Photo by Debra DiPaolo
NICK LOWE, 21 AND A HALF, IS IN HIS STUDIO explaining boy-oh-boy art:
"'Boy-oh-boy' was the title of one of Ry Rocklen's shows, and since then we've decided we both have a boy-oh-boy aesthetic. On one level, we're just using art to flesh out adolescent fantasies. But we think that adolescent boys' fantasies are important to the rest of the world. Our work is infused with youthful luster. We're not trying to critique any art movement. That takes too much time. Still, it's eloquent and formally complex. The art isn't trying to be dumb-ass. I think Ry and I are trying to make something perfectly imperfect. We take something ugly and make it look good. We take something dumb and make it smart. Stupid things are important. Stupidity is probably more important than intelligence; there's more of it."
Nick's rambling manifesto is interrupted periodically by the whir of his electric pencil sharpener. He's working on a 9-foot drawing of a snowcapped mountain. The icy crevices are littered with the frozen bodies of climbers. Goats scamper on the rocks. He's doing the entire drawing in graphite.
"I've been doing it for almost four months now," he says, "and I'm still not done. I don't know if I'm going to be done in time for the show."
The show is "Big Trouble in Little China," a three-person exhibition at Chinatown's Black Dragon Society. The mid-October opening is a few days away.
"Big Trouble," Nick says. "That's an adolescent-boy fantasy for sure. They always want to be the troublemaker. They want to be respected for making trouble. Boys get a lot of respect for throwing rocks, breaking things, blowing things up."
Nick's cell phone rings. It's Nick's fellow conspirator, Ry Rocklen. When he hears that Nick's talking about boy-oh-boy, he demands that Nick hand the phone over to me. And Ry starts talking:
"The job of the artist is to make something people can get into but without leaving their troubles behind. You don't leave your troubles behind when you look at our work. My sculpture is called Sleeping Giant. There's a sleeping giant holding a mountain filled with dark caves on his lap. The caves might fucking signify Afghanistanis hiding in caves. That's just a stupid coincidence, but I'm into coincidences."
Somewhat incredulous, I ask Ry if you really can make connections between his Sleeping Giant sculpture and international politics.
"Hell yeah, you can! I'm pushing boy-oh-boy art into places it doesn't belong. So this art is about adolescent angst. About the angst of boys. Well, Bush is just a big boy. Bush ain't nothing but a boy. The issues of boys don't go away when the boys become men."
Nick and Ry are part of what seems to be a Kobe Bryant effect in the art world. When Dennis Cooper cataloged the comings and goings of the "hottest art school in the country" in 1998 for Spin, he was writing about UCLA graduate students, typically in their late 20s. Nick, on the other hand, is still an undergrad at UCLA. Ry finished his undergraduate work last spring. Already both have a toehold in the L.A. galleries. Ry has curated a show at the Coleman Gallery and exhibited multiple times at the Hatch and Black Dragon. Nick has shown work at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, and a drawing show titled "Battle for the Greatest Drawing in the World" that he curated for the Black Dragon Society will be traveling to Vienna in the unspecified future. The anxiousness, the stressful uncertainty of being discovered, "grabbed," by a gallery -- which Cooper articulated so well in Spin -- is notably lacking. Nick and Ry seem to be charging headfirst, with little consideration for what the art world thinks of them. Or perhaps that's just bluster.
Artist, UCLA art professor and Black Dragon Society co-owner Roger Herman disagrees with my "Kobe-effect" theory. "It's not like it will be high school next, and then it will be kindergarten," he says in his German-edged English. "This just happens sometimes. In '85, I had a really good class. Then there might be five years when I don't remember a single student. I mean, sometimes you just have a class that is really good together, and these guys -- and that includes Mark and Cedar and Paul and Felisa [Golamco, Bylard, Cherwick and Funes respectively] and Hannah Greely -- were more fascinating to me than the grad students. They were young and worked together, and there was something fresher and not as calculated. There's this energy they have, or had . . ."
"You can see it fading already," says Nick, who's been sitting nearby, listening. Roger (pronounced in the French manner) laughs, then starts in again:
"This art, it was a real free-for-all. There was lots of good quality, and they were not pulling all these strategic decisions like 'I want to elaborate on conceptual art' or 'I want to elaborate on minimalist art.' They don't have an agenda. It's all somewhat chaotic and anarchic. It was politically incorrect and silly and serious at the same time. I haven't seen anything like that here before. I see maybe relationships between their work and work I liked in Europe in the '80s, and I don't mean the Abstract Expressionists. There was this group in Cologne . . . Kippenberger and Dokoupil."
"We're modern-day dark surrealists with a boy-oh-boy twist," Nick volunteers. Laughter.
"He's much better than me at talking about himself," Roger admits. "He provides the hot quotes. He should take over."
"Take over what?" Nick says, apparently interested in the idea of taking something over.
"You should run the Black Dragon," Roger says.
CONVERTED THREE YEARS AGO FROM A KUNG FU academy of the same name, the Black Dragon Society was one of the first two galleries -- along with China ä Art Objects -- born into the now much-publicized L.A. Chinatown art scene. I ask Roger why Chinatown has received so much attention. "Because people are bored," he says. "Because, really, the quality isn't that great. There's a lot of bad stuff. I wouldn't ever go there if I didn't own the Black Dragon. But I have to be there to open and close the gate."
