This year felt like a year of growing pains for art in Los Angeles. Maybe that's because 2012 started as Pacific Standard Time -- that regionwide, Getty-funded series of exhibitions on SoCal art history -- wound down and the art community shifted attention from past to present. Maybe it's because the deaths of artists Mike Kelley and Michael Asher, both beloved for being "conceptual" while caring deeply about their audiences, forced us to grapple with what populism and popularity mean in art more than we otherwise would have. Maybe it's because LACMA transported a 340-ton boulder from Riverside to Mid-Wilshire around the same time the Hammer Museum staged the first L.A.-only biennial and offered a $100,000 prize voted on by the public. And artists resigned from MOCA's board, fearing the museum's new allegiances with commercial culture would undercut its quality.
It's probably a combination of all these things, of course. The exhibitions and art events that stood out most this year felt like they were grappling with the growing pains and these questions of what spectacle is good spectacle, while trying to be conscientious, communal and still smart. Here are our top 10.
1. When Mike Kelley, the 57-year-old artist whose forays into pop psychology and poignant respect for kitsch brought a generation of artists to L.A., died on Jan. 31, his family and friends planned For the Love of Mike: 24 Hours of Mike Kelley Videos. Held in the mazelike Eagle Rock building where Kelley used to work, it featured his self-effacing, surreal and sometimes ecstatic reinterpretations of high school assemblies or Easter egg hunts, and historic performance art redone as soft-core porn, with all the videos playing simultaneously in multiple rooms. The whole event had a relaxed rawness that you felt you could stay in forever.
2. When "Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler," the show co-organized in a West Hollywood storefront by artist Corazon del Sol and the nonprofit LAND, opened, it included People's Prick by Paul Cotton, a furry, phallic sculpture with a slit down its middle and a winged metal penis hanging from a string beneath it. Pull the string and "The Impossible Dream" played. Cotton and the others on view used to show at Eugenia Butler's gallery in the 1960s, and "Perpetual Conceptual" had an anarchic sense of possibility that people who knew her say the late Butler had, too.
3. When artist Asher Hartman staged See What Love the Father Has Given Us at alt space Machine Project, actress Jasmine Orpilla played God. "You would put your tongue in your own father's mouth?" she said to Jesus, played by Joe Seely, when he tried to kiss her halfway through the performance, staged just before Easter. The audience followed the cast through the tight set and the specially built, slanted hallway Machine called "transdimensional," sometimes jumping out of the way when trapdoors popped open. Orpilla, Seely and fellow cast member Marcus Kuiland-Nazario (a stand-in for the Holy Spirit) wore Circuit City uniforms throughout and navigated break-room politics, so the hierarchy of a now-defunct box store meshed with the hierarchy of the Holy Trinity.
4. When My Barbarian had its monthlong residency Broke People's Baroque Peoples' Theater at Human Resources in February, the troupe filled the galleries with props, costumes and videos that pulled classic mythology into the context of 21st-century recession anxiety. The trio, made up of Jade Gordon, Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade, also staged two performances, both of which involved audience participation. During the first, volunteers dressed in togas and acted out certain words or terms they'd been given -- one volunteer got "Iraq and Afghanistan" and writhed on the floor as if shot while a backup band played.
Up next: Michael Heizer at LACMA