THE BLOG

Made in LA

07/18/2012 05:36 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

I'm afraid I feel much the same way about the sprawling "Made in L.A. 2012" show as I did about this year's Whitney Biennial in New York: unqualified to offer particularly useful or informed commentary.  I just feel completely out of touch with what most of these (mostly) young artists are up to.  My head and heart seem these days to be -- aesthetically at least -- planted distressingly in the past.

Which does not prevent me from making judgments, no matter how unwarranted!  Of course, I could throw up my hands and say, I just don't get it, but the truth is that I find there's not a whole lot to be got.  I think that the art school system -- mea culpa: I was a part of it for a while in the 1970s and 1980s -- has a lot to answer for.  My first judgment: the system has become a self-sustaining production line, putting out more nominally "professional" artists into the world than can plausibly survive as professional artists.  Second judgment: it has done many of these graduates a grave disservice in its over-emphasis on aesthetic theory and idea-based art.  Ideas are thin gruel, in my view, whether in visual art or writing.  The substance of art work is the rich texture of lived experience -- the physical, emotional and, for want of a better word, the spiritual, along with the intellectual.

As a result of this, the "artist's statement" seems to have become de rigueur for anyone wishing to be taken seriously these days.  More's the pity.  I find it not just unneeded -- the artist's statement, surely, is the art work itself -- but actually harmful.  It risks limiting not only the viewer's experience of the work but, worse, the potential of the artist's imagination.  The very act of its formulation channels the mind into its narrow (and language-based) vision, closing off the otherwise infinite possibilities of the imaginative process.  Its outcome is often to reduce art to what can first (or subsequently) be expressed in words.

Okay, rant over.  Well, not quite.  Back to "Made in L.A. 2012" and another, slightly different beef with art schools: perhaps because of the proliferation of graduates and the struggle to achieve just a glimpse of recognition, the obsession with originality has never been greater nor more damaging in its outcome.  It's not new, of course: the whole idea of originality came along with the Romantics, at a time when art shifted from being of service -- to church, to patron, to aristocracy -- to being a form of self-expression, for its own sake.  It's the same insistence on individuality and individual that inspired the growth of democratic movements everywhere.  Given the proliferation of young artists alluded to above, it's harder and harder for young people to create truly original art, and the struggle manifests in work that simply seems to try too hard to be different.

Such observations make me feel like a grumpy old man, so let's take a look at some work included in "Made in L.A." that I really did like -- some of it quite a lot.  At Barnsdall, for instance, I particularly liked the installation by Miljohn Ruperto...

...consisting of a row of pedestal-mounted video monitors and a backdrop of replicas of a single large-scale painting by the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich -- made in China.  The fake paintings, installed in moody half-light, offer a counterpoint to the broken narrative of the non-sequentially timed video playing on the monitors in the endless loop of a mystery story that engages -- and, yes, amuses -- the viewer's mind in its repetitive rhythms and discontinuities.  The mind likes resolution, and is teased into the vain effort to interpret and resolve.  We are offered the rare opportunity to watch the mind at work.

I liked, too, the multimedia work of Cayetano Ferrer...

...whose colorful cut-up and reassembled sections of carpet form a delightful jigsaw that invites the engagement of the eye in sorting out its parts and putting them back together into a coherent whole.  Ducking under a low, ceremonial entryway and looking back (see above), the viewer is then confronted with a comparable patchwork of constantly shifting, patterned light projections that play on the relief surface of the wall that separates the two installations, contrasting the stasis of the carpet with a sparkling kinesis of brilliant illumination.  My mind took me back to a long-forgotten reading of Rimbaud's proto-psychedelic prose poem, "Les Illuminations." A dance with color, pattern, light and motion.

There were paintings, too, at Barnsdall that I liked: Allison Miller's...

...quirky fantasies that play with geometric and organic form and flirt with a kind of clumsy, almost slapstick humor in the juxtaposition of abstraction with quasi-representational parts; and the mural-scaled "comic strip" by Nery Gabriel Lemus, with its riff on the conventions of the political mural and its inquiry into issues of ethnic identity, equality and social justice.  In a related vein, I liked the chamber of curiosities -- a mini-museum, really -- assembled by Vincent Ramos...

...with its maze of display cases and memorabilia, a treasure house of family and community history in an endlessly complex and fascinating socio-historical context.

Over at the Hammer, more paintings to look at.  I found particularly intriguing those of Zach Harris, whose intricate, patterned work with the pictures'  frames is as engaging as the visionary miniatures they enclose.  They invite a hallucinatory play between macro- and micro-space, evoking the exotic -- and erotic -- pleasures of Indian mogul art.  At the other end of the scale, Mimi Lauter's...

...extra-large pastel drawings on paper evoke vast, imaginative, primeval landscapes inhabited, if you allow yourself a touch of fantasy, by mythical beasts.  Meleko Mokgosi's...

...epic works recall the grand old tradition of historical painting, alluding to the continuing struggles of whole populations in the post-colonial era.  I thought of Leon Golub -- though Mokgosi's work is more dispassionate and analytical than Golub's.  Same outrage, same need to share it on the canvas.

You begin to see my preference for painting...  Might as well confess it: I love the figure, too -- as in Mokgosi's paintings and, though in a quite different mode, the work of Thomas Lawson...

...whose boldly outlined nudes are eloquent in posture and relation to each other and whose "masks" explore the human physiognomy and hark back humorously to ancient Greece and Rome.  In 3-D, Ruby Neri...

...uses clay and color in works that frankly recall her father, Manuel's work -- and why not?  Her figures recall the work of untrained artists everywhere that summon the spirits of the dead.  And speaking of clay, I liked very much the odd, rather clumsy and reductive vessels of Caroline Thomas...

...and the colorful fantasies of Roy Dowell that function playfully in the ground between painted abstraction and utilitarian object.

Oh, and I couldn't close without a mention of the most senior of the "young" artists included in this exhibition, Channa Horwitz, who -- dare I say? -- at the start of her eighth decade continues to produce her meticulously lined and colored musical graphs, whose rhythms at once delight the eye and engage the mind.  It's gratifying to find her work included in a show intended to represent the current energy of Los Angeles art.