'The Optimist's Parking Lot' at Beacon Arts: How to Make Art About Optimism That Isn't Just Feel-Good?

Suzanne Adelman, Keith Walsh, and other artists discussing works in "The Optimist's Parking Lot"
Suzanne Adelman, Keith Walsh, and other artists discussing works in "The Optimist's Parking Lot"
Carol Cheh

The times we live in now are so profoundly challenging, so filled with confusion and turmoil, that many artists feel they have no choice but to think about... well, optimism. At least, that's what artists Suzanne Adelman and Keith Walsh were thinking about when they organized the group exhibition, "The Optimist's Parking Lot," currently occupying two floors of the massive Beacon Arts Building in Inglewood.

"Thinking about" is the operative phrase here; in a fairly complex curator's statement, the two artists propose the humble parking lot as a metaphor for a transitional zone in which one can contemplate the various implications and possible manifestations of the concept of optimism. Rather than simply assembling a group of feel-good artworks, the show tries to ask such questions as, how do artists incorporate optimism into their work? How can works of art embody optimism, or not? What goes through artists' minds during these incredibly trying times?

Over the weekend, Adelman and Walsh, along with a few of the artists in the exhibition, conducted a walk-through in which they discussed individual works and expanded upon the ideas that gave birth to this show.

Aaron Wrinkle's Optimism sits on the floor, while Steven Hull's Old Glory Boat Parade goes round and round
Aaron Wrinkle's Optimism sits on the floor, while Steven Hull's Old Glory Boat Parade goes round and round
Carol Cheh

Walsh commented that America as a country is founded on the idea of optimism, while Adelman added that scientific studies have shown that the brain has a natural tendency toward optimism. In an attempt to draw out more critical and/or poetic examinations of this loaded concept, the curators offered their 22 participating artists an entirely open-ended platform -- in many cases, artists were simply asked to make a new work in response to the ideas at hand. The curators did tend to choose older artists (the youngest in the show is 33) to ensure that "their optimism has been tested."

This hands-off, philosophical stance has engendered a group of works that appears quiet or distant at first, but reveals itself as highly diverse in style and approach. The best pieces are the ones that invite a deeper engagement and contemplation.

Works by Aaron Wrinkle, Lisa Anne Auerbach, and Charles Irwin (l. to r.)
Works by Aaron Wrinkle, Lisa Anne Auerbach, and Charles Irwin (l. to r.)
Carol Cheh

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I love Aaron Wrinkle's Optimism, a site-specific work done in three parts and scattered throughout the exhibition. Wrinkle broke up the word "optimist" into the fragments OPT, IMIS, and T, and painted each of those fragments onto a separate sheet of paper. OPT and IMIS are wrapped around columns on the first floor, while T is affixed to foam core, signed on the back, and propped upside down against a column on the fourth floor.

The work sensuously insinuates itself into the architecture of the space. When it's not threatening to disappear, it achieves fluidity of movement by asking the viewer to follow it from one floor to another. The recognition of the letters, and the promise of completion of the word, seems to function as a sort of optimism in itself.

Aaron Brewer's installation, Smoking and Watching Other People Fuck
Aaron Brewer's installation, Smoking and Watching Other People Fuck
Carol Cheh

One work that I didn't understand at first was Aaron Brewer's Smoking and Watching Other People Fuck. Plaster casts of cups and containers lie scattered on the floor; some pieces are inscribed with the words of the title. Three storage bins are filled with empty cigarette boxes and other debris, while nearby walls feature paper bearing handwritten lines from popular love songs.

The piece finally came together for me when I leaned down to listen to the small video monitor on the floor. On video, as images of debris scrolled past, the voice of the artist was heard intoning the lines from the songs. At that moment, the scattered pieces of a life seemed to be united, and transcended, through sentiment and spectatorship.

Suzanne Adelman's Untitled, which just happens to incorporate a parking lot -- and yes, the blurriness is part of the artwork
Suzanne Adelman's Untitled, which just happens to incorporate a parking lot -- and yes, the blurriness is part of the artwork
Courtesy of Suzanne Adelman

I think the keystone of the whole exhibition is one of Adelman's own pieces, an untitled photographic print depicting a roadside scene in Joshua Tree. Some sections of the image are blurred, while others are crystal clear. A parking space is discernible in the foreground, along with American flags and houses bearing "rent/sale" signs in the background. A prominent red sign in the center is indecipherable. The image is a vivid pause that deftly, intelligently evokes this moment in time: the housing crisis, questions of patriotism, hollow promises, instability, transition, glimmers of clarity and hope.

Keith Walsh's The Optimist's Sculpture #3 (Pink Economy)
Keith Walsh's The Optimist's Sculpture #3 (Pink Economy)
Carol Cheh

Walsh contributes a pair of sculptural assemblages called Optimists' Sculptures, made out of found debris. Both are portraits of the flimsy, pathetic state of our current economy, and reference the "scavenging" that people are forced to do during these scarce times. Young Chung also uses discarded materials in a series called Wallpaper Dreaming, but comes up with objects that are beautiful and filled with sexual desire.

Young Chung's Wallpaper Dreaming series
Young Chung's Wallpaper Dreaming series
Carol Cheh

Another enchanting piece is Jen Smith's video work, Oh I Limp Concise Sadism. An actor wearing a plaster horse head, horse's rear end, and brightly colored ribbons is seen slowly walking through or in front of recognizable military monuments in Washington, D.C. -- the Washington Monument, Arlington National Cemetery, and the D.C. War Memorial. It's sad, kitschy, and beautiful all at once, to see this pathetic yet gaily festooned creature clamber amongst old Doric columns and along perfectly manicured grass, silently communing with slain soldiers and wars gone by.

"The Optimist's Parking Lot" is probably the most understated show I've seen so far at Beacon Arts Building, which recently played host to a wild Michael Arata retrospective and Mat Gleason's raucous, high-concept "Tel-Art-Phone." But it's also the one whose concept speaks most eloquently to Beacon's own origins and mission.

A former storage facility for a moving company, the Beacon building has been renovated by developers to be a cultural beacon, so to speak, for the vibrant Inglewood arts community, and to offer an alternative to the well-worn L.A. art paths of Culver City and Chinatown. The spacious studio rentals it makes available to artists, as well as the daring exhibitions it has put on so far, are a nice parking space for optimism, indeed.

Carol Cheh blogs about LA's performance art scene at Another Righteous Transfer! Follow her on Twitter at @righteoustrans and for more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts.

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