“State of Emergence” is the title of L.A. Weekly’s First Annual Biennial, an art show curated by Doug Harvey in conjunction with this issue. It, along with a selection of works by Weekly cover artists, is on view at Track 16 in Bergamot Station through November 12.

How does an art show get curated?
Usually, some overpaid museum talent notices
some kind of Zeitgeist — “Hmmm, I’m seeing a lot of art about persistive vegetative
states. I think there’s something there!” Five years, 10 trips to Europe and uncountable
free lunches later, we get “Persistive Vegetative States — The Exhibit!” Which
is most likely a survey of people rich or cute enough to party with the big boys
while calling themselves artists. This is what we had in mind for our First Annual
Weekly Biennial. Unfortunately, it all started unraveling at the “overpaid”
part and pretty much went downhill from there. “State of Emergence” was pieced
together in less than two months on an artist-run-space budget, so there wasn’t
time for much deliberation, let alone luncheon junkets. The premise of the show
— an event to correspond to the L.A. theater and music awards the Weekly
dispenses annually — set the initial parameters. Instead of a “greatest hits of
the past year” package, though, we thought it would be more fun and less insurance
to present a range of works from more-or-less unknown L.A. artists.

The greatest resource for unknown artists in L.A. is, of course, its many schools. While the premature exhibitionism rampant in the art world is a sore point for many — I myself have railed against it in print on more than one occasion — it occurs to me that probably 75 percent of the really good grad-school artists I’ve met over the past decade have disappeared within a couple of years of graduating. So if they aren’t robbed from the cradle, their art never gets exposed to a wider public, and we’re all the poorer for it. And, frankly, the benefits of grad school amount to a) time in the studio and b) networking. It’s rare for someone to leave grad school with any more talent than they walked in with. What I’m saying is you either got it or you don’t. Art degrees mean nothing.

Luckily, young artists don’t know this fact, and continue to conveniently flock to these centralized showroom clearing-houses, where parasitical Svengalis such as myself can graze with impunity and a minimal expenditure of energy. Still, just a little more than half of the artists in the main gallery are still in graduate school, and only two of the video artists are. There’s plenty of unknown to go around, even outside the academy.

In spite of time and money constraints, the show grew in an organic and cohesive way, like a painting. Once a couple of artists are chosen, the elements begin to form themselves into different, shifting configurations. Each new addition clicks into place or it doesn’t — significance can be analyzed later. In the meantime, the show takes on a life of its own — a gestalt consciousness almost. Soon the works begin communicating with one another, achieving self-determination and turning on their human masters in an orgy of blood sacrifice and deconstructionism. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

What are some of the correspondences that emerge from this particular constellation of artworks? Perhaps the most prominent commonality is a wave of new relation to popular culture, characterized by a collage sensibility that sometimes borders on atomization. This manifests itself most literally in the bristling constructions of Elliott Hundley, which occupy some territory between the seething horror vacuii collages of the late Bay Area beatnik Jess and Oyvind Fahlstrom’s magnetic variable paintings. The exquisite immediacy of this recent UCLA MFA grad’s pincushion mosaics is testified to by the feverish flurry of serious gallery interest described in a recent New York Times story. From a distance, Hundley’s work resembles gorgeous abstract painting, but on close inspection is revealed as an intricate aggregation of tiny elements, typically pinned individually to the surface like so many butterfly-hunting trophies. Tiny cut-out photographic images and illustrations from children’s encyclopedias swirl together with sequins and fragments of artificial flowers like some magical Stevie Nicks cape, creating an almost overwhelming wash of interchangeable narrative particles adding up to a story as dizzying and complex as modern life, and mercifully, optimistically beautiful.

Bess, Wall
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Hundley’s longtime colleague Brian Bress, still in the UCLA grad program, creates work that finds the world less sweet, but much funnier. Visually complex and formally accomplished, Bress’ modified appropriations (a found painting of an old man praying, for instance, with Bress’ addition of a hovering tadpole entity) tread even further into the realm of questionable taste, using soothing environmental photo-murals and inspirational thrift-store posters as grounds for quasi-modernist interventions or as backdrops for his mesmerizing what-the-fuck?! performance videos.

Sarah Cromarty also trawls the thrift stores for uplifting scenic posters — rainbows, hot-air balloons, fireworks — for use in her sweetly sinister paintings. Growing out of earlier bodies of work that made somewhat more clinical modifications to thrift-store paintings and the covers of nature books, her double-glazed confections somehow combine the irresistible sublime of Caspar David Friedrich with the unhinged Hallmark sentiment of “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handy.” An Art Center BFA grad, Cromarty is a studio assistant to Jim Shaw and appeared as a spirit girl in Marnie Weber’s recently mounted rock opera Songs That Never Die.

Joe Deutch’s performances, when not precipitating the apocalypse at UCLA, are similarly monstrous, stitching together seemingly incongruous cuts of performance art, experimental theater and abject rock spectacle into a twitching Frankenstein creation that shouldn’t live, but does, most gloriously.

