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English as a Foreign Language

ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON, THE MAIN ACTIVITY IN downtown Los Angeles is bargain hunting. Here, where the poorly dressed search for the cheaply priced, and men with raw, battered faces line alleyways for food, the visitor to MOCA engaged in a search for cheap parking is apt to feel a bit like an interloper. From the vantage point of a grimy $3 parking lot, or in the midst of crowds filing past cut-price Korean toy stores, one thing is obvious: No one down here goes to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Not that you can actually see the museum from the streets south of Grand. Even at the bottom of Angels Flight, the funicular that takes one up the hill to California Plaza, there is no sign for the museum. You either know about it (and how to get to it) in advance, or, walking around the cool, fountain-chilled spaces of the plaza, you stumble on it by accident: the bunker in Bunker Hill.

I went to MOCA to see the Charles Ray show, about which I'd heard a great deal. Some of Ray's work was already familiar to me, though not enough to get a sense of whether he deserves the kind of accolades accorded him by departing MOCA director Richard Koshalek in the show's catalog. Describing Ray as an artist who, "in just a few years, has helped define, on an international scale, the role of contemporary art in the 1990s and beyond," Koshalek writes:

 

In this time of ravenous consumerism, worship of the cult of celebrity, and questions of meaning and authenticity, Ray's work -- immaculately crafted and strangely beautiful -- has the rare power to be both artistically valid and culturally on the mark.

 

I love that sentence. It begins with a pompously phrased truism ("In this time of ravenous consumerism"); continues with another pompously phrased truism ("worship of the cult of celebrity"); and then -- without so much as a "See ya!" -- veers off into sheer abstraction. Reading it is like walking around on a clear sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, and then -- suddenly -- pea-soup fog.

Scratching my head, I tried to translate Koshalek's words into plain English:

 

In this time of too much shopping, too much celebrity worship, and questions of meaning and authenticity . . .

 

But I couldn't do it. That last part had me stumped. What, I wondered, were "questions of meaning and authenticity"? And then, later in the sentence, there was that glittering little mousetrap of a phrase, "artistically valid and culturally on the mark." What did that mean exactly? In my mind's eye, I saw the melancholic ghosts of all the starving artists who'd ever hoped to have shows at MOCA, only to be told, "I'm terribly sorry, Sir/Ms./Madame, but though your work is artistically valid, culturally it's not on the mark." Or, conversely: "Culturally, your work is right on the mark, but artistically . . . I'm afraid it's just not valid." (Exeunt artistes.)

But let's get on to the work that did have the "rare power" to be both "artistically valid and culturally on the mark." Let's get on to Charles Ray -- and, more important, the people who decide what belongs in MOCA and what doesn't.

Ray's show is, at the least, varied -- a definite crowd pleaser. Among the objects on display are a dizzyingly tall mannequin, a toy fire engine that's the size of a real fire engine, a fiberglass replica of a smashed car, a giant cube filled ominously with black printer's ink, a bathtub mounted vertically in a wall, a portrait of the artist in a bottle, a sculpture of an orgy in which all participants look exactly like Charles Ray, and a 12-minute movie of a woman wearing lots and lots of different clothes.

What does it all mean? That would be hard to say. For, as MOCA curator Paul Schimmel informs us, four or five years ago Ray began "sculpting a Pop persona that seemed completely revealing while simultaneously revealing nothing at all -- an emptiness filled with a faux intimacy."

The audience seemed at home in this falsely intimate emptiness -- if that's what it was. They snickered over the orgy sculpture, chuckled nervously at the mannequin, and walked out of the 12-minute movie with nine minutes left to go. Apparently -- if I overheard the whispers at the front desk correctly -- one or two audience members were even moved to masturbate, though over what particular item on exhibit I'm not sure. Looking up at the towering lady mannequin, however, I couldn't help recalling the John Betjeman poem that begins, "The sort of girl I like to see/Smiles down from her great height at me . . ." On the other hand, J.G. Ballard fans may have found the car-crash sculpture more to their taste. Whatever it was that was exciting people, I'm sure it wasn't Paul Schimmel's catalog essay:

