Friday, February 25, 2011

Awash in Ruins with Uncle Chaz

Non-Angeleno readers may not have heard of Charles Garabedian, whose biggest East Coast splash was arguably made as part of Marcia Tucker's landmark 1978 "Bad" Painting exhibit at the New Museum. Reverse provincialism we're used to, but the embarrassing thing about Garabedian's current five-decade retrospective isn't that it won't be traveling to MoMA — your loss, toots! — it's that it won't be traveling to MOCA. Or LACMA. Or the Hammer. I don't often weigh in on museum politics, because, frankly, I don't give a shit — but, please, come on. I don't know a single painter in L.A. that doesn't worship at the altar of Chaz, and it takes Julie Joyce at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art to make this happen? Prophets without honor, and all that — but couldn't we skim a little off Jeff Koons's plastic surgery fund?

Good on Julie, though, who recently landed upcoast after a decade or so at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Gallery as one of the city's very interesting cloud of small institutional curators who've taken up the slack of the major museums' regrettable interpretation of internationalism. Because Garabedian is a talent of international stature — say along the lines of Guston-if-he'd-lived — and anyone interested in the possibility of painting as a living practice should see this show. The Guston parallel is pretty apt — Guston actually grew up in L.A. (where he and Jackson Pollock were kicked out of Manual Arts High for publishing a communist zine!) and he was obviously looking at a lot of the same art as Garabedian — just ten years earlier. Their work trembles on the same threshold between figuration and abstraction, and their spatial constructions are the same mix-up of the serene geometrics of Piero della Francesca and the cascading contents of Fibber McGee's closet (look it up on Wikipedia, whippersnappers!).

Known primarily for his deceptively awkward figuration, Garabedian's greatest strengths — even taking into account his experimental narrative accomplishments — lie in his astonishing and hard-won formal chops. Grappling elegantly with such syntactical elements as scale, surface, color, line, composition, materials, and illusionistic forms and spaces — with a visual vocabulary as historically informed as it is idiosyncratic — his work can literally take your breath away. In the old-school museum architecture of SBMOA, the monumental "September Song" (2001-2004) and "The Spring For Which I Longed" (2001-2003) seem even more humongous (300+ square feet) than they did when originally shown at the ginormous-enough LA Louver Gallery in Venice.

The gallery these two behemoths dominate covers the most hyperoxygenated period of Garabedian's oeuvre; at the age of 70, the artist hit his prime, propagating a sequence of virtuosic paintings that integrated and transcended his illustrational/decorative impulses in a mythologically charged improvisational extravaganza. Paintings like "Calendar" (1995) and "Garden" (2001) juggle sensual and pictographic modes of abstraction that honor the ancestors while raising the dead: Exquisite Fauvist brushwork bursting crackpot/neo-classical linearity from within, unleashing a tsunami of beautiful semiotic ruins...

Read the rest of Charles Garabedian here.

Do whatever you have to to see this amazing show at Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State Street, Santa Barbara, California -- up through April 17, 2011

Images: In Anticipation, The Watchers 1985 - 88; Daytime TV 1966; The Spring for Which I Longed 2001 - 2003; Calendar 1995 (diptych)

See more of Garabedian's work online at LA Louver's website.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


The eight mixed-medium works (all 2010) in Doug Harvey’s “Unsustainable” are undeniably indebted to Rauschenberg’s Combines, but the similarities are primarily formal. Where Rauschenberg transformed refuse into high art in a way that reflected American notions of democratic inclusiveness, Harvey’s approach is more in tune with our current state of environmental and economic crisis: Rauschenberg gone to seed. Harvey’s work reeks of rot and decay. The artist leaves paintings (his own as well as secondhand finds) outside, exposed to the elements, sometimes for more than a decade. He then embellishes the degraded surfaces with old house paint, found objects and gritty materials like aquarium gravel. Stretcher bars are exposed at the canvases’ ripped corners and shredded edges; mold and grime coexist with chipped paint, industrial spray foams and faded, warped and torn photographs.

A Romantic melancholy pervades the grunge, though it is occasionally tempered by a dark humor. Few worldly endeavors prove worthwhile in Harvey’s work, the artist consigning to existential doubt or parody everything from art to religion and politics. The dried-mud residue of a defunct ant colony remains on the left side of The Dignity of Labor. On the same battered canvas, the artist has painted a horizontally bisected composition, the lower half presenting what appears to be a subterranean complex of tunnels and chambers, while the upper half erupts into an abstracted, neon-colored and more intricate version of that network form. The piece suggests that human systems, including the contemporary art world, are essentially not unlike ant colonies: elaborate hierarchies of workers toiling to sustain communities that will eventually die out.

The Eye of Horus, a projection screen with a square foot of dirt collected from the grave of chess champion Bobby Fischer adhered to its center, presents a more tangled meditation on art and life—referencing, among other things, Malevich’s radical Black Square and Duchamp’s re-envisioning of art as chess game. Placed high in a corner of the gallery, this shrine elicits thoughts of hero worship and genius, while also confronting the viewer with the great leveler: death.

The sense of degeneration in “Unsustainable” was conveyed most acutely in Dream House, which suggests an aerial view of a residential property ravaged by fierce weather. Although designed in a modernist style, the house—represented by a dilapidated architectural model found by the artist and affixed to the canvas—is hardly a machine for living. It sports funguslike growths (made of foam) and has been defiled by stains. The driveway, a border of white gravel along the assemblage’s right and bottom edges, remains empty, clean and apparently unused, perhaps emblematic of the abandonment of the American Dream. Recalling ancient ruins, Dream House compels the viewer to consider civilization in relation to the devastating forces of nature. If a hopeful thought could be inspired by such wreckage, it might be that after destruction comes the possibility of new creation.

