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
Negativity is underrated. In her most recent book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, commie gadfly Barbara Ehrenreich does an admirable job skewering the salesman culture–rooted legerdemain of The Secret, breast-cancer teddy-bear profiteers and the greed-driven delusionarium that used to be the American economy. (One more time: "Monorail!") While a refreshing corrective, some of the targets of Ehrenreich's scorn have a pretty high straw content — I'd like to see her tackle Buddhist teachers Pema Chodron or Jack Kornfield (as opposed to Double Doctor of Marketing and Metaphysics Joe "Mr. Fire" Vitale) on the spuriousness of the whole "mind creates reality" concept. I also wish she'd taken a few stabs at the art world, whose recent narcissistic puffery has lopsided the yin and yang of creativity into the red far beyond the wet dreams of most mortgage brokers.
Artists are comfortable with negativity. It's why they wear black and continue to smoke. Anyone who has spent five minutes alone in the studio knows that art is contingent on Negative Capability (the poet Keats' term for the possibility of existing in a state of uncertainty without grasping for closure), and probably the single most revelatory moment in visual learning occurs with the recognition of negative space — the ability to see the shapes made by the spaces in between the things that we see. Seminal West Coast conceptualist Bruce Nauman made a couple of signature sculptures solidifying the spaces under and around various objects in his studio in the mid-1960s.
It's a profound enough insight that you could almost make an entire career from exploring it. Like English sculptor Rachel Whiteread, whose cast negative-space impressions of the interiors of Victorian houses (in concrete), Manhattan water towers (translucent resin) and sundry, lesser domestic artifacts have garnered worldwide attention for nearly two decades.
For me, Whiteread has always been the most problematic member of the YBAs (the world-beating Young British Artists group led by Damien "Shark in a Vitrine" Hirst and sponsored by Charles Saatchi), if only because she is the most formally gifted of the lot, and the most openly and unironically indebted to modernist antecedents like minimalism, conceptualism and Arte Povera. I always found her work pleasant to look at, which is certainly more than I can say about Hirst, Tracey Emin and the rest of the faux-Duchampian blue-chip hacks of Albion. She does, however, share their notable lack of originality — which, due to indifference, amnesia and the marketing muscle power of Mr. Saatchi, proved no impediment to marketplace saturation and global critical accolades.
Which is fine, God bless them, at least they're not devising ad campaigns to get Margaret Thatcher into office (or covering America with shitty clapboard housing projects for that matter). And the art is fine, too. If someone wants to take a handful of old Nauman sculptures and laboriously explicate every narrative nuance they imply, then that's what they want to do, and that's what art is about. And it's not like nobody ever made note of the derivation (except in the catalog of Whiteread's current drawing exhibition at the Hammer Museum — Duchamp and Picasso, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, yes; Bernini and Piero della Francesca, of course! Nauman, no). After all, milking the interstices of art history prior to the complete dematerialization of the commodifiable art object is pretty much the only game in town for anyone wanting to turn a buck. It's hard to hang a 1,500-foot trench in the Nevada desert over your couch.
What's a little creepier is the lack of acknowledgment of Robert Overby, a local multidisciplinary artist (his main gig was commercial design) whose latex casts of walls, doors, staircases and entire architectural façades predate Whiteread's sculptural equivalents by two decades. Not that Whiteread is likely to have encountered Overby's work — he died in 1993 (the year Whiteread won the Turner Prize for her House), having withdrawn his work from public view in the '70s. After his death, a spate of gallery shows revived interest in his disparate oeuvre, culminating in 2000 with his retrospective "Parallel, 1978–1969" — at the Hammer Museum. You wouldn't know it from the museum's Web site though, which has no record of the exhibit. I'm not suggesting there's some kind of conspiracy, just business as usual for the increasingly downsized, increasingly mediocre international art pond. Quirky, local history doesn't trickle up.
Whiteread's drawings, collages and maquettes are interesting enough, though surprisingly decorative for objects that were supposedly never intended for exhibition — and frequently devoid of the spatial negativity that characterizes her best work. The strongest visual statements are her modified postcard studies, using Wite-Out and perforations to reimagine architectural spaces in ways that are striking and inventive. She has a strong instinct for design, and if this were a show by an emerging Southern California designer, I probably wouldn't be so crabby. But context is everything. Does the L.A. art community really need to be told at this point in time that a carpetbagging megadose of competent Eva Hesse–isms is more important than anything that could be scraped together from the 20,000 artists who live here? If you're going to make me look at something churned out by the multinational corporate art industry, couldn't it be something I haven't seen a thousand times before? Or am I being too optimistic?