Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Part for a (W)hole – Mike Kelley as avant-garde literature

I haven’t written anything about Mike Kelley since he killed himself just over three years ago, but it isn’t for the reasons you might think. Like most of his friends and acquaintances in Los Angeles, I have decidedly mixed feelings about his career-topping final exit, and sorting those out is an enormous, ongoing, and private undertaking. No, the primary impediment to my weighing in on Mike’s legacy is the fact that his oeuvre – now being complete – is, frankly, mentally and physically overwhelming. For a depressed guy, he sure did a lot of work!

This was literally brought home to me recently when Kelley’s Stedelijk Museum retrospective finally made it back to roost at MOCA’s cavernous Geffen Contemporary facility. But wandering from room to overstuffed room, I experienced an unexpected and paradoxical reaction. I kept feeling there was not enough. That the exhibit was incomplete. Which is crazy – I had already spent 10 hours in the former LAPD garage, and felt I had barely scratched the surface. They couldn’t include every single scrap left behind by the hardest working man in art business, could they?

Could they? It occurred to me that that was exactly what I wanted to see, physically, in one place at one time – Mike Kelley’s complete works, with no missing parts. Not only that, but I wanted it to be a permanent installation, available for repeat in-depth visits over a number of years. It’s not something I could say about many artists (certainly not Clifford Still, who managed to arrange something pretty close) and I realize that such a model is completely unfeasible in the context of contemporary culture, but… there it is.

In a day or two, I realized that my desire was bound up with an understanding of Mike’s art as One Great Work, like some great novel. Very much like some great novel -- characters, plots, motifs, satirical targets, formal devices, and linguistic tour-de-forces recur with rhythmical regularity and subtle (or drastic) variation in Kelley’s work.

Albeit in an immersive, multi-sensory, modular, non-linear structure. With Gravity’s Rainbow or Finnegans Wake I felt that I didn’t quite glean every last drop of meaning and pleasure from the first go-round. Same here. It had to sink in. And I would need to revisit it in a year -- and again in five years, and in twenty, fifty, whatever. Forever. Not gonna happen.

And yet there is an argument to be made for the holographic view – or at least that Kelley’s most deliberately written works contain the template for his larger corpus; the cornerstone of Mike Kelley’s success as an artist has always been his literary virtuosity. Contrary to common wisdom regarding text-heavy pictures, Mike’s dense early black-and-white paintings and drawings actually attract and hold the viewer’s attention. And his early performance art works stood out from the herd of endurance tests and neo-ritualistic costume dramas by the sheer strength and wit of their writing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Misunderstanding Sculpture

Having somehow acquired two university degrees in Painting and spending the subsequent 20 years as a professional artist, curator, and critic, I am as sensitive as the next artworld insider to the ways in which art schools, gallery scenes, and the state of contemporary art are depicted in popular narratives. They usually get it embarrassingly wrong.

The medium of comics seem particularly susceptible, riddled as it is with whining fanboys traumatized to learn in their art school foundation year that the drafting chops that kept them from being beat up since the third grade haven’t been considered relevant since 1837. Even brilliant social satirists like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware can miss the mark by aiming at straw men patched together from sitcom stereotypes and Andy Rooney editorials. So it is with some trepidation that I approachedThe Sculptor, Scott McCloud’s first substantial foray into graphic narrative practice after decades devoted to graphic narrative theory, with his inescapable Understanding Comics and its sequels.

The Sculptor tells the story of a young flash-in-the-pan art star wannabe who had his 15 seconds and blew it, but is still hanging around Manhattan as he sinks into despair and oblivion. So far so good! But instead of crawling back to the sticks and staking out a future as an adjunct Community College instructor, our protagonist David Smith (named, oddly, for the most famous mid-20th-century modernist American sculptor) manages a Faustian bargain that will almost certainly get him the prizes he deserves. Antics ensue.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, which manages to be simultaneously formulaic and bizarre, but David is suddenly able to fabricate an enormous number of highly crafted, idiosyncratically personal cartoonish granite sculptures in a very short time. He fully expects this extravagant bounty to redeem his reputation and career, but the artworld’s (quite accurate) response is dismissive, comparing his cluttered studio to a “Polynesian gift shop” and launching him on a shame spiral that quickly leaves him disoriented, homeless, and suicidal. Enter the bipolar aspiring actress with the heart of gold, and David’s chance to learn the real meaning of Christmas. Or something.

Just shy of 500 pages, The Sculptor is an engaging, entertaining read – a surreal potboiler with the fluid, flexible, cinematic pacing you would expect from perusing the author’s theoretical treatises. McCloud’s images are also distinctly filmic, with lots of crane shots and noir expressionist compositions interspersed with too-occasional passages of contemplative observational detail. The ambitious scale and production values are inordinate to McCloud’s track record in fiction, and the effect is ultimately reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan, whose movies always beg the question “How did this ever get made?” Which is a good thing.

Read the rest at The Comics Journal website (or ATJ)


Article about the inimitable Cathy Ward in the upcoming RAW VISION - she'll be having her LA solo debut at The Good Luck Gallery in the Fall.