 

"Fall '91 is a [sic] eight-foot tall mannequin," he tells us in typically stilted prose,

 

. . . in which every element has been enlarged by one-third. For Ray, the viewer would ideally encounter the mannequin from a distance, with no identifying features of scale in proximity, so that it would be read as of normal size. However, as one approached the mannequin, one would begin to feel increasingly smaller [sic] relative to her amazon-like stature . . . Beyond its formal ability to manipulate scale and space, the work reminded the viewer of what it was to be a child again by evoking both the comfort and fear a child has when looking up to [sic] his or her heroically-scaled parent . . . In Fall '91 Ray was now addressing issues of identity, gender, and sexuality, all of which were at the core of the feminist art movement of the 1970s and its second wave in the 1980s.

 

It's an interesting passage. Aside from the obvious errors, one might note the clumsy "amazon-like" instead of amazonian, the weird lurching from tense to tense and, in general, the sheer stylistic poverty of the writing. (One might also note that, in his preface to the essay, Schimmel thanks no fewer than four editors for their help.)

Compared to some of the other scribes on staff at MOCA, however, Schimmel is Shakespeare. Check out this sentence by associate curator Connie Butler, about video artist Jessica Bronson (whose work is also being shown at MOCA):

 

Rather than seeing such artists as Bronson's contemporaries Doug Aitken, Stan Douglas, or Diana Thater strictly in terms of the tradition of video art, their work also has referents to film and recent considerations within the realm of sculptural installation.

 

If those two clauses don't quite seem to connect up, it's because . . . well, it's because they don't. And what exactly are "recent considerations within the realm of sculptural installation"?

When Butler is not feeling her way through a vague syntactical mist of her own devising, she is generally being pretentious, or perhaps simply gullible enough to swallow anything an artist tells her:

 

Exploring what she calls the poetry of the video effect, Bronson has made works which question the possible environments for the experience of video (theater, gallery, bar, living room), and its language (projection, screen monitor, aspect ratio).

 

Let's pretend that sentence isn't about a video artist. Let's pretend it's about a novelist -- Martin Amis, say:

 

Exploring what he calls the poetry of the novel effect, Amis has written books which question the places in which books might be read (libraries, buses, bathrooms, easy chairs, airplanes, meadows), and their language (words, sentences, grammar, paper, ink, etc.).

 

And now ask yourself: Would I read a Martin Amis novel?

For sheer, flat-out pretentiousness, though, first prize goes to Timothy Martin, who is identified as "a critic and graduate faculty at Art Center College of Art and Design." He's not just a critic, he's a whole department. And this is the kind of thing he writes:

 

If Bronson may be said to participate in, and perhaps extend a "tradition" of West Coast video installations -- think of those big, philosophical video boys (Hill and Viola) who currently haunt European museums -- it would be in the way she approaches this matrix of the effect-affect, that is without narrativizing it beforehand -- along the usual existential lines -- or presuming what it by nature must reveal or mean. As such, her work achieves a kind of realpolitik of the sensual effect quite distinct from this "tradition," yet equally distinct from the unreflective horse trade of Hollywood techno-magic.

 

Uh, "right."

It's not considered polite these days to pick on the way someone writes, even when that person is far richer and more powerful than you. It's too elitist, for one thing. And if the only problem with the writing on display at MOCA were stylistic clumsiness or the occasional lapse in grammar, â it might well be a little picky to harp on it. But it isn't the only problem. Much of the writing on display at MOCA is itself deeply elitist without actually being any good -- a terrible combination -- and shuts out anyone who isn't already in. It's not, after all, as if Koshalek, Schimmel, Butler and co. have something incredibly profound to say about the art on display in their museum. In fact, one's immediate reaction on finishing their essays is amazement at how little they have to say about anything.

