by Jonathan Blaustein
“Hasta la diecisiete, a la direcha,” the parking attendant said. “Hasta la diecisiete, a la direcha?,” I repeated. (Turn right at 17th Street.) “Si,” he said. I drove away, contemplating whether I ought to listen to him, or try to find the highway on my own. Given all the times I’ve shanked myself driving around LA, I decided to trust him. Good call. I found I-10 in no time, and was soon cruising West towards Culver City.
Much like Chelsea used to be a dumpy, non-descript neighborhood before the Art world gentrified it, (bringing gobs of money and Frank Gehry frosted glass buildings,) the Culver City arts district popped up in a random concrete block in the last decade, and hung on for dear life. Wedged between Venice and Washington Boulevards, right off the highway offramp, the Culver City corridor mainly consists of one long block on South La Cienega, and a few places that spread off the corners. There must be 20 galleries there by now, and it’s easy to see a lot of art in a short span of time. Normally.
I say normally, because when I visited a few weeks back, most of the neighborhood was closed for installation. Gallery after gallery had makeshift signs in the door, casually letting me know that I was not welcome while they were hanging their new shows. Not uncommon, I understand, but unfortunately, they’d all scheduled the new openings for Saturday July 16th, smack dab in the middle of the impending “Carmageddon.” I’d been warned about it weeks in advance, and actually chose to visit on that very Thursday to avoid the chaos, bloodshed, and misery that “Carmageddon” was supposed to provide. (Hell was predicted to reign down on the West Side while a stretch of the 405 was closed for construction.) So when I saw that the art dealers had collectively chosen that very weekend to re-open to the world? I was not impressed. Like, yeah, you know, we’re having an opening, and yeah, it’s cool if you come, I guess, but we really don’t care, because we don’t sell work to you at the opening anyway.
As it happened, a few galleriests managed to get their homework done a couple of days early, and were in fact, open for business. I started at Cherry and Martin, which wasn’t there last time I visited. (Like Chinatown, there’s been tremendous turnover in the last few years.) They were showing three artists together, including a few 1970’s black and white prints by the conceptualist Robert Cumming. I remembered his name, and the vague certainty he was important, from the Contemporary Photo history class I took with Tom Barrow back at UNM. FYI, that was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Prof Tom knew so many of the photographers personally that some lectures took on an almost-boozy, you had to be there vibe that was totally addictive. Like Austin Powers with better teeth. Yeah baby. Everyone was throwing crazy, groovy key parties in the darkroom, Man, huffing fixer and chasing it down with qualudes, Man. Can you dig it? (Of course, none of that is actually true, but ought to convey the feeling of sitting in the audience.)
But I digress. Back to Mr. Cumming. His photographs were terrific, and leapt off the wall. I recall three in particular. The first was a diptych of a the torso of a naked body with a leaf covering the privates, holding a flute. In the second image, all was the same, except the torso was holding hands with a woman. It made me think of those Scholastic Magazine puzzles I used to see at the doctor’s office when I was a kid. The diptych was surreal in a groovy way. Just weird enough to be awesome. Another Cumming photo had different font versions of the letter A, and also managed to strike the right balance of oddity. Finally, they displayed a photograph that was one of the best I saw all day, “Spot with a Nice View, 1973, Orange CA”. An image of a backyard alleyway that had been slightly decorated, with a deck chair and lamps posed just so, with a projection of a palm tree at the back of the composition. It was like a crime scene meets a back lot in Burbank meets Jeff Spicoli’s perfect spot to smoke a joint. I think I could have stared at it forever, as it had that parallel universe mood that is almost impossible to achieve.
Robert Cumming Spot with a Nice View, 1973, Orange CA
Kopeikin Gallery, a peripatetic LA institution, moved into one of the best spaces on the block recently. And not only was Mr. Kopeikin’s gallery open, (despite a scheduled Saturday opening,) but the man himself was arranging number pins to coordinate with the press release when I arrived. We ended up striking up a conversation, and he gave me a gracious tour of the place. I was really happy for the LA photography community, because this new gallery is an impressive place to view photos. Three pretty, interconnected rooms that grow in size: small to medium to large. I’m not saying I loved all the work, because I didn’t, but having a super-high-grade exhibition venue in the middle of a humping art scene is a good thing in and of itself.
