by Jonathan Blaustein
It wouldn’t be a story about LA if I didn’t bitch about the traffic, so let’s get it done right now and move along. I was headed up Highway 5 from a vacation getaway in a cute little beach town down the coast. Off hours, no drama, until I hit the LA County line. As soon as I crossed over from Orange County (nicknamed the Orange Curtain, I now know) it was as if I drove into a pile of mud. Stop and go, snarled, miserable, bumper to bumper traffic, all the way into Los Angeles. And of course I had to pee. Badly. Really, there are so few things I hate more than being stuck on the Freeway when I have to go. And then some old-school, straight-out-of-Long Beach Snoop Dogg came on the radio while I was trapped under an overpass. I started to laugh, because sometimes you feel like you’re stuck in Hollywood cliché, and it’s just not worth fighting it.
Regardless, I clamped down as hard as I could and hopped off the 110 in downtown LA for my little tour of the East Side. (The article on the West side will follow shortly.) Let’s be clear, it’s insane to think that one can cover all of LA as a scene, so I didn’t try. I went to see as much as I could, and accepted that much would be left out. That said, I saw a lot.
I started out in Chinatown, which is home to a dozen or so galleries, mixed in among the restaurants, fish stores, and shops selling cheap crap from the Motherland. It sprang up as a home to the contemporary gallery scene a while back, and seems to have held on through the economic chaos. I was last there in 2008, and it was definitely a bleaker place now. Several galleries have gone out of business, and one spot that I’d visited in the past now had some old people playing Mah Jong inside. The homeless quotient was also way up from three years ago, which wasn’t a surprise.
I started out at Sam Lee gallery, on the edge of the neighborhood, right across the street from a highway off-ramp. Sam was showing the work of two different California photographers, mixed up around the room. The first were large scale, razor sharp images by Rebecca Sittler. Whenever possible, I like to look at work without knowing anything about it so I can read the images for all they’ve got. Ms. Sittler’s photographs were of interior scenes, tackily decorated. The first had an eye-catching textural combination of red curtains, trippy carpeting, a wall and a window drape. Another had two beds with a phone in between. There was an image of a heavy, frayed rope on carpet against an angled metal wall, a photo of a roped-off painting with a chair, and also a shiny wood railing in a fancy room.
Taken together, I thought I was looking at the inside of a cruise ship. They were devoid of people, and felt lonely. They spoke of an almost Love Boat, 70’s style- cruise culture, where everybody had suddenly disappeared, like the Rapture. Sure enough, I went to look at the press release, and found that Ms. Sittler’s images were made on the decommissioned RMS Queen Mary that sits in the harbor at Long Beach. (Again with the LBC) It’s impressive that she was able to communicate both the setting and the mood without any text or obvious details. Terrific work. As to why this symbol, and why now? A decommissioned behemoth who’s best days are behind it? A musty style that’s trapped in the past.? A lonely relic of the Cold War heyday? Yeah, I get it.
Adam Thorman’s images, on the other hand, were medium-scale photographs of the California Coast, shot in the detail style, from directly above. Tide pools, moss, rocks, that sort of thing. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Coast in my day, and these looked like spots around Point Lobos, or somewhere south of San Francisco. I often wonder why artists try to capture the essence of Nature, without attempting to communicate scale or sound. Zen has it’s place, but requires a depth of perception that was lacking here. Having seen the real thing, I felt like Mr. Thorman’s photos were far less impressive than the original, and not that interesting.
I walked back to Chung King road, which houses several galleries in a row. They had completely turned over since my last visit, and there were fewer spaces in business as well. I began at Charlie James, which was showing work by Carol Selter, also from California. (Now that I think about it, I’m sure that most of the work I saw that day was local.) Ms. Selter was showing a project, “Animal Stories,” that included photographs, sculpture, and video. Her images contained taxidermy animals that she had returned to nature, then photographed. Birds in particular, and also amphibious creatures trapped in little vitrines. One image depicted a song bird, held by string up to the mouth of a flower.
Damien Hirst references aside, the photographs were compelling. The videos featured the same squirrels, turtles, and a variety of animals talking to each other, bitching about global warming in funny voices. I enjoyed the absurdity, but it didn’t really improve on the message from the photographs. Definite thumbs up, overall.