 

Take Schimmel (again). The only way he seems to know how to write about a work of art is to refer back to a previous work by the same artist, as in the following description of Ray's 12-minute film. By Schimmel's standards -- the odd missing comma aside -- it is extremely well written:

 

Fashions (1996), a 16mm, 12-minute film emerged directly from Ray's exploration of the formal and psychological implications of the space inside a bottle in Puzzle Bottle. Working with one of his friends, the artist Frances Stark, Ray created a short film with obvious parallels to his 1973 photographic work All My Clothes. When exhibited, the film is shown along with its projector, which evokes the film projection systems from high schools in the 1960s. The film itself shows Stark wearing a hundred different outfits selected by Ray, who transforms her into a Pop sculpture that rotates endlessly on a platform at a slow speed with an outfit change at the end of each rotation. Ray's objective was to orchestrate a non-narrative sequence of outfits that would build to nothing, with no crescendo.

 

Leaving aside the fact that Schimmel has missed what little narrative the film has -- namely, a certain teasing androgyny in the model, which is resolved after about 10 minutes -- what one first notices is the flatness of his account. No attempt is made to explain why a non-narrative that builds to nothing might be of interest. (Perhaps Schimmel doesn't know.) At the same time, however, we're supposed to accept at face value the rather threadbare notion that, because the projector happens to be in the room rather than hidden behind a wall, we're all going to be transported back to high school in the 1960s. And even if we were, the point of this magic-carpet ride would be what precisely?

What one hungers for in Schimmel's description is everything he leaves out. For instance, how about describing the model? She obviously lifts weights, she has tattoos -- perhaps she's a parody of a supermodel (like Tatjana Patitz, whom Ray has photographed)? And what about the clothes? Are they beautiful? Are they funny? Is the film funny? Is the film beautiful? Is it moving in some way? Does it mean anything? Is there a reason to watch it? As V.S. Naipaul would say, "Tell me, tell me, tell me!"

But somehow, one is made to feel that such questions are just a wee bit vulgar, not quite "appropriate." There's no juice here, no meat, no content -- and apparently, there's not supposed to be. The artist is a Warholian blank, and unfortunately, so is the curator.

Is it naive to be surprised by this? I don't know. One goes down to MOCA to see an exhibition by a celebrated contemporary artist, and afterward reads with interest the essay in the catalog (price $45) by the museum's distinguished curator. One expects -- presumably? -- to encounter a well-written text brimming with insight and erudition. Instead, fighting one's way through numbing paint-by-numbers prose, one encounters sentences like the following, in which Schimmel simply cannot keep his tenses straight:

 

While studying with Brener, Ray created a series of sculptures between 1971 and 1973 that formally investigate the tension between stability and instability by bending materials and forms to the point at which they were [sic] on the verge of literally coming unhinged.

 

Or passages like this:

 

In Memory of Sadat (1981) is a coffin-like tomb bisected down the middle, in which Ray's arm from the elbow up and his leg from the knee down disorientingly protruded [sic] . . . Although Ray began the sculpture as a personal memorial to his brother, the title suggests a broader political dimension. It refers to Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt who had [sic] signed a historic peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and was assassinated in 1981. Like In Memory of Moro, this work is a cool, Postminimalist monument to a political cause in which the artist had no deep and abiding interest.

 

 

Where does one begin? What is a "coffin-like tomb"? Isn't that a bit like saying a "room-like house"? Why the tense change in the first sentence? Why the tense change in the third sentence? How can you say that the title In Memory of Sadat "suggests" a political dimension, when, given that Sadat was the absolute leader of a country of some 60 million people, the political dimension is explicit from the start? And what, finally, is one supposed to make of the statement that In Memory of Sadat is a "monument to a political cause in which the artist had no deep and abiding interest"?

One thinks of Guernica, Picasso's memorial to the Basque town bombed by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War, a conflict in which the artist had no deep and abiding interest. Or Easter, 1916, W.B. Yeats' poem about Ireland's Easter Rebellion, an event the poet couldn't give two figs about. Or Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's movie about the Vietnam War, a war that Francis frankly found to be a bit of a snooze.

We understand that these are jaded times, that anomie is the coin of the realm and that Charles Ray may see it as his role to reflect this jadedness back at us. But does the curator have to be complicit in this jadedness? Do we?

And is it too much to expect that the head curator of MOCA should be able to write a halfway decent sentence?

 

Charles Ray continues at MOCA through March 14.


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