Forget the institutions. Most of the Southern California museum exhibits in 2011 were bookish and boring. Walking through the hallowed halls felt like turning the pages of a poorly designed catalogue. The art world wants to pretend it is an amalgamation of rule-breakers; but tell someone that one of L.A.'s best art shows of the year was at a skid-row-adjacent beer hall and the clucking of conformity pecks its way into your head. Everyone has careers to protect, overpriced masters degrees to defend and years invested in the theory of making elitist house decor to rationalize - and they do so by upholding cruddy programming at dated spaces.
The interesting LA art shows are everywhere. Confession: I didn't get out to every show at every gallery. Nobody does. Instead of rushing to see the big names, I do a lot of digging and looking for out-of-the-way places, parties disguised as openings, experiments that explode before their second week in the business and the whole lot of post-studio attempts at exhibition. You get lost a lot of the time going to these spaces. Don't think about parking hassles or traffic or you will race to the convenience of the Bergamot Station Parking Lot and never take another chance in your life.
Many rumored LA art spaces often do not even exist or have cancelled at the last minute, forgot to explain which stairwell to climb, or which zip code they were in, lots of obstacles. And truthfully, everyone misses way more shows than they attend, LA is just too sprawling and there is too much going on. In choosing to swim the art scene's swamps instead of the gilded lap pools, I miss a few things that a mainstream critic might be obliged to sleepwalk through... and yet, when I look back on 2011, I won't be recalling it as the year I missed seeing a Chuck Close show turn Blum and Poe into Pace Gallery West. There was good stuff out there, hiding in plain sight. Here are 2011's Top 11 Los Angeles area art shows.
NUMBER 1: "Art In The Streets" Group Survey at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art
My video review of "Art In The Streets" taped after seeing the press preview, Thursday, April 14, 2011.
A mishmash clutter of ridiculously biased "histories" that left out key players, suspicious inclusions of curatorial business associates, the pastiest suburban rich kids acting blasé after fighting to be included and a masturbatory self-regard... oh wait, those are the things about L.A. MOCA's Art in the Streets exhibit that it had in common with every other museum show of contemporary art of the past century.
It was when MOCA refused to play the institutional game that things got interesting. Overt corporate sponsorship instead of an elite gallery using the museum to build up an artist brand; Check. Famous artists instead of terrible Cal Arts and Art Center faculty; Check. A controversy with removing an artwork prior to the show where the curator did not back down; Check. A big name artist who paid for the museum to be open to the public one extra day every week for free; Check. Museum-goers permitted to take pictures of the art and installations; Check.
The list could go on. Unlike New York's New Museum installing a corkscrew amusement park slide to "critique the institution", MOCA used the institution to legitimize art outside of the narrow elite dialogues that have long defined the cultural terrain.
Bottom Line: The show was the most popular and successful exhibit in the history of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and marks a clear demarcation between the Jeffrey Deitch era and thirty years of same old same old that came before it. I thought I would hate this show and came ready to hang it, but left shocked that giving the people what they want could also succeed as much or more than anything else four white walls and track lighting has delivered to the public in recent history.
•My original Review of Art in the Streets LINKED HERE.
NUMBER 2: Michael Arata "Arataland!" Solo Survey Show at Beacon Arts Building, Inglewood
Curator Doug Harvey made headlines this summer when he announced an open call show at Bergamot Station that seemed to mock the desperation of artists who would wait in line for hours in order to show at a real gallery.
But his heart was in the right place earlier in the year when he curated an amazing mid-career retrospective of underappreciated, under-exhibited local treasure Michael Arata. While lip service to the notion of art on the edge is popular, Harvey's curation of Arata revealed the real deal. Where one or two galleries might suffice with the output of some artists, Arata's prodigious accumulation of objects on the periphery of aesthetics took up three floors and over ten thousand square feet of the sprawling Beacon Arts Building in Inglewood. The show revealed the artist to be a paragon of non-stop investigation of the boundary between the acceptable and the abject.
The grand curatorial gesture here was bestowing the glory of a solo retrospective on an artist who was not of sufficient institutionally-approved status that would ordinarily warrant this career milestone. Harvey raised the bar higher for curators, demanding that exhibition organizers sniff around the studios and storage sheds of artists instead of the resumés and bank accounts.