"Impossibly intricate, nearly-abstract renderings of hair incised into scratchboard; baroque cut-paper collages sourced from porno mags; an immersive environment of carved and painted trees meticulously encrusted with Germanic kitsch; a decade-long exhaustive photodocumentation of food vans; luminous fin-de-siècle paintings for post-punk record covers; a faux-museological recreation of a neo-paganist secret society initiation chamber; a reenactment of the doomed trek of the Donner Party (minus the actual cannibalism) – unlike many artists classified as “outsider”, Catharyne Ward has passed through a succession of distinct phases more appropriate to the career of a mainstream post-studio conceptualist like Mike Kelley or Rosemarie Trockel.

Yet, despite attending the Royal College of Art in London (albeit in ceramics) and hanging with Eduardo Paolozzi, she has managed to avoid being shortlisted for the Turner Prize or gracing the cover of Artforum. So far. Such conventional accolades would not be hard to imagine, given the ambition, timeliness, cross-disciplinary panache and sheer visual beauty of the work, but Ward’s forceful idiosyncracy, authentically subversive political undertones and psychological candour – not to mention her labour-intensive craftsmanship – have kept her outsider credibility intact.

Perhaps the most well-loved works in Ward's diverse oeuvre are her scratchboard drawings of cascading, contorted masses of hair, which have been likened to the work of Madge Gill and Austin Osman Spare. The somewhat disreputable hobbyist medium – a subtractive, even sculptural, drawing practice where a black India ink surface is scraped away to reveal an underlying layer of white china clay – packs a graphic punch, while coming equipped with a whole set of symbolic connotations..."

Image: Surgenesis, 2008, china clay and India ink on board, 16 x 20 ins

Purchase to view the entire article: Raw Vision #85 or continue ATJ

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Michael Parker's JUICEWORK at Human Resources

I haven't been doing much art reviewing lately, but here's an excerpt from "Michael Parker 101," which will be included in the catalog for R.S.V.P. Los Angeles at Pomona College Museum of Art, Fall 2015 (ed. Rebecca McGrew and Terri Geis).

"The history of Modern art could be mined for precursors to relational aesthetics at least as far back as the Dada antics at the Cabaret Voltaire. But most of the current practitioners of this newest of New Genres distinguish themselves by subscribing to a conceptualist austerity of means—favoring deadpan structural and procedural documentation; emphasizing, often exclusively, the social interactions produced by their artworks; and eschewing formalist content, such as the tactile, sensual, and perceptual elements of art and the visual language they comprise.

While the relational artists’ puritanism can be helpful in focusing and clarifying their intentions (plus having the bonus effect of destabilizing their claim to creative authority), it also abdicates subjectivity, idiosyncrasy, most of the non-narrative non-verbal information (which provides a much different kind of ambiguity than crowd-sourced content), and the majority of the sensory rewards that many still consider integral to art. It is a dry medium, lacking juice. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In his most recent solo exhibition, Michael Parker brought the juice with a vengeance. For Juicework, held at Human Resources in Los Angeles’ Chinatown district over four days in February 2015, the artist filled the cavernous white cube of the gallery—a former neighborhood movie house—with an array of interactive components that took sensual engagement to an absurd but exquisite extreme. Consisting of a dozen or so stations where visitors could produce and consume juice from the abundant supply of citrus fruits (plus a dishwashing area), the installation functioned perfectly as a locus of conviviality, with perhaps a spritz of social commentary (juice boutiques being currently synonymous with the sustainable gentry).

What made Juicework remarkable was its extravagant sensuality and homespun eccentricity. Each of the juicing stations consisted of a table fashioned from an irregular tree slab raised about 10 inches off the floor and lit by hanging porcelain pendant lamps molded from what the artist called “the ugliest watermelon of the summer.” Various sizes of coiled fabric cushions sealed in clear vinyl and an array of ersatz African stools provided seating.

But the pith of the display consisted of over 1000 handmade ceramic artifacts—mostly freeform juice reamers of various sizes, but also sufficient quantities of cups, funnels, trays, and larger vessels to hold the mounds of yellow, orange, and green fruit. The ceramic tools were mutantly variegated in shape, scale, and finish—with organic forms recalling sea anemones and sumptuous mottled glazes in the blue-violet-red end of the spectrum.

Visually, the installation was like nothing so much as an immersive stained glass Art Nouveau theme park, like walking through Antoni Gaudi’s studio during a minor earthquake. And an aromatherapy session. And experimental choreography workshop. And yes, the social aspect was delightful. But it might not have been so, without the opium-den intimacy and Haight-Ashbury facture to knock the public’s discursive minds off their “I-am-participating-in-a-social-artwork” pedestals..."

Better pictures and more info at:

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tribute/Retrospective for Sean Leis-Beck (1985-2014)

Image may contain: 1 person, text

Sorry for the short notice, but if anyone has some of Sean's work that should be included or wants to put in a tribute piece, let me know ASAP! We'll be installing the show next week, and opening a week from Thursday.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Artist Explains

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and shoes

Steve Hurd
Miss Thing, 2014
Oil on canvas mounted on wood panel
93 ½ x 45”