Scopophilial Pleasures

In art, “content” is, as it were, the pretext, the goal, the lure which engages consciousness in essentially formal processes of transformation.

—Susan Sontag,
“On Style”

A couple of Sundays ago, about 1,000 people forked over up to 10 bucks a pop to sit in on a conversation between Vegas-based critic Dave Hickey and legendary 75-year-old artist Bob Rauschenberg at the Omni hotel. The talk was presented in conjunction with MOCA’s “A Room of Their Own” shows, one at each downtown facility. The double-barreled show is your basic permanent-collection culling, devoid of any overcooked curatorial conceit: It’s one room, more or less, per artist. Period. Regional, quirky and long-term, exhibitions of museums’ permanent collections tend to encourage and validate personal relationships to art in ways that blockbuster shows can’t. In spite of its stellar roster, “Room” is such a collection. Part 1, “From Rothko to Rauschenberg,” begins with a capsule summation of Abstract Expressionism, including, for those enthralled by Ed Harris’ recent balletic embodiment of the creative mysteries, Jackson Pollock’s 1949 No. 1. Gestural Abstractionists like Pollock, alongside such contemporaries as Mark Tobey, hold up surprisingly well, in part because the improvisational immediacy of their technique inoculates the work against ironic appropriation. This holds true for many of the artists included in the first half of “Room,” Franz Kline and Rauschenberg in particular. (Rothko, though more susceptible to recontextualization, is always good for the eyes.) The main selling point of the show is the reunification of Rauschenberg’s two Factum combine paintings, created in 1957 from the same set of ingredients and nearly identical. These two pieces should never have been separated in the first place; together, they constitute a prescient but refreshingly nondidactic questioning of the spontaneity and originality that were tenets of the Modernist gospel. It has been somewhat to Rauschenberg’s disadvantage that his work looks so great, as it frightens the puritans who equate “conceptual” with “sensory deprivation.”

The pairing of hedonistic intellectuals Hickey and Rauschenberg was something of an inspiration, then, though their patently disparate approaches to words (Rauschenberg is famously dyslexic) set the tone for the event. Hickey, pulling teeth, tried to steer the artist toward broader philosophical statements about the “nobility” of art, and Rauschenberg responded with a folksy shaggy-dog story about his job inspecting zippers at the Ballerina bathing suit company. They managed to establish at least one highly peculiar commonality — life-changing experiences viewing Blue Boy and Pinkie at the Huntington. Rauschenberg, on leave from the Navy, realized that an actual human being was responsible for creating the images he knew only from playing cards, while Hickey, on a school field trip, had an epiphany about the qualitative difference between the originals and his mom’s copies at home.

Hickey’s love of the bon mot occasionally overcame good art-world politics, as when he suggested that beatnik figurative painter Larry Rivers’ help in getting Rauschenberg a job in Casablanca in 1952 was Rivers’ “greatest contribution to 20th-century culture.” While some (myself included) cackled in agreement, there was a hush and a hiss from the audience’s upscale element that caught Hickey a little off guard. A similarly uncomfortable silence followed Rauschenberg’s revelation that, on the trip home from the same Moroccan adventure, Paul Bowles had introduced him to drugs, prompting former Dr. Hook lyricist Hickey to shuffle his papers energetically and ask Rauschenberg about his “proclivity for working backwards from organization to chaos.”

Unfortunately, I had to duck out before the Q&A to meet someone for the matinee of Enemy at the Gates. There seems to be no escaping Ed Harris these days, and there’s no respite from art critics either — keep an eye peeled for L.A. Times critic and noted communist sympathizer David Pagel in his big screen debut as “Pravda Interviewer.” While the postmodern collapse of political categories now allows for a sympathetic Hollywood depiction of the Siege of Stalingrad, there’s still some trepidation about the photographs of Nazi Party enabler Leni Riefenstahl. In what is, amazingly, the artist’s first-ever U.S. gallery show, Fahey/Klein is exhibiting a collection of still photos shot during the filming of Riefenstahl’s Olympiad, her lyrical and cinematically innovative documentary on the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

