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Good Thing 

Emerging L.A. sculptors at the Hammer

Thursday, Feb 3 2005
An end crust of bread with three holes gnawed out to form a rough face: something a bored child might create to enliven dinner before washing it down his gullet with a swig of milk and returning to the Playstation. It’s hardly a thing most people would think of as sculpture, yet the image of Matt Johnson’s Breadface (2004) has been chosen as the emblem for UCLA Hammer’s “Thing: New Sculpture From Los Angeles,” a broad-spectrum survey of 20 emerging local object makers opening Sunday. And it’s not a bad pick. Apart from its unavoidable iconic impact — such rudimentary configurations of facial characteristics are the first symbolic visual representations that register on our infant brains, and so reach the deepest levels of our aesthetic programming — it’s also a prime example of the kind of sly, slippery art making that characterizes most of the objects in the show. Breadface’s punch line is that it’s actually made from cast plastic and meticulously painted with oils to resemble its ephemeral original. This is Johnson’s signature gimmick. His tiny orange-peel elephant and freestanding jigsaw puzzle, also in “Thing,” are cast in bronze — probably the most baggage-laden and cliché-prone sculptural medium available — simultaneously acknowledging usually overlooked everyday creative impulses while poking fun at the preciousness and delusions of permanence that make fine art so fine. While there’s nothing earth-shattering here (subversive sculptural mimicry goes back at least as far as Duchamp’s replicated editions of his lost original ready-mades or Jasper Johns’ cast-bronze cans of Ballantine Ale), Breadface — like most of the works in “Thing” — is conspicuously lacking in aspirations to monumentality. And, while almost militantly unconcerned with fitting into art-historical categories, these “things” are patched together freely from a jumble of cross-disciplinary quotations, from the über-minimalism of Donald Judd to the hippie craftwork of yarn “God’s eyes,” from pre-Columbian Moche ceramics to custom-car vernacular. Despite the fact that the work has the appearance of a stylistic grab bag, the show has an unlikely cohesiveness. In fact, it’s the similarity of the individual heterogeneities that ties “Thing” together. This is as much a reflection of the lengthy sifting process undertaken by the curators as it is indicative of L.A.’s sculptural Zeitgeist. “We did a lot of studio visits,” says Cal State Long Beach assistant prof and regular Artforum contributor Chris Miles, who made the selections with the Hammer’s James Elaine and Aimee Chang. “Over time, it focused in on emerging artists, and on artists who were exploring sculpture more in terms of objects than in terms of environments, installations, performance, 3-D conceptual practices, etc.”

Having fun: (top) Kate Costello, Untitled, (2002) (center) Kristen Morgin's Clay Hearse (2004) and (bottom) JoelMorrison, Untitled (2002)

“We saw hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of artists,” reiterates Elaine, curator of the Hammer Project series and head of Team Thing. “Studios, grad-school open studios, galleries, plus slides, Web sites galore . . . If there was a slight disagreement, we would just continue and keep revisiting the work, until it just fell into or out of place.” The criteria for inclusion seem to have evolved from observing an actual trend in up-and-coming 3-D artists. Originally proposed by former Hammer assistant curator Claudine Isé, the idea of a sculptural counterpoint to Hammer’s “Snapshot” and “International Paper” survey shows took on a life of its own after her departure. “I bump into James quite a bit,” says Miles, “and it seemed like whenever we talked to each other about things we’d seen, we always were talking about sculpture. The show came about because all of us, on our individual but ultimately converging paths, were observing and becoming interested in what seemed a surge of sculpture production among emerging artists.” This trend has been apparent to most gallery-goers for a couple of years — although none of the Thingsters are bona fide art stars yet, several of them have made splashes locally and internationally. Kaz Oshiro, for example, has had two high-profile crowd-pleasing shows of his works at Rosamund Felsen Gallery. His carefully cloned guitar amps, kitchen cupboards, minifridges and trash cans are so exact as to be mistaken for some kind of lame-ass appropriation art at first glance. On closer inspection, those pink Marshall stacks turn out to be mute, hollow replicas. Look even closer and it becomes clear that, technically speaking, they’re paintings, constructed from stretched canvas and acrylics — even the dials, handles and screws are cast and painted Bondo. Joel Morrison’s lumpy clusters — formally sumptuous abstract tumors with a finish-fetish glaze but stuffed with (and occasionally spewing) dumpster detritus — have had strong solo showings at Ace, Griffin Contemporary and the Santa Monica Museum. The chock-full-o’-crap aesthetic seems to be a major subcurrent in the show. Jedediah Caesar’s 1,000,000 A.D. slices a giant geode — mounds of studio debris molded into a bulbous mass with resin and concrete — into cross sections of visually fascinating, if dubiously educational, faux natural-history-museum bling. Lara Schnitger’s assemblages of cast-off clothes are given an uncanny figurative presence (and a Jessica Stockholder esque formal punch) by their protruding lumber skeletons. Looking like props left out too long on the studio lot, Kristen Morgin’s actual-size copies of a piano and lowrider are rough-hewn doppelgängers built from scraps of wood and wire and smeared with concrete and unfired clay. But for every formal or conceptual strategy that appears to unify one group of the sculptures in “Thing,” another arises to reorganize a different constellation around itself. Mindy Shapero’s three-dimensional actualizations of the kind of geometric displays you get from vigorously palpating your closed eyes (or gnawing peyote) and Lauren Bon’s quixotic faux-hologram monoliths share Morrison’s connection to L.A. finish-fetish, for example. Similarly, Oshiro’s Judd-checking stacks, the Sol Lewitticisms on which Nathan Mabry perches his naughty pre-Columbian clay figures, and Krysten Cunningham’s enormous yarn tchotchke Stella’s Eye all make overt reference to high-minimalist masters who would shudder at their inclusion in such an impure vision of Art. Which is the point. While modernist art movements — and the landmark exhibits that defined them — strove to convey a unified front, and often wound up enforcing a cohesive philosophical and stylistic program on the participating artists, the main impression you get from “Thing” is one of freedom to play. “Artists are having fun making work today — it shows,” says Elaine. “We moved curatorially in that direction.” The object makers in “Thing” — like emerging artists across the board these days — seem unconstrained by the territorial pissings that defined the art world of earlier generations. Any art-historical era or cultural referent, ancient to contemporary, is thrown into the mix with original observations and formal innovations. Such a non-hierarchical, open-ended kind of exploration makes for a profusion of remarkable hybrids, and the kind of restless creative rhizome that refuses to be pinned down into any kind of quantifiable ism. There’s a tremendous amount of exciting work being produced in L.A., and the “Thing” team could have easily sorted among the raw materials to make an exhibit that propped up some prescribed theoretical position. Instead, they’ve pieced together a show with the same flexible, associative and freewheeling inclusiveness at work in the individual pieces — allowing the curatorial concept to accrue organically from the work up. “The thing for things evidenced by the artists in this exhibition,” writes Miles in his catalog essay, “constitutes nothing short of a declaration.” But this is no declaration of loyalty to some 30-point manifesto; it’s a declaration of independence from declarations. THING: New Sculpture From Los Angeles | UCLA HAMMER MUSEUM, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood | Through June 5

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