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
5. When “Made in L.A.,” the inaugural L.A. biennial organized by the Hammer Museum, opened, Hammer curator Ali Subotnick staged an off-site biennial-within-a-biennial. She brought “art-world” artists — the kind who have art-school degrees, or have shown in galleries — to the Venice Beach Boardwalk, where sometimes-eccentric creatives have sold wares since before the free-love era, and the one-weekend Venice Beach Biennial was as all-over-the-place as it should have been. Some regulars were skeptical, some uninterested and others proud participants. Some “art-world” artists were out of place, but others fit in perfectly, like Alex Becerra, chatting up passersby while wearing a floral dress, and Cara Faye Earl, painting her garden gnome-sized terrorist sculptures on the spot.
6. When the exhibit “James Lee Byars” at Overduin and Kite gallery opened, you could tell why the artist, who used to sign letters “The Great James Lee” and made his first “artwork” when he moved all his mother's furniture out of the house and replaced it with spherical stones, awed and confused people during his lifetime. The work seemed both lordly and crowd-pleasing — especially the ceiling-high, red silk tent with the gold Tibetan throne inside.
7. When Michael Heizer's 340-ton rock arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum's back lot and become part of the outdoor sculpture Levitated Mass, another exhibition of Heizer's work opened and made the artist's preoccupation with size and insistence on making huge art more understandable than the rock's transport had. “Actual Size” at LACMA featured life-size photographs Heizer began taking in 1970, documenting massive rocks he found in various states and countries. The photos spanned from floor to ceiling, and no visitors to LACMA's galleries could take photos, because then, in their photos, the rocks would no longer be “actual size,” which would defeat the point.
Up next: MOCA
8. When artist Emily Mast staged B!RDBRA!N at Public Fiction in Highland Park in September, it was her third staging of it this year, and the best one. The abstract-language experiment, performed by seven actors and loosely inspired by the true story of a parrot with the intellect of a 5-year-old, felt aloof when performed in front of a static audience. But at Public Fiction, audience members could wander in and around the brightly colored set while a little girl recited an existentialist monologue or a man in sweats break-danced while making train-conductorlike hand signals. At the end, audiences could request encores of specific scenes until performers got too tired.
9. When James Franco asked Paul McCarthy, an artist known for irreverent fantasies that often involve prosthetics, puppets and bodily fluids, to make work loosely inspired by the making of Rebel Without a Cause, McCarthy said he would “dabble.” McCarthy and son Damon McCarthy put on “Rebel Dabble Babble” at the Box L.A., the space run by Paul's daughter, Mara McCarthy, at the same time as Franco put on a far less thoughtful MOCA show in Hollywood (to which the McCarthys also contributed). They hired Elyse Poppers to play Natalie Wood, who purportedly had trysts with director Nicholas Ray during Rebel's filming. In the videos projected all over the Box's labyrinthine space, Paul McCarthy appeared as Ray, bathing with Poppers in one sequence and pulling a chair out from under her repeatedly in another. It was as sadistically unnerving as it should have been.
10. When you walk into “Blues for Smoke” at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary space (on display through Jan. 7), you see Richard Pryor on a TV monitor doing stand-up comedy. Then, on the first floor, you walk through a waxy all-red, chapel-like room built by artist Rodney McMillian, you see Kerry James Marshall's painting of a figure swimming in a haunted blue lake and you can watch HBO's The Wire in a small, dark gallery. Bennett Simpson curated the show and, of all the attempts the museum has made to merge pop culture, commercial media and art this year (the Mercedes-Benz-backed Transmission L.A. fest, Franco's “Rebel” show), this is the one that actually works.