evan moffitt

Month: March, 2016

UNFINISHED BUSINESS AT THE NEW MET BREUER

Met Breuer, New York City

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Published on frieze.com, March 2016

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. It’s certainly true of the home that Marcel Breuer designed for the Whitney Museum of American Art, a brutalist cinderblock slotted between the neoclassical facades of New York’s Madison Avenue. When it opened in 1966, the Breuer building was reviled: critics called the inverted concrete ziggurat ‘oppressively heavy’ (Emily Genauer), ‘gloomy’ and ‘stygian’ (Ada Louise Huxtable). But it has weathered well the tempests of time and taste. After nearly two years of renovations, the building reopened last week as Met Breuer, home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s contemporary collection and programming. The high temple of art now has an outpost in postmodernism’s impregnable fortress.

The Met has performed a subtle facelift on the building, refinishing floors and restoring minor details to their original (if slightly enhanced) state. Their respectful treatment of a controversial landmark makes clear its architectural importance. Breuer’s cramped, dark galleries may be poor spaces for viewing contemporary art, particularly as it grows to match swollen egos, but the building is an elegant work of art in its own right. Compared to the voluptuous curves favored by Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, Breuer’s blocky concrete façade seems radical in its plainspoken severity.

In just the past decade, contemporary art has enjoyed a tremendous surge in interest and The Met is only the latest historical institution jockeying for a piece of the action; Tate may have set the trend when it opened its dedicated modern and contemporary outpost, Tate Modern, in 2000 (it now receives nearly 6 million visitors a year). The Met’s takeover of the Breuer building, though bold for a typically cautious institution, is a clear gamble to satisfy visitor expectations and expand its donor base. Cosmetics mogul Leonard Lauder, who promised his renowned collection of cubist paintings to the museum in 2013, was a chief supporter of the move.

The Met is a leviathan, its institutional history and reserves as hulking as its stone edifice. These blessings can be burdens when it comes to contemporary programming that favours smaller, nimbler spaces. But the quiet and pristine Nasreen Mohamedi retrospective, one of Met Breuer’s two inaugural shows, avoids this problem altogether.

Born into a Muslim family in pre-partition Pakistan, Mohamedi attended London’s Central St. Martins in the 1950s but spent much of her career in Bombay, where she produced a vast body of work, mostly hard-edged abstract drawings. Her delicate yet precisely layered graphite lines form complex spatial geometries that recall (yet predate) 3D mapping technology. Their overlapping transversals are especially beautiful in the Breuer building’s refurbished third-floor gallery, where they echo the woodgrain in its famous parquet floor and the rigid joints in its concrete coffered ceiling.

The show includes a range of other media: a number of photographs on view document Mohamedi’s travels across the subcontinent, their abstract subjects ranging from ebbing sea foam to shadows cast by camels. One particular image, Untitled (1972), seems to graft Mohamedi’s graphite grids onto the real space of sunken courtyards in the former Mughal capitol, Fatehpur Sikri: the photograph’s high horizon focuses attention on water channels, paving stones and the pencil-thin shadows at their points of intersection. In another photograph from 1967, also called Untitled, a few granaries stand against a cloudless sky, their alien industrial forms a possible nod to Bernd and Hilla Becher. An intoxicating abstract sensibility coheres somewhere between these black and white photographs, early expressionistic paintings and Mohamedi’s better-known drawings. Even without consulting the wall text, her vision shines through clear as day.

The exhibition is a perfect reflection of the Met’s academic and global strengths. Introducing Western audiences to historically important artists excluded from the Euro-American canon is exactly what Met Breuer should be doing; it’s the most contemporary thing about the new museum.

Upstairs, though, the Met’s curators handle the building’s mute, stubborn spaces with less aplomb. ‘Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible’, a sweeping five-century survey of allegedly unfinished or ‘non-finito’ artworks, opens in Venice with The Flaying of Marsyas(c.1570), one of Titian’s last paintings, alongside striking works by Tintoretto and Jacopo da Ponte. Their ‘unfinished’ effect comes from rough patches of paint: in Agony in the Garden (1558–62), Titian’s lantern flame is an ejaculatory stroke of brilliant white, reminiscent of the fleecy décolletage on Rembrandt’s final portraits. (With loans like these, as with the two entrancing preparatory sketches by Leonardo da Vinci and Jan van Eyck in the next gallery, the Met is flexing its institutional muscle.) At times, artistic abandonment produces utterly weird results: a 1775 portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs depicts a faceless aristocratic lady holding a section of unpainted canvas shaped like a dog, her hair and