As to the art, it was a mixed bag. The small gallery had an exhibit of Mr. Kopeikin’s personal collection of vernacular photos that he’s acquired at flea markets over the last ten years. Great. If seven year old kids can make interesting photographs nowadays, I see no reason why anonymous hobbyists fifty years ago couldn’t do the same. And they did. The group was well curated, and had a distinct 1950’s West Coast Americana vibe to it, with burger flippers, convertibles, & cowgirls. Random puffy faced white dudes, trapped in time.
The middle gallery had an exhibit by Kahn & Selesnick. The pictures consisted of digitally manipulated alien type people on Mars. Apparently, the pair had partnered with NASA, and the backdrops were in fact taken by the Mars rover. Interesting detail, but I didn’t care for the photographs. They were kind of cool, I suppose, but felt like a more highbrow version of a Michael Bay movie.
Finally, in the biggest space, there was a two-person show of work from Cuba, featuring Simone Leuck and Jeffrey Millstein, representing interiors and exteriors respectively. Ms. Leuck’s work, which is called “Cuba TV,” featured tight, detail-style images from the interiors of Cuban homes, all with a glowing television somewhere in the frame. Repeating a symbol like that can be tricky, as it can sometimes seem like a crutch, but it worked well here, creating just enough distance from straight up documentary photographs to make the group fresh. The repetition also highlighted the differences, not unlike the Warhol Soup Cans, and brought my attention to the little things that make up someone’s private space in a poor place, like plastic flowers, little dolls, and pictures on the wall. I actually saw the other day in the NY Times that Cubans are only just now being allowed to own their own homes, so all the photos I saw were of people’s attempts to personalize spaces that did not, in fact, belong to them. Strong work, overall.
Mr. Millstein is well-known for his ongoing series of images of airplanes, shot from below, in an identical Becher-style composition. So this exhibition was a departure from what I’d seen from him before, but not from what I’d seen from others. The exterior, large-scale, supersharp images of peeling paint on decrepit architecture were about as cliché as I can imagine. I don’t enjoy writing such things, because I’m actually not an asshole, despite appearances to the contrary. One photograph, which was installed by itself on a separate wall was pretty awesome, and made me wonder why Mr. Millstein hadn’t pushed himself further. It featured a building, with some people on the sidewalk in front. Up on top, there was a billboard with a succession of politicians’ faces. The portraits of the men were illustrated in black and white, and the sign said “Volveran,” which means they will return. (I guess there’s not much surprise in the electoral process.) All but one of the men had these thick, ridiculously awesome, Pancho Villa-style moustaches. It looked like a Looney Tunes mugshot, minus Yosemite Sam. Truly remarkable photograph, which went a long way towards redeeming the show.
My final stop in Culver City was at Western Projects, for a series of hand-drawn, photo-realistic portraits of thug-life-vatos and other hard-looking dudes. The LA-based artist, Patrick Lee, met the men on the street and took their photographs, on which the graphite drawings were based. In a couple of the images, the subjects, neck tats and all, were staring right into the camera, so the viewer could look right back. As most of you know, I’m sure, in real life, you probably wouldn’t want to stare directly into one of these guys eyes. (Unless you’re a fan of getting your ass kicked.) So the drawings functioned in a way that society can’t. They allowed the viewer to contemplate and objectify the subjects, but as the commodification of gang culture and poverty is a billion dollar business these days, the phenomenon becomes a part of the metaphor. And though I’m proud to be a trigger-jockey, these portraits were definitely more engaging as drawings, which I was told take three months to create. The craftsmanship, and I suppose a bit of magic, held me in front of each piece well beyond what I would have offered up to a straight photo. Especially as the faces were surrounded by the naked paper, in lieu of the neutral backdrop one would likely see in a photographic portrait.
Patrick Lee courtesy of Western Project
Done with Culver City, I hopped back on the 10, and drove a few miles West to Bergamot Station, a self-contained arts complex on the outskirts of Santa Monica. (Which is the part of town that you’d probably live in if money was no object. On the beach, postcard pretty, sun shining, that sort of thing.) I would not suggest the art is better here than in New York, because it’s not. But I owe it to you to mention that Bergamot Station is filled with purple flowers and palm trees, cool ocean breezes and eco-friendly hybrid UPS trucks. Very cush.