Christian Cummings’ band Fireworks (performing during the October 28 party) wreaks similar havoc on the indie-rock paradigm, while his robotic clown art observer, his “mustache paintings” (painted with, yes, his mustache) and elephant sculptures have a weirdly homespun conceptual wit verging on the mental, like Bruce Nauman filtered through Daniel Johnston.

Jeff Wells is a UCLA graduate student whose downright peculiar performances employing a modified suit designed to squirt water or oil on itself from specially installed nipples activated by passing motorists seem to owe as much to zany stunts in low-budget used-car-dealer TV ads as to Chris Burden or Paul McCarthy. David Walton is a client at the ECF (Exceptional Children’s Foundation) Art Center for the developmentally disabled. His witch and wizard hats and crowns, while fantastic and reference-laden objects in themselves, are often props in impromptu actions where, for example, Walton temporarily bestows the honorific “Queen for a Day” on an innocent bystander, while singing the theme to Chuck Barris’ $1.98 Beauty Show.

Margarete Hahner’s dreamlike sequences are painted directly onto vinyl records, their morphing storylines clothing themselves in almost archetypal images from pop culture and flea-market home movies. Or vice versa. Hahner, who studied with Per Kirkeby at the University of Karlsruhe in her native Germany, divides her time between Berlin and Los Angeles. Brenna Youngblood, who studied at Cal State Long Beach with Todd Gray, collages her own photos of mundane furniture and fluffy clouds into otherworldly landscapes that engage in unexpectedly painterly spatial play.

Ellis, Untitled
ketchup-pack sculpture
(detail, 2005)
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Adrian Ellis’ droll biomorphic entity — from a distance appearing to be made of some high-tech NASA insulator padding — is in fact coated entirely in convenience-store ketchup packets. The UCLA grad recently moved to the East Coast, where he is “building a foundry” and working for Matthew Barney. Ryan Johnson is a rare hybrid product of the Central Valley and CalArts. His graffiti chops picked up strange fellow travelers like Super Mario Brothers and the Olsen twins in their translation to three-dimensional installation art. Speaking many tongues at once, Johnson’s Scatter-Pop bundles are permanent works-in-progress, modified and expanded over the course of their installation.

Filling festive gift baskets with studio debris, USC grad student Amanda Ross-Ho boils down the art-market commodification process and the essential generosity of the creative gesture into a bittersweet syrup. CSLB MFA graduate Glenn Bach disorders vintage educational filmstrips and their soundtracks, revealing the hidden surrealist poetics of the classroom, and applies the same sample-and-remix treatment to allow visitors to perceive Bergamot Station with deconditioned senses. Avigail Moss’ exquisite ink drawings — cryptic in spite of the detailed explanatory key — shimmer with half-recognized forms. Are they diagrams of biochemical processes? Kabbalistic flow charts? Conspiracy-theory scorecards? In truth, their veiled subject matter is ultimately irrelevant — they map the gesture of organizational consciousness that is their own genesis. A UCLA grad now at Yale, Moss has already seen her work acquired by collector Fred Hoffman.

Recent USC grad Erik Frydenborg’s work is sometimes made almost entirely from domestic detritus, as in his recent homage to deep-fried dumplings, where clusters of vacuum cleaners, praying-hand statuettes, toasters, etc., were coated with “batter,” drizzled with “sauce” and presented with a helpful banner listing ingredients in pictograms. His new piece for “State of Emergence” — The Lean Years, based on a 1540 woodcut by German artist Peter Flötner titled The Procession of Gluttony — anchors the explosive sensuality of much of the rest of the show with an austere, albeit psychedelic, caveat. Mary Pongratz, though technically a ceramic artist in UCLA’s grad program, cobbles her poor-boundary-definition sculpture/installations from just about any material that catches her attention. Treading the same fine line between narrative and formalist abstraction as many of the “State of Emergence” crew, Pongratz’s work also balances an epic gestural scale with a crafty handmade-material humility — faux classical pillars draped with dumpster discoveries — that is at once funny and encouraging.

The coherence of this group of work, like every coherence emerging from a nonlinear,
unpremeditated process, is a delightful surprise. That’s what makes it worthwhile.
Because at a deeper level — a level preceding the unmistakable erosion of historical
boundaries between high and low taste, preceding the often arbitrary criteria
by which the art world bestows “consensual” significance, preceding an artwork's
ever leaving the studio — there is an authorless, authorityless creative intelligence
continually working to reveal the unseen imaginative world to us, and to wake
us from our slumber. And at that level the only art and the only artists that
truly matter are “unknown.” The only trick is staying there.



Frydenborg, The Lean Years (detail, 2005)


Hahner, Eyeend (2005)


Cromarty, Leaving Home (2005)


Knutzen, CRASS (2005)


Walton's Crowns & Witch Heads (2005)


Moss, Untitled (2004)


Hundley, Jamy With Hunting Scenes (deatil, 2005)


Pongratz, Untitled (deatil, 2005)


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