Frankenkultur | Art | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Frankenkultur 

Thursday, Dec 30 2004

I’ve never been big on parades. Like the circus, they almost never live up to their creepy psychedelic mythological baggage. So, in spite of living 10 minutes from Pasadena for a third of my life, I’ve never actually attended the Rose Parade. Then, a couple of years ago, I happened to be catching a cheap movie in the early evening of New Year’s Day at the Academy 6, and stumbled across something much more up my alley — the entire parade route was heaped with the detritus of the forced-cheerfulness march, and hardly a squalling brat or drum majorette in sight. Just a glorious, flickering mosaic of brightly colored paper, iridescent plastic, abandoned balloons, fast-food packaging, commingled with big-ticket items like clothing, furniture and the occasional small appliance swirling around the now-vacant skeletal infrastructure of the spectator shelving units. Like the best art, it was effortlessly more poetic and hinted at far more mysterious revels than the chamber-of-commerce spectacle in whose shadow it huddled. And the parking was much better.

Innovation in art often means seeing something that’s been sitting right in front of you with new eyes, and communicating that awareness to others. Many of the revolutionary leaps in painting over the last century, for example, have been directly traceable to the "discovery" of art by psychiatric inmates, children and indigenous "primitive" people. Likewise, one of the major streams of modernism consisted of reclaiming the castoffs that our society had designated as useless crap and raising it up to the status of a precious object. Marcel Duchamp’s found urinal sculpture Fountain is perhaps the most famous example of this strategy, but it’s really only the most concise of an enormous pantheon of trash-can samplings. Beginning with Picasso’s incorporation of collage elements in his early cubist paintings, modern art embarked on a love affair with the rubbish heap that continues to this day.

Since Pasadena is such a fastidious community, there’s probably only a short window of opportunity to explore the post-festivity detritus so you might have to swing back another day to check out the Norton Simon’s "Lost but Found," as the museum itself is boarded up for New Year’s Day. An exhibition culled from the museum’s permanent collection, "Lost but Found" sketches a modest but engaging history of the history of modern fine-art collage, from its roots in European cubism and Dada through West Coast Beat-era assemblage to a handful of more-or-less contemporary work.

The show takes a fairly scattershot approach to its subject, given the strengths and limitations of the Norton Simon collection. An Ed Moses painting is included on the basis of the patched-together scraps of canvas used as a ground, Duchamp is prominently featured as much due to leftover holdings from the institution’s incarnation as the Pasadena Art Museum (when it hosted the artist’s first American museum retrospective in 1963) as to Duchamp’s importance to the collagist sensibility.

"Lost but Found" the show starts with a tiny bang, with several of Kurt Schwitters’ "merz" collages and a surprise to me: the fabricated Lust Murder Box No. 2, which simultaneously translates Schwitters’ always visually engaging cut-and-paste aesthetics into the crafty medium of finely worked exotic woods and equates collage — a practice that is often mistaken for a superficial decorative strategy — with the modern era’s unspoken fetish for mutilation and serial murder. Neat! Schwitters — probably because he died in Ambleside, England, in 1948 — remains an underappreciated pioneer in many areas including sound art, zines, installation, concrete poetry, and now knickknack design. But he remains best known for the tiny collages of materials scavenged while walking the streets of Hanover, and his position at the opening of this survey — while begging the possibility of a more expansive showing — is dead on.

The rest of the first gallery is an odd mix & match, with atypical early works from ab-ex stainer Helen Frankenthaler, a typically stunning bedpost symphony from Louise Nevelson, and an unusually effective 1962 still life by pop hack Tom Wesselmann. A large share of space is taken up with Duchamp’s late-period self-referential multiples — 1960s re-creations of his 1914 readymade Bottle Rack and 1919 mustachioed Mona Lisa, even a replica of his droll 1941 Boîte-en-Valise portable retrospective, itself consisting of miniature replicas of his signature works.

