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Can L.A. Get Beyond Cool?

Photo by Elliott Shaffner

A shortcoming of L.A.’s museum system is its failure to institute some sort of regular survey akin to the Whitney Biennial. Such shows invariably annoy the hell out of people, but they’re a good way of finishing arguments and opening doors, and L.A. needs one badly. In the meantime, we have “L.A. Post-Cool,” an exhibit of 43 L.A. artists organized last year by independent curator and critic Michael Duncan for the San Jose Museum of Art. “A remixed version” opened this week in the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design. Duncan discussed the show’s history and significance.

 

L.A. WEEKLY: The original impetus for “L.A. Post-Cool” came out of your own criticism?

MICHAEL DUNCAN: I wrote an article for Art in America about L.A. figurative artists that attempted to illustrate how different they are from the young New York figurative painters — Elizabeth Peyton, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage — who’ve received so much attention. That work tends to be ironic and highly self-conscious, but West Coast artists like Tom Knechtel, John Sonsini and Monica Majoli are keyed into something else entirely. The L.A. artists aren’t afraid to express themselves directly or to present ideas in a heartfelt way. This is art that is beyond the poses and cynicism of “cool.”

 

A text you’ve written to accompany “Post-Cool” suggests the show reflects a sea change in the emotional temperature of the culture. Is that what you’re attempting to convey?

It would be more accurate to say it reflects the beginning of a sea change. “Post-Cool” could be described as a reaction to the cultural clichés surrounding postmodernism — that we’re all puppets controlled by media and corporations, doomed to be crushed by the burden of art history. These artists ignore all that and focus instead on making intensely personal work — glimmerings of this attitude can be seen in the culture at large, too. It’s there in the lyrical seriousness of Pedro Almodóvar’s last film, and in pop music artists like Bright Eyes, Magnetic Fields and Björk. Suddenly people are making lyrical gestures they wouldn’t have been able to get away with 10 years ago. I wouldn’t have been able to get away with this show even five years ago.

 

Was this shift in attitude prompted by anything specific?

The commodification of art that took place in the ’80s played a part in it, but essentially it’s a response to the stultification of taste encouraged by American art institutions. Art schools play a huge role in mandating art trends. The structure of art education seems to encourage thinking about art as sociology, philosophy, political science, clinical psychology — they want art to be everything but what art actually is, which is something lyrical and ineffable. “Post-Cool” is also a response to the fact that the art world is becoming increasingly youth-obsessed. This fascination with youth has resulted in museum shows that are nothing more than attitude. I’m proud that there are several older artists in the show who’ve been making work for decades and are beyond poses and easy irony. Artists like Charles Garabedian, William Brice and Llyn Foulkes have figured out what it is they’re obsessed by, and what kind of ideals they want to present to the world. They have more to offer than slacker doodles and Duchamp rip-offs.

 

The gender mix of “Post-Cool” is interesting, in that it includes more women than men. Were you aware of that when you were pulling the show together?

Somewhat. I’m drawn to artists who create their own worlds, and many women artists seem to do that in their work. I really go for work that offers a kind of ipso facto feminism built into it at a very deep level. It’s thoughtful and sophisticated, and is a ballsier form of feminism than the dumb-dumb sociology of artists like Judy Chicago.

 

The show feels like a Whitney Biennial. Are L.A. museums remiss in their failure to organize a similar survey?

Museums have become terrified of big group shows, because they don’t want to stick their neck out, and I give all credit to San Jose, because they’re trying to step outside of what’s being shown in American museums. This is a show that takes on the great taboo of not being cool — it’s hard to imagine anything more antithetical to what’s considered desirable in the art world. Look at the cynical poses and overblown work that dominate the international art fairs, or at “cool” big-budget artists like Matthew Barney who make work designed to intimidate. These L.A. artists offer a totally different, very grassroots approach. This is art about — of all things — what it is like to be human today. Strangely enough, for the contemporary art world that makes it totally radical.

 

L.A. POST-COOL | Curated by MICHAEL DUNCAN | At BEN MALTZ GALLERY at Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., Westchester, (310) 665-6905 | Through August 30


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