Mr. Brainwash's 'Art Show 2011' Gets Populism Right

Mr. Brainwash's "Art Show 2011"
Mr. Brainwash's "Art Show 2011"
photo by Nanette Gonzales

Update: Show has been extended, and will be open one more day, on Jan. 8. Doors open at 2 p.m. Location is 960 N. La Brea Ave.

At "Art Show 2011," equivocal street artist Mr. Brainwash's 80,000 square-foot feat, Mr. Brainwash sat at a table in a driveway outside the La Brea warehouse he'd acquired for the show, meeting fans, signing posters and signing stuffed animals. There were more stuffed animals in line than posters, actually, and people walking through the multi-story building carried dolls and animals as well.

A woman in heels held a life-size Raggedy Anne look-alike by the neck, a tall man in dress pants held a stuffed Elmo doll, a guy in a hoody had Buzz Lightyear and three or four others in his backpack. The dolls and animals had all come from the top floor, where a big pile of them filled a corner with the words "Take One" sprayed painted above. The rest of the room had messages about love sprayed on its walls -- love is forever, respect others, follow your heart.

Since Thierry Guetta turned into Mr. Brainwash, hosted his first L.A. mega-show, "Life is Beautiful," in 2008 and became the protagonist/antagonist of Banksy's Oscar-nominated documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop," too much attention has been on whether Mr. Brainwash is even real. Could his whole "career" be an elaborate hoax, perpetrated by Banksy, to question what art is and expose taste as gullibility?

Investigations have verified that Guetta is who he says he is -- originally French, an L.A. shop owner, and a fan of street art who took it up himself -- but investigations and conspiracy theories seem beside the point. People like Mr. Brainwash, his pop-culture rip-offs (Madonna as a Warhol-style Marilyn Monroe, or John and Yoko with signs about art being love), his last-minute lavishness and his haphazard politics. And it's hard to shrug off an artist as a hack when he engages his fans as well as he has with his Brainwash Art Shows.

Lines to get into "Art Show 2011"
Lines to get into "Art Show 2011"
photo by Nanette Gonzales

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Mr. Brainwash first began talking about his end-of-year art show in the fall and, from the first rumors, it was clear he'd be inviting other artists to help him fill the massive La Brea space in the days right before the show opened. A few rooms, stairwells and rafters were tagged and painted by guest artists, which meant you'd see people posing for pictures in front of friends' artwork, or pointing out stencils they'd positioned on the ceiling.

The rest of the space was filled with Mr. Brainwash's own installations, loopy tags and celebrity spoofs. A life-sized Mr. Potato Head occupied one first-floor corner. Beneath a stairwell, a menacing Steve Jobs portrait leaned against the the back wall of a dark, paint-spattered faux computer room. A sign that had sad "Welcome to Los Angeles" now said "Welcome to Lost and Jealous." And then there were the countless messages about love.

"Art Show 2011" was supposed to be a populist gesture, an "art is for all of us and by all of us" sort of thing. Because people showed up, tried to read what was written on ceilings and took stuffed animals home, it seemed to work.

Mr. Brainwash, left
Mr. Brainwash, left

A few other populist gestures made this year tried to be similarly inclusive, but smarter. First was the "Art in the Streets" show at MOCA, an attempt to bring the street into the museum, historicize and thus legitimize the diverse, decades-spanning movement. The exhibition was a success in terms of attendance -- hundreds of thousands came -- but it felt constricted in museum galleries, and the corridors that attempting to evoke the streets themselves, with floor to ceiling tags or stacked cars, felt like spectacle.

Next was the Trespass Parade in September, hosted by non-profits arts org West of Rome. Streets of downtown L.A. closed, and floats, dancers, and white-faced performers headed from L.A. Mart to MOCA. People could join at any time, and could don t-shirts with ambiguous messages (like "The Supreme Court is a Terrible Thing to Waste") and carry signs comparing now to 1968. It's just that bystanders didn't really seem to get it, and the parade felt like more proof that art is slippery and high-handed.

Maybe it's not fair to compare Mr. Brainwash's extravaganza to either of these two more nuanced gestures. But he gives people ownership and uses imagery almost everyone understands. And if you understand, you can participate even if you're not necessarily "on board" with Brainwash's simple, art-is-love ideology.

Follow @cgwagley and @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.


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