Roger and Nick start chuckling again. Come on, I think and say.
"No," he says, "I like China Art Objects a lot. But I think Chinatown isn't as interesting as it could be. It used to be kind of underground. Now these Saturday openings are just a mediocre club. A young artist's Universal CityWalk. I told David Pagel the other day -- he's doing a piece on Chinatown for the L.A. Times -- I said that the Black Dragon was the only real projects-type space. You know, it's this new thing to call your gallery a project. Like Deitch Projects in New York. Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. They're just regular commercial galleries. A project is more an active experimental place where something can happen."
"Like government housing projects," Nick quips from the sidelines.
They both fall to laughing again.
It's Saturday afternoon, and I've come over to the Black Dragon to watch the show get set up. Already up are drawings and paintings by Rob Thom, the third artist in this show. One of Ry's paintings, a crude (in both technicality and subject matter) depiction of Ry fucking the right nostril of a dead/sleeping dinosaur, hangs on another wall. Nick is up on a ladder, still diligently working on his graphite mountain of death. Ry was supposed to be there that morning, Nick tells me, but he's currently MIA. Apparently he has a reputation for last-minute arrivals.
It's an interesting scene, the pre-opening gallery. Casual, but with the same underlying tension you can find in a theater's green room.
John Polypchuk stops by; he's a UCLA graduate whose sad junk animals have made appearances both at China Art Objects and more recently at the Hammer Museum. Nick stops working. "Oh, hey, John, can I see those slides?" He holds the slides to the light with the same excitement and knowledge as a kid collecting baseball cards. "Oh, I think these sculptures kind of rock."
In the basement of the Black Dragon, a crew of artists is at work. Julie Moon, a young artist from Otis, is curating a show in the basement. "If this is the museum," Roger says, "then the basement is the lab."
Dean Valentine, president of UPN and a big art buyer, stops by. Earlier, Nick mentioned him because he "bought Hannah's [Greely] duck for $7,500. It was a duck on a helmet." Roger and Nick become noticeably more attentive. Valentine says the giant mountain drawing is too big for the wall he has in mind. Nick says, "Oh, we can just cut off a few feet here and there." The UPN man buys one of the "framed" paintings instead and leaves.
Dorothy Goldeen, a well-known art consultant, visits with her husband. They put a hold on the second framed work. She will be back in a half-hour to complete the deal.
It's 4 p.m., two hours before the show opens, and Ry has still not made an appearance. Roger checks his watch.
"Would you be offended if I told you there's a Where's Waldo? thing happening here?" I say to Nick, looking at his mountain painting.
"No, 'cause that's one of my reasons for doing it," Nick says. "I think there's a Hieronymus Bosch element here, too. In fact, I think Where's Waldo? is derivative of Hieronymus Bosch. Actually, my college entrance essay was on Where's Waldo?, because I said I want to find new things. And I was accepted, so . . ."
Ry runs up to the window front of the Black Dragon. He's a mess of gangly limbs and curly brown hair. It's 4:18. "Nick!" he shouts, and without any further explanation, Nick and Ry dash down Chung King Road. I hurry outside. Ry has disappeared around a corner of a building, and Nick is bent over, cracking up. His laugh is vaguely evil, a snorting chortle, like Igor at the sight of a fresh new brain. The next second, Nick and Ry are running back. Nick's arms are wrapped around a boulder, and Ry is carrying a life-size version of himself, naked. Sleeping Giant has arrived. Time is short, and Ry gets to work immediately, assembling and dressing the giant. Once complete, the giant sits on the boulder clutching a mountain in his lap. He is sleeping, and water (drool) runs down the side of the mountain. As he adjusts the cloths and water pump, Ry tells me that Charlie Ray, UCLA's sculpture wizard, offered his assistance in casting Ry's hands and face.
"That is a really good sculpture," Nick says, sounding awed.
"Yeah," Ry says, "and there's special symbolic stuff, too." A pause. "This shirt I borrowed from the girl who I lost my virginity to." Nick's face scrunches with laughter.
"Dude," he says finally, "we are so solid this time. We are so solid."
"Yeah," Ry says, "we are not fucking around."
IN A COUPLE HOURS THE CROWDS will arrive, the glut of hipsters, artists, collectors, whoever, doing, to quote Dennis Cooper, "what people usually do at openings: chatting nervously about anything but art." Nick's mountain will sell, Roger pulling him to the side for a hurried discussion about pricing. In the time before then, I ask Nick a few last questions.
So you've been doing this mountain for months now? What's next?
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"I've been looking at how space is structured in video games. I mean I like the size of the mountain, but I don't like the time it took, the amountain of time it took, to construct. Because I like putting stuff out there and seeing what response I get. So I had this plan to, um . . . there's this tribe in Mexico, kind of near, I think it's, I can't remember where in Mexico, but they're the Huichol Indians, and they live on this island, and they dye this yarn and take all this peyote. Like when you're an adolescent, they do all this peyote to signify that they're going into manhood, and they do these crazy dyed-yarn paintings, and I want to take that and combine it with early video games, like games from '84 or '85, and the way space is constructed . . ."
He is interrupted by the phone ringing.
"Hey, Ken, what's up. Hey, you should come to my art show tonight. Uh, yeah, do you know where Chinatown is?"
"Big Trouble in Little China" continues at Black Dragon Society, 916 Chung King Road, through November 30.