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Kids' Stuff

EVERY SIX MONTHS OR SO, A GALLERIST OR WRITER IN ANY given art community will throw together a show of young, underexposed talent and try to spin a bit of hype for it as the hot new cutting edge of art-making. Maybe one out of 25 times, the hype sticks and a couple of young artists get a boost to their careers. Not bad odds for an art-marketing strategy, but nobody really believes in the avant-garde, except as a fuzzy sort of fiction. Over the last few years, these spectacles have grown increasingly demeaning to the artists, insisting they present a façade of youthful insouciance bordering on ad-copy caricature, and art that is devoid of all content save for the most inoffensively smart-ass pseudo-conceptualisms. Invariably, the artists are implied to be inarticulate, promiscuous, underage and Ecstasy-pickled, and the work is expected to reflect this pedophilial grooviness with infantile happy-meal craftsmanship, art-historical aphasia and embarrassing Alternative Nation posturing. It was thus with some trepidation that I approached ACME's first show of the new millennium -- a group exhibition of emerging youth, advertised by guerrilla-pasted Bambi posters and titled "Young and Dumb."

The first impression went a long way to dispel my fears -- the aforementioned poster, ably rendered in a winning, if generic, '80s-comix graphic style, was the first of several strong works by Pentti Monkkonen, the only ACME regular in the show. At 25, "young" is certainly apt, but Monkkonen's work is neither mute nor stupid. The anomalously slick (for this show) Swancycle, a glossy, swan-shaped fiberglass motor scooter, is the latest in the artist's series of wacky, cartoonish conveyances reminiscent of supermarket kiddie rides. The mutant childhood nostalgia continues with Monkkonen's cleverly titled See-Saw sculpture, a large time-lapse fiberglass double exposure of two Dicks and Janes superimposed on an impossible (or at least physically impractical) X-shaped teeter-totter. While recalling the deadpan aberrations of Paul McCarthy, Charley Ray and the Chapman brothers, the gnarly surface and slightness of the disturbance quotient set it apart enough to be interesting, leaving me eager for his next solo show.

Sharing the front gallery with these pieces is an elegant new work by Liz Craft. Authoritatively possessing the gallery space, Round Off is a depiction of a tilted windmill, its muted, shingle-clad body dangling precariously in space, supported by its splayed steel-grid vanes. This quixotic symbolic inversion, rendered with such economical formal confidence, evinces the kind of smart eloquence of which most contemporary art, young or old, falls short.

Unfortunately, the fun stops there. The exhibition is organized in a lively and colorful overall manner that dissipates on closer inspection. The foyer has Hung Tran's Fly, a fabric banner suspended at an appropriately insouciant angle, interrupting the comfortable viewer-gallery distance in the time-honored manner, although the banner consists of the merest Magic Marker tracing of a reclining figure, with several Baltimore Oriole logo patches stuck on the surface. In consort with Tran's other piece, an amazingly interminable (at only 36 images) slide-show version of an artist's sketchbook (some piles of sand in plywood boxes, some video stills of a guy striking poses, some glasses filled with different amounts of blue water), Fly begs the question "How little can you get away with?" Europeans occasionally mistake this for a concept, but with the money they spend on art over there, they can afford to be wrong once in a while. This is America, goddammit!

Distributed through the space are a group of Amy Sarkisian's clunky fun-fur animal legs on sticks, designated "T.V. Commercial Props." Whether actually fabricated for that purpose, or as art pieces referencing this not-particularly-riveting area of culture-nature interface, Clapping Dog Paws, Waving Kitty Paws and Mauling Bear Claw leave everything to the imagination. While sort of curious-looking, and conceptually odd enough to have some potential, they just sort of sit there, illustrating the merest observation: Y'know, they use fake animal legs as props in TV ads. In contrast, Star Pussy, her giant cardboard star studded by a tiny purplish photo of a kitten at its center, is engaging, conveying an offhand pop exuberance. The works are so puzzlingly slight as to suggest they're the detritus of some larger, perhaps unrealized video project. But there's no evidence of this, and even if it were true, exhibiting the work piecemeal would only be a disservice. Similarly, Eric Wesley's Silverlake Tub (drained), a scruffy Jacuzzi fabricated to resemble an as-is yard orphan and haphazardly painted to resemble the reservoir landscape its form mimics, is presented with no suggestion that it is not in fact the cast-off it simulates.

Mark Grotjahn contributes one familiar-looking rainbow-colored perspective exercise (maybe from last year at Blum & Poe), and a wealth of sloppy gestural flower paintings on unstretched linen. While these have a hint of theã Cobra-movement brutisms of Asger Jorn, the hint is so slight as to be not worth mentioning, except for the fact that there's not much else to mention. Positioned as some sort of backlash to the repressed mannerism of the tape-'n'-spatula school of L.A. abstraction, Grotjahn's Angry Flowers hearkens to the '80s period of post-Schnabel "bad painting" that glutted the racks of art schools nationwide. With each art season, the fallow period wherein a hackneyed and derivative stylistic pose may regain some frisson of novelty gets shorter; such pecuniary resurrectionist antics signify nothing except the art market's need to rotate stock in a timely manner -- one that vaguely simulates a meaningful dialectical swing. What's extra lame here is the fact that the ostensible target of Grotjahn's "Fuck you!" is as bogus and fashion-dictated a revival as his own. Duke it out amongst yourselves, you crazy paint-pushers. I'll be in the bar.

THE PROBLEM WITH MOST OF THIS WORK IS that it is unequivocally academic -- its attitude is transplanted wholesale from kids in art schools trying to outdo each other in how little work they can expend in completing their assignments. The revelation of their slapdash indifference being met with genial endorsement by the burnt-out performance artists (mistaking prep-school brattishness for vestigial pre-ironic 1970s insurrectionism) who herd them through academe is a mind-bender the kids generally never get over, particularly if they begin their art-world careers prior to commencement day. Their defenses against authoritarianism are so slim they fall into the routine of rotating fashionable faux rebellions that please Teacher and grease the wheels of the art world. While this doesn't necessarily invalidate the work, it limits its range of meaning to within the academic realm, and implicitly attaches all the evils of elitism, authoritarianism, obfuscation and bureaucratic nausea that are the prerogative of the temples of higher learning. It makes no difference if the tops or the bottoms are making the pitch; the most glaring conceptual consistency is the inability to conceive of a context for art that lies outside their cloistered environs.

I'm sorry to be so mean. I suppose these people have every right to do these things if it makes them happy and nobody gets hurt against their will. But it hurts me to have to wade through a field of 30-year-olds trying desperately to pass as hot young things at a beer-logged chat fest trying to pass as a rave (when raves weren't anything particularly original in the first place) to see yet another slate of interchangeably dismissive artwork by fab teen mannequins. Who benefits from this secretarial-pool approach to art? Certainly not the artists, who are reduced to the role of disposable placeholders, rotated out as soon as they stray from the program or grow pubic hair. They may think they're being the Rolling Stones circa 1963, but they're really just Menudo, and even if they win the lottery and get to be the Ricky Martins of the art world, it'll still suck.

YOUNG AND DUMB | AT ACME, 6150 Wilshire Blvd. | Through February 5