NUMBER 3. BECCA at Angel City Brewing
Video of BECCA bombing the interior of MOCA in 2011 having wheatpasted the exterior in 1994
The irony of the Art in the Streets pretense to having an historical timeline about the intersection of vandalism and visual culture is that the show ignored the first street artist to vandalize the exterior of MOCA in the early 1990s. Becca is her name, surviving as a living underground legend is her game (unbeknownst to the corporatizing forces who marginalized street art, ah but that is for next week's "bottom eleven" list), and she got her revenge for the omission twice during the run of the Street Art show: Once by wheat-pasting a full size street-piece-on-paper to the inside of a ladies room stall and secondly by working with brewer/curator Michael Bowe on an extensive survey of her work at his Angel City Brewing restaurant's massive industrial interior. Its location... a block and a half south of the very wing of the museum that excluded Becca years after she had introduced the museum's edifice itself to street art concurrent with its hosting of Art in the Streets.
NUMBER 4: ANTONIO MENDOZA "Infinity Scares the Shit Out of Me, So Why Don't We Sleep Together" Solo Show at Orange Door
I felt like Ponce DeLeon at Tony Mendoza's solo show opening at Orange Door gallery. It took a long search to find this gallery. But it was great to feel like art is thriving, like the right opening reception is like drinking from a fountain of youth. Antonio Mendoza's large collage abstractions on panel reinvigorate the medium of collage with a violence of hand balanced with a precision of eye - usually it is the other way around with collage artists too worried about looking slick and finished. These are energetic and caustic pictures.
Complementing Mendoza's masterpieces was the ambience of Orange Door, the epitome of an alternative space. The lifeblood of any art scene is small galleries in slightly scary neighborhoods where you push through the smokers at the door and are handed a can of beer and the search for a title sheet or price list is fruitless and the anxiety of wondering if your car is safe makes you want to leave but not as badly as you want to stay because you found it, a space where the art is important and the crowd is not just passing by in a gallery-hopping daze among fifteen adjoining spaces all showing graduates of the same diploma factory.
Shows like Mendoza's at spaces like Orange Door are what give the body of an art scene a pulse. The Getty is just the eye shadow and mascara on the city compared to the small spaces that do all the heavy lifting. I'm not even going to tell you where the orange door is; drive around and look for it. It is on a street with trees and chain link fences and liquor stores and graffiti that isn't art.
NUMBER 5: "Colonialism: The Collective Unconscious" Group Show at William Grant Still Arts Center, Watts
Far from a knee-jerk political sob-festing guilt trip, this group show (curated by painter Lili Bernard) was a potpourri of sensual reconciliation delivered in diverse styles and attitudes. It wouldn't be like the mainstream art press in this town to make it down to South Central, so while the LA critical press was wallowing in the mire of the 1960s nostalgia shows, artists weren't waiting for written permission to explore a deep part of their identity.
From Lavialle Campbell's sculpted throne of an afro to Stephanie Mercado's dresses of colonized mappings dominated by the dark blue sea, the message here was that an autonomy from anyone and everyone's narrative but their own gives one the strength to create; and in that autonomy might be the course an artist takes to get to his or her deepest truths fastest and best.
NUMBER 6: FlagStop Art Fair @ South Bay Lexus
The glut of artists abounds. We are drowning in talent. Los Angeles has small enclaves of commercial galleries but let's tell the truth - recycling has-beens that once sold to collectors is the flavor of the month almost every month at lots of our leading exhibition spaces. One brilliant curatorial solution: rent PODS, the mobile wooden storage units (it stands for "Portable Out Door Storage") and have them function as small galleries for a weekend after having them all delivered to a Southern California car dealership's large parking lot (hey, if you are a jealous New Yorker freezing your ass off while enviously reading about the LA art scene, there is your stereotype of "la-la land" to reinforce your delusional superiority, now you can go smugly kneel by the hallway radiator until April).
At South Bay Lexus, each selected artist, gallery, collective, et al, filled their POD walls with their attempts at greatness. Curatorial innovation meets highbrow democracy mounted on pleasing plywood walls, all with perfect daylight lighting and, of course, food trucks.
