Talk of “Chain Letter” started bubbling through the art community about a month ago, after curators Christian Cummings and (former LA Weekly critic) Doug Harvey sent out the first two email invitations asking 10 artists they each admire to participate in a free-for-all group exhibition at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Bergamot Station. Those 10 artists were asked to forward the invitation to 10 artists they admire, and so on into infinity. Anyone who received an invitation was automatically accepted into the show. No wall work was allowed, everything was to be placed on the floor and artists were to deliver and install their pieces themselves.
Art writer (and LA Weekly freelancer) Shana Nys Dambrot may have summed up the mood when she said to Harvey during a panel discussion at Beacon Arts Building, “What were ya thinkin'!?” Within days of the initial invitation, every artist in town had received an average of seven invites to “Chain Letter.” Even non-artists like Dambrot and myself received invites.
And it didn't stop there — there was talk of invitations and acceptances circulating around the country and even the globe. Artists were either shipping their work to friends to install, or coming in from as far away as the East Coast to participate. As critic Mat Gleason said during the same aforementioned panel, “You know my sister is coming down from Santa Cruz and bringing all her hippie gear with her.”
Beacon Arts curator Renée Fox and I pictured a gallery literally bulging with art, kind of like the fat, overstuffed man in the Month Python sketch who eats one last “wafer-thin mint” and ends up exploding. We figured we'd each toss in a wafer-thin work on paper as our contributions and then run away to safety.
The truth was not far removed from this vision. Installation of “Chain Letter” took place on a single day — last Friday, July 22 — which very quickly came to be known and reported on the social media interwebs as Artmageddon. Shoshana Wayne may have the interesting distinction of being the only art gallery in L.A. history to cause a SigAlert; there were so many cars trying to enter Bergamot Station to deliver artwork that by mid-day, traffic cops had to be called in to redirect cars to park on the surrounding streets.
Once inside, there was a huge line of artists clutching their artwork, snaking from the entrance of the gallery all the way down past Craig Krull and Greenfield Sacks and around the bend behind Bergamot Café. By all accounts, the wait to deliver and install artwork was about two hours. A few artists I ran into as they were leaving had given up on the whole enterprise, either because they had somewhere else to be in an hour or because they thought this whole thing was a ridiculous mess that they didn't want to be a part of.
The vast majority of people, however, seemed cool with waiting in the hot sun for as long as it took, and the mood as I circulated through the crowds, chatting with many friends who had shown up for the occasion, was surprisingly upbeat and friendly. People hung out with their posses, caught up with other friends, met new people, and checked out each other's artwork. The proceedings were orderly; gallery staff was on hand to manage the flow and assign a number to each incoming artwork. By the end of the day, when full capacity was reached and the gallery decided to stop accepting work, the number of pieces received was just under 1,600.
Shoshana Wayne proper, a medium-sized gallery, reached its capacity some time after the lunch hour (which really would have benefited from a food truck or two). Luckily, the owners had the pull to open two additional unused gallery spaces — D2 and F1 — within the Bergamot compound to accommodate more artworks.
I followed two groups of friends into F1, a raw space that looked like it hadn't been occupied in years. I must say, watching the self-installation of artworks unfold there was a delight. No fighting or grousing took place; people just sort of organically found the right spots for their own pieces. They were respectful of one another's work, and even helped each other with ideas for how to install difficult pieces. A long row of roses crafted out of canvas was carefully laid on the floor, dangerously bordering the footpath, and yet after a couple of hours each rose remained undisturbed. A childlike happiness was in the air and more than once I heard the ecstatic phrase, “This is so fun!” coming out of the mouths of artists of every age.
Talking to co-curator Doug Harvey later, we both agreed that install day was the real event, the real artwork, and certainly the part of the process that was most rewarding for Harvey, who spent the day running around the compound helping various friends move their work. For me, a non-artist, watching the sheer volume of creative output coming out of every corner of Los Angeles and beyond was revelatory. And, feeling the spirit of joy and cooperation that permeated this huge instant community of artists was probably the closest I've come to experiencing some kind of utopia.
Co-curator Christian Cummings was heard to say that his only regret was that not every artist who was invited said yes. Artist Kate Durbin wrote a thoughtful response to this sentiment via a Facebook exchange: “The word yes is incredibly powerful; we sometimes forget that it is the driving force of all art. Instead we get caught up in exclusionary practices, gallery spaces, critics, and politics. What if, instead of all that, and in spite of blazing sun, long lines, traffic and the disintegration of hierarchies between the 'good' and the 'bad' and the 'important and the 'kitsch,' every self-proclaimed artist simply said 'yes?' The power of that would be infinite, world-changing.”
The resulting exhibition is indeed an enormous conflagration of yeses. Some yeses are obviously trying very hard to be bigger, taller, louder and crazier than all the other yeses. But many more are simply lurking quietly in their corners, waiting to be discovered, much like the famous piece by Yoko Ono that won John Lennon's heart.
My friends and I took a walk through the aisles on opening night, and we gawked and took pictures of many of the things on display. Although there was a fair share of awfulness and obnoxious joke pieces, such as the bag of Doritos on a pedestal or the pedestal displaying a single life-size plaster finger in one corner (I'm assuming it's the middle finger), there was also more good work in there than you would think, and one could easily spend hours and hours looking.
Outside in the cool night air, artist Benjamin Ball said, “It's like Jason Rhoades in there,” referring to an artist known for his walk-in, warehouse-sized, art-overload happenings/installations. To which I added, “It's Jason Rhoades meets the OC Art Fair, man.” This may sound horrific to many people, but actually, it's a beatific kind of “yes.”
The “Chain Letter” concept has apparently spread to other locations worldwide; check out their new website for more details.