First stop, Berman Projects, which was technically closed for installation, but happily let me in when I said I was in town to review some shows. Nice people. They were showing a group exhibition curated by the actress Angela Featherstone, who’s one of those people you’ve never heard of, but recognize the headshot on IMDB. The photos tracked the life cycle of Woman, or so I was told, and represented a mixed-bag of quality. Catherine Opie had a cool photo of a laundry room from a married lesbian couple, and Tierney Gearon was showing a few images of naked preggos, including a dynamite photograph of two nude pregnant married ladies kissing, But the outright standout was a photograph by Gillian Laub called “Mom and Dad with Harriet the Wedding Planner, New York, 2008.” Rarely have I seen a photograph that so clearly could stand alone, without any text or the support of a complete project. (Though I’ll admit the title doesn’t hurt.) Somewhere, in the depths of my dreams, I know I’ll have nightmares of Harriet staring down at me, wickedly extracting a tooth, while she whistles “Sympathy for the Devil,” and lets loose with the throaty, smoker’s laugh she no doubt possesses. Ms. Laub, if you’re reading this, kudos.
On to Patrick Painter, for a show by Bas Jan Ader, the second artist of the day I remembered hearing about in Tom Barrow’s class. He was a strange, Scandanavian dude who disappeared at sea in 1975. Well, you don’t hear that every day. First observation was that there were probably ten photographs in a huge warehouse space with 20ft ceilings. It was the perfect contrast to the way MOCA had disrespected “The Americans,” and I made it a point to give props to the gallerina as such. The photographs hit the mark, like Robert Cumming, between outright surreality and the subtler, more Japanese, Murakami-style version. Perfectly weird and absurd, like the triptych of the artist holding a hand-saw standing in front of a band-saw, the artist sawing the hand-saw on the band-saw, then the artist holding up the sawed in half hand-saw. His other pieces, seemingly disconnected, like the artist falling from a tree like Yves Klein, and a black hooded guy on a baseball field, were also great. One can only hope he’s secretly living in Fiji, his royalties funneled through a dummy corporation in the Caymans.
Next: Frank Pictures, for my guilty pleasure of the day. Joe Aker, apparently a famous architectural photographer, had shot details of Gaudi and Gehry buildings, and printed the photos directly onto aluminum. My first thought was cheesy, but I stuck around for a few minutes, and slowly began to love these things. Most of the images were in varying and subtle shades of ochre, and they shimmered like holograms. They didn’t mean anything, per se, beyond the architect/artists’ original intent, which normally bugs me. But these things were just so beautiful, that I began to covet. Jonny want photograph. Jonny need photograph. Feed me.
Then: Joachim Brohm’s “Ohio,” at Gallery Luisotti. He’s German, despite the name, and the dry-style proved it. Like many of his colleagues, he was heavily influenced by Stephen Shore, and it showed. These photos were made in Columbus, Ohio, during the early 80’s. Much as I love real innovation, which these images lacked, they were so well-seen and made that I began to love them. It was a day of the random perfect image (Cumming, Laub) and Brohm busted one out too. A car on fire in an alleyway. Muy bien, Señor Brohm. But a few others were incredibly resonant of place and time too, like a view of a silver Gremlin from above, in an alleyway, or a handful of firemen walking into a house in red, super-short 80’s short-shorts. (Yes, I had some too.) Great use of color, great time-warp experience.
Finally, finally, (Yes, it’s long for me too) I ended the day at Peter Fetterman, who was showing some classic, feel good favorites from Elliot Erwitt, and some classic feel-bad favorites from Sebastao Salgado. Rather than risk a Fatwa for criticizing two such-loved legends, I’ll finish up by saying that the work didn’t speak to me. Erwitt’s sweet, playful, romantic, nostalgic sensibility seemed out of time in these stressful, difficult, globalized 21st Century years. But they were made in a different era, when everything was looking up, and of course they’re great. They just didn’t move me. Same with Mr. Salgado’s work, with high-contrast black and white visions of India, Africa, and Antarctica. I wondered whether I was evil for not liking the images, but they seemed a bit too generic, like 3rd World Travel Porn, and that was that. He did have one image, super large, of an Algerian man in the foreground of some immense sand dunes that receded into the distance, and while it didn’t do it for me, I was sure that for the many photo lovers who crave the perfect “shot,” it would have been a perfect 10. El Diez, otra vez.