Next stop was The Box, for a collaborative exhibition by Sara Conaway and Lisa Williamson. Ms. Conaway’s photos were mixed among painting and sculpture, and had a distinctive, airy LA vibe to them. The images were minimal, color-drained photos of 3d objects like wire, cut paper, styrofoam, and cloth. Very sculptural. One exception was a photo with red cloth against an intense yellow background. It reminded me of a de-contextualized, de-politicized “Piss Christ.” I left thinking that everything would look great on a big wall in a big house owned by a big Hollywood production executive. But I’m not about to criticize them for being beautiful, especially as they didn’t look just like everything else out there.
Pepin Moore, right down the alley (Chung King Road is a pedestrian only affair) had a group show curated by LA art star Soo Kim. The exhibition was titled “US EST,” but that didn’t really inform anything. It was a melange of seemingly disconnected work, with a heavy hand from photoshop, and a definite nod to the natural world. (The Earth and sky in particular.) Hannah Whitaker had two multiple image panels in the show: one contained four phases of the moon (boring), and the other was of a white girl in a blue costume dancing with a red hula hoop. Strange, playful, and awesome. The background was all white, and looked like it was photoshopped, especially as one of the shadows seemed to be coming from the wrong direction.
Mark Wyse, another LA art star, was also included in the show. I’ve seen several of his projects before, (cars, surfers) and have also read some of his writing(dense, Yale-ish). Here, he was showing some photos of rocks, perhaps beach rocks, photographed from directly above (not terribly dissimilar from Adam Thorman’s photos up the street.) The images were dry, and razor sharp, but left me unimpressed. Especially as I supposed they were backed by some theory of other. You get a lot of that in LA… pretty photos that are described as far more than what they really are. Not to backtrack from my linear sensibility, but give you an example, the Conaway/Williamson show of pretty pictures was described in the press release as such:
“Their meanings are implicit (not explicit!), resonant (not dull!), and inspired (not locked down!) …there is an aspiratory and generative sensibility that runs throughout.)”
Oh. Thanks. Now I get it.
From there, I made another classic, LA cliché-type mistake. I decided leave the car in the lot and walk across the 110 to MOCA downtown. It didn’t look that far, and I’ve driven it before in 5 minutes or so, so I figured it would just be a quick little nothing walk. Wrong. Pounding on the pavement in my flipflops, desperate once again to pee, I couldn’t believe how dumb I was to play pedestrian. It took almost a half an hour, all told, and I had to sneak into a conservatory across from Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall just to find a bathroom (The secret? Act casually confident, and pretend you know where you’re going. Make no eye contact, under any circumstances).
Problem solved, I walked the last couple of blocks to MOCA. I had seen on FB the previous week that they had an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s entire Campbell Soup Can series, and I wasn’t about to miss it. Andy has had a huge influence on my work, and was unquestionably one of the two or three most important artists of the 20th Century. His impact has been felt across culture, and here was a chance to see his first major painting project, returned to LA where it had debuted (lent by MOMA, fueling the ever-present East Coast/West Coast rivalry).
The ladies at the ticket counter were kind enough to tell me how to get back to Chinatown by bus, but couldn’t suppress smirks at my silly walking endeavor. Advice freshly received, I headed down into the museum. On my way to see the soup cans, I passed through an exhibition of MOCA’s Pop Art collection, and ran into one of Richard Prince’s Marlboro Men photos, “Untitled (Cowboys),” 1980-84. Prince’s work has been much discussed on this blog in 2011, and I was happy to see it again firsthand. The photo was fascinating in that it had some altered texture that looked very much like the noise or rasterized effect we see all the time in digital images that have been pushed too far. To my eye, it looked current, and the blurring texture definitely looked like an alteration of the original (which we probably all now know is a key ingredient in qualifying for Fair Use).
After rounding a couple of corners, I came face to face with the Campbell Soup paintings, installed in a horizontal line, hung in chronological order of when each type of soup had been released by Campbells. Beginning with Tomato soup in 1897, running through the last released in 1962 (the year the project was exhibited in LA).
