Negativity is underrated. In her most recent book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, commie gadfly Barbara Ehrenreich does an admirable job skewering the salesman culture–rooted legerdemain of The Secret, breast-cancer teddy-bear profiteers and the greed-driven delusionarium that used to be the American economy. (One more time: "Monorail!") While a refreshing corrective, some of the targets of Ehrenreich's scorn have a pretty high straw content — I'd like to see her tackle Buddhist teachers Pema Chodron or Jack Kornfield (as opposed to Double Doctor of Marketing and Metaphysics Joe "Mr. Fire" Vitale) on the spuriousness of the whole "mind creates reality" concept. I also wish she'd taken a few stabs at the art world, whose recent narcissistic puffery has lopsided the yin and yang of creativity into the red far beyond the wet dreams of most mortgage brokers.
Artists are comfortable with negativity. It's why they wear black and continue to smoke. Anyone who has spent five minutes alone in the studio knows that art is contingent on Negative Capability (the poet Keats' term for the possibility of existing in a state of uncertainty without grasping for closure), and probably the single most revelatory moment in visual learning occurs with the recognition of negative space — the ability to see the shapes made by the spaces in between the things that we see. Seminal West Coast conceptualist Bruce Nauman made a couple of signature sculptures solidifying the spaces under and around various objects in his studio in the mid-1960s.
It's a profound enough insight that you could almost make an entire career from exploring it. Like English sculptor Rachel Whiteread, whose cast negative-space impressions of the interiors of Victorian houses (in concrete), Manhattan water towers (translucent resin) and sundry, lesser domestic artifacts have garnered worldwide attention for nearly two decades.
For me, Whiteread has always been the most problematic member of the YBAs (the world-beating Young British Artists group led by Damien "Shark in a Vitrine" Hirst and sponsored by Charles Saatchi), if only because she is the most formally gifted of the lot, and the most openly and unironically indebted to modernist antecedents like minimalism, conceptualism and Arte Povera. I always found her work pleasant to look at, which is certainly more than I can say about Hirst, Tracey Emin and the rest of the faux-Duchampian blue-chip hacks of Albion. She does, however, share their notable lack of originality — which, due to indifference, amnesia and the marketing muscle power of Mr. Saatchi, proved no impediment to marketplace saturation and global critical accolades.
Which is fine, God bless them, at least they're not devising ad campaigns to get Margaret Thatcher into office (or covering America with shitty clapboard housing projects for that matter). And the art is fine, too. If someone wants to take a handful of old Nauman sculptures and laboriously explicate every narrative nuance they imply, then that's what they want to do, and that's what art is about. And it's not like nobody ever made note of the derivation (except in the catalog of Whiteread's current drawing exhibition at the Hammer Museum — Duchamp and Picasso, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, yes; Bernini and Piero della Francesca, of course! Nauman, no). After all, milking the interstices of art history prior to the complete dematerialization of the commodifiable art object is pretty much the only game in town for anyone wanting to turn a buck. It's hard to hang a 1,500-foot trench in the Nevada desert over your couch.
What's a little creepier is the lack of acknowledgment of Robert Overby, a local multidisciplinary artist (his main gig was commercial design) whose latex casts of walls, doors, staircases and entire architectural façades predate Whiteread's sculptural equivalents by two decades. Not that Whiteread is likely to have encountered Overby's work — he died in 1993 (the year Whiteread won the Turner Prize for her House), having withdrawn his work from public view in the '70s. After his death, a spate of gallery shows revived interest in his disparate oeuvre, culminating in 2000 with his retrospective "Parallel, 1978–1969" — at the Hammer Museum. You wouldn't know it from the museum's Web site though, which has no record of the exhibit. I'm not suggesting there's some kind of conspiracy, just business as usual for the increasingly downsized, increasingly mediocre international art pond. Quirky, local history doesn't trickle up.
Whiteread's drawings, collages and maquettes are interesting enough, though surprisingly decorative for objects that were supposedly never intended for exhibition — and frequently devoid of the spatial negativity that characterizes her best work. The strongest visual statements are her modified postcard studies, using Wite-Out and perforations to reimagine architectural spaces in ways that are striking and inventive. She has a strong instinct for design, and if this were a show by an emerging Southern California designer, I probably wouldn't be so crabby. But context is everything. Does the L.A. art community really need to be told at this point in time that a carpetbagging megadose of competent Eva Hesse–isms is more important than anything that could be scraped together from the 20,000 artists who live here? If you're going to make me look at something churned out by the multinational corporate art industry, couldn't it be something I haven't seen a thousand times before? Or am I being too optimistic?
One artist who manages a remarkable tightrope balance with many levels of negativity — while always managing to surprise — is painter Karen Carson, whose work has ranged from minimalist geometric fabric "paintings" (with zippers allowing reconfiguration) to baroque, mirror-studded, cobbled-together architectonic abstract explosions; shaped-canvas cubist bouquets of decorative-clock flowers or stealth-bomber/vulture hybrids; vinyl banners combining Las Vegas gaming design with stripped-down Buddhist aphorisms; and backlit bar-style light boxes depicting raging forest fires. Her latest body of work continues her recent exploration of strategies like rectangular surfaces covered entirely with paint, constituting an image of a landscape. For Carson, that's pretty far out.
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"Let's Face the Music and Dance" consists of more than a dozen rectangles of paint-encrusted linen and paper: panoramic vistas of sunsets, gathering storms, explosions and other pathetic fallacies, acting as backdrops for a bewildering array of dancing silhouettes — swing couples, Martha Graham types, chorus lines and tap. Smaller vistas are framed with weirdly exaggerated decorative frames, hand-painted with monochromatic wood-grain patterns. Like much of the best art, Carson's work operates in the negative space of good taste, and though her current parameters may seem like those of conventional painting, she repeatedly and provocatively flouts upscale international-style decorator etiquette. And it ain't just them frames.
Carson's handling of paint is masterful but dredges up a moment in proletarian decorative arts when the gestural flourishes — the drips and spatters of abstract expressionism — were put in the service of a jazzily stylized pictorialism. At the opening, I observed several artists visibly discomfited by this work, literally unable to look at something so fundamentally wrong according to the tenets of contemporary art history. It is these concealed, visually encoded, cultural reflex buttons for which Carson consistently probes. Similarly, the emotional exaggeration and overt sentimentality of the imagery and palette are on the one hand exquisitely inflammatory, on the other profound and heartfelt. Balancing a hyperdecorative visual vocabulary laced with high-art no-no's, badass formalist chops (including a formidable command of illusionistic space), and ominous — though joyous and funny — ruminations on death, disaster and human frailty, Carson manages to make the end of the world look like the dawn of a brand-new day. And if that's not negative, I don't know what is.
RACHEL WHITEREAD DRAWINGS | Hammer Museum | 10899 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through April 25
KAREN CARSON: LET'S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE | Rosamund Felsen Gallery | Bergamot Station B4, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through April 17