You might resent artist Urs Fischer after seeing his survey at MOCA. Fischer, a Swiss artist who lives mostly in New York and produces iconoclastic messes with paradoxical precision, has not had a museum survey before. This exhibition features his art from the mid-1990s to now and spreads from MOCA's main Grand Avenue space to its Little Tokyo satellite, the Geffen Contemporary. Fischer's folk-, pop- and consumer-inspired sculptures and paintings surround you with some of the more banal and stifling tropes from the last two decades — Photoshop collages, a number of cats, cartoonish tableaux that appear all at once like too many open browser windows — and offer no escape route. But this doesn't mean you shouldn't go see "URS FISCHER," which is what the show is called. You probably should. The frustration it causes is worth experiencing and thinking about.
If you do go, you will spend at least half your time looking down. At Grand Avenue, you will first notice the matte, black vinyl Fischer has affixed to the floor. It soaks up light and makes the galleries seem denser and more bottom-heavy than they normally would. You'll also look down at the mirrored boxes arranged on the floor of the second gallery, 3-D rectangles each with images of specific things — cassette tapes, staple guns, bear-shaped honey dispensers — printed on their surfaces. This installation is like a macho, real-world version of Pinterest: images of objects Fischer "likes," spread out for us to aimlessly browse.
You will need to watch your step to avoid tripping over these, just as in later galleries you will need to avoid tripping over the rocks on the floor or knocking into the real grape, pineapple, coconut and strawberry, suspended with fishing wire, which hang low to the ground and are changed each time the fruit starts to rot. You might look down at the crumb-covered carpets, one overlapping another when you wander into Fischer's musty-smelling chalet made of bread loaves, and then again when wondering if you're allowed to climb over the low, jagged strips of drywall left from where Fischer cut gaping openings between the third and fourth or fourth and first galleries.
At the Geffen, you will have to look down as you make your way through the endless sculptures, all made with the same gray clay. Most of these sculptures — mainly produced by 1,500 unpaid but well-fed L.A. volunteers — are low to the ground, like the sculpted train set that runs into one wall, then continues out the other side, or the roughly realistic sculpture of a naked woman lying facedown, with an outline of a woman who looks just like her drawn into her back, where a tramp stamp would go.
The one time you might look up at the Geffen is to take in Fischer's all-wax, scale replica of Italian sculptor Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women. A melodramatic marble representation of the moment from early Roman history, when Roman men stole wives from the Sabine people, it shows a woman with her arm raised, struggling out of the grip of a young, muscular man while an older man cowers beneath. In Fischer's version, there's a lit wick in the woman's arm, so that the 20-foot sculpture will melt away as the show continues. Eventually, seeing this sculpture might also require looking down, as it melts and flattens just like all the other fantastic and mundane images and objects flattened out across the exhibition.
Flattening and crowdsourcing go hand in hand. At the Geffen, where wall text and brochures explain that people solicited via MOCA's website and word-of-mouth produced most work on view, you still understand this as Fischer's show. The cuteness (plenty of cats are here, too), the black humor (upstairs, a flabby undressed man, bound and gagged, seems to grow out of an unformed mound of clay) and fairy-tale quality (a romantic cottage fireplace, busts of ancient-looking kings) feel as if they're part of the same gesture.
At Grand Avenue, where certain sculptures have been fabricated by overseas manufacturers or with the help of studio assistants, the work lifts strategies willy-nilly from other artists: You can only lose, the sculpture of a lighter with a table illogically sticking out where the flame should be, has a roughness that recalls the oversized, everyday objects artist Claes Oldenburg sculpted in the 1960s and '70s. Artist Gordon Matta-Clark used to cut big holes into walls, too, but he often did so outside, in condemned buildings, bringing what he'd cut out back to museums or galleries. Still, Fischer doesn't "do" Oldenburg or Matta-Clark — he samples more than steals.
Fischer had his first solo show, called "Frs Uischer," in Zurich in 1996. That same year, Dolly the sheep was cloned and Damien Hirst exhibited his dead animals preserved in formaldehyde in New York for the first time: "It's like creating emotions scientifically," Hirst said. In addition, "globalization" had become a word people actually used, and the "developed" world was becoming exposed, connected and advanced in startlingly new ways.
Into this landscape came Fischer's intentionally sloppy sculptures — and they caught on. By 2001, he had shown in London, Berlin, Zurich and Amsterdam, and soon would show in New York. Over time his work became more polished and more disorienting — in 2008, at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York, Fischer had the previous exhibition photographed, blew up the photos to life-size, attached them to Shafrazi's walls like wallpaper and then hung new art on top of the pictures of the old. Jerry Saltz, the New York magazine critic who champions Fischer, called the Shafrazi show "a rebel yell."
But rebel yell against what? Last year, after Fischer installed some of his mirror boxes, plaster sculptures of animals on appliances and photos of movie stars with screws or food over their faces at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Rachel Spence wrote in the Financial Times that "it is time for him, and contemporary art in general, to realize that even the wittiest rebel needs a worthy cause." Her sentiment is shared by a number of critics, viewers and other artists I've talked to. But a survey like "URS FISCHER" isn't supposed to show us where to go next. It's supposed to show us where one artist has gone.
The walls Fischer cut out of MOCA's Grand Avenue galleries are still in the exhibition, leaning against still-intact walls. Everything's inside the galleries. The crumbs from the bread chalet collect on the floor. There's even a puddle of coffee, orange juice and cigarette butts inside one especially large mirrored box, none of which oozes out. It's like the sensation French writer Camille de Toledo describes in his novelistic 2001 manifesto, Coming of Age at the End of History, speaking of a character called "the suffocating man," who's surrounded by transparent walls he feels but cannot see: "There's a ringing in his ears, a vast clamor of voices, opinions and messages telling him relentlessly that he is free to choose, free to dream, even free to rebel. ... He's locked inside ... the world we live in now. ... There's nothing left outside it." The suffocating man starts to look for a way out, which is incredibly hard to find, because rejecting the establishment just gives him more street cred with the establishment. That's the sort of stuck-ness the MOCA show evokes.
But if Fischer's worlds feel stifling, less provocative than they did even five years ago, it's because crowdsourcing and his wide net of references have become increasingly familiar. It's up to other artists to pull us out and into a terrain of images, objects and experiences that feels unfamiliar and exciting again.
URS FISCHER | MOCA Grand Avenue, 250 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., dwntwn. | Through Aug. 19 | moca.org