By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Snuggled into a desert overlooking the edge of the Pacific, Los Angeles' very existence flaunts in the face of reason. As the longtime home of the movie industry's dream world, it has always been a place for reinvention--of self, of place, of fact. It's the sort of revelatory reinvention captured by, of all people, John Keats in his 1817 "On first looking into Chapman's Homer," when he wrote:
"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in Darien."
Sure, it was Balboa who "discovered" the Pacific, but why mess up a good meter for the sake of accuracy?
Subverting facts' function for fashion's folly is at the heart of Los Angeles and, to a large extent, Southern California in general. But it's a protocol that's multifaceted in reality. There are as many versions of L.A. as there are exits along the interstate from Barstow to the Santa Monica freeway. Raymond Chandler's postwar common-man existentialism; Kenneth Anger's old Hollywood glamour underbelly; Joan Didion's beachcomber intellectualism; Nathanael West's lonely hearts club; James Sherwood's off-kilter surrealism; NWA's straight-outta-Compton confrontation; Rudolph Wurlitzer's minimal psychedelia; Gavin Lambert's Lolita-like lollygagging; Horace McCoy's dust-bowl determinism; Bruce Wagner's cell-phone Judaism; John Steinbeck's worker's wrath. Each can thank L.A. for its creative spark.
For a city as internationally renowned for its melting-pot cornucopia, its art world, paradoxically, has a singular identity that even New York hasn't seen since the 1950s. Jim Isermann's abstracted design, Paul McCarthy's subversive fairy tales, Raymond Pettibon's comic-book punk noir, Jim Shaw's summer-of-love decay, Ed Ruscha's neon mean streets, Bruce Connor's metaphysical graffiti--despite the disparate interests and media, all are identified with California and, for the most part, Los Angeles in particular.
The latest show at the Angstrom Gallery in Fair Park, Are ¨Friends¨ Electric?, offers a glimpse into what that identity is right now. Organized by Violet Treadwell Hull--the 2-year-old daughter of Los Angeles artist and curator Steven Hull, who probably gave her a little help--"Friends" brings together six young Southern California artists who in recent years have been identified with L.A.'s emerging art scene.
Hull is arguably the best-known in the group, both for his works and organized exhibitions. He was included in a four-person show last summer at the Angstrom, and his whole-wall, multipanel installation "Monday's Planet" dominated his portion of the show if only for its monstrousness in every sense of the word. Hull's is a visual vocabulary that L.A. critic Doug Harvey has ingeniously pegged "godawfulism." And he doesn't necessarily mean it in a derogatory sense. Hull's fascination with a hot-color-keyed palette that borders on the garish and antagonistic appropriation of abstract gestures signals his aggressive audience confrontation. It's not vindictive; neither is it a smirking, holier-than-thou art-world poke in the eye. Whereas a great portion of postwar American painting embraced abstraction as a transcendent avenue toward expressive beauty, the sublimation process itself was very serene. Even in the cases of the more action-oriented Pollock and de Kooning, their ruffled compositions still advised calm. Their immediate, overall impact was one of tranquil wonder.
Hull seems to be trying to take you there by pulling or pushing you through the detritus first. His two large canvases of colorful line intersections read as busy as an international airport at peak season and are almost as confusing. Lines of brightly hued acrylic red, blue, yellow, orange, pink, teal and chartreuse streak from edge to edge of his canvas, horizontally and diagonally. Think Ed Moses to the nth degree. And then square it.
But taking it to the extreme is the entire point. After your brain fights through the congested road map of ideas and colors, and possibly a headache, a lulling, even gentle rhythm emanates from the chaos. A good analog would be the European free improvisers who took the avant-garde freedom of late-'60s New York jazz and added an almost impenetrable density. Fervid energy monsters like Peter Brötzmann, Derek Bailey, Han Bennink and Evan Parker piled on more and more note and information into a free-jazz cacophony. But if you listen patiently and actively, through the din you begin to detect the music's harmonic and melodic soul and appreciate the ardently academic approach to the sound. Hull's works exude the same sort of busy beauty.
Most of the exhibition asks you to put forth some effort to enter the work. Amy Green's two untitled works consisting of urethane, cast Cheerios and candy sprinkles sparkle with a curiously minimal sheen. Large expanses of glistening white are laced with streaks of soft blue, dotted with raised patterns of the cereal's shape. Melissa Thorne's "Radiant Cities" is a canvas composed of a series of interlocking lattice structures formed by soft crimson lines set against an off-white background. It's an intricate design that alludes to both quilt patterns and urban designs.
Heidi Kidon's "Fiberglass Filter" sculpture and "Overblocking" painting are more difficult to wrap your brain and eyes around. "Overblocking" mounts two protruding pieces of light-blue foam on top of a tall canvas with a nebulous wash of blue stretching from top to bottom. It's the sort of work that wittily straddles the line between sculpture and painting and brings to mind local artist Ludwig Schwarz's infinitely idiosyncratic, mounted-off-the-wall canvas collages from last year, only Kidon's doesn't have the same sort of wry, resonant delivery. "Fiberglass Filter," a floor-mounted bricolage of watercolor on paper, plexiglass, aluminum and tarp, is a Romper Room-esque object that could be the sort of industrial contraption found in Pee Wee's playhouse or a menacing machine from some ultramodern factory.
Equally rewarding are John Williams' "Tree" and "Pizza Everywhere" sculptures and seven short video pieces. The couldn't-look-more-like-a-floor-display-at-Target "Tree" captures the fluorescent-lit limbo of middle-class America's retail wasteland that seems to be Williams' thematic stomping ground here.
Less hearty, though no less visually amusing, are Kelly Barrie's untitled photographs from her "Spitting Image" series. These dark, black-and-white close-ups of people's faces feature accents of white saliva globules rising out of their mouths like a cartoon speech bubble. They have a risible seriocomic effect but not much of a follow-through after the droll humor.
None, however, can really compete with Hull's hulking presence. And that highlights not only the lone weakness of the show but what may be the m.o. of this generation of L.A. artists. Hull--along with Ingrid Calame, Michelle Fierro, Monique Prieto, Laura Owens, Casey Cook and Charlie Rose--dabble in a sort of stream-of-self-consciousness realm that straddles academic theory and low-culture awareness, creating an interesting dilemma in contemporary art. It can be dangerously off-putting for gallery-goers not wanting to flex their minds while drinking deep of today's visual vocabulary. But if it makes audiences start to become aware of recent trends and ideas, then it could be an attack with positive results. On the other hand, anything that reeks of effort usually means people simply dismiss it into obscurity.