The following musings are all loosely inspired by watching Mary Reid Kelley in the “History” episode in Season Six of Art in the Twenty-First Century, and thinking about how family, history and family history play into contemporary art.
Novelist John Galsworthy dedicated his Forsyte Saga — five novels, some of them upwards of 800 pages long, about a tangled and divided family–to his wife. He thanked her for encouraging, sympathizing, criticizing, and making him the writer he was. This wife of his, named Ada Nemesis, had been hard to come by. She’d been the wife of his cousin and it had taken her ten years from the time she had fallen for Galsworthy to finagle a divorce. So it’s hard not to wonder if Ada contributed more than encouragement and criticism to the drawn-out, almost-incestuous Forsyte Saga romances.
Netflix recently made the 2002 The Forsyte Saga miniseries available on demand, and nearly every friend I’ve mentioned it to admits to having watched at least part. In it, members of two sides of an estranged London family cannot help but keep falling in love with each other. First, beautiful Irene steals her cousin-by-marriage’s beau, than, before divorcing her difficult husband, ends up tangled with the same cousin-by-marriage’s father. She marries this cousin’s father, a widower whose younger child has already married another estranged cousin, and they have a baby who will grow up to fall in love with the daughter Irene’s first husband has by a second wife.
All of London at their fingertips, and those Forsytes only want each other. This seemed absurd at first, an excessive Victorian soap opera, until I remembered my own family’s darker secrets. Like the great uncle who began an affair with his neighbor’s wife. This neighbor also happened to be my uncle’s wife’s brother. So his child by his brother-in-law’s wife, whom he couldn’t marry until the death of his devoutly Catholic first wife, was the cousin-in-law to his children from his first marriage. Unconscionable family webs might actually be normal.
When I tuned into the Art21 Telethon this past Sunday, the 8-hour performance-filled fundraising marathon had been live-streaming for just over 3 hours and brought in just under $4,000. Curator and co-host Miriam Katz, wearing a great silky floral top, was saying, “Our next act was going to be an animal act but I think there was an issue with insurance.” Instead, artist Debo Eilers’ crew was setting up nearby amidst microphones and floor mats. They were wearing white tunics like hospital gowns and red animal masks that made some look like turkeys and others like floppy-eared dogs.
“You can [perform] however long, but right now longer might be better,” said artist Ronnie Bass, the “official” host, who had conceived the telethon along with Katz and Art21 artist Tommy Hartung, after NEA budget cuts left PBS programming financially crippled.
“And since the act that didn’t come was supposed to be an animal act, if you want to put in an animal theme, that could be helpful,” Katz added.
Then everyone seemed confused for a while, and Katz accidentally blocked the camera as the group slowly began singing “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” in childlike voices. It took a while before they were in unison. One of the performers beat the wall with a strap and held a strobe light, and continued to do this after the song ended, until Ronnie said “Thank you” and re-explained to viewers how to donate.
“We probably went to the same art parties,” says artist Jeffrey Vallance to artist Thomas Kinkade in a video from eight years ago. The two sit together on a stage at Cal State Fullerton, and have just established that Vallance would have been a student at California Institute of the Arts around the time Kinkade was studying nearby, at Art Center in Pasadena. “That’s where I know you from,” says Kinkade, joking. Just a few moments before, he has announced that he feels he’s known Vallance most of his life. In fact, the California artists met earlier that same day, when Kinkade arrived to see Heaven on Earth, the show Vallance curated about The Painter of Light and his massive inventory. It was the first comprehensive Kinkade show to appear in an “art world sanctioned” museum. Now the two are taking questions at a press conference, at which Vallance thanks Kinkade for giving him complete freedom and Kinkade thanks Vallance for being thoughtful.
When Kinkade first heard about the show, he “told our staff . . . all this is going to be is a chance [for them] to play this whole thing for irony and turn me even more into the whipping boy of the critical elite.” He had expected the show to try to prove his oeuvre “is obviously kitsch.” Instead, Vallance’s show felt serious–“it’s realism,” Vallance says. It takes sensitive, encyclopedic stock of a cultural phenomenon. Vallance has culled together paintings, bath towels, figurines, music boxes, even constructed a living room and a chapel out of Thomas Kinkade “designs.” “The fact that this exhibit enshrines those [items] in a Fine Art setting is brilliant,” says Kinkade.
