L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
“It’s best to turn people on. The hippies were always talking about being turned on,” said artist Dan Graham, speaking on a panel at the Museum of Contemporary Art two years ago. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, his co-panelists, had been his downstairs neighbors before they became Sonic Youth. They’d introduced him to fanzines and musicology while he immersed them in the sounds of The Feelies and the alt art scene. “It’s hard to define community because it doesn’t really have to do with location. It has to do with people turning people on to things,” added Gordon as the three embarked on a meandering conversation about Patti Smith, punk, tract homes, and ocean breeze.
Weird Walks into the Room (Comma), Lisa Williamson and Sarah Conaway’s current exhibition at The Box L.A. is a turn-on. It makes you want smart friends, the kind that clue you into things you didn’t know you couldn’t live without. The exhibition itself is lighthearted, but in an unencumbered rather than whimsical way. It’s a community of images and objects agreeably yet fastidiously conversant with each other.
The show’s press release, one of the least pretentious I’ve read, cites the artists’ shared “reverence for the amazing-ness of art.” This reverence manifests in a series of sleek, calculatedly quirky photographs by Sarah Conaway, which hang above, behind and around Lisa Williamson’s serendipitous sculptures. The photos are titled with Roman Numerals and spaced more or less in order, which means they sound the way they feel—“I,” “II,” “III”, “IV”, “V”—, like rhythmic flashes punctuating Williamson’s 3-D inventions, which include wooden polka dot pants, long yellow “stilts” and a pepto-pink “club footed” towel rack.
Though it’s hard to pinpoint what the sculptures and images are talking about, it’s not hard to tell they’re terribly engaged in talking. Sometimes, they converse with art’s history. There are prints that recall Eva Hesse’s stringy studies, and sculptures that have Ree Morton’s sauciness coupled with Sol Lewitt-worthy systematics. Other times, they fixate on the world’s weirdness. There are painted ladders and doorknobs, and photos of crumpled paper. Some moments feel nostalgic, others flippant. But it all somehow comes together tightly in a way that feels intuitively right.
With the exception, perhaps, of the show’s poster, a black and white photo of a vintage living room with an octopus-covered vase suspended supernaturally in the foreground, few of the individual works qualify as distinctly memorable. Conaway and Williams have created a vibe more than anything, one that manages to be compelling without being particularly momentous.
About fifteen minutes in to the MoCA panel, Dan Graham, who’s exhibited at The Whitney, The Walker and four times at Documenta, described himself as a fan: “I have a passionate love for art now . . . and I just go around the world going to art museums and I buy architecture books and art books. Art is pretty interesting, isn’t it?”
That’s the question Williamson and Conaway volley around. And the answer is yes, art’s pretty interesting. It gives you leave to live in the space of turn-ons and combine all the little strings and moments and topics that shouldn’t make sense together but somehow do.