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The Writing on the Wall 

Scribbles, scriptures and the Mid-Wilshire explosion

Thursday, Mar 13 2003

It seems that the only time I get to galleries anymore is when one of my Friends from Out Of Town (or FOOT) wants to check out what's happening in the fabulous L.A. art scene. It still ends up being at least once a month, and it happened with my most recent FOOT. Having already experienced Chinatown still chilled by the death of Giovanni Intra, my FOOT wanted to focus our expedition on the Mid-Wilshire complex housing Acme, Marc Foxx, Roberts & Tilton, Karyn Lovegrove, 1301 PE and Daniel Weinberg. Our first stop was Roberts & Tilton, which is hosting the somewhat ballyhooed "Scribble & Scripture." "Just like home," mutters my FOOT, who hails from Brooklyn. "Are you going to write about this stuff? You could write about all the exciting young art and call it "Mid-Wilshire Explosion!"

This curatorial assemblage of works by neo-graffiti don Barry McGee and his posse of allegedly countercultural fellow travelers is a little too inoffensive for its own good. With corporate sponsorship from Nike (and Liquid Paper!) and pieces ranging from the Philip Taaffe-like decorative works of Phil Frost to the would-make-an-excellent-comic-book (not necessarily a bad thing — unless there's rent to pay) paintings of Thomas Campbell, there's a little too much class and not much evident struggle to support the attribution of "street cred" to such an enterprise. While it's nice to see art that would normally be ghettoized as lowbrow make it uptown, the Wacko/Soap Plant/La Luz de Jesus complex in Los Feliz does these things much more convincingly.

The only scribbles with any real bite were a couple of items (like seemingly mass-manufactured miniature busts of Charles and Ray Eames) in the post-ironic-or-something gift shop and McGee's installation in a van, turned on its side and whitewashed. Inside, the untitled piece is an abject, or possibly post-apocalyptic, version of the multimedia art environment, but instead of the state-of-the-art hi-res video, we have stacks of scavenged monitors scrolling primitive animations and slide shows of actual graffiti over a throbbing electronic soundtrack. The lo-fi vibe is augmented by acoustic mechanical buzzers attached to little figurative kinetic sculptures, one of which seems to be scrawling a political slogan on the inside of the van. Also on the walls (actually the floor and ceiling of the van) was a selection of McGee paintings and drawings applied to both traditional grounds and suspended empty liquor bottles.


Ann Veronica Janssens, Untitled
(white, yellow and blue)
(2003)


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McGee's accomplishment, alongside that of his late (and more painterly) wife, Margaret Kilgallen, of further blurring the boundaries between highbrow and vernacular art is unquestioned. But his pictures just make me think, "What if Daniel Clowes didn't have that poker up his ass?" While it seems to point toward a potentially fertile engagement with — perversely — a more highbrow genre, McGee's sad cyberpunk cargo-cult shrine, in its bleached and rumpled automotive carcass, nevertheless possesses the urban communal signals of sharp humor and ramshackle inclusiveness that evidently don't translate to the adjacent, less skankily immersive white cubes.

Speaking of skankily immersive, our next move was upstairs, to Brian Butler's 1301 PE gallery, a quixotic, barely commercial project room, mostly for Art Center denizens and their European friends. Belgian artist Ann Veronica Janssens' installation consisted of dividing the space by covering the windows and skylights with blue or yellow gels, and turning on a smoke machine. "They say this shit is non-toxic," said my FOOT. "But they lie." Strangely, nobody thinks of chemical attacks, duct tape and plastic sheeting. I feel a little high, as if I'm inside a Turner painting, a huffing cloud. I free a housefly trapped by a gel. The office is rendered even more invisible than usual, and though I'm sure I've seen this exact same installation done a couple of times before, I'm lulled by the fumes and muffled, cornerless visual void. That's two for the immersive-environment installation artists. Maybe I just miss my mom.


Francesca Gabbiani, The Innermost
Limits of Pure Fun


 

Across the way, at Lovegrove, Francesca Gabbiani's paper-tole landscapes continue the move from SM to XXXLG seen in her forest-mural project for the Hammer a couple of years back, with a single enormous surfscape occupying one long wall. "What is this supposed to be?" asked my FOOT. "Some kind of post-digital picturesque?"

"Most artists don't think in those terms," I say. "They just try different styles in grad school until a curator or art dealer says, 'That one!' and they stick with it, then hire me to say, 'Ah yes, the post-digital picturesque.'"

"I just wonder what the impulse is to make something like this."

"It's pretty — isn't that enough?"

My FOOT stomped down the stairs. "Pretty, not pretty, whatever."

Back downstairs, at Marc Foxx, a couple of midlevel British art stars were making their L.A. gallery debut. David Musgrave has done some quite interesting, obsessive work in the past, but seems here to be moving toward a more slackerish aesthetic, with unintelligible wads of polyvinyl castoffs. More effective are Roger Hiorns' oddball science-fair projects, which use the accumulation of blue copper sulfate crystals (used in textiles and electroplating) to offhand poetic effect, shrouding thistles and models of medieval cathedrals in sapphire tumors of living geometry, then latching them on to slapdash Jason Rhoades-style display structures, trophies from forays in the failed alchemy of nostalgia.

I always liked Chris Finley's slice-and-dice Target-inventory sculptures better than his paint-by-number Photoshop paintings. While Finley deserves to be commended for bucking the pressure to produce more of the same as what sold last time, Acme's current grouping of the artist's abstract paintings sacrifices the content and precision of his earlier, darkly cartoonish canvases for intentionally off-kilter installations and not much else. A group show for cat lovers occupies the project room, and is pleasant and unremarkable except for a very strong animation by Amy Adler — shot from self-portraits of the artist applauding — and a Dave Muller watercolor blowup invitation for the exhibit, which is actually part of an entirely different group show, on view in Daniel Weinberg's space.

The Weinberg show is called "Funny Papers" and provides a very nice historical overview of the tradition in which Barry McGee and friends should be rightfully considered. While only a few of the examples are first-rate — an early-'60s Peter Saul, the aforementioned Muller, some excellent works from Rays Johnson and Pettibon, and historical curiosities from Bay Area idiosyncrat Jess and adjunct Hairy Who Ray Yoshida — graffiti tykes who wander in from "Scribble & Scripture" should bring a Sharpie and jot down some names (these, plus Oyvind Fahlstrom, Philip Guston, Jim Nutt and H.C. Westerman for starters — and where the hell's Gary Panter?) to look up online. It could happily rattle their canon.

My FOOT was getting tired, and so we piled in and headed back to Echo Park. I reflected on why I hardly make it to the galleries anymore. Ultimately it's a question of operant conditioning — how much crap is one expected to endure and keep coming back? One good shot out of 20? Jerry Bruckheimer does better than that! The principle of intermittent reinforcement is a delicate one — how infrequently can the jackpot ring and still keep the suckers hooked? Most of the young audience are chasing the fugitive art-career carrot, resigned or oblivious to the fact that the ratio of good art to bad art actually widens the higher you go. The absence of criteria just makes the odds seem better. My FOOT headed home, sadder and wiser, leaving me to try to tease a bang from a whimper.

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