbors.
The best graffiti art looks like more fun than a barrel of monkeys, and so it is with Scharf, whose unbridled enjoyment at being the king of his own funky world is completely evident. My favorite painting in the show, which is not for sale, is titled You Can Have It Today. An all-American notion, to be sure.
The month seemed a good one for idiosyncratic nether worlds. New York artist Zoë Sheehan Saldaña, in her show "Ersatz" at Steve Turner Contemporary, presented a range of simple, small, everyday objects -- a wood match, a bundle of twine, ketchup in a squeeze bottle -- all made by hand from scratch by the artist (paging Robert Gober).
A certain amount of practical research precedes the fabrication process; Sheehan Saldaña consulted with a scientist for the chemical formula for a strike-ready match tip, for instance, and sewed by hand 20 bright orange life vests to the exact specifications required by the United States Coast Guard. Many of Sheehan Saldaña’s objects are "useful in emergency situations," giving the works a practical as well as metaphorical resonance.
Another notable L.A. event on Sept. 26, 2009, was the gala for the William H. Johnson Foundation, a charity launched by Steve Turner to honor the 20th-century modernist pioneer. The foundation’s annual $25,000 prize went this year to L.A. native Sanford Biggers (1970), whose multimedia sculptures, installations and videos have a definite edge, both poetic and political. In 2008, he showed his work at d’Amelio Terras in New York and at the Prospect.1 New Orleans biennial.
At Margo Leavin Gallery, the venerable L.A home for the kind of Conceptual Art now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in "In and Out of Amsterdam," is a gallery of "performative photography," those simple images of simple actions that were the sine qua non of so much ‘70s art. A suite of four black-and-white photos of jewelry close-ups titled Luxury Items from 1974 by Los Angeles artist William Leavitt (b. 1941) is mute in its expressivity, not to mention prescient of "Picture Theory," while Five Winning Hands (1971) by Al Ruppersberg (b. 1944), being winning poker hands, is more archly celebratory.
At the nonprofit LAX Art is more Leavitt, curated by Adam Moshayedi, a kind of theater set titled "Warp Engines." In the center of a rather dark, dramatically lit space are two vertical chunks of fake stone fireplace, a potted plant, a chic lamp on an end table and large sculpture in clear plastic of what looks like a molecule (or perhaps it’s a hamster run).
The immediate suggestion is that Leavitt is exposing the underlying DNA of the banal American home -- but what is the code? Playing in the background is a faint soundtrack that "bears the signs of a narrative arc" but "lacks the entertainment value of drama."
LAX is also hosting a project by Mexico City artist Gustavo Artigas (b. 1970), which encourages people to pick a building in L.A. that they’d like to demolish. Six choices are given, including the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. Also promised is a video at least simulating the destruction of the winning, or is that losing, building. A rather negative idea, to be sure, but perhaps one appropriate to our helter-skelter, riot-stressed city. The website is www.votodemo.com
Cherry and Martin was hosting a wacky group of sculptures, collages, photos and an otherworldly, 19-minute-long new video by California artist Brian Bress (b. 1975) titled "The Royal Box." Bress’ new video, Status Report, bears an opening title that reads Because It’s the Depression, which is timely enough. Using cardboard and rudimentary costumes, he has contrived various scenes: a boxer in a bedroom battling a Rorschach blot; a tuxedoed guest host in a faceless, sequined mask who dances around a sign that reads "It’s the Depression"; a coal miner in a hardhat who keeps asking, "Are you talking about my hobbies or my work?"
The host repeatedly apologizes, saying, "My job is to make you feel comfortable," while a man in a space helmet floats randomly through every scene in a cramped cardboard spaceship, against a gorgeous navy blue cosmos of collaged bits, silently moving and shifting as if a very figment of Bress’ own mind. The video spans the scale between hysterically funny to stupidly silly, and like all great comedy has a tragic undertone.
At the new Chinatown space of Francois Ghebaly Gallery is still another strange world, this one discovered in Bamako, Mali, by the precocious 24-year-old Parisian artist Neïl Beloufa. Kempinski, Beloufa’s new video installation, is for all intensive purposes a fake documentary about life in Bamako. The artist had people he met in the streets congregate on street corners and play a game of his own devising, a game with a single rule -- the actors were to speak of the future in the present tense.
The resulting narrative is ethereal and fascinating, and by the time it was over I didn’t really care about understanding but was flabbergasted by the work’s charm. It’s something of a local hit -- I even overheard some visitors to Regen Projects across town talking about it.
While on the subject of Mali, it’s worth taking note of the jewel of a show of prints by Malick Sidibe currently on display at the Michael Maloney Fine Art in Culver City. Several of the prints have been framed in the traditional painted-glass frames special to African tourist craft, a fine touch here.
Also in Chinatown, at Cottage Home, the Thomas Solomon Gallery presented its debut solo show of works by L.A. artist Analia Saban (1980), whose goal, the gallery says, is to "debunk the mysteries of contemporary art." To this end, Saban makes paintings of ordinary subjects -- a vase of flowers, say -- but visually dismantles the image by presenting and combining the layers (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) used in four-color printing. As a result, her works float between the exploratory sketch and the decisive painting -- a rock solid uncertainty that shimmers and shifts.
Out in West Hollywood, the Khastoo Gallery presented an exquisite show of works from the once infamous "Cognito" series made by the printer and artist June Wayne. Back in 1960, Wayne commissioned paper-maker Douglass Howell to produce a series of large-scale, paper-laden monochromatic canvases, which Wayne finished only in 1984, repainting and carving into the works.
Wayne is of course well known as the founding director of the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in West Hollywood, but Khastoo convinced her to show the remaining few works from the series. Internal and external lighting is key to each of these works. In the mono silver painting Anki, for instance, the light feels both absorbed by the density of the painting and the undersurface of paper while simultaneously dancing off of the top layer, which is made of silver leaf, acrylic paint and paper.
Wayne had always wanted these works to be lit from behind when they were exhibited, and the current show is the first time that they have been displayed in the manner that she originally intended. It is a small show -- only four works are left from the series -- but these paintings really have presence.
At Roberts & Tilton in Culver City, the season began with "Reconstruction," the first L.A. solo of Titus Kaphar, who Seattle’s The Stranger described as "a black artist who doctors history paintings so they’re not so damn racist anymore." A skilled painter, for these works Kaphar has courageously (and irreverently) broken down his finished canvases to reconstruct them as 3D sculptures.
In a sculpture like At Sea (2009), for instance, what was clearly a dark blue seascape in a heavy traditional frame has been smashed and set in a clotted pile, so that it resembles nothing so much as an actual shipwreck, a bit of flotsam that brings evocatively to mind the Raft of the Medusa or Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream. In Kaphar’s Tina Vesper (2009), a portrait of a 19th-century white woman peers out, all of her face hidden save her eyes and hair, from behind a collaged clump of piled and sewn linen canvas, as if her visage is muffled by the very material of which it is constituted. Indeed.
Several other shows are also well worth noting, including Matthew Ronay at Marc Foxx, Rachel Khedoori at The Box, Dan Attoe at Javier Peres, Elad Lassry at David Kordansky, Kevin Appel at ACME and Jorge Pardo at 1301 PE. And please also don’t miss the exhibition that I just curated at the Luckman Gallery at Cal State entitled "Invisible Body: Conspicuous Mind," a group exhibit of new works by 15 contemporary Romanian artists.
LARA TAUBMAN writes on art from Los Angeles.