L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
“I remember thinking when I first saw a show of Jack Pierson’s that it looked like a group show–Jack’s photos, big letters, a desk. I was excited by this possibility,” wrote Eileen Myles, “that anyone might start to look like a group.” That the peripatetic Pierson–who’s like a travel photographer fixated on minutiae but doggedly committed to the obligatory sunset shot (Myles has called him a hobo with an “Ivy League crook look”)–isn’t interesting as an individual is the most interesting thing about him. It’s like his nostalgic signage, paired with undifferentiated photographs of horizon lines, open books, young-ish nude men or Visconti-worthy table settings are together accidentally. Even his technical finesse, evidence that none of his projects are as flip as they seem, doesn’t keep Pierson from looking like a library of other people’s wants, wallets and persuasions.
Summer is art’s season of group efforts, and Pierson’s Tupelo sign currently hangs in Blum & Poe’s seven-artist Country Music, a quaint homage to sappy love and Nashville twang. But what’s weirder and more exciting is the way in which the Jack-Pierson-effect, an unpretentious artist-as-meme mien, has somehow infected L.A.’s summer scene. The city’s best group shows aren’t really group shows at all.
At MoCA’s Pacific Design Center, there’s Ryan Trecartin’s Any Ever, the topic of this column last week. It works intertextually (and that heady term fits Trecartin perfectly, though his version includes a text message shorthand that Kristeva and de Saussure couldn’t have imagined) as a labyrinth of prissy voices, over-the-top flamboyancy and brash epitaphs. Slippery ownership of person-hood is a coursing theme:
“Cut my hair shorter. I like that kind of person,” says one character. “I define myself as a situation hacker,” says another. “Help me define myself.” “The economy of my body is booming and everyone takes part.”
But collaboration, not slipperiness, gives Any Ever its group cred. Perfecting each of the show’s details involved a posse of helper-friends; Trecartin, though part control freak, manages to give his characters uncanny autonomy; and the videos fluidly feed actors, lines and moods to each other until it’s impossible to tell them apart.
LACMA’s Manly Pursuits: The Sporting Images of Thomas Eakins includes photographs and paintings from the wide-ranging sport-focused repertoire of Eakins, the royal of American Realism. Some are platonic and tame–like The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) (1871), in which Max sits mid-water, lost in thought. Others get physically aggressive, like Wrestlers (1899), which shows bodies in a tangle. The exhibition also includes a swath of photographic studies featuring Eakins’ male students in the nude. It’s a show of many Eakins: the anatomist, the observer, the transgressor, the seducer, the sentimentalist. And it’s best when the different Eakins fit together awkwardly, as they do in a series of equestrian and hunting paintings that make conventional manliness look uncomfortable with itself and studies like this tug-of-war photograph in which sincerity becomes erotic and erotic becomes comic.
If Pierson begins to look like a group, Brian Kennon arrives as an already-assembled collective. His current exhibition at Steve Turner Contemporary (which closes tomorrow and is worth the last-minute dash) is called Group Shows and the plural–”shows” and not “show”–matters. Even Kennon’s groups are grouped. The exhibition includes two series and, for the first, Kennon composed mid-sized prints that put work of other artists, including John Baldessari, Franz West, Sherrie Levine and Wolfgang Tillmans, into curated conversations with each other. Though, in Dinner with Matthew, art talks to food. A bite-size image of Matthew Brannon’s Last to Know, which shows pink band-aids scattered across an invisible grid, anchors images of an entree and Bostini Cream pie. For the second series, Kennon merged gridded patterns with found photographs. One sleek print shows Bert Stern’s iconic striped-scarf photograph of Marilyn Monroe sitting above a gridded panel with an oval orifice which, in turn, sits above a vertical geometric column. It’s called Untitled (Monroe/Bochner Sex Joke).
Artist-linguist-prankster Mel Bochner plays a recurring role in Group Shows and, in the pithy Richard-Prince-quality narrative that serves as the press release’s epigraph, Bochner stands-in for Kennon:
Marilyn (through stripes) to Mel (measured): “If you were given the opportunity to initiate an orgy, one that would include anyone of your choosing, who would be in it?” Mel, in response: “Can you ask me the same question, but in regards to a dinner party? At a dinner party the host retains far more control over who can sit where.”
Kennon controls every interaction that occurs in Shows–which artist sits next to which, who appears in which grouping–but not in a stifling way. While Pierson’s work suggests “anyone might start to look like a group,” Kennon’s suggests a group might start to look like anyone and this sort of mutability makes summer seem really social, not just an excuse for another art-fair worthy melange.