Friday, April 24, 2009


The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, is showing Nine Lives (Visionary Artists from) LA. I want to write about three out of the nine, one third, except, I've already written about Victoria Reynolds here and I don't have much else to say, so it is two out of nine, which is... what's the word for two-ninths?

To keep with the tabulation, this is the fifth Hammer biennial exhibition of LA artists. Nine artists this time, spanning four generations, showing 125 works. So much for numbers. I wasn't really counting except to say, in an oblique way, that two (or three) out of nine is not such a good score. If we're scoring, which I'm not. Really. But really, out of all the artists in such a vast arena as greater Los Angeles, these nine are pulled together into a show... It might have been better to do it by lottery.

I want to write about the two that stood up, shook my hand, said Howdy, but I am wasting precious breath talking about the show as a whole because it irritated me. It's something about the subtitle, Visionary Artists from LA which on the brochure is not only a subtitle, but subscript which is subliminally saying this is a footnote or afterthought or maybe we don't really want to label them this, because it won't stick or we couldn't otherwise explain what thread runs through this group.

What does it mean to be a visionary artist? In the past this was code for a member of the fringe element, a wacko, on the edge, a dreamer. Remember when we used to say "outsider" and mean nut-job?

It's a suspect term and out of date it seems to me, unless there are visions or utopias involved. In the diversified culture of contemporary Artopia, all are welcome: no mainstream, no outsiders. Even the bad or boring—we just won't talk about them.

So. What's the good word?

Leading the exhibition, is the weighty (like an anchor, ballast, diving bell) Llyn Foulkes. As you enter, in the first alcove, roped off, at a distance (for perspective sake) a painting he's been working on for years, The Lost Frontier, 1997-2005.

At nearly seven feet square and eight inches deep, it's a massive wooden relief, with Pioneer Ma Mickey looking out on the LA basin. But better than my take, watch these highly entertaining excerpts from the documentary to be, But I Thought Art Was Special wherein Foulkes explains himself. Listening to Foulkes rail about the direction we are taking the world, you'll understand why I say his work has gravitas. Mickey Mouse represents the innocent face on American greed and corruption; no wonder he shoots him dead. Despite what Foulkes might say, despairingly, we know Art Saves (the day).

Deliverance, 2007. The artist, gun in hand.

I would love to see Foulkes' work in the vicinity of Enrique Chagoya. Now wouldn't that be a great show? How they differently use similar iconography to press social and political dissent. Between them we'd see the world as we know it undone, rewritten, transformed.

What is great about seeing Foulkes' work in person is to see the depth of perception—literally because he often works in relief. His portraits are tactilely painful. The gaping maw really is a burned out hole in wood, and the teeth are real.

Dali and Me, 2006

In close range, the materiality of his works is disturbing. I am repelled and in awe of his powerfully perfect expression of the bodily experience of say, being blinded and impaled by religious doctrine.

Crucifixion, 1985.

The man has vision, and it is decidedly dark, but he's not hallucinating.

Great stuff. And he's a musician too, with a one-man band. Now that's wacky.

The Other

From the guy who created the creepy, but certainly effective sad-sack, socially-challenged man-child puppet Joshua...

Cocktail Party, 2001 from the series Understanding Joshua.

... and who extended his exploration of social anxiety by probing teenage presentation...

film still from American Minor, 2008, 35 mm/blu-ray, 7:44 min.

... comes a new body of work, about the indeterminate body, the body in between: Teen and Transgender Comparative Study.

While studying teens, how they present and under what influences, Charlie White began exploring how this related to the development of culturally-recognizable, gender-specific presentation for male-to-female transfolk. Pre-op transgendered women are teenagers in their own hormonally changing bodies, learning gesture and style to present as womanly. Over the course of a year White discovered a handful of models whose striking resemblance drives home this point. The comparisons are uncanny.

