Novelist Don DeLillo once quipped, “California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. This alone warrants their doom.” This concept is the curatorial mission behind HA HA! BUSINESS!, currently on view at Luis de Jesus, Los Angeles. HA HA! BUSINESS! reprimands what it sees as a jingoistic and self-centered lifestyle—a world filled with social-media fiends who are willing to cut down the next person, or the world around them, for their own gain.
Valerie Blass’ sculpture La Méprise (2015) consists of a black porcelain figurine of a cat, positioned atop a bust on a marble shelf in front of a large concave mirror. Blass turns the cat, of thrift-store schlock, onto its back with its face turned up toward the ceiling and legs pointing directly into the gallery. The cat’s tail is distorted through the mirror and appears to be thrusting out toward the viewer, engorged and erect. By tipping the cat onto its back, Blass reveals the gender identity of bland consumerism: a kind of cultural imperialism that paves the way for banal and hollow objects to take over the visual environment. Within this generic cat figurine—one of seemingly millions manufactured and sold in home décor sections of Home Depots all over the world—Blass finds the obscene and sinister neuroticism that undergirds the common object. La Méprise, roughly translated, means “the misconception.”
Across from Blass’ modern-day Meret Oppenheim, Deb Sokolow’s drawings convey a similar paranoia. Creating schematics that detail the architecture behind existing objects or phenomena, Sokolow collages logos and handwritten lettering onto plans that reveal her imagined fears, ranging from mind-control tactics, as seen in Political Campaigns and Cult Cultivation (2015), to the fiendishness behind the three-legged stools that Frank Lloyd Wright designed specifically for the secretaries of Johnson Wax Company in 1930s Wisconsin. The text in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Sadistic Side (2015) employs an unreliable narrator who speculates about Wright’s motivation in creating the stool. The precarious stool would tip over if the secretary sat with anything other than a perfect posture. The text reads, “When the company president took up the issue with Wright, the architect said, ‘They’ll only fall once.’ Let those secretaries figure it out. Let them learn a lesson for once.” Though Wright did in fact design and build the stools shown in Sokolow’s drawing, it remains unclear whether he actually spoke those words. Regardless, Sokolow gets her point across: What other reason could there be to create such a precarious stool?
Throughout the exhibition, the HA HA! begins to sound sarcastic; it evokes a sense of hopelessness, as if the curator has thrown up his hands out exasperation at the recurring devastation wrought by individual selfishness. And maybe there’s more truth in that worldview than one is willing to admit. After all, it was just last week that the North Fire rushed across Interstate 15, terrifying motorists who abandoned their cars to the flames and creating an apocalyptic traffic jam straight out of Mad Max. Yet is it that simple? There’s enough cynicism in the world, so why perpetuate it?
A painful dark humor pulses through the works in HA HA! BUSINESS!, some with more success than others. All works in the show contain provocative humor, but many of the pieces have a jejune worldview, while only a couple of works reflect deep criticality. Some videos, such as Zackary Drucker’s FISH: A Matrilineage of Cunty White Woman Realness (2010), actually perpetuate the thoughtless self-promotion that the curator and other artists critique. At times, the show projects a sense that the world is beyond help. In the words of the curator, the HA HA! BUSINESS! internet meme, which inspired the show, represents the “boogeyman with the briefcase” who laughs as the world around us burns to the ground. Business as usual.
But perhaps HA HA! BUSINESS! is ultimately optimistic. At the end of the day, the very existence of critique cannot occur without a hope for the future. For example, Lex Brown’s paintings show promise, creating imagery that is quietly self-reflective without veering into the trap of narcissism. Her painting May 3rd (2015) depicts a pair of brown legs stretching across the image area, perhaps on a chaise lounge, with a crude palm tree in the background. The painting feels like a journal entry, as Brown writes across the legs: “Floyd Merryweather just got paid $136,000 a second to fight a man with a broken arm. Also I can’t feel my legs. WebMD says its either diabetes or my pants are too tight.” The internet says the problem is either a debilitating metabolic disease or that your pursuit of extra-small clothes in the hopes of a satisfying body image is actually a form of self harm. Sounds about right. La Méprise… “the misconceptions,” they never end.
HA HA! BUSINESS! is on view at Luis De Jesus, Los Angeles, through August 8, 2015.