Under the Influence: New Art from L.A. Essay

09/22/2000 - 11/01/2000

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Under the Influence: New Art from L.A.
Chris Acuña-Hansen


Los Angeles is a city of sun baked people with half baked ideas…

                                                Sergeant Joe Friday, Dragnet tv series

Any attempt to define the sprawling mass of new art coming out of Los Angeles is bound to be problematic.  Los Angeles via Hollywood is arguably the pop culture capital of the world. Given the strong cultural dichotomies and the overt cultural manipulation that gave rise to the pessimistic and cynical artwork of the recent past, it is interesting to see that Los Angeles artists have become less wary of the characteristic Disneyesque/Hollywood manipulations. Instead of fighting their production or cynically pointing to the menacing existence of this phenomena, these artists have begun to embrace it by acknowledging these manipulations for what they are, even giving themselves over to them. The new art coming out of Los Angeles seems to be content with this facade of reality, in many cases turning the tables and remanipulating this phenomena to their advantage.

To better understand the art of Los Angeles, one must understand the cultural influences that provide the foundation for its production. At first glance, Los Angeles is a tangle of trends and clichés; tattoos, body piercings, aerobics, muscle beaches, silicon implants, steroid induced physical perfection, and cars as far as the eye can see –  given the smog from all those cars, the eye cannot always see too far. It is a sprawling mass of diverse cultural and social formations within cities connected by a seemingly endless maze of freeways and surface streets. The city is an amalgamation of urban slums that border upscale neighborhoods whose occupants control unimaginable wealth. A place where the landscape changes abruptly from green grass and tree-lined streets with nearly identical homes, to major industrial complexes, to highly functioning business and financial districts. In the midst of all this, there is a social and cultural balancing act that, at times, functions in what appears to be a utopian harmony but can, at any given moment, erupt into riotous proportions. It is a landscape that is typically viewed through the windshield of an automobile, traveling at varying rates of speed. And since it seems that everything is at least a half-hour drive from wherever you are, passage through this sprawling metropolis is accompanied by a constant bombardment of the visual melee of slick billboard advertising set against the perfectly aligned rows of palm trees and the mini-malls that are comfortingly familiar and yet unsettlingly similar. Just as it all begins to seem very natural, something reminds you that this was once a desert land that has been consciously manipulated into an image of paradise.

Another influence unique to the Los Angeles area is the presence of a strong and theoretically varied network of art schools and art departments within the area’s colleges and universities. These schools provide the traditional art historical background as well as training in aesthetics and craft, with each school varying the degree of emphasis placed on the different approaches. Even more important is the structure and support they offer to emerging artists. It is not uncommon to find young artists defining both themselves and their peers through the often self-produced identities of the schools that they attended. Combine this with the fact that many recognized artists who have been schooled in Los Angeles often remain in the area and find themselves teaching the next generations of artists. Artists such as John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Chris Burden, Charlie Ray, Alexis Smith, and others, are available to both graduate and undergraduate students on a regular basis. In L.A., this dual role of artist and teacher provides not so much a common aesthetic as a consistency in both the theoretical and pragmatic production of artwork.

The art of Los Angeles, like the city itself, may at first glance, seem superficial, even cliché, but once you choose to give yourself over to it, you will begin to see the layers of meaning created as artists employ strategies which weave and juxtapose culturally specific imagery with elements of design and traditional genres, often blurring the lines between concept and expression, abstraction and representation – to the point where these ideas begin to meld and mutate into completely new forms.

Society’s desire for physical perfection is a theme that is explored throughout the exhibition, in a variety of approaches. Micol Hebron quite literally summons forth what is deep down inside her in one expressive gesture after another. This one simple act becomes a point of departure to discuss ideas of bulimia, female roles, and the influence of fashion. Megan McManus paints images of her thighs, a very personal act that alludes to much larger issues of body consciousness that operate within our society. Brad Spence’s airbrushed versions of the disembodied heads of Steven Hawkings and Christopher Reeves are a bit unnerving as the viewer is confronted by the images of two people whose continued celebrity is, in large part, the result of their imperfect physicality. The idea of physical perfection is also a facet in the work of Michael Arata who imitates fashion magazine ads then utilizes his own body, as a template, to determine the shapes of his pointedly humorous creations. Habib Kheradyar, the owner/director of POST, an alternative commercial exhibition space in Los Angeles, uses projected images of local art collectors to permeate his artwork, making visual that which is often obscured in the art community.