The work ranges from curious kitsch to stunning formal exercises, and is accompanied in the smaller gallery by photographs from the liberation of Buchenwald. Just kidding! Actually, the gallery has masterfully contextualized Riefenstahl’s work by pairing it with an excellent show of portraits of other film directors. It’s been 35 years since Susan Sontag famously defended Riefenstahl’s “sublime neutrality” in “On Style”, but people continue to try to blame artists for our species’ stupid herd instinct. As Joe Camel inventor Mike Salisbury succinctly put it in 1994 in the first issue of Juxtapoz magazine, “Joe Camel is just a cartoon figure and he is powerless. He can’t make anyone do anything, because he’s only colored ink dots on paper.”

Fans of that magazine will be pleased to note that its cranky figurehead, Robert Williams, is showing his latest body of work at Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center, in Santa Ana. While Williams shows with high-profile Guernica-defacer Tony Shafrazi in New York City, us homies have to make the trek to Orange County to see the complete show. In spite of Williams’ inclusion in the influential “Helter Skelter” show at MOCA in 1992, some combination of forces has kept him in his role of “Art World Outsider,” and it seems to suit both his purposes and those of his fanatical following. But even if you disagree that figurative illusionistic technique is the embattled bedrock of all that is good in contemporary visual culture, there is still a great deal to be gleaned from Williams’ seething, fevered canvases. The intricate and frequently obscure allegorical underpinnings of his frantic, multilayered cartoon narratives give a sense of unplumbed depths of informational density that is made flesh in his fractal, fetishistically tight oil-paint application. As for the content, Williams tackles cautionary tales and object lessons ranging from the paleontological hoax of the Piltdown Man to the sordid life of King Farouk.

Although jimmy hayward’s work is situated at the far end of the content spectrum from that of Williams, a similar sort of surface fetish activates it. Hayward’s new body of mostly monochromatic canvases was on view at Chac Mool Gallery on Melrose until very, very recently. (Sorry.) Painted squarely from the shoulder, the baroque, luscious gestural topography of Hayward’s networks of ultraimpasto brush strokes conveys a minimalist chromatic “suchness” more often associated with the flat, disengaging paintings of Brice Marden et al. But this seemingly contradictory visual complexity is not something that could ever be separated out — the depth and contemplative power of the color fields are inextricably melded with the substance of the paint. My favorite monochromes are the quartet of untitled palette-soup-gray canvases, but the baker’s dozen of small, multihued Chromochord paintings in the office sully the purity of their larger brethren, to sweet effect.

If Hayward’s paintings represent the marriage of the transcendent physical aspects of pure color with the traces of the evanescent painterly gesticulation, the recent performance at Goldman Tevis by Joseph Hammer and Cindy Bernard took the ephemerality up a notch. To the warbling, hypnotic soundtrack of Solid Eye loop-man Hammer’s deftly manipulated fragments of tape (movie music, Gregorian chant, John Fahey–like guitar strums), a series of pure color slides were rear-projected onto a pair of screens, fading up and down and into one another, pausing, then starting again, in a new configuration. Although a La-Z-Boy and a marijuana cigarette would have been helpful, the effect was nevertheless calming and hallucinatory — producing optical effects you can usually only get staring at a Rothko for half an hour. Permanence is relative. It would be swell to have Bernard & Hammer’s piece in some hanging digital form, on the wall across from your La-Z-Boy, but that might defeat the artists’ intentions, and besides, the technology’s not quite there. In the meantime, this remains one of the unspoken and otherwise unavailable joys of visiting shows culled from the permanent collection — to be able to return to the same piece over and over, in a drawn-out rhythmical orgy of retinal exploration that belies the “Seen it, got it, next” pacing of most contemporary viewing experiences — and leaves your brain and eyeballs tingling with scopophilial pleasure.

A ROOM OF THEIR OWN, PART 1: From Rothko to Rauschenberg At MOCA, 250 S. Grand Ave. Up indefinitely

ROBERT WILLIAMS At Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Suite A, Santa Ana Through April 29

LENI RIEFENSTAHL At Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave. Through April 28

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