I’ll share my thoughts as best I can, but clearly this is something to see in person. One of my first observations, as I walked up and down the line, was that the paintings are not, in fact, identical. For all the notoriety that they are 32 paintings of a soup can, they’re not. Warhol was a commercial illustrator before becoming a fine artist, and he did the majority of each painting by hand. So the slight differences, like where he drew the highlight and shadow demarcations on the can lid, became obvious. And a couple of the paintings had a slightly different hue of red from the others. A function of aging or not, it broke the continuity.
I loved the ironic humor. Cheddar Cheese soup (also a sauce), Pepper Pot, (what?), Scotch Broth (a hearty soup), Beef Consommé AND Beef Bouillon, all condensed, of course. Subtle absurdity that grows as you engage the sequence. I could just see the 1950’s Ad men sitting around drinking cocktails, trying to come up with the next hot product to entice the burgeoning suburban shopper class. The paintings are also cold and a bit alienating. It’s well known that the show was not an immediate success, and the dealer Irving Blum ended up buying the whole set for a song. I can see why. In their mechanical-ness, they really lacked any sense of emotion or viscerality, which would have been a big change from the high drama of the 1950’s Abstract Expressionist emo-fest. But of course, they meshed perfectly with Andy’s blank, emotion-suppressed personal brand. For all the talk about branding nowadays, he clearly got there first (15 minutes, anyone?).
What else? They’re brilliant. Simply brilliant. Has anyone ever really picked a better symbol to speak for so many larger issues? Campbell’s soup. How American is that? Soup was the original peasant food, just add water to whatever else is lying around. It also represents warmth, comfort, and Mom’s home cooking. “Soup is good food,” for god sakes. Then someone figured out how to mechanize the production, canning, and distribution of the thing, and the growth of the American Empire was soon to follow. Soup for everyone, the same everywhere, cheap, with a reassuring label, replete with fleurs-de-lis. Classy. And then, over the years, so many choices were offered. What better way to anticipate the mind-cleansing consumerism of the 21st Century grocery store, or Ebay for that matter?
Mechanization of culture, commodification of home, repetition of ever so slightly different but really the same objects, the mesmerizing combination of white and red (just ask Target how effective it is), the space-agey-ness of the Kennedy era. It’s all there. The paintings obviously look like advertising images, and from a distance resemble photographs. They’re phallic, and were a precursor to the Becher’s water-towers, as well as any other deadpan, ironic type of work we see from the 70’s to today. All together, they tell a story about how American Popular Culture, beginning with Pop Art, became the global monstrosity we see today.
After ten or fifteen minutes, I finally shoved off to see the rest of the museum’s offerings, weaving through a few rooms of painting and sculpture with little that jumped out. Suddenly, I found myself in a not-large room surrounded by 58 of Robert Frank’s photographs from “The Americans,” hung in two horizontal rows. They were crammed together, and I felt like I do when I try to shoe-horn myself into my jeans the week after Thanksgiving. Uncomfortable to the point of claustrophobia. I saw the Frank retrospective in 2009 at SFMOMA, and wrote about it in Fraction Magazine, so I’ll spare you a rehash of how seminal I think the work is. Here, I could not get a sense of the scope or the message. The installation was non-linear, and confusing. Really, it made me want to not look. And they were all framed the same size and way, cream colored mats with black frames. Hard to imagine that I didn’t want to bother looking at some of my favorite art of all time, but there it is.
Right around the corner, I saw ten terrific photographs by Helen Levitt, framed and hung the same way, literally jammed into a corner. Of course, across the hall, each of Mark Rothko’s paintings were given feet upon feet of breathing space. Odd. I’m the last guy to have a complex about photography’s place in the Art World, because I think those battles were fought and won years ago. At MOCA, however, the message of photography’s inferiority was emblazoned on the wall through it’s second-class installation.
So with my panties in a wedge, I climbed back to street level, hopped a Dash B bus, and headed back to find my car in Chinatown. After a couple of stale, nasty pork buns from a Chinese bakery on Broadway, I got some directions to I-10 in Spanish, and headed out to the West Side, hoping the traffic gods would smile kindly on me… they did.