There’s a widely held belief in The Art World that art and politics don‘t mix — that the results are inevitably preachy, didactic and essentially authoritarian: rich in pointed, unambiguous textual content at the expense of humor, color and sensual generosity. While there are some grounds for this prejudice, it is promulgated with suspiciously propagandistic verve, and smacks of the same clench-toothed pollyannaism that has typified the right’s deliberate dismantling of the NEA over the last 20 years. Besides, there are other kinds of political art, some of which rely primarily on the hard-wired potency of formal visual language to convey their message, leaving the exegesis to those of us who are paid by the word. Three shows now on view in L.A. use a seemingly simple strategy of temporal dislocation — combining older visions of our world with contemporary phenomena — to expose some of the cognitive dissonance at the heart of our culture, and allow the politics to speak for themselves.
The Center for Land Use Interpretation, whose deadpan mock-institutional cataloging of industrial and military landscaping strategies continues to garner widespread real-institutional support and acclaim, has recently forgone its former program of ambitiously mounted displays of photography and other documentation in favor of elaborate touch-screen information kiosks. While eminently practical and a typically elegant appropriation of the digital vernacular of the business world, these electronic displays lack the presence and tactility of an actual installation of photographic prints. Happily, the Center‘s latest exhibit, “Proximity Issue: The Barricades of the Federal District,” returns to more contemplative display conventions in order to convey the paranoiac urban design that has, mostly since September 11, overwritten Pierre L’Enfant‘s stately, open original plan for Washington, D.C. Nineteen recent photos taken by Center operatives foreground the arrays of Jersey barrier, concrete sewer-pipe sections, wooden barricades and metal railings that now carve up the seat of the federal government: the closed-off steps to the Capitol, the elaborate portable drawbridge across the driveway to the Washington Monument, the decorative concrete planters now ringing FBI headquarters — even the pathetic expandable Versa-Guard™ railing teetering in front of the National Gallery of Art. “These structures,” reads the brief accompanying text panel, “have altered the face of the city, a city built to reflect the ideals of this nation.” This is as close as CLUI gets to passing comment, though the logical conclusion seems inescapable: that the new face of D.C. is a more accurate reflection of the current ideals of the nation, and bears witness to the degrees of surveillance and restriction of movement (not to mention urban uglification) the citizenry is willing to endure to protect its “freedom.”
For the past four or five years, Charles Phoenix has presented his own unique variation of the rec-room slide-show travelogue. Condensed from his collection of over 20,000 found vintage 35mm amateur slides, God Bless Americana’s fantasy grand tour of these United States circa 1950 evolved from living-room screenings for fellow retro-culture enthusiasts into a quixotic theatrical presentation (and, next month, into a coffee-table book from Graphic Arts Center Press). God Bless Americana Part 2, showing Saturday nights at the Egyptian through April 20, focuses on Southern California as it mutated from vast stretches of orange groves and desert punctuated by outposts of trickle-down modernism into the One Big Suburb we know today. Phoenix‘s insouciant free-associative commentary provides a loose narrative structure to the event, but it is the slides themselves — supersaturated Technicolor glimpses of a vanished way of life created as an aspect of that way of life — that tell the real story here. As with related archival recoveries of forgotten vernacular artworks — Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings collection and CD compilations of “Send us your lyrics!” song poems and one-of-a-kind home recordings — Phoenix‘s slide shows document a period when new technologies allowed widespread popular participation in creative activities that had previously been the exclusive domain of specialists.
The aspects of the world these photographers chose to document, and the manner in which they did so, are only the aesthetic tip of the iceberg of disregarded common experience that is the real substance of human history. The simple act of honoring these disdained artifacts upends sanctioned notions of cultural authority. Of course, Phoenix’s personality plays a large part in what particular snippets of history make the final cut — his designer‘s eye is drawn to classic automobiles, outrageous fashions and improbable choices in decorator motifs, while his pronounced affection for the SoCal Vulgar school of architecture betrays his association with the L.A. Conservancy’s Googie-lovin‘ Mod Com klatch. Nevertheless, Phoenix devotes almost as much time to sociological documentation — sometimes tawdry, frequently inexplicable, but most often suffused with a nostalgia for the naive optimism of the period — typified by the battery of slides that climax the show, documenting the long-erased futures of Disney’s original Tomorrowland‘s past.
Speaking of the Happiest Place on Earth, I’ve always found it disappointing that more artists haven‘t been inspired to work in the underappreciated medium of animatronics. While Daniel Martinez’s happiness is over-rated, the only piece in a show titled “to make a blind man murder for the things he‘s seen,” qualifies on technical grounds, it is unlikely that Uncle Walt envisioned — even in his darkest dreams — the ends to which his technology has been put. Martinez’s sculptureinstallation seems to be the culmination of a remarkable series of photographic works the artist produced over the last few years, the individually numbered second attempts to clone mental disorder or How to philosophize with a hammer, which depict a Grand Guignol lineup of outrageous mutilations to the artist‘s body. The resonances with Disneyland (whose tiresome self-bowdlerization of potentially offensive animatronic vignettes from Pirates of the Caribbean is an ongoing embarrassment) constitute only one of many such cultural references that inform the work of Martinez, who spends much of his time as associate professor of studio arts at UC Irvine — a stone’s throw from the legendary theme park. The clone photos, apparently masterful digital manipulations, were in fact created with the special-effects prostheses, simultaneously occupying and undermining a position of immense contemporary cultural currency. The animatronic figure seems to have emerged from the photographs‘ function as performance documentation, amplifying both the visceral grotesqueness and simulacral remove of its predecessors to a dizzying new level of creepiness and outrageous humor.
That Martinez’s work is explicitly political should go without saying — his “I Can‘t Imagine Ever Wanting To Be White” museum admission tags for the 1993 Whitney Biennial are still cited as the nadir of Western civilization — but by specifically locating the struggle within the uncanny replica of his own human body, he redirects the gentlemanly discussion of strategic differences back to the bloody battlefield, albeit in a manner that clearly acknowledges the limitations of representation. Further, the deliberate sumptuousness of the work, and its grounding in cultural traditions ranging from Baroque painting to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, gives lie to the belief that art existed only for art‘s sake before 1970, and disrupts the mechanism of easy dismissal that wants to label Martinez a “shock artist,” inverting the question of “Why depict such horrors?” to “Why do so few artists engage with this important strain of art history?”
“Politics” aren’t some form of optional content for art, like “still life” or “pictures of my mom in a Japanese internment camp,” but the very rules of the social nexus in which art hopes to have an effect on the world. Art with the underlying philosophy of “If we don‘t look at it, maybe it will just go away” isn’t apolitical, any more than art that name-checks Chomsky is implicitly radical. But whether with the light and playful hand of Charles Phoenix, the po-faced institutional reserve of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, or the simultaneously cool and gut-wrenching theatricality of Daniel Martinez, art that is willing to engage the rules of its realization and reception as the site of creative action results in complex and vital experiences that brim with urgency and meaning, without losing any of the power art has to awaken us through our senses.