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If Not Now, Wha’?

Photo courtesy LACMA

Artists are an inventive lot. Within the parameters of their own practice, their innovative approaches to the life of the mind are often invigorating, sometimes without parallel in other creative cultural activities. But when faced with a set of externally defined criteria, say a sonnet or a Metro station, many artists are unable to make the conceptual leap of embracing somebody else’s syntax. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has initiated a new program designed to put artists to this test, and the inaugural exhibition, “Made in California: Now” (in the LACMA West building that previously housed the van Gogh Sweat Lodge attraction), pits them against the harshest critics of all: kids. Children are more genuinely interested in art than any other demographic constituency in our culture, probably in our species. They are constantly looking, listening, touching, and learning new and increasingly complex ways to see, hear and feel. They actually want to make art, and enjoy doing so — at least until they find out they’re doing it wrong. Ask them about Deleuze and Guattari’s “body without organs,” and they’ll tell you about some inflatable breed of Pokémon. In detail. Show them boring art, and rather than nodding wisely like a civilized person and muttering something about how great the Emperor’s clothes look, they will just get bored and look elsewhere.

So when LACMA, in advance of its homegrown “Made in California: Art, Image and Identity” blockbuster (scheduled to open October 22) and as the prototypical program for LACMALab, a “new experimental research and development unit” (a.k.a. a jazzed-up outreach program with its own manifesto and everything), asked 11 SoCal artists to design interactive installations that would engage and enthrall the youth of today, it was inadvertently handing out one of the most difficult assignments a successful contemporary-art-world celebrity can face. And it is indeed heartening how well some of the artists rose to the challenge.

From my observations of the midget shills who scuttled underfoot at the press preview with hideously affected glee, the most successful works are by BMOC Martin Kersels, La Jolla Modernist refugee Allan Kaprow and Jennifer “Light Shows Are Now a Valid Art Form” Steinkamp. Kersels’ installation, housed in a window of the former May Co. storefront along Fairfax, consists of more than 50 noisemaking devices modeled on those used for creating sound effects for radio dramas in the olden days. Bellows attached to train whistles or duck calls, bins of gravel, miniature deadbolted doors, rattles, hammers and tin cans were seldom silent. The glorious racket emerging from the space, in fact, stood in sharp contrast to the institutional oppressiveness that prevailed over Kersels’ last show at Dan Bernier Gallery, where a similar body of SFX contraptions stood mostly unemployed for the four-week run. In fact, the wear and tear of popularity may provide a new design challenge for the artist, as several of the woodshop-project apparatuses seemed (and this was before the official opening!) to be out of commission.

Allan Kaprow is arguably the father of installation art, but his work since the ’60s heyday of Happenings has been hit or miss, at least in the negotiation of entertainment. For “Made in California: Now,” Kaprow, of all the artists participating, had the good sense to involve a token member of the target audience — his 12-year-old son Bram — in the creative process. The result is a pillow-lined room, with extra pillows for fighting, plus punching bags that trigger goofy 12-year-old storytelling fragments when hit. Out of all the exhibits, only Kaprow & Son’s No Rules Except . . . addresses deep, intricate, adult concerns about narrative, violence and family while remaining grounded in the prevailing juvenile aesthetic strategy of flailing about like a crazy person until you pass out. Indeed, works like Michael Asher’s crispy museological intervention (in two months or something, some teenagers will rearrange a room in the museum and the artist will photograph it or something) and Dave Muller’s show of small monochrome floor-plan-shaped canvases (first in a series of mini–Three Day Weekend curatorials over the exhibit’s yearlong run) make you wonder if the artists have ever actually met a child. Perhaps even worse are Eleanor Antin and John Outterbridge’s large sculptural pieces, which look for all the world like phantasmagoric play structures, but are strictly “hands off.” Best to learn ’em the inherent frustrations of white-cube protocol early on. These are the museumgoers of the future, after all. Trustees maybe.

Most pleasantly surprising to me was the swing installation by Op-art video-projectionist Jennifer Steinkamp (in collaboration with sound artist Jimmy Johnson). Steinkamp’s digital updatings of Haight-Ashbury light-show aesthetics have always looked nice, and this is particularly true of the percolating love-bead archway that functions as the portal through Jim Isermann’s “It’s a Small World”–homage façade into the day-care proper. But the simplicity of Steinkamp’s solution to the challenge of full-contact interactivity in her Anything You Can Do — a swing set with a cartoonish electronic â soundtrack and psychedelic purple backdrop whose actions are controlled by the swinger’s movement — is inspired, while preserving the coolness and distance inherent in her stylistic reclamations. Ultimately, “Made in California: Now” just scrapes by on the strength of its kid-savvy pieces. Most of the kids wind up at the last checkpoint anyway, making their own art from the abundant supplies at hand. Which is as it should be, and a reassuring sign of the inextinguishable nature of the art-making impulse. What is less encouraging is the inability of many important artists, in spite of their best efforts, to remember or observe the differences between being an art-world grown-up and being a real-world kid.

There are a couple of weeks left to visit Angles Gallery and see the better-curated but less sensational group show “Inventional,” which also contains one of Kersels’ more collectible compound sound-effects contraptions, Windlass, Digbox, Creaker (1999). Gathering together a Who’s Who of gizmo artists, “Inventional” is a good show that should have been great. Besides Kersels, it includes Fischli & Weiss, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Gregory Green, Tim Hawkinson, Tom Friedman, James Turrell, Nam June Paik and Agnes Denes. A star-studded roll call, with another seven less well-known participants rounding out the group of tinkerers.

