By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
When people think of “celebrity art,” they usually conjure up images of Sylvester Stallone or Anthony Quinn striking hammy poses in front of their garish self-indulgences. To most artists, they’re trespassers -- spoiled dilettantes who use the leverage of their wealth and fame to elbow themselves an undeserved portion of the scarce market shares, gallery space and media coverage. It‘s a small trough, and it’s easier to generate interest for art made by famous people than it is to generate fame for art made by artists. Much, much easier. When the media isn‘t making one of its embarrassing occasional forays into “Sensation” bashing or unleashing Morley Safer’s analysis of the Whitney Biennial, it‘s fawning over some soap-opera hunk who keeps a studio loft in Manhattan.
Conversely, for much of the public, celebrity artists are the only ones they ever hear of or, frankly, care about: A third-rate actor from one of the lesser Star Trek franchises can sell more art than most who try to make a living at it. And, if you’re not Picasso or Dali (or, in a pinch, Warhol), your recognition factor with the masses as a 20th-century historical figure is zero. Celebrity art makes for strong copy; it attracts attention. Of course artists know this, and much of the art world turns on precipitating competitive publicity. Far too much “successful” work is designed solely to generate a soundbite that plays off the general ignorance of art‘s history of expanded possibilities -- “A shark in a tank of formaldehyde is a work of art! What will they think of next?”
In this light, artists’ complaints about celebrity Sunday painters come off as sour grapes, but this interpretation is unfair both to working artists, most of whom live for the deep solitude of art making that is the antithesis of celebrity culture, and to celebrity artists, who seldom get a fair shake (or any shake at all) from the serious art press. Three current shows in L.A. represent a cross section of celebrity artists who, for a variety of reasons, deserve more than our cursory attention: singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell as the artist-subject of the second installment of LACE‘s (Tri)-Annuale; comedic actor and musician Martin Mull in the backroom at Patricia Faure; and trumpeter Herb Alpert’s solo exhibit, at Molly Barnes Gallery in Santa Monica.
Of these, Mitchell‘s work has been the most visible. She attended the Alberta College of Art and changed her name to avoid being confused with New York abstractionist Joan Mitchell, but her rapid success on the folk-music circuit of the mid-’60s pushed her art practice to the background. She created an outlet for her work, however, starting with Joni Mitchell, her first album cover: a swirling psychedelic watercolor surrounding a fish-eye photograph. Through the accomplished colored-marker-drawings period (like the lovely, economical portrait of Judy Collins on the inside sleeve of Mitchell‘s For the Roses); her period of self-conscious album-cover design, including the hip and funny landscape photo collages on Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter; and my favorite Mitchell, the Malibu snake hunt gracing the cover of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, she took advantage of the distribution network of the record industry to piggyback her artwork to the masses. Through the ‘80s, as Mitchell withdrew from the public eye, her vision became more conservative, settling into a very un-courant mode of expressionist pictorialism, typified by the van Gogh self-portrait homage of Turbulent Indigo. Her attitude toward the art world was pithily summarized in a 1993 interview in which she characterized contemporary painting as “chenille toilet seats with embroidered bunnies” and admirably advised, “Paint what you like, and fuck ’em!”
Given this, it‘s somewhat surprising that Mitchell has allowed herself to be curated into a space as heavily connotative as Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, whose baggage includes both its role as the focal point of much of L.A.’s groundbreaking ‘80s performance art, as well as the less welcome burden of its many years as a confused not-for-profit mediocracy. Added to this is guest curator Amy Adler’s ongoing adolescent fixation with adolescent fixations, resulting in a show which, in spite of thin press-release avowals to “recontextualize and bring form to Mitchell‘s work . . . questioning our understanding of a very public image when presented a posteriori with the very private object it mimics,” winds up ironically and deceptively reframing Mitchell’s celebrity persona as some sort of amorphous critique of gender, fame, whatever. The work itself has, in fact, nothing to do with Mitchell‘s public image, but is an almost patrician presentation of her private explorations in oil -- a combination of affectionate self-portraits and Emily CarrGroup of Seven--derived landscapes. But, as anyone familiar with her work knows, Mitchell is one smart cookie and fully capable of making her own decisions about how her art will be presented. Perhaps funneling her conventional art objects through established if ill-fitting art-world channels is as straightforward a take as possible without pulling a Doris Lessing and putting out work under another name.