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
Photo courtesy LACMA
Artists are an inventive lot. Within the parameters of their own practice, their innovative approaches to the life of the mind are often invigorating, sometimes without parallel in other creative cultural activities. But when faced with a set of externally defined criteria, say a sonnet or a Metro station, many artists are unable to make the conceptual leap of embracing somebody else’s syntax. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has initiated a new program designed to put artists to this test, and the inaugural exhibition, “Made in California: Now” (in the LACMA West building that previously housed the van Gogh Sweat Lodge attraction), pits them against the harshest critics of all: kids. Children are more genuinely interested in art than any other demographic constituency in our culture, probably in our species. They are constantly looking, listening, touching, and learning new and increasingly complex ways to see, hear and feel. They actually want to make art, and enjoy doing so — at least until they find out they’re doing it wrong. Ask them about Deleuze and Guattari’s “body without organs,” and they’ll tell you about some inflatable breed of Pokémon. In detail. Show them boring art, and rather than nodding wisely like a civilized person and muttering something about how great the Emperor’s clothes look, they will just get bored and look elsewhere.
So when LACMA, in advance of its homegrown “Made in California: Art, Image and Identity” blockbuster (scheduled to open October 22) and as the prototypical program for LACMALab, a “new experimental research and development unit” (a.k.a. a jazzed-up outreach program with its own manifesto and everything), asked 11 SoCal artists to design interactive installations that would engage and enthrall the youth of today, it was inadvertently handing out one of the most difficult assignments a successful contemporary-art-world celebrity can face. And it is indeed heartening how well some of the artists rose to the challenge.
From my observations of the midget shills who scuttled underfoot at the press preview with hideously affected glee, the most successful works are by BMOC Martin Kersels, La Jolla Modernist refugee Allan Kaprow and Jennifer “Light Shows Are Now a Valid Art Form” Steinkamp. Kersels’ installation, housed in a window of the former May Co. storefront along Fairfax, consists of more than 50 noisemaking devices modeled on those used for creating sound effects for radio dramas in the olden days. Bellows attached to train whistles or duck calls, bins of gravel, miniature deadbolted doors, rattles, hammers and tin cans were seldom silent. The glorious racket emerging from the space, in fact, stood in sharp contrast to the institutional oppressiveness that prevailed over Kersels’ last show at Dan Bernier Gallery, where a similar body of SFX contraptions stood mostly unemployed for the four-week run. In fact, the wear and tear of popularity may provide a new design challenge for the artist, as several of the woodshop-project apparatuses seemed (and this was before the official opening!) to be out of commission.
Allan Kaprow is arguably the father of installation art, but his work since the ’60s heyday of Happenings has been hit or miss, at least in the negotiation of entertainment. For “Made in California: Now,” Kaprow, of all the artists participating, had the good sense to involve a token member of the target audience — his 12-year-old son Bram — in the creative process. The result is a pillow-lined room, with extra pillows for fighting, plus punching bags that trigger goofy 12-year-old storytelling fragments when hit. Out of all the exhibits, only Kaprow & Son’s No Rules Except . . . addresses deep, intricate, adult concerns about narrative, violence and family while remaining grounded in the prevailing juvenile aesthetic strategy of flailing about like a crazy person until you pass out. Indeed, works like Michael Asher’s crispy museological intervention (in two months or something, some teenagers will rearrange a room in the museum and the artist will photograph it or something) and Dave Muller’s show of small monochrome floor-plan-shaped canvases (first in a series of mini–Three Day Weekend curatorials over the exhibit’s yearlong run) make you wonder if the artists have ever actually met a child. Perhaps even worse are Eleanor Antin and John Outterbridge’s large sculptural pieces, which look for all the world like phantasmagoric play structures, but are strictly “hands off.” Best to learn ’em the inherent frustrations of white-cube protocol early on. These are the museumgoers of the future, after all. Trustees maybe.
Most pleasantly surprising to me was the swing installation by Op-art video-projectionist Jennifer Steinkamp (in collaboration with sound artist Jimmy Johnson). Steinkamp’s digital updatings of Haight-Ashbury light-show aesthetics have always looked nice, and this is particularly true of the percolating love-bead archway that functions as the portal through Jim Isermann’s “It’s a Small World”–homage façade into the day-care proper. But the simplicity of Steinkamp’s solution to the challenge of full-contact interactivity in her Anything You Can Do — a swing set with a cartoonish electronic â soundtrack and psychedelic purple backdrop whose actions are controlled by the swinger’s movement — is inspired, while preserving the coolness and distance inherent in her stylistic reclamations. Ultimately, “Made in California: Now” just scrapes by on the strength of its kid-savvy pieces. Most of the kids wind up at the last checkpoint anyway, making their own art from the abundant supplies at hand. Which is as it should be, and a reassuring sign of the inextinguishable nature of the art-making impulse. What is less encouraging is the inability of many important artists, in spite of their best efforts, to remember or observe the differences between being an art-world grown-up and being a real-world kid.