19-04-06 Adrian Searle
* Ed Ruscha
Dancing sugar plums, talking plants and a diner serving fossils ... Adrian Searle enters the weird world of LA art
For decades the Los Angeles art world has been New York's twisted twin. LA artists have often been regarded as oblivious to theory, hedonistic and impenetrably experimental, their art a matter of oddball individuality and misguided thinking. But generalisations are neither useful nor accurate. The Pompidou Centre's mammoth exhibition Los Angeles, 1955-1985 confounds the stereotypes as much as it confirms them.
This rewarding, entertaining, often surprising exhibition is a crash course in 30 years of laconic California conceptualism, laidback LA pop art, occasionally silly and often highly confrontational performance, absurd and eccentric abstractions, funky and fetishistic minimalism, edgy, scatological sculptural tableaux, and dark and dirty underground film. They vie with one another, in room after room. The show opens with the roar of the MGM lion, looped in Jack Goldstein's short film, and ends with screenings of Kenneth Anger's Aleister Crowley-influenced 1970s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and an alarming and hilarious 1976 gay odyssey, Garage Sale, by Bruce and Norman Yonemoto. The screenings are always packed. I think people secretly prefer movies to art.
Some films, of course, are more compelling than others. A man is teaching a plant to talk. He knows he must start with the basics, so he presents the weedy little potted plant with flashcards of the alphabet, and begins to recite. "A," he goes, "A," then "B". By the time we get to Q, I sense impatience creeping in, and I think the plant can feel it, too. It just sits there, like a timid five-year-old. It looks as if it might burst into tears.
This, you sigh, is typical California nonsense, but John Baldessari's grainy 1972 video Teaching a Plant the Alphabet has a lot of period charm, as well as a clunky kind of wit. For most of the 30-year period covered by this show, New York critics were apt to look down their noses at LA art, for its anti-formalism, its mess, its perceived infantilism and its narcissism - all of which seem to confirm a kind of stereotype of a southern California mindset.
For a long time, LA's art seemed to thrive on neglect. Baldessari has said he didn't have to please anyone, so "why not do this stuff. I think that's a great lesson ... not to care". Baldessari may have risked triviality - he shows a video here in which he mumbles "I am making art" over and over, while doing jerky little movements in front of the camera - but his work is always witty and self-deprecating. Of LA in the early 1960s, the painter Billy Al Bengston said: "Look, there was nobody buying painting. You could do anything you wanted."
In Bengston's case this meant making highly crafted abstractions, whose forms look like nothing so much as disconcerting mandalas, reminiscent of machine parts. His techniques and materials, as well as the forms in the paintings, were derived from painting fanciful designs on motorcycle cowlings and gas tanks. Craig Kauffman's translucent, vacuum-formed reliefs look like blown-up, psychedelic blister-packed pills or sweets. One can't imagine anyone living with them for long - except, perhaps, in the 1960s. But there is something endearing about such eccentricity. During the 1960s Joe Goode also made painting after painting in which one-colour canvases were conjoined with real milk bottles, overpainted in oils, which sat on little shelves in front of his paintings. Do not ask me why. They look almost as disconcerting, and certainly as fresh, as when they were painted.
Yet for every work like Goode's, Bengston's, or Kauffman's, for every sleek and faintly vacuous piece of "fetish finish" minimalism, or charmingly wry Ed Ruscha painting, there is an Ed Kienholz tableau, like his wretchedly depressing 1962 Illegal Operation, in which a sack-like female torso moulders on a rusty metal wheelchair, the bedpan under the seat a mess of dirty syringes, grimy forceps and fag ends. Or his wonderfully horrible 1964 While Visions of Sugar Plums Danced in Their Heads, in which two galumphing figures with monstrous heads lie abed in a room so rancid and dispiriting one wonders why they bother to stay alive at all. Such works as Keinholz's seem to prefigure the more dismal songs of Tom Waits, and the awful grisliness of the serial-killer-addicted Hollywood movies of the 80s and 90s.
East coast bafflement, as well as neglect, may not have been such a bad thing after all. And some of it was understandable. LA art is marked by its diversity, and accommodated differences to a degree that makes the New York art world look conformist and buttoned-up. At the same time, we should remember that contemporary art, until the 1980s, had a much smaller audience everywhere, and reactions to it were likely to be both uncomprehending and hostile. Yet who could quibble with Allen Ruppersberg's diner, where customers could order plates of stones, bits of wood, fossils or anything else the chef found lying about?
America's most important art magazine of the 1960s and 70s, Artforum, was born on the west coast, co-founded by a vituperative Brit, John Coplans. David Hockney famously moved to LA in the mid-60s. A little later, Bruce Nauman (who has never lived in New York) moved there from San Francisco. Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader made LA his home in 1964, before being lost at sea while sailing from Cape Cod to Falmouth in 1975. The artists who passed through and the ones who stayed have made LA the only artistic centre in the US to rival New York. Andy Warhol first showed his soup can paintings in LA; Austrian actionist Herman Nitsch came to perform in the early 70s, influencing generations of California performance art; and Marcel Duchamp played chess with a naked model in the Pasedena Art Museum in 1963. LA may have had what seems a largely do-it-yourself art community during the 1950s and 60s, and it may have been far from New York, but it was not entirely isolated.
A milieu, a conversation, a critical mass of artists and ideas (as well as money and opportunity) create a scene. Los Angeles may in some respects have been a more commodious, better place to make art (if you care for all that sunshine, all that smog, all that driving) than New York, but to have a high-profile career in New York has, since the second world war, been the ambition of most American artists.
LA's problem has always been what the exhibition's curator, Catherine Grenier, calls its "octopoid geography". Whatever New York thinks of itself (and it thinks about itself a lot), it faces Europe. LA is far away. And although there were always collectors in Los Angeles, during the 60s and 70s they did little to encourage local, much less younger talent. Hence, perhaps, the edginess and aggression, the solipsism and individuality that marks the best Angeleno art.
Keinholz's confrontational approach, which he shared with other LA assemblage artists of the 1950s and 60s, resurfaced in the early performances of Paul McCarthy. A long 1975 video, Sailor's Meat, has McCarthy, crudely made-up, bewigged and wearing women's panties, fondling himself, smearing ketchup on his penis, rubbing sauce into his ass, and lost in some erotic reverie in front of the camera. There is some unseemly business with a frankfurter I shall pass over. This, in the end, is difficult to watch. One is stuck there with McCarthy, oneself, and one's own voyeurism. Works like this make one realise the limits of McCarthy's art, but also the vitality of performance in LA. In the early 1970s, Chris Burden was incarcerating himself in a locker for days on end. He had himself shot in the arm by a rifle, dumped on a busy LA freeway - at night, under a tarpaulin - and crucified on the body of a VW Beetle.
At the same time, Richard Diebenkorn was taking his daily walk between his home and studio, and painting his dignified, oddly poignant and beautiful Ocean Park paintings, influenced as much by Matisse's Piano Lesson as by his own habitual strolls in Ocean Park. Throughout the 1960s, Jay DeFeo was holed up in her studio, surviving on cognac and cigarettes, as she worked on one unfinishable painting, The Rose, that ended up weighing several tons. At the same time, James Turrell, Larry Bell and Robert Irwin were making perceptually distorting works whose purpose seemed to be to create an experience that was less about objects than space and light. At best these are more than perceptual games, although airy intimations of the spiritual seem to pervade their art. At least, unlike Bill Viola, they never made a big thing out of it. But that's California for you.
I much prefer art that's a little more concrete. The light and space artists no longer seem as interesting as they once did. The most visible LA artists to emerge during the 1980s - notably Charles Ray and Mike Kelley - made much out of the relationship between object-making and performance, and a suggested if not explicit narrative. During the 80s Ray made a number of works in which the artist's body was an integral element, while Kelley's tableaux also intimate a performance of some sort, frequently an event one feels better off for not having witnessed. These artists are now well known, and LA is no longer off the map, or ignorable; just as New York is no longer the centre of the international art world. In fact, there probably isn't one any more. Artists now can work almost anywhere. Welcome to LA.
· Los Angeles 1955-1985: The Birth of an Artistic Capital is at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, until July 17. Details: (0033) 1 44 78 12 33.
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