Humor and childhood also become issues for these artists to examine and exploit. Chris Finley’s simple black and white drawings play on the genre of children’s book illustrations to point out the frequent childishness of adult behavior. Danie Tull recontextualizes imagery, also  culled from children’s books, in an attempt to examine the foundations of some of our earliest visual knowledge. Martin Kersels’ images straddle the line between playful and frightening. Kersels, a man of large physical stature, photographs himself throwing people through the air, like a giant laying waste to anyone who dares to cross his path. It is a childhood game that often made us giggle with fear as a child but, as an adult, may just make us tremble with fear. Maura Bendett uses a variety of materials, combined with resin and wire, to imitate the look of gemstones and precious metals. Her fanciful constructions vibrate with a childlike playfulness and an overly indulgent sense of design that could easily be equated with a façade of wealth. Stephen Shackelford presents pop-influenced constructions of pvc tubing, electronics, and silk flowers as well as witty juxtapositions of the iconographic California palm trees with the slick commercial style of the “oh-so-hip” culture, epitomized by the marketed image of Starbucks Coffee.

Exploring and expanding upon notions of content and the acceptable techniques of painting, many of these artists are literally incorporating bits and pieces of their daily lives, interspersed with elements of fantasy, directly into the work. The paintings of Michelle Fierro incorporate drips and globs of paint in combination with simplistic imagery to create a highly personal narrative structure. Philip Argent juxtaposes the cool detachment of the computer aesthetic with the visual attraction and sensual appeal of bold colors and painterly passages. Lisa Bloomfield takes her images directly from the pages of the Thomas Brothers Guide, a spiral bound guide to every freeway, highway, surface street and geographical landmark inSouthern California. From these pages, she removes those areas she finds aesthetically unappealing and lays bare the underlying design elements. Martin Durazo’s use of black-edged aquariums and colored liquids provides a Mondrianesque sense of structure to build upon as he adds the detritus of contemporary culture. For example, silicon implants presented in connection with a stack of 1970s men’s magazines begin to question the perceived advances of social movements such as feminism when contrasted with the advances of technology and self-improvement. Charles LaBelle uses the grid format in his investigation of our aestheticized environment. The photographic cataloguing of the banal or often overlooked segments of our physical surroundings provides the platform to compare and contrast these artifacts of contemporary living. Loren Sandvik’s vacuum-formed sheets of white plastic employ an industrial, minimalist aesthetic which collides with subject matter that ranges from the banal to the absurd. Holly Topping takes photographs of the landscapes she encounters on a daily basis and, through the use of oil paint, is able to exert complete and total control by removing those objects she deems unsightly or just plain unwanted, leaving her with an image that is not completely real nor unreal. Kelly McLane uses imagery that is comfortingly familiar to draw the viewer into her compositions, then provides a visual jolt through her inclusion of the unexpected. Julie Zemel also exerts a personal control over her imagery but, instead of starting with unique images, she recycles images that have been reproduced as puzzles and pieces them together to create fantasy imagery with a curious basis in reality.

Maybe it is the many hours spent alone in automobiles, or the fact that the Southern California area offers, on any given day, such a multitude of activities and opportunities – or it could be the lack of a true creative center –  whatever the reason, there exists a kind of segregation by default. So it may not come as a surprise that the art produced under the influence of this cultural hybrid would acquire a patina of individuality, art that defies traditional methods of categorization and yet seems unmistakably similar, like siblings of an extended family. The current trends seem to be the investigation of materials, techniques and genres that have been brushed aside as unworthy of the status of fine art. Like the city itself, the arts and artists of Los Angeles are constantly reinventing themselves, making apparent the adage that what was old is new again and, in Los Angeles, nothing ever seems to get very old.