L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
A grad school classmate of mine, one of the more resourceful people I’ve met, had a studio that looked like a carpenter’s shop. Though not clean per se, it was functional and organized, with shelving units and a storage loft above a small couch. When he got stuck or couldn’t decide why he’d gone to art school or wondered whether there was any use in having a “critical discourse” around his work, he’d build something useful: a surf board, a book shelf, a cabinet.
One late evening, I walked past his studio, and from a distance, it looked like everything was gone. Then from the doorway, I could see that he’d piled it all — his old paintings, the surf board he’d crafted, his metal shelving unit, wood, his office chair — up against the back wall. I sort of loved it. It seemed more like piled up frustration then outright anger, and the pile itself spoke the language of the art world it reacted against: two painted rectangles on the floor and the small, perspective-driven paintings at the base led into a towering triangle of stuff, all the trappings of a studio breakdown built up into a handsome structure.
It was a not-quite-rejection, a sculpture made by someone who really just wants to make stuff, but can’t quite get out of the realm of art-as-idea even if it frustrates him (“Then, They Told Me That The Most Current Theory is About a Rejection of Theory. . .” is what he titled the pile, once he’d decided it warranted a title). The New Museum’s Unmonumental show in 2008 grappled, I think, with a similar problem: can you be unheroic, unambitious and still genuinely thoughtful?
Not-quite-rejection art has popped up from time to time these past few years but, right now, it seems suddenly rampant in this city. For Overduin and Kite’s current exhibition, Il Regalo, the artist Math Bass made a series of overturned and sideways wood frames that look like easels, chairs or sawhorses and covered them in canvas, painted with picnic-umbrella-worthy stripes. “Body No Body Body” these sculpture/paintings are called. In Brian O’Connell’s exhibition Ways and Means, on view at Redling Fine Art, the artist combined balsa wood and cement in oak frames, and the balsa and concrete butt up and over the edges like they’re uncomfortable in their allotted space. At Carter and Citizen in Culver City, David McDonald’s Self-Portraits are all strangely structural hodge-podge combines of netting, cement, re bar, paint, Palm Tree wood.
There’s an essay by jack-of-all-trades feminist Katie Roiphe that appeared in the Sunday Review of Books the first week of 2010. Roiphe was writing about how the male novelists of today (David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers) have given up on that charged, power hungry sexuality of the male writers of previous generations (Roth, Updike, Mailer, etc.), and I think of her argument in relation to art surprisingly often (certainly, art’s got its own great army of former chauvinist kings). If you take out the words “male” and “sex,” you’re left with something pretty generalizable. “Even the mildest display of . . . aggression is a sign of being overly hopeful, overly earnest or politically untoward. For a character to feel himself, even fleetingly, a conquering hero is somehow passé,” she writes. To her this should be taken negatively, as evidence that we’ve lost real resolve and desire has been replaced by perpetually replenishing ambivalence. But I guess I think being a conquering hero is passé, and I’d rather look at art that’s trying to find a new model even if that means swimming around in ambivalence a little longer.