Here are the top ten living Los Angeles artists whose success is nowhere near commensurate with their accomplishments. Some of these artists are quite talented and responsible for historically important art, but their professional success (as measured by institutional art shows, art glossy media coverage and "blue chip" sales status) far outweighs what has been produced.
Please Note: I had to skip over millionaire hacks like Takashi Murakami, Sheppard Fairey and Barbara Kruger, each of whom moved to Los Angeles after establishing their careers and are not inextricably identified with the city.
The Top Ten Overrated Living Los Angeles Artists
Actual Accomplishment: He advanced conceptual art in the 1960s with many (then) radical strategies to turn the language used to define art into the subject of the art itself.
Overrated Because: At some point, it becomes apparent that it is all a strategy and not art. The strategy is void of any vulnerability and has an aloof, professorial tinge that mocks anything more definitive than playing word games.
Actual Accomplishment: His horror vacuui compositional style was a colorful breath of fresh air in an early 1980s art world dominated by dry minimalism.
Overrated Because: He has been churning out this signature style in series after series since then. Consider LA music and LA art from the 1980s. Historically, Van Halen has evolved in its sound and style more than Lari Pittman ever has in his compositions and themes.
Actual Accomplishment: He used a design background to illustrate language as part of the popular landscape, bridging the conceptual/retinal divide.
Overrated Because: The seductive quality of his simple graphics sells the work in an art world teeming with confusing approaches. But a Ruscha's soulless lettering and freshman-year architecture renderings conspire to dumb down the possible meanings rather than deliver an epiphany of open-ended possibilities.
Actual Accomplishment: In the mid-1990s, when tribal tattoos and piercings were still considered edgy, she photographed a clique of self-exiled men and women pushing these boundaries as a form of gender-bending. Her debut show of the series at a top commercial gallery was such a huge hit that her next show was at MOCA.
Overrated Because: That second show was of freeway overpasses. Yep, that was it. Then there was one of empty mini malls. Then came a show of surfers - but nobody was surfing, they were all waiting for the waves. It wasn't about surfing, it was about waiting. And now she is back in a local museum, this time at LACMA, with pictures of high school football players from the Midwest. Is she being a straight documentarian photographer (if she is, she is boring) or is the work for her tattooed friends back in LA to laugh at the hayseed jock teenagers in their manly poses and attire?
Actual Accomplishment: Straight from his website "As a member of the 1970s Chicano art collective, Los Four, ... helped to define and promote the new awareness of La Raza through murals, publications and exhibitions."
Overrated Because: Romero is sort of a reverse-Robin Hood of the Chicano community, taking from the street and giving to the mansions, milking every recognizable facet of the barrio (be it low-riders, political protests, drive by shootings, the Lady of Guadalupe, etc.) for all the stereotypical mileage he can squeeze out of them. His scenes of despair and tragedy have an aura of festive, brightly colored glee - perhaps he takes a subconscious joy in this marketing of marginalization and it comes out in his palette.
Actual Accomplishment: Being considered an artist at all.
Overrated Because: In her most famous artwork, Not a Cornfield, Bon planted corn and was lauded as a visionary artist, perhaps even crossing over into being an environmentalist. A field of corn in a downtown Los Angeles park was imbued with every trite cliche connected to saving the earth, educating the poor, feeding the world and art being the beating heart of making all this salvation possible. What you got was saving the gas money for that road trip to Iowa. Wipe away the hype that her small army of publicists poured into every nook and cranny of the local press and you had an empty conceptual gesture yielding "oohs" and "aahs" from city folk who had never been to a farm. I was reminded of her forgettable farming last weekend at LACMA when confronted with a public sculpture of hers in front of LACMA's Anderson building. This recent piece had an ugly pseudoscientific assemblage (Rube Goldberg meets abandoned Hollywood "laboratory" props) presented in a rusty cage - ah yes, now she is an artist crossing over into being a scientist. So serious yet so removed from meaning a damn thing.
Actual Accomplishment: Read the guy's Wikipedia page and witness the most calculated climber in the history of premeditated art careering. If navigating to the right place at the right time to suck up to the right people is a masterpiece, Charlie White beats DaVinci as art history's best.
Overrated Because: Following the Mike Kelley blueprint of presenting the abject as something collectible for rich folk has been the job of 1 in 5 art grad students for the past 25 years; White's efforts to "creep you out, dude" seem to also hope there is a screenplay adaptation or reality show to be optioned. But it is White's status in the hallowed halls of academia, with all of its pomp and seriousness, which reveals him as a cheap poseur. Oh sure dude, you are so edgy, mixing teens and trannies in photographs and then going to the faculty colloquium, ooh, that is some scary stuff, bro. In an ironic twist to his transparent careerism, his professorship at USC will not even make him the most famous Charles White in the school's history.
Actual Accomplishment: Mocked cultural myths in a series of historic 1970s performances (documented on video) with a reckless abandon, striving for the lowest common denominator (poop, food fights) to validate the authenticity of his message.
Overrated Because: Everything McCarthy has done, Iggy Pop or John Wayne Gacy did with more authenticity and impact. McCarthy's edginess elicits not shocked gasps but eye-rolling giggles in encountering one of his butt plug sculptures in elite art spaces, far removed from the mass culture icons he critiques or the impact his efforts imply they are striving for. The integrity of his work hinges on its "outrageousness" and the sincerity of that approach becomes dubious when his long record of academic employment and acceptance in polite society is considered. At some point, never being late to an art department policy meeting sort of mitigates any street cred of having once shoved a Barbie doll up your ass.
Actual Accomplishment: Charging six figures for "Ikea with Attitude"
Overrated Because: It requires an irredeemable narcissism to take oneself as seriously as Jorge Pardo does. This man (I refuse to call him an artist) got MOCA to give (not loan) him $10,000, ostensibly to help complete his house in Mount Washington, the return on investment for MOCA being that the house was considered a sculpture. Yeah he lived in this sculpture, no you couldn't visit. The chutzpah to pull this off came from more than a decade of marketing furniture and domestic gewgaws as art; yes, if you fail at mass-production try the Pardo Principle, call it a limited edition and charge six figures, all with a gaudy aesthetic that wouldn't make the floor of a cheesy casino during a designer discount makeover.
Actual Accomplishment: Marrying a museum curator
Overrated Because: This artist has been in many important museum shows because he married Ann Goldstein, who for many years was a curator at MOCA and is an internationally renowned curatorial star (I always found her shows laughably academic, but that defines two-thirds of the LA art world). Williams' work is the epitome of empty. If he did not sleep with Goldstein, he would have no status in the art world. When I mention Christopher Williams to anyone in the art world, his utterly generic name draws a blank stare. Photographer. Stare. Description of the work as intentional recalibrations of the mundane. Stare. Shows with Zwirner Gallery. Stare. Fat. Stare. Bald. Stare. John Lennon glasses. Stare. Married to Ann Goldstein. "Oh yeah, he is really successful in his own right." Right.
In conclusion, if you own the work of any of the above artists, it may be time to sell. Jeffrey Deitch is hard at work rewriting contemporary art history to include such things as street art and real celebrities. All of the above artists are heavily collected in local institutions, not that you would notice their efforts on the walls if stronger art by lesser names is nearby.
(Image: Not a Cornfield, by Lauren Bon)