—Constance Mallinson

See most of the rest of the show here.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dueling Bowlders

A bicoastal set of unrelated incidents has stirred up a heated discussion in the art world and beyond that harks back to the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, when right-wing politicians and pundits, like Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato and Pat Buchanan, along with religious leaders like Donald Wildmon and Pat Robertson, launched a concerted attack on the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting artists and venues engaged in “anti-Christian bigotry,” as Wildmon tagged Andres Serrano’s notorious photograph Piss Christ. They successfully campaigned to cancel a 1989 exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and passed legislation forbidding the NEA from funding artists and institutions that “promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials.”

Strangely, the central figure in the more high-profile of the current controversies is a repeat player—David Wojnarowicz, who won a lawsuit against Wildmon over the misrepresentation of his artwork in 1990. Wojnarowicz, an outspoken gay activist as well as a gifted visual artist and writer, died of AIDS-related illness in 1992. This past November 30, a condensed version of his film A Fire in My Belly—which contains an eleven-second sequence showing a crucifix crawling with ants—was removed from the exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in response to complaints from William Donohue of the Catholic League and Representative John Boehner, neither of whom had seen either the video or the exhibition.

“Hide/Seek” is a landmark exhibit in several ways: it’s the largest and most expensive show in the NPG’s history and the first major survey exploring gay identity to be mounted in a federally administered institution. Curators Jonathan Katz and David Ward took pains to create a scholarly and minimally provocative reassessment of the history of American modern art, with the hope of integrating the insights and revelations of previously suppressed gay and lesbian cultural history—a process that has been under way since the 1960s but suffered a distinctive chill in mainstream institutional support in the wake of the late ’80s commotion.

Offense was nevertheless taken, and within hours the NPG, with no public debate and after consulting only one of the curators, removed Wojnarowicz’s film from its unobtrusive video kiosk near the back of the exhibit—whereupon all hell broke loose. Outrage went viral online, from bloggers like Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes (, who devoted blow-by-blow coverage to the unraveling gaffe, to scathing op-eds in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. Protests were organized, including guerrilla screenings outside—and projected onto—the NPG. The Andy Warhol Foundation led the pack in demanding the video’s reinstatement at the risk of losing future funding. Museums, commercial galleries and nonprofit project spaces lined up to present the censored work, and several versions were made available on the Internet. MoMA acquired a copy for its permanent collection. It was even aired on Fox News...

If you think this sounds like a tiresome, second-rate rehash of what was a farfetched and poorly scripted piece of political theater the first time around, you’re not alone. A good portion of the liberal outrage seemed to be over the poor quality of the script they’d been handed. The bastards didn’t even bother to find a new scapegoat but dug up poor David Wojnarowicz, who had been a physically and sexually abused street urchin before teaching himself to make art, and had allegedly created the film in question as an elegy for his mentor and lover Peter Hujar, who had just succumbed to the same deadly virus that was coursing through the artist’s body. The guy’s not allowed to put some ants on a plastic crucifix? Jesus! Even the conservative pundits didn’t seem to know what to make of it, quickly switching to the real issue, your American tax dollars promoting homosexual perversity. Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her boobs! As a briefly glimpsed Mexican tabloid headline screams in Wojnarowicz’s film, ¡¡Sacrilegio!!

Crypto-fascist hypocrites lining their coffers by pandering to the lowest common denominators of ignorance and xenophobia isn’t news. The fact that the Smithsonian folded so quickly and awkwardly is. Wojnarowicz’s successful Supreme Court case against Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association was the turning point in the 1980s witch hunts, and it made him the martyred poster boy for gay rights and freedom of speech. Did Smithsonian officials actually imagine no one would make a fuss? They had gone out on a limb to present a historical benchmark in tolerance, then sawed the branch off behind them because some crackpot blowhards said to. Unfathomable.

Subscribe to The Nation to read the rest of The Return of the Culture Wars - my debut column - here.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Chloe Rehearses Her New Act for SeaWorld

Lazy, yes, but a little close for comfort

Wow. Untidy was good as well, though. Thanks to Mr. Homegrown (via Mr. Frauenfelder at BoingBoing of course) for the tip. This should lighten the load considerably. I mean, it'll make the overall load heavier, but it'll lighten the load for me. And that's what I'm talkin about when I talk about America!

Visit Rebecca Uchill's Random Exhibition Title Generator here to have your life's work glibly summarized and dismissed by a logarithm.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Fair for All and No Fare for Anyone (with press credentials)

"Art fairs aren't fair," criminally underrated Los Angeles painter Karen Carson quipped to me last Saturday, halfway through the city's annualesque descent into art-world multitasking known as Art Los Angeles Contemporary. Her remark, made in the midst — of all places — of a new show of Chuck Arnoldi's unrepentant 1980s abstractions at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, begged the obvious question, "But are they art?" As someone who tends to avoid even regular openings because of the kinesthetic and pheremonal interference generated by herds of desperate careerists, I was surprised to survive the weekend with a firm answer: Maybe.

With exponentially frantic circles of activity expanding around last weekend's fair to cap off the official "L.A. Arts Month," the horror vacuii of art events — extravaganza displays, special gallery programming across a dozen or so art scenes, unique performance events, fundraising auctions, video screenings, cocktail parties, and anti-censorship protests — takes on an almost transcendental sublimity, like surrendering to the overwhelming intricacy of a Persian rug or Bach cantata. Almost.

Read the rest of Can an L.A. Art Fair Be Loved? -- my debut LA Dispatch on artinfo -- here.