The choices are inspired; the combination of showmanship and Yankee ingenuity that these artists share (even if they happen to be foreigners) sets them in a distinctive class of their own — one that makes for widespread popular appeal and its concomitant critical anxiety. But where an artist like Burden has made dozens of important works that would fulfill this curatorial promise, the logistics of commercial gallery shows as opposed to museum exhibits mean he is represented by a measly pen sketch for his transatlantic Three Ghost Ships project. A lithograph of a sketch for Nauman’s Eat Death neon sign stands in for the actual piece, which wouldn’t be most curators’ choice for demonstrating Nauman’s scientific bent in the first place. Fischli & Weiss, the Swiss oddballs whose Rube Goldberg physics-lesson video The Way Things Go was one of the best artworks of the ’80s, are represented by a pretty but pretty vacant ink-jet print of double-exposed nature photography. Only two (and two of the best) works — Hawkinson’s odd-even-for-him Arbochron (1995) and Friedman’s visually hypnotic untitled record left from draining scores of black felt-tip markers, tips down, onto the surface of archival drawing paper — are not for sale. Of the rest, unsurprisingly, the most engaging works are from relative unknowns.

Jno (pronounced “John” — he’s from Denmark) Cook is a standout, with his utterly peculiar Rollodog (1992) leading off the show. A jury-rigged movie editor threaded with a four-second black-and-white film loop showing a puppy hurtling around a room is accessorized with a droll and perceptive frame-by-frame analysis of the dog’s behavior seeking evidence of complex cerebration. A refreshing emphasis on the role of prolonged and meticulous attention in true creative thinking, for artist and viewer alike. Also on display are a camera designed by Cook in 1978 to automatically photograph cockroaches, and, in the back room, a ridiculous 1999 toaster–computer monitor hybrid. Claudia Matzko offers up a freestanding laboratory-glass Tears Distillery, which evaporates and condenses potable water from a reservoir of saline in a gesture of economical poetry, and photographs of her larynx. In an odd bit of self-referential subversion, Xu Bing displays a VCR whose empty spaces are clogged with silkworm cocoons. Surprisingly, the VCR is functional; as it plays a tape of an overhead shot of itself when the worms were actually living inside, it creepily conflates ancient and contemporary Asian cultural technologies into an impossibly functioning monstrosity. Tom LaDuke’s splendid EBS (1999) transforms an intimate casting of the artist’s bent knee into a detailed postindustrial landscape model of an antenna-studded hillside.

In spite of insurance and market concerns, some of the big names also come through swimmingly. The slightness of Turrell’s untitled minimalist glass hologram, for instance, is atoned for by its sheer loveliness. Agnes Denes’ once irritatingly finicky mechanical-pencil diagrams on vellum have aged well. And Gregory Green’s functioning pirate radio station, WCBS Radio Caroline (named after the famous offshore English pirate radio ship of the swinging ’60s), while not much to look at, bridges the high art and techno-libertarian subcultural worlds with rare circumspection and respect.

“Inventional” winds up referring to a spectrum of very interesting art ideas but demonstrating only a few of them. Which isn’t so bad. It’s like an essay, or a blueprint for an ideal, unrealized museum show. It helps if you’re familiar with the artists’ more substantial works (imagine a large-scale show including Kersels’ earlier science-project work, maybe the piece that used the surface tension of a flame as a loudspeaker to blast “Hotel California,” alongside a dumpster-cobbled Hawkinson talking automaton, a functioning TV made from scratch by Chris Burden, maybe something by Dennis Oppenheim, Jean Tinguely or the Marrin Sisters — but hey, that’s me. Curator Nowell Karten should be given room to stretch his muscles), but even merely indicating the interrelatedness of their visions provides “Inventional” with a conceptual depth greater than the sum of its not inconsiderable artistic merits.

While it’s not technically in L.A., I am compelled to recommend a trip to the Phoenix area to visit the “Öyvind Fahlström: Complete Graphics and Multiples” show at Arizona State University in Tempe. Compelled because no more westerly venue has deemed this show, one of the best I’ve seen this year, worthy of hosting. Bummer. Fahlström, a Swede, is one of my favorite artists, and an unjustly overlooked ’60s icon, moving and shaking the worlds of Pop Art, concrete poetry, critical writing, experimental radio art, installation and performance along an arc of increasing formal ambition and radical political engagement up until his untimely death in 1976. Though a show of mostly two-dimensional work (the original modular fridge-magnet pieces, intended to disrupt the distance between the artist and viewer, are now strictly “hands off,” but the museum provides replicas to play with), Fahlström’s graphic skills were so prodigious as to make this survey a must-see in and of itself.

Oh, and about that Eames show “scandal” . . . I am shocked — shocked! — to find that gambling is going on in this establishment!

MADE IN CALIFORNIA: NOW | At LACMA WEST, Wilshire Boulevard at Fairfax Avenue Through September 9, 2001

INVENTIONAL | At ANGLES GALLERY, 2230 Main St., Santa Monica | Through September 30

ÖYVIND FAHLSTRÖM: COMPLETE GRAPHICS AND MULTIPLES | At Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe | Through October 29


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