There’s an enormous gap between the aura of one of Schwitters’ unique abstract paper collages and Duchamp’s production-line hall-of-mirrors wisecracks, a chasm that only widens in the next gallery — a strong cross section of dark Surrealist-tinged assemblage works from local heroes Ed Kienholz, Wallace Berman and George Herms and a powerful pair of vintage works by Bay Area bricoleur Bruce Conner (and one weird-with-a-beard appliance from weird-to-start-with Jess). It is this brand of collagism — with its dolly parts, costume jewelry, and moldy Victorian cabinetry, textbooks and undergarments that set the vocabulary for countless generations of imitators. And it was these subsequent inferior homages — with their romanticism, easy symbolic read and subjective psychological emphasis — that exiled collage from the increasingly cool climes of the art world.

It’s been rare to find collage in any mainstream fine art since the late ’60s. With occasional exceptions (like the meticulous Cornell-like constructions of Alexis Smith), collage has been relegated to the secret realms of the middle-aged hippie hobbyist and the post-punk pop deconstructionist. The latter area has proved tremendously fertile, with artists like Jamie Reid and Winston Smith carrying the torch of formally rigorous politically engaged photomontage design lit by John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch. Davy Rothbart’s Found magazine has distilled the contemporary archaeological mission of the zine subculture into its purest form, pasting up found rants, laundry lists and mash notes into a unintended patchwork quilt of hilarious and poignant storytelling.

Found’s latest offering is a 7-inch single of modified thrift-store cassettes similar to the work of Optigan champion Pea Hicks in his legendary mid-’90s CD compilation Lucas and Friends Discover a World of Sound, Soundsfromthepocket.com’s two CDs of Found Sound, Otis Fodder’s 365 mp3 project (now archived at www.ubu.com) or his earlier exhaustive nine-volume Party Fun With Recorders, not to mention the entire subgenre of found plunderphonics lurking on the Internet. And don’t get me started on the Internet. Disappearing old-style media are providing enough to chew on. From Charles Phoenix’s invariably delightful shows of estate-sale 35mm holiday slides to Rick Prelinger’s laborious preservation of ephemeral film, from Ian Philips’ Lost collection of missing pet posters to the quasi-legal TV Carnage DVD compilations of celebrity humiliations, cable-access star turns, infomercials, and snippets from best-forgotten ’80s afternoon TV specials, it seems like much of today’s most exciting art is being scraped off the bottom of America’s Nikes and held up in a decidedly un-unironic light.

Not so surprisingly, the result of all this underground pressure has allowed collage to seep back into the lower echelons of the art world, particularly in the sticker-fun neopsychedelic bicoastal art-school generation of the last couple of years. More deliberate reinventions have also been popping up — Liz Rowe’s recent residency at the Brewery’s Raid Projects resulted in a series of monstrously self-replicating grocery-store fliers as visually dazzling as they are subtly critical of our culture’s frenzied consumerism.

None of this kind of work makes an appearance in "Lost but Found," which never claims to be comprehensive. Petering out after some mid-’80s work by Llyn Foulkes, the show manages one final shot of virtuosic artmaking from — who else — dumpster-diver extraordinaire Robert Rauschenberg. His 1971 suite of Cardbird prints consist of eight carefully reproduced crushed cardboard boxes vaguely resembling avian wildlife. Each box — down to the corrugations and stains — are photolithographic copies of the trash-picked originals, produced in an edition of 75. Not a rarity, especially here in L.A. where they were printed, but trust a drunken dyslexic to find a conceptual path between Duchamp’s righteous witticisms and Schwitters’ sophisticated sensory-driven synthetic formalism, while pointing out a direction for anyone wanting to reinvigorate collage as a contemporary high-art technique.

Lost But Found: Assemblage, Collage and Sculpture, 1920–2002 | Norton Simon Museum, 411 West Colorado Blvd., Pasadena Through March 28

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