Sitting next to Jeffrey Vallance, an artist with insatiable curiosity and an even-keeled, impenetrably low-key demeanor, softens Kinkade. He seems savvy, even likable, and only grating and misguided part of the time, like when he says, “I paint pretty pictures that are homespun, non-threatening imagery, and the London Times calls me the most controversial artist in America.” He may have been the most controversial artist in America, but his images are not really just “pretty.” They “are quintessentially picturesque,” wrote Doug Harvey in an essay for Vallance’s show that Kinkade likely read, “That is, they are pictures that look like scenes that look like pictures.” Nor are his images of quaint cottages “non-threatening.” Joan Didion, in an essay that’s been quoted incessantly since Kinkade’s death last weekend, called them sinister, “suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel.”
“This is quite a turn out for an ‘ism’ that from time to time has been relegated to a post buried in the past,” said feminist critic Lucy Lippard. “It’s also personally amusing to me that this takes place at the MoMA, not notorious for supporting women artists,” she continued, speaking at MoMA in 2007, after WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution opened there. “I’ve picketed the museum on various occasions, so it is fun to be up here. Thank you very much for catching up.” Then she added, “Better late than never.”
“I wonder if the time of feminism is always belated,” asked theorist Judith Halberstam later the same year, “if the institutional time of feminism is always something that will come way at the end, when it’s no longer necessary to make this gesture or to perform this act?” Halberstam repeated Lippard’s “better late than never” quip when she spoke on a panel at MOCA Los Angeles after the WACK! show traveled West.
Recognizing feminism as a movement with an impact in 2007 was late enough to be embarrassing. But it was better than never. And even if Anna Mendieta and Martha Rosler’s imagery had already emblazoned itself onto the psyches of committed female art students nation-wide, how gratifying to see members of the “general public” perusing Mendieta’s Silueta series or Rosler’s Bringing the War Home?
It’s hard to imagine any instance in which it would not be gratifying to see underrepresented women artists, or some other painfully overlooked group, given prime-time museum space. Or so I thought until I visited In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, which opened at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in January. There are times, it turns out, when it is worse late than never.
I think I had forgotten Mike Kelley was elegant.
His death last week hit the L.A. art world hard. Only hours after it was announced that Kelley was gone, a memorial (which I wrote about in more detail for L.A. Weekly) began to build up in an empty carport in Highland Park, near where he’d lived. It’s inspired by More Love Hours than Can Ever be Repaid, the 1987 wall-hanging piece for which Kelley used handmade stuffed animals, afghans and the like, and by The Wages of Sin, an installation of melted wax originally installed beside the stuffed animal. Because I had confused overstimulation with density, I’d come to associate Kelley with bulk–bulks of materials, bulks of ideas–and I imagined the memorial would mushroom almost immediately, with absurd amounts stuff accumulating on the walls and building up on the floor.
That’s not what happened. It has built up gradually and tastefully, in part because the art world is small and, often, socially tentative, so hardly any memorial for any artist would “mushroom immediately.” But also, Mike Kelley was more intense then dense, and a mass of thoughtlessly accumulated items would not have done him or his work justice at all.
Each item in More Love Hours, the first installation for which Kelley really received acclaim (the “turning point,” L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight called it), had been handmade, slaved over by someone Kelley never met, and then compressed into a conservative rectangular space. Thus, it fit inside the frame of smooth, tasteful “Art” with a capital “A,” though it still had some dirty kitschiness to it.
Today, Thursday, January 12, artist Suzanne Lacy will meet with Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa at the Los Angeles police department about ending rape in Los Angeles. An official from the police’s rape treatment center will be there, as will members of the media, and the meeting will launch Three Weeks in January, a project in which Lacy will, every day, document the rapes reported the day before on a map of L.A. hung outside the L.A. police’s Deaton Auditorium. Volunteers and students will help her do this, as they did thirty-five years ago, when Lacy launched Three Weeks in May, hanging her original rape map outside L.A.’s City Hall and updating it daily, even going out into the city and marking points on the sidewalk near where rapes had happened.
