This past year, Los Angeles has been haunted by dreams of itself.
For years, I've passed the Olive Motel on Sunset in Silver Lake — such a strange stray dog of a building, eminently adoptable. I've thought of trying to buy it with nonexistent money to start businesses I have no idea how to run. This is Los Angeles — I guess we all think about things like this. Some of us even go through with it.
When I saw William Leavitt's 1995 painting Olive Motel, in his retrospective at MOCA in March, I like to think he rode by and saw the same thing I saw, this shabby little beauty, pregnant with potential. In his exhibit, Leavitt, who's also a playwright, turned our ordinary habits into something theatrical. The mock-up of a California patio on a television sitcom is as real as Leavitt's tableau of the same, California Patio, from 1972. Outsiders often mistake this for simple falseness. Andy Warhol famously said of L.A., “Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” It's not that L.A. is false, phony, plastic; it's that here the boundaries between the real and the imagined are more permeable than in other places. Leavitt subtly fingers this boundary and his retrospective seemed a wholly appropriate exhibition for a city about to sift through its past.
This year saw the final buildup and climax of years of careful preparation to tell the tale of Los Angeles art from 1945 to 1980. The regionwide project, Pacific Standard Time, sucked up almost every institution with a white wall. Each exhibition pushed forth another version of the city, from the Leisure World, orange peel–colored modernism in “California Design: 1930-1965” at LACMA to the breakdown of that land developer's paradise in the Hammer Museum's “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” and MOCA's “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981.”
That last one, curated by MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, continues a project he began at MOCA with his landmark exhibition “Helter Skelter” in 1992, which argues that beneath California's Disneyland hyperreality and Hollywood gloss live a seething darkness and discontent. “Under the Big Black Sun” is in some ways the exhibition most reflective of the whole Pacific Standard Time series: huge, motley, layered, sprawling in every direction at once, California cool falling to pieces under the violent reactions of the oppressed and the repressed. The time frame of the show marks a larger moment when art, culture and politics fractured from controlled canons into a raucous pluralism, a situation embodied by Los Angeles and its jumbled geography. For much of its history, L.A. was the city of the future — just sometimes our dreams of what's to come look more like Blade Runner than Tomorrowland.
These fictions of Los Angeles this past year weren't, of course, always the ones we expected. Yoshua Okón, for his project at the Hammer Museum this past summer, collapsed fiction with reality with the help of the day laborers often found standing in front of the Home Depot in Glassell Park. Many of the workers are Guatemalan immigrants who fought on different sides of that country's protracted civil war, who have come to Los Angeles in search of economic opportunity.
Okón's work often blends the documentary and the imagination, collaborating with his subjects to create darkly comic and often uncomfortable examinations of their real place in society. In his multichannel video installation, Okón and the day laborers played out many of the kinds of actions they did when they were soldiers, re-enacting patrols and maneuvers while the customers heading into Home Depot more or less ignored them. Do the patrons disregard the laborers pointing fake guns and crawling on the asphalt because they're used to seeing people act ridiculously in public, especially when a camera might be around? Or have they been conditioned to ignore the laborers and their poverty until it's necessary to employ them as workers? Either way, the re-creation of their actions as soldiers appears to disappear into the reality of the parking lot.
Coteries of alternative exhibition spaces, some not far from that Home Depot, pushed a new kind of energy, especially necessary after a difficult few years of galleries shuttering and the schools spilling out more and more artists, all degreed up with no place to show. Whenever a gallery opens, it sucks up a certain amount of young talent. When no new galleries open, the young artists shift about and the wiliest forge their own way.
Though excellent exhibitions occurred all over the city, the new spaces in Chinatown and east of the river felt the most dynamic and experimental. Human Resources, forced out of its great but diminutive location on Bernard Street, quintupled its space when it moved into an old Chinese movie theater on Cottage Home Street; it continued to put on amazing music and performance art in addition to exhibitions, with Scott Benzel's upstairs installation about malappropriation being particularly notable with its vitrines of cultural products, some repurposed in sinister ways.
For years, many said the Chinatown art scene was dying, but it seems more alive than ever, with a host of young spaces — JB Jurve, Young Art, Actual Size, Pepin Moore, and Jancar Jones — alongside stalwarts Thomas Solomon Gallery and the Box (which just announced it's moving to Little Tokyo, alas).
Night Gallery and Workspace in Lincoln Heights both surged forward, with better and better exhibitions (Eli Langer at Night Gallery and Marina Pinsky at Workspace) and big outpourings of community support. Farther north in Highland Park, Public Fiction, launched by Lauren Mackler, both founded a church and opened a grand hotel for artists. In such works, Public Fiction in particular feels founded on this notion of the permeability of fiction and reality in L.A., implied by the poetry of its name.
All of these different projects found cheap rent and room to move east of downtown, and with all the museums and commercial galleries caught up in one version of Pacific Standard Time or another, these young spaces sometimes felt like the only places committed to new art.
When it came to the artists from the PST period of 1945 to 1980, some of the best projects in commercial galleries were Richard Jackson at David Kordansky Gallery, “Announce” at Thomas Solomon, and Bettye Saar at Roberts & Tilton. Jackson's was hardly a retrospective gesture, but a major thrust forward, ever refining and pushing his expanded field of painting that mixes sculpture and performance into his messy splatters and tableaus. “Announce” at Solomon brought together individual collections of ephemera from various figures in and around Los Angeles, each collection slanted toward the collector's proclivities. Saar's cryptic and intense assemblages and installations dealing with black historical conditions found a home both at Roberts & Tilton and in “Now Dig This!”
Midway through the PST retrospective of Los Angeles, there's a temptation to feel like we're past the rowdy youth it chronicles and finally getting all grown up. One of my favorite songs about Los Angeles, which I've replayed again and again all this year, is from Washington, D.C., band Unrest from 1992, “West Coast Love Affair.” Under a simple and hypnotic rhythm, the singer tells of a fractured love affair and the chorus repeats again and again how Los Angeles is a place of potential, where love affairs are consummated, new desires and stories still possible: “I'll meet you in L.A. I'll kiss you in L.A. I'll meet you in L.A. I'll kiss you in L.A.”