The grid backdrop lends the work the air of scientific study, which I'll accept as meaning normative presentation is under the microscope. Let's hope that's his intention. Otherwise we're on the same suspect ground as using visionary, which is to say, segregating and categorizing in a pseudo-anthropological, at-arms-length way. His photo sets generally have a cool and sterile air to them, but this goes further, extending the objectification. That his gaze is on teenage girls is one thing, that it also lands on the transgendered, a hugely marginalized group, is edgier. Perhaps it is a safeguard to appear clinical rather than lurid. In any case, it is revelatory—which is, now that I think of it, a better term altogether than visionary, and works for one and all.

Because the pairs look like kin, one the older version of the other, sisters, I am reminded of the video by Charles Atlas of Antony + the Johnsons' You Are My Sister, which you can see here. The perfect compliment, from a more internalized and subjective, if sentimental, point of view.

And Then In the Video Lounge

The Hammer has a video viewing room and a stack of art-video this big. I only had time to see one. I chose El Gringo by Francis Alÿs. Only 4:12 minutes long, but a ... revelation! The camera travels along on a dirt road in a Mexican town into a pack of snarling, snapping dogs. This is what it feels like to be an outsider.

Grrrrr... it's so great! So simple, so effective. The icing on the cake. You can see it online here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sound and Furry

I was so looking forward to this show. Nick Cave' Sound Suits at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF. When I saw press photos of his sparkling beaded costumes I thought, The Fishgod has returned!

This dancing man knows fabric, texture and design, costume and theatricality—and he has a penchant for amassing, archiving, and recreating the sequined detritus of last year's party and your great grandma's china closet.

The list of the materials used in his constructions speaks to the fantastic tactile details of his work: beads, buttons, baubles, sequins, bottle caps, yarn, wire, raffia, rusted iron, sticks, twigs, leaves and hair. Fake fur, crocheted doillies, knitted hats, bird figurines, plastic bags, tin tops. When worn, the suits go shhhhh, shhhhh, clatter clatter, swish, whusssh, crick crick crick, click, shhhhusssh. This is the ordinary stuff of life re-animated, brought mythically alive.

America needs this. Rio may not. Nor Chiapas or Sri Lanka. But America, corporatized, Ford-driving, Calvin Klien wearing, Calvinist America needs this. And that may be the reason YBCA had the largest crowd ever to welcome this infusion of color, movement and swishy sound. And I am fully aware of what that phrase implies: somnambulate white America does need injections of gay culture of color. It needs it, it craves it.

Our society is nearly devoid of this kind of masquerade, but the tradition Cave taps is ancient, deep and long. The show is called Meet Me in the Center of the Earth—that's where Enki, god of the deep dwells, Enki of the fish head attended by Sumerians in swishing layered reed gowns. Cave works out of the dream-realm, the deep undersea cavern of creative memory. He is shining shimmering Phanes at once lion, snake, and fish. Then he's in procession wearing a Yoruba beaded crown. Dagon was a Phoenician fish-god and the Dogon of Mali wear incredibly tall masks and fringy skirts. It all fits together. So too, his dreams turn to the attic where bird cages and nostalgia rest. It's all knitted together... somehow.

In his on-stage interview, Cave said he'd found his raison d'être. He was going to start bringing color and movement to the masses. He wants to be in residence in various cities. He has a mission. You know, sound-suit healing. Now that's American. Because, you know, America is always on about functionality, purposefulness, improvement. We've got to make a program out of everything. For the betterment of society. Building community. Gag. I know it is the easiest way to get funding, but oh, don't go that route. It waters down the mystical factor, that mysterious power inherent in art to effect without being didactic, programatic, or therapeutic. Art will cure your ills, but it isn't a medicine that you can bottle.

This is a white dream: to capitalize on the next new thing. Beware of One-Size-Fits-All. Art Saves, but it isn't an off-the-rack fashion statement.

These suits are wonderful as is. Extensions of Nick Cave's personal embodiment. They are wonder-full. Magical. Impressive and transporting. They need no other reason for being except that they are extraordinary. Other-worldly. They take you there. Nick Cave takes the cake.

Images courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery.