THE ABSOLUT L.A. INTERNATIONAL Biennial Art Invitational, a citywide art fair now in its fourth incarnation, involves more than 60 Los Angeles galleries in an informal summer exchange program designed to “foster a dialogue between the Los Angeles art community and artists, galleries, curators, museums, collectors and visitors from around the world.” Organized in an unusual cooperative style with no overseeing curatorial authority, the Swedish-vodka sponsored ALAIBAI (sounds like . . . AA plus alibi?) sees itself as a “paradigm shift” reflecting the decentralized structure of L.A., and as a model for a post-electronic, postmillennial globalized art network. This year's version of democracy is even more top-heavy than before, though, with a drop-off in the participation of small, hip galleries and a simultaneous increase in the number of museums and corporate sponsors. And while it sounds good on paper, the “dialogue” on the street is somewhat less than sparkling.
Gallerists have had mixed feelings about participating. Many had to be cajoled into the project, in spite of the substantial subsidization that most normal industrialized nations provide their artists and galleries. Shows in Austria, the Netherlands, Brazil and Australia often include at least part of a month's rent, shipping costs and a glossy brochure or catalog — support unimaginable to most L.A. artists (unless, of course, they show overseas). Many of the local galleries simply arrange their exhibition schedules so that foreign artists they already represent fall into the Absolut slot. Patrick Painter, for example, has held over its idiosyncratic but somehow condescending exhibition of virtuosic paintings by Englishman Glenn Brown. Others resort to tokenism, tucking some hapless Dutchman in the broom closet while otherwise continuing with regularly scheduled programming. Those that go whole hog and host entire foreign galleries often exercise minimal editorial control over what's exhibited. While this makes for a more fertile random sample in theory, the actual shows offer few surprises, staying firmly within the current homogenized international-art-magazine formulas.
There are, of course, exceptions. This year, Rosamund Felsen Gallery, in keeping with its unspoken policy of exhibiting weirdo animal art, hosts one of the more interesting painting shows to hit L.A. in a while. Australian Stephen Bush presents a peculiar tripartite vision, consisting of large-scale oil paintings: four almost-but-not-quite-identical muted monochromatic landscapes littered with rock-climbing stuffed Babar toys, two more vividly colored landscapes with what appear to be humans in fuzzy elephant costumes engaged in indeterminate sexual activity, and four smaller photorealist renderings of green plastic trash containers. Less impressive, but still worth a look, is the other Australian painter, Howard Arkley (at Karyn Lovegrove), whose fatal OD last week unfortunately lends his work poignancy and art-star currency. Blum & Poe, alongside several less engaging Belgian lights, presents a strangely compelling video projection by Pierre Bismuth of a real-time translation/transcription of the dubbed French audio track of Antonioni's The Passenger.
A more humorous and overtly political conceptual slant is reflected in Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren's installation (at Robert Berman) of the documentation of their self-declared country, the Kingdom of Elgaland-Vargaland (incongruously billed as a Swedish exhibit), including bank notes, a constitution, several national anthems (one by L.A. expatriate John Duncan) and applications for citizenship. Austrian group shows at both POST Downtown (disclosure: I show there) and Patricia Faure are satisfyingly humorous and quirky, and POST has scored a small coup by exhibiting new work by Canadian sculptor Mowry Baden, whose spare but humorous formalism influenced both Chris Burden and Charles Ray.
IRONICALLY, SEVERAL OF THE BEST exhibits connected with this year's International are 100 percent American-made: “Lee Mullican Selected Drawings 1945 1980” and “Drawn From Artists Collections,” both at the Armand Hammer, opened in conjunction with the museum's hosting of the ALAIBAI vernissage (that's French for “opening”) and bode well for the new Hammer directorship of curator Ann Philbin (late of New York's Drawing Center). The new work by David Amico at Ace, also technically drawing, consists of highly graphic oil and graphite applications to large sheets of treated styrene. These “drawings” nevertheless show a midcareer painter at the height of his powers and continuing to take formal and conceptual risks, demonstrating for L.A.'s ltape-and-spatula school how much actual substance can be gleaned from the vocabulary of geometric abstraction.
Aside from POST, most of L.A.'s smaller, artist-run galleries are steering clear of the brouhaha. “It's too trendy. We don't want to be trendy,” says Robert Miller of Miller Durazo, who, along with Vermont Avenue gallery George's, are mounting an ambitious two-space show around the issue of foliage. “Plus we only do eight shows a year, and there's more than enough L.A. artists who don't get shown at all.” Miller's position reflects a common concern among the lower echelons of the L.A. art community. While L.A. attempts to position itself as the new model of American global art center in line with Berlin or São Paulo, it still has major problems at home accommodating the glut of young artists emerging from its ballyhooed phalanx of graduate-art programs. Only a handful of small, hip galleries are willing to show unknown, unbacked artists, and there remains no serious risk-taking local collector base to support anything but the most inoffensive decorative abstract couch painting (gussied up with critical hosannas though it may be). Perhaps Los Angeles would be wiser to set its own house in order before trying to play with the big kids from the countries where there is firmly entrenched government and popular support for art.
Some of the criticism around town has been less . . . constructive. “We're an alternative gallery. We want to provide an alternative,” observed one artist-gallerist on the condition of anonymity. “Besides, this Absolut International thing is seriously fucked. Did you see the loot bag they gave away at the opening? A packet of Altoid mints and a complimentary copy of Gallery Guide in a paper sack from Barney's? Last time, they at least had vodka-bottle key chains and cloth totes. And the 'buffet dinner' was vacuumed up in 20 minutes. It's a dog-and-pony show on its last legs, man.” More subtle digs were contained in LACE's pointed serving of Bombay Sapphire gin martinis at the opening of its Tri-Annuale Part I opening, as well as in the scheduling of “Sig-alert 2,” a museum exhibition at Cal State Fullerton amounting to a virtual who's who of the L.A. alternative gallery scene, to coincide with the International.
In spite of the obvious issues, it's hard to get a handle on why the Absolut International has failed to catch fire. The globalization of the art world is real and palpable. Los Angeles has benefited more from its increased ties with Europe, Asia and South America than from any other single factor in its recent history. New York would never have gotten enthralled with “L.A. art” if Europe hadn't gotten there first, and the reciprocity of the Absolut Biennial has led to a major influx of young or overlooked L.A. artists at the alternative-space level overseas, and at the very least influenced the possibility for museum shows like “Sunshine & Noir.” The work that turns up for the International isn't worse than what you find in Los Angeles at any given moment; in fact, it's almost indistinguishable. The problem may lie with the failure of organizers to come up with a structure for these art-fair events that matches the sprawling, disconnected mosaic members of the L.A. art community navigate every day. We gave the Convention Center model a chance, we tried the hotel-room routine, and the Absolut International has gotten more than a fair shake. But in spite of its attempt at nonhierarchical restructuring, the ALAIBAI seems unable to strike the right chord. Nice try, though. And thanks for all the martinis.
ABSOLUT L.A. INTERNATIONAL BIENNIAL ART INVITATIONAL
200 artists l Over 60 galleries l Citywide l Through August 21