L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
People dress for commencement everywhere, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the effort seems more concerted than it has at other graduations; I imagine the girl in the Birkenstocks with the frayed cotton skirt and matching cardigan thought as hard about her look as the woman in sage, Grace-Kelly style satin and patent leather pumps. I’ve been in town for just over forty-eight hours now and, fun as it’s been to glimpse Amy Poehler, hear the president of Liberia and see my sister receive her diploma, it’s the wardrobe choices that have me hooked.
Early Thursday afternoon, after the conferring of degrees, and during a smaller, more casual diploma-awarding ceremony, I watched twin brothers, probably in their early twenties, converge on the stage just before their sister walked across. They leapt down off a cement wall in almost perfect unison, both with cameras in hand. Both wore khaki slacks, tan loafers, white dress shirts with faint maroon pin stripes and maroon ties. They had wavy brown hair cuts like Rob Lowe’s in the 80s. Have I ever seen grown twins so blatantly announce their twinliness? And the way they moved—totally in sync, like partners in the perfect crime—made their coordinated dress look sincerely, candidly playful.
The last exhibition I saw before leaving Los Angeles was Who’s the Father of Learning?, a show with work by Josh Mannis and Nick Kramer titled after a Lil Wayne riff, on view at Thomas Solomon Gallery. In it, Mannis has an ink diptych called Twins. The sides, mirror images of each other, have black backgrounds that resemble anomalous, oversized thumb prints and dancing red swirling gestures in the foreground, as playful and candid as the brothers in Cambridge.
It’s exactly this candid playfulness that ties Twins to Youth 2 (featuring Barry Johnston), the show’s second work by Mannis. A video playing on an endless loop, Youth 2 shows multiple manifestations of the same earnest red-head (the artist Barry Johnston, I assume) dancing across the screen. He’s got the snappy chutzpah of a bullfighter trying his hand at karaoke, and highways and city lights flash by in the background. As he dances, Johnston lathers his face in shaving cream, again and again, wiping it off and around with a bright yellow towel.
In Lil Wayne’s track, repetition reigns supreme: “My picture should be in the dictionary next to the definition of definition, Because repetition is the father of learning.” In Mannis’ work, repetition reigns, too. The twin red figures, the endless loop of the dancing figures, shaving cream on and off again, and the dogged soundtrack in the background (“I want to know what it all means,” is one refrain), even the stripes of Johnston’s bright red and blue shirt, repeat.
What entranced me about the twins at graduation, who mirrored each other without the least bit of reticence, was the idea that, for young people on the verge of adult lives, being explicitly redundant might be okay. Uniqueness, breaking away, fastness, newness, impatience—those are ideas conventionally associated with youthful self-assertion. “I would die for hours, ride for hours, supply the flowers,” raps Lil Wayne. Because repetition is the father of learning.