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
In art, “content” is, as it were, the pretext, the goal, the lure which engages consciousness in essentiallyformal processes of transformation.
A couple of Sundays ago, about 1,000 people forked over up to 10 bucks a pop to sit in on a conversation between Vegas-based critic Dave Hickey and legendary 75-year-old artist Bob Rauschenberg at the Omni hotel. The talk was presented in conjunction with MOCA’s “A Room of Their Own” shows, one at each downtown facility. The double-barreled show is your basic permanent-collection culling, devoid of any overcooked curatorial conceit: It’s one room, more or less, per artist. Period. Regional, quirky and long-term, exhibitions of museums’ permanent collections tend to encourage and validate personal relationships to art in ways that blockbuster shows can’t. In spite of its stellar roster, “Room” is such a collection. Part 1, “From Rothko to Rauschenberg,” begins with a capsule summation of Abstract Expressionism, including, for those enthralled by Ed Harris’ recent balletic embodiment of the creative mysteries, Jackson Pollock’s 1949 No. 1. Gestural Abstractionists like Pollock, alongside such contemporaries as Mark Tobey, hold up surprisingly well, in part because the improvisational immediacy of their technique inoculates the work against ironic appropriation. This holds true for many of the artists included in the first half of “Room,” Franz Kline and Rauschenberg in particular. (Rothko, though more susceptible to recontextualization, is always good for the eyes.) The main selling point of the show is the reunification of Rauschenberg’s two Factum combine paintings, created in 1957 from the same set of ingredients and nearly identical. These two pieces should never have been separated in the first place; together, they constitute a prescient but refreshingly nondidactic questioning of the spontaneity and originality that were tenets of the Modernist gospel. It has been somewhat to Rauschenberg’s disadvantage that his work looks so great, as it frightens the puritans who equate “conceptual” with “sensory deprivation.”
The pairing of hedonistic intellectuals Hickey and Rauschenberg was something of an inspiration, then, though their patently disparate approaches to words (Rauschenberg is famously dyslexic) set the tone for the event. Hickey, pulling teeth, tried to steer the artist toward broader philosophical statements about the “nobility” of art, and Rauschenberg responded with a folksy shaggy-dog story about his job inspecting zippers at the Ballerina bathing suit company. They managed to establish at least one highly peculiar commonality — life-changing experiences viewing Blue Boyand Pinkie at the Huntington. Rauschenberg, on leave from the Navy, realized that an actual human being was responsible for creating the images he knew only from playing cards, while Hickey, on a school field trip, had an epiphany about the qualitative difference between the originals and his mom’s copies at home.
Hickey’s love of the bon mot occasionally overcame good art-world politics, as when he suggested that beatnik figurative painter Larry Rivers’ help in getting Rauschenberg a job in Casablanca in 1952 was Rivers’ “greatest contribution to 20th-century culture.” While some (myself included) cackled in agreement, there was a hush and a hiss from the audience’s upscale element that caught Hickey a little off guard. A similarly uncomfortable silence followed Rauschenberg’s revelation that, on the trip home from the same Moroccan adventure, Paul Bowles had introduced him to drugs, prompting former Dr. Hook lyricist Hickey to shuffle his papers energetically and ask Rauschenberg about his “proclivity for working backwards from organization to chaos.”
Unfortunately, I had to duck out before the Q&A to meet someone for the matinee of Enemy at the Gates.There seems to be no escaping Ed Harris these days, and there’s no respite from art critics either — keep an eye peeled for L.A. Times critic and noted communist sympathizer David Pagel in his big screen debut as “Pravda Interviewer.” While the postmodern collapse of political categories now allows for a sympathetic Hollywood depiction of the Siege of Stalingrad, there’s still some trepidation about the photographs of Nazi Party enabler Leni Riefenstahl. In what is, amazingly, the artist’s first-ever U.S. gallery show, Fahey/Klein is exhibiting a collection of still photos shot during the filming of Riefenstahl’s Olympiad, her lyrical and cinematically innovative documentary on the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
The work ranges from curious kitsch to stunning formal exercises, and is accompanied in the smaller gallery by photographs from the liberation of Buchenwald. Just kidding! Actually, the gallery has masterfully contextualized Riefenstahl’s work by pairing it with an excellent show of portraits of other film directors. It’s been 35 years since Susan Sontag famously defended Riefenstahl’s “sublime neutrality” in “On Style”, but people continue to try to blame artists for our species’ stupid herd instinct. As Joe Camel inventor Mike Salisbury succinctly put it in 1994 in the first issue of Juxtapoz magazine, “Joe Camel is just a cartoon figure and he is powerless. He can’t make anyone do anything, because he’s only colored ink dots on paper.”
Fans of that magazine will be pleased to note that its cranky figurehead, Robert Williams, is showing his latest body of work at Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center, in Santa Ana. While Williams shows with high-profile Guernica-defacer Tony Shafrazi in New York City, us homies have to make the trek to Orange County to see the complete show. In spite of Williams’ inclusion in the influential “Helter Skelter” show at MOCA in 1992, some combination of forces has kept him in his role of “Art World Outsider,” and it seems to suit both his purposes and those of his fanatical following. But even if you disagree that figurative illusionistic technique is the embattled bedrock of all that is good in contemporary visual culture, there is still a great deal to be gleaned from Williams’ seething, fevered canvases. The intricate and frequently obscure allegorical underpinnings of his frantic, multilayered cartoon narratives give a sense of unplumbed depths of informational density that is made flesh in his fractal, fetishistically tight oil-paint application. As for the content, Williams tackles cautionary tales and object lessons ranging from the paleontological hoax of the Piltdown Man to the sordid life of King Farouk.