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Changing the System From Within

Friday, Feb 26 2010

There seems to be a rising tide of regionalism in the L.A. art scene, or at least a renewed interest in examining the city's cultural history, maybe because — as recent funding threats to the Department of Cultural Affairs suggest — the past is more promising than the future. While proprietary nostalgia for the Ferus Gallery era seems to have reached an epidemic level (Go, McKenna!), institutional historicizing almost inevitably excises the spirit of the original milieu it's trying to document — especially so in the case of the anti-establishment insurrections of the Beats, Hippies and Punks.

It's rarer still to come across a documentary presentation that is not only faithful to the spirit of such subcultural topics, but incorporates and expands on the formal and conceptual underpinnings of the tradition in question. One such rarity is Mock Up on Mu, the recent feature-length experimental film by Bay Area archivist and auteur Craig Baldwin, which screened recently at the Echo Park Film Center, and which has just been released on DVD.

Mock Up on Mu recounts (and embellishes) one of the juiciest and most unlikely bits of Angeleno mythology: Scientology honcho L. Ron Hubbard's collusion (as an undercover agent for Naval Intelligence, we are assured by both church spokespersons and Baldwin) with Jack Parsons — inventor of solid rocket fuel, founder of the Jet Propulsion Lab and Aerojet, and disciple of English occultist Aleister Crowley — to impregnate future Beat icon Marjorie Cameron with the antichrist ... or something. The original story is garbled enough, with Hubbard eventually fucking off with Parsons' girlfriend, yacht and bankroll, and Parsons subsequently marrying Cameron and blowing himself to smithereens while experimenting in his garage laboratory at his family's Pasadena mansion.

click to enlarge CHARLES KARUBIAN, UNTITLED (2009)
  • CHARLES KARUBIAN, UNTITLED (2009)

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Or perhaps not. In Baldwin's hands, the future ain't what it used to be. The year is 2019 and both Hubbard and Parsons ("Though he looks 39, he's really 105 years old!") appear to have faked their own deaths, while Cameron has had her memory erased on Hubbard's moon base and is being prepped to go undercover and seduce key members of the American defense industry — including Parsons. And that's just the beginning! Baldwin tells the story with a combination of low-budget overdubbed live-action sequences and his signature barrage (as in 1991's conspiracy-theory overload Tribulation 99) of found and appropriated clips of movies, television and advertising, with a further layer of collaged dialogue and music.

The narrative architecture is a similar pastiche, incorporating philosophical and spiritual rants; science, history and philosophy lessons; flights of absurdism and fantasy; and numerous biographical sidebars pertaining to the principals — including Cameron's appearances in Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and her seminal role as the artist whose drawing precipitated the obscenity bust of Wallace Berman's 1957 show at the Ferus Gallery.

Which, as we all know, triggered Berman's move to San Francisco and his hooking up with Bruce Conner, who taught Baldwin how to make dazzling, poetic cinematic collages out of found footage. Mere coincidence? But Baldwin's 21st-century paranoiac reconfiguration of Conner's non-narrative shorts is a voice unto itself, and in turning his rickety, kaleidoscopic vision toward one of the founding myths of West Coast Weird, his continuity with that lineage becomes plain, even as his individuality continues to unravel itself in new frontiers of copyright infringement and libel – 'cause if Hubbard is really still alive, that's what we're talking about, baby!

Coincidentally, Caltech's theater company (!) is currently mounting "Pasadena Babalon: The World ofJack Parsons," based on the same Parsons/Hubbard/Cameron triangle, so you may want to rush out and catch one of their last couple of 8 p.m. shows this weekend while waiting for your Mu DVD to arrive. And while visiting Pasadena, why not stop by the always-puzzling Pasadena Museum of California Art for its latest regional historical mash-up, currently combining a remarkable but overpopulated installation of L.A. River–themed street art (look for cholo-graffiti pioneer Chaz Bojórquez's lyrical wildfowl painting, Arroyo Seco/Mexico Dreams, dating from the early '70s); an extensive survey of virtuosic early–20th century regionalist watercolor prodigy Millard Sheets' pre–World War II oeuvre (after the war, he did those amazing mosaics for the Home Savings of America buildings, and ran Otis); and a cumulative project-room doodle orgy by horror-vacui relationalists the Sumi Ink Club (aka the band Lucky Dragons). There wasn't much to look at yet when I was there, but with biweekly public ink-ins (the next are Friday and Sunday, March 5 and 7, noon-5 p.m.), the squiggles will soon be taking over.

Only a few blocks away, the Armory is hosting what could be considered a conventional museum presentation of a particularly fruitful bicoastal collaboration: Robert Rauschenberg's lengthy relationship with the Gemini G.E.L. printmaking studio in West Hollywood. But institutional presentations of art that isn't an expression of an anti-establishment subculture are often just what the doctor ordered. Rauschenberg understood his art to be a microcosm of the Big World, where he could bend, break or evaporate the rules as he saw fit. The 35 years' worth of pictographic anarchism and material invention on display here testify to his success within the arena of art-making, as well as his ability to translate his optimistic and intuitive politics into a collaborative work environment.

When it comes right down to it, you could say that most artists operate under the assumption that their art is a microcosm of something or other, and often their insurgent impulses are more ambitious in the context of their created world than many avowed revolutionary cultural workers toiling in the reality fields. Charles Karubian is a painter whose dark, cartoonish takes on European old masters seethe with a comical inversion of protocols. Landscapes, still lifes, portraits, allegorical tableaux and rasslin' pictures are built from slippery, overinflated masses rendered in an increasingly impressive expressionist shorthand that suggest bloated viscera ready to blow. Karubian's current show, the last at Parker Jones' Chinatown locale before it relocates to Culver City — is particularly ripe. With a palette combining the muted spectrum of pre-World War II industrial enamels and the fetishized patinas of centuries of yellowed varnish, Karubian infects the history of art with a fun house–mirror virus — equal parts Harvey Kurtzman and Francis Picabia — then gets out of its way as it rewrites its own genetic code.

MOCK UP ON MU | CRAIG BALDWIN | Available at othercinemadvd.com/mu.html

PASADENA BABALON: THE WORLD OF JACK PARSONS | Caltech, Ramo Auditorium | 332 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena | Fri.-Sat., Feb. 26-27, 8 p.m. | (888) 2-CALTECH, (626) 395-4652

THE ULYSSES GUIDE TO THE LOS ANGELES RIVER; MILLARD SHEETS: THE EARLY YEARS; SUMI INK CLUB: SUMI ROOM | Pasadena Museum of California Art | 490 E. Union St., Pasadena | Through May 30

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG AT GEMINI | Armory Center for the Arts | 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena | (626) 792-5101 | Through March 21

CHARLES KARUBIAN | Parker Jones | 510 Bernard St., Chinatown | Through Feb. 28; afterward by appointment | (323) 227-0102

  • Changing the System From Within

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