A year ago, during his debut podcast, novelist Bret Easton Ellis fielded questions from Twitter followers, including one about how he handles reviews. The novelist mentioned a tendency among critics to only champion art that gives them hope for humanity, which his doesn't. But this seems a slight mischaracterization. Ellis' books, such as Less Than Zero or American Psycho, often frustrate reviewers because it's hard to tell whether they're participating in or critiquing the sort of bleakness they detail.
If there's no critique, or some sort of thoughtful excavation, then is the art giving us anything different from the strain of culture it portrays? Is it ever enough to just portray?
These questions have felt particularly pertinent in visual art lately. In the November issue of Art in America, for instance, writer Brian Droitcour says it's hard for him "to believe that anything close to a critique is happening" in much art given the suddenly widespread "post-Internet" label. Others have defined "post-Internet" as exploring or at least showing an awareness of how the Internet affects image and information distribution. Droitcour defines it as art made to look good online, which has stopped questioning and started performing for an audience that will probably see the work only quickly in a browser window.
The "is a critique happening?" question also is worth asking about the current shows by J. Patrick Walsh III, who goes by JPW3, at Night Gallery and Sayre Gomez at François Ghebaly. It's not something I tried to figure out the first time I saw them. But I was later asked some version of that question by a number of other artists, gallerists and curators and had been unsure how to answer.
It's hard not to think about these two shows in tandem. Partly this is because the two artists, both in their early 30s, have shown together before, at the now-closed Las Cienegas Projects in 2011 and at Samuel Freeman Gallery in Culver City in 2013. And for the past year, Night and Ghebaly have been back to back in downtown's Industrial District, less than half a block from the hard-to-miss Dames n' Games strip club.
Especially when their openings happen on the same night, the two galleries feel as if they're part of the same youthful scene. Given the size of the spaces and, frequently, the scale of the work in the shows, it's also a savvy, successful scene.
A human-sized hole cut into the fence that separates the two galleries' parking lots appeared around the same time Gomez's and JPW3's shows opened last month (it's a collaborative piece by the two of them), so now you can get from one gallery to the other in less time.
The first time I walked through "32 Leaves, I Don't, The Face of Smoke," JPW3's exhibition at Night, I went fairly quickly. Physically, it's immediately impressive. Outside the gallery, there is a pot-smoking hut — or is it a teahouse? — with a lumpy, cast-aluminum sculpture on the floor, which resembles the interior of an egg carton. Inside the gallery, the large, sculptural, wax-covered stand-ins for race car parts, the wax portrait of late race car driver Ayrton Senna, the gritty soundtrack playing in the background, popcorn scattered underneath an automobile wheel and the craps table in the gallery's back corner have a celebratory guy-ishness to them that can be difficult to engage. ("When did being a dude become cool again?" a writer asked, in one of the many conversations I've had about the shows since, though it probably hasn't ever entirely stopped being cool.)
JPW3's "32 Leaves" conjures an earlier racing-inspired installation by New York–based Banks Violette — but Violette's installation, with its impeccably crafted, bent-metal barriers and eroding number 88 for Dale Earnhardt Jr., made you feel as if you were being confronted by the dark side of the racing world. Even the careful craft seemed sinister.
In JPW3's installation, you feel more that the art is performing for you, taking inspiration for its ambitious objects from a sporty, industrial world on which it doesn't feel the need to comment.
The second time I saw the show, when I lingered for a while, I felt trapped as a viewer: My options were to be impressed by the ambitious approximation of that world or to feel alienated by the work because that wasn't a world in which I could lose myself.
Gomez's "I'm Different" at Ghebaly has a smoother, more commodity-inspired feel. I enjoyed squatting down on the mulch that covered the gallery floor, which I didn't initially notice had some trash mixed into it, next to Fiberglas rocks with speakers embedded in them. The rocks play songs from one of Mark Zuckerberg's Spotify playlists — we deserve to know what billionaire Zuckerberg is listening to since he's "allowing the integration of Spotify onto the Facebook platform," says tongue-in-cheek independent website CelebritySpotifyPlaylist.com. Squatting is necessary if you want to make out whether a rock is playing Kanye or Jay Z, because sounds blur together.
Gomez's semi-photorealist and abstract paintings, which are mostly purple and blue, and commercially designed banners that say things such as "I really need some training," hang on the walls around the mulch and rocks.
In the smaller second room, two perfectly smooth, ultramarine coffee tables have blue-coated, store-bought objects on them. Gray-on-blue text paintings on the wall pair a Kurt Cobain quote with a Beatles quote. The show's title, "I'm Different," starts to seem like a joke. There are so many different objects and materials, certainly, but haven't they all emerged from the same pop-corporate stew? The show becomes a strategically rearranged version of that stew, where you're not quite sure where the individual ends and commercial hustle begins, or whether Mark Zuckerberg's playlist is cool or representative of one billionaire's frightening influence.
Is that OK? To portray a stew and leave it at that? One problem with leaving it at that is that these shows play into a trend in the art market, a demand for a cool, confident kind of abstract or semi-abstract art by mostly male artists. In their distinctive ways, both artists seem to be giving the commercial art world what it wants, and also exploiting it by exacting a seemingly marketable artist persona.
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Seeing past work by these artists makes it difficult to believe JPW3 is the sport-, industry- and material-obsessed romantic or Gomez the talented-chameleon-with-resources he comes off as in this context.
Is that a critique in itself, to exploit while participating? If so, its in-betweenness and cynicism is depressing. And while it's entirely unfair to expect individual artists to offer you a way out of a market-driven situation that's pervasive, wouldn't it be great if they at least fucked things up a little more?
SAYRE GOMEZ: I'M DIFFERENT | François Ghebaly, 2245 E. Washington Blvd., dwntwn. | Through Nov. 22 | (213) 304-5062 | ghebaly.com
JPW3: 32 LEAVES, I DON'T, THE FACE OF SMOKE | Night Gallery, 2276 E. 16th St., dwntwn. | Through Nov. 15 | (323) 589-1135 | nightgallery.ca