NUMBER 7: Camille Rose Garcia, "Snow White and the Black Lagoon" Solo Show at Michael Kohn Gallery Fans lined up outside the gallery to take Phone Pics in front of Camille Rose Garcia's newest work. LowBrow has risen to new Baroque heights in the work of Angeleno exile Camille Rose Garcia. In her solo show of triumphant heroines, mystical witches and empowered villainesses, the painterly excess induces visions of other worlds beyond those merely illustrated here. Who needs tiresome installation art when a unique environment for the ages can be created in portable pictorial space? Once again proving that post-Highbrow leads the art world in innovation and experimentation, this is an internationally successful breakthrough artist who could rest on plenty of accomplishments; instead her whole palette was invigorated with new layers and her narrative pictures reach beyond the cinematic and into the realm of an almost magical animation. When compared to the ultimately shallow goo-gaws of the Tim Burton hoo-haw at LACMA, this exhibit made Michael Kohn's humble gallery seem like the LowBrow Louvre. •My original review of Camille Rose Garcia's solo show is LINKED HERE.
NUMBER 8: Jane Park Wells, "Reflections" Solo Show at Ruth Bachofner Gallery Gallerist Ruth Bachofner guides us through the journey that is looking at a new Jane Park Wells picture.
Abstract painting has a benign, classical quality in this era of clever upstarts. But elegance in any manner of painting still has the power to be majestic and Jane Park Wells delivers in the clutch like an all-star veteran. So it was jarring to see the imagery of hundreds of faces within her heretofore unilaterally non-objective work. These large-scale paintings immediately became sinewy streams of self-reflection and meditations on multiplicity. The artist seamlessly introduced a completely new form and context into the continuum of two decades of her specific pictorial vocabulary... and she actually pulled it off! Suddenly there is a poetic discussion about identity politics amidst her always engrossing compositions.
NUMBER 9: Carol Selter, "Animal Stories" Solo Show at Charlie James Gallery, Chinatown A recreated death mask of a baby elephant uses artifice to underscore our growing removal form the natural world, at its peril.
The secret to successful political art is to be underwrought. Carol Selter's investigations into environmental wildlife issues were an act of aesthetic charm in the service of an urgent message. Devoid of any hysteria or hectoring, the artist displayed pictures and videos of animal wildlife. Upon casual scrutiny, though, the animals were in fact taxidermy and the means by which they were reinstalled in their natural surroundings were comically clunky. A red string here, an impaled spike there; are our efforts to do anything about the species we destroy looking any prettier? Hardly! On pedestals were death masks of animals that gave the installation a feel for a natural history museum, but with no pretense to science that pollutes so many empty "investigations" pretending to be art exhibits. No, the aesthetic core was there and in that sweet spot the artist's message pierced the viewer's heart and did the impossible; it made a difference.
NUMBER 10: Patrick Wilson, "Good Barbecue" Solo Show at Susanne Vielmetter, Culver City
Sometimes a writer just has to lay it on the line. If I call Patrick Wilson the greatest geometric abstract painter of the last thirty years, does it matter if I make that "forty" or "fifty years" or "ever" for his mastery over form and medium to be underscored, explained and understood? And if my assertion is not accepted, perhaps it is at least hyperbolically invigorating enough to readers to cause them to investigate these great paintings on their way to forming a retort. On your search for an argument, though, you may find more evidence that Patrick Wilson actually is that great.
NUMBER 11: Phyllis Green, "Splendid Entities: 25 Years of Objects" Solo Survey Show at Otis College
Many of Phyllis Green's solo shows were well-represented in this great survey show. The whole installation gave a superb overview of her evolution, but each piece was fine on its own and nothing really needed the weight of history to justify it. Green regularly hits it out of the park, or the kiln so to speak. This is an artist who integrates fired clay with elements of life outside of function. Consider her the heir to what Beatrice Wood might have started (and the Santa Monica Museum's excellent PST survey of Wood provided a good glimpse of her spark). Phyllis Green took it all to another level and showed here that she is just hitting her stride mid-career.