No one would argue Lacy’s status as a “real” artist; her work belongs to major museum collections, she was part of the original Judy-Chicago-helmed Feminist Art Program and she writes well about “performance” and “publics” (words only those versed in theory pair liberally). And that artists take on political messages is, of course, old news. But somehow, rape and sexual violence seem to have become a special duty for contemporary female artists, and one still conventionally gendered. Sure, the [male] mayor will be at the launch today, but a woman will be helming this campaign and the majority of participants will be women in a project that partly feels like a clean-up effort, a targeting then washing away of a scourge that still particularly affects female lives.
“A local dancer,” is what arts reporter Jori Finkel called Yvonne Rainer in an LA Times article dated November 12 (though a concurrent blog post by Finkel called Rainer “legendary,” a more accurate description of the filmmaker and performer, who worked with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham). Finkel was reporting on this year’s MOCA gala, an annual fundraiser known for featuring the work of some sort of art world star — last year’s artist was Doug Aiken, and the year before Francesco Vezzoli with help from Lady Gaga — at an exclusive, high-priced dinner for patrons. This year, Marina Abramović, fresh out of her MoMA retrospective, helmed the gala, planning an extravaganza with human centerpieces and naked-lady cakes.
Finkel referred to Abramović as a “Yugoslavian-born, New York performance artist,” more cosmopolitan than “local dancer” though not terribly inflated, given that Abramović has been called, and has apparently called herself, the grandmother of performance art. Controversy erupted after Abramović hosted auditions to cast those human centerpieces, particularly the stoic heads that would turn slowly around in the middle of each table. Performers would sit on Lazy Susans below the tables and would not be able to get up or use the restroom during the three hour event. A handful of female performers would lay flat on their backs in the middle of a few special tables, naked, legs far enough apart to see what was between, with skeletons on top of them (a re-imagining of one of Abramović’s former projects, Nude with Skeleton). The performers would be paid $150 and given a year-long MOCA membership. Rainer heard about these auditions, apparently from an artist who had participated, and responded angrily. The letter she sent to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch has, by this time, circulated widely. She accused the museum of economic exploitation — compensation was not enough — and also, in what may have been the most memorable part, wrote that the performance was
reminiscent of “Salo,” Pasolini’s controversial film of 1975 that dealt with sadism and sexual abuse of a group of adolescents at the hands of a bunch of post-war fascists. Reluctant as I am to dignify Abramović by mentioning Pasolini in the same breath, the latter at least had a socially credible justification tied to the cause of anti-fascism. Abramović and MOCA have no such credibility. . . .
More back and forth ensued, Deitch and Abramović invited Rainer to attend the ongoing audition, a number of arts blogs weighed in, among them ArtFag City, Hyperallergic, and ArtCritical. Of course, most “critics” did not attend the gala, certainly Rainer did not. I didn’t either. It’s an odd position to be in: criticizing art you didn’t see at an institution that desperately needs funding and acquires it the way many cultural institutions do, by marketing its exclusivity and creating highbrow spectacle.
Even if I’m cagey about taking a stance on the gala itself, I have no qualms about saying that, of the two 20th century art matrons, it’s Rainer, the one who would likely cringe at even being called a matron, I’d trust to do the ethical thing. This isn’t to suggest that Abramović is an unethical artist, just that for Rainer integrity — what it is, how to maintain it — has more or less been the subject of her now 50-year practice. She wanted to give the “everyday body,” not an idealized body, a place in dance, which led her to reject the minimalism of John Cage that she had initially embraced. Then, afraid dance wasn’t allowing her to explore her feminism and the emotional experience of being human in an honest-enough way, she began film-making in the 1970s. Her whole career reads like that — rejections, revisions, new directions, all in hopes of figuring out how to be an artist who respects real people’s experience.
What’s bothered me most about the MOCA gala debacle is the thought that Rainer would likely never be chosen to orchestrate an event like that. Why not? Granted, much of Rainer’s work is more abstract than Abramović’s, less visceral; there are no naked bodies in doorways, staring contests, or skeletons.
But she’s done some exquisitely accessible projects, like Assisted Living, based off photographs from the New York Times sports section, or her piece in the 2008 California Biennial, where dancers wore bright red sneakers and moved loosely and unpretentiously in a way that made dance as easy and awkward as schoolyard play. If it’s true that Rainer’s just not glamorous enough or that she can’t generate enough hype or that she wouldn’t attract donors, we should have better taste.
Note: If you’re in L.A., consider attending the panel that Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) is hosting Saturday:
Abramović, Rainer, gala theater & performance art politics: a public forum
6522 Hollywood Blvd.; Sat., Dec. 17, 1-4 p.m.
Rampart, an “L.A. Noir” set for limited release the day before Thanksgiving, is a relentless film with a hero who’s impossible to love but a narrative thrust that forces you to root for him anyway. I saw it last weekend at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, as part of the American Film Institute’s annual festival, and left thinking not that it was a good film but rather that was riskily aggressive in the way it offered no way out of its protagonist’s bigotry.
Woody Harrelson plays a dirty cop in the Rampart police district, who just gets dirtier and dirtier as the film progresses, to the point of absurdity. The only people who give a damn about him are women, mainly the two sisters who live with him–or, rather, live in the main house in front of his backhouse. He’s been married to both of the sisters and has a daughter by each. It’s a very Old Testament scenario, like Leah and Rachel with Isaac, though it seems impressively progressive sometimes too. Then there’s the lawyer he meets, played by Robin Wright, a smart, driven woman whose role in the film is basically to be there when Harrelson’s cop needs to lose himself in either passion or paranoia. The sister ex-wives seem smart and interesting too, probably more so than their former husband. But throughout the film, they just provide a backdrop for his dysfunction.
I thought of Rampart when, a few nights later, I read this line in Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s Rebels in Paradise, a non-fiction, art historical L.A. Noir published earlier this year: “the two blondes went to Western Costume in Hollywood and rented lace bodices and short skirts” to attend the black-tie Marcel Duchamp opening at the Pasadena Art Museum. The “two blonds” were Gloria Nielson Bell and Shirley Nielson Hopps, the former soon to marry L.A. artist Larry Bell and the latter already married to Ferus Gallery founder and Pasadena Art Museum curator Walter Hopps. Shirley Nielson would eventually divorce Hopps and marry Irving Blum, Ferus’ co-owner–quite the scandal–but only after Hopps’s neuroses and haphazardness (and, probably, his love affairs) had worn her down and after she’d used much of her income as an art history instructor and all her spare time keeping his now-seminal art-world-making efforts afloat. But on page 84 of Rebels in Paradise, she’s just a blond in a bodice. “They both looked so cute,” remembered Larry Bell.
I’ve never really seen Shirley Nielson given her due, not in this book or in the film The Cool School, about the Ferus gallery crew, which included Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Craig Kaufmann, a lot of the “big names” associated with SoCal pop and fetish finish. And so far not in any catalogues or literature for Pacific Standard Time (PST), the current region-wide initiative to celebrate SoCal’s art history. That said, there’s a great show up until Thanksgiving in–of course–one of the smallest galleries participating in PST, Sam Francis Gallery on the second floor of Crossroads School in Santa Monica. Called She Accepts the Proposition, it features risky work shown in woman-run galleries in the late 1960s through the 1970s.
Rather than historical photos and artifacts, the exhibition thankfully shows actual art by the mostly male conceptualists exhibited by these women, who included Eugenia Butler, Claire Copley, Constance Lewallen, Riko Mizuno and Morgan Thomas. Artists like William Leavitt, Daniel Buren, Jack Goldstein and Lawrence Weiner were not easy to sell at that point, and none of the galleries referenced in She Accepts had much if any financial success.
There’s another opening in January too, called Perpetual Conceptual, organized by the nonprofit Los Angeles Nomadic Division that will just focus on Eugenia Butler, the artist-gallerist who showed a William Leavitt sound piece in the 1960s and offered German Dieter Roth his first U.S. exhibition, which he filled with thirty-seven suitcases of unwrapped cheeses. Like the one at Crossroads, this exhibition will be relatively small, but still the best kind of revisionist history, in which a woman plays the right kind of supporting role.
Dave Hickey has called us out. “It’s corny,” the critic told the New York Times, referring to Pacific Standard Time, L.A.’s current, Getty-funded initiative to canonize L.A.’s post-war art through a hundred or so thoroughly-researched exhibitions hosted by over sixty institutions. “It’s the sort of thing that Denver would do. They would do Mountain Standard Time.”
L.A. did it first, L.A. is an art capital—I’ve heard some variation of this again and again over the past month. I’ve never flinched when people say New Orleans invented jazz or New York owned the Ab-Ex movement, but it’s different when you hear such praise, such broad praise, about your own city, in your own city.
On one hand, the party’s been fun so far, and some of the art’s been a revelation—like Eleanor Antin’s paper doll hijacking video, and Betye Saar’s mystical installations. On the other hand, I feel sort of like it’s Fourth of July all the time, only patriotism has been replaced by regionalism, or like I’m at the Château de Chenonceau in France in 1560, watching the country’s first-ever fireworks extravaganza and feeling like we invented gunpowder. At the Getty’s nighttime exhibition opening two weeks ago, lights projecting the sun-shaped Pacific Standard Time logo danced all over the complex’s many layered buildings like fireworks and a booming voice walked guests through SoCal’s recent art history. At the reception, you could graze food tables themed after every decade—I took mashed potatoes from the 50s domesticity table. All of it was uncomfortably spectacular.
But some of the work in the Getty’s show, the centerpiece of PST, is uncomfortably spectacular, too, and, I suspect, still relatively unknown by those outside this city.
Robert Graham’s funny, sunny dioramas;
and of course, Hockney’s splash paintings, known outside L.A. certainly, but not fully appreciated unless you’re standing in front of them, soaking up their incredible, confident precision.
So what to make of PST? It’s embarrassing for sure. Regional boosterism has to be, especially since it exposes fear of marginalization, which is the neurotic kind of fear that can persist long after marginalization has more or less receded. But maybe the embarrassment is worth a few good shows? I’m not sure.
My favorite Los Angeles art lore story is from David Hockney, who moved to California in 1963. The first night he stayed in L.A., he checked into a beach front Santa Monica hotel. He saw lights in the distance and walked toward them–he didn’t have a car, and didn’t know how to drive anyway–thinking it must be the city. After walking two miles he got there and found a big gas station. Not a city at all.
That’s the best thing about Los Angeles and its art, that things are spread out, confusing, and hard to find. It’s partly what made historicizing L.A. art difficult and, despite all the aggrandizing PST lingo, it’s something PST has embraced. There are shows beckoning to you from all over the region–Orange County, Pomona, San Diego, East L.A., West L.A., downtown, etc.–and it’s nearly impossible to visit each and every one. Even when you do, they’ll only be a teaser, not the real city at all.
And that’s the last I’ll say about PST (in this column, at least).
“All the ghosts are assembling for the party.” That’s what Claire Danes says in the movie The Hours, when her mother, played by Meryl Streep, throws a dinner that brings artists and intellectuals bubbling up from the not-so-distant past. It’s also how art in Los Angeles feels right now. Pacific Standard Time (PST), a year-long, 10 million dollar Getty-funded initiative to probe L.A. art from 1945-80, just got underway. More than sixty cultural institutions are staging exhibitions, and the ghosts are assembling. Some of them, of course—like John Baldessari or Ed Ruscha—were never really gone. History’s kept them constantly at L.A.’s forefront. But even they have works that have rarely been seen and, perhaps, poorly documented. That’s PST’s goal: to preserve parts of SoCal art history that seemed about to fall through the cracks.
One exhibition that opened at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) two weeks ago features a work that did fall through the cracks. It’s an installation by assemblage king Ed Kienholz, the artist who co-founded the now-iconic Ferus Gallery and had an infamous inability to keep his indignation in check (once, he took an axe to an airline desk after baggage handlers broke his Tiffany lamp). This work, made between 1969-72, never showed in L.A. LACMA curator Maurice Tuchman did his best to get it on display, but Kienholz had caused enough trouble with his 1966 retrospective, which was almost shut down due to the sculpted copulating couple in the installation Back Seat Dodge. The museum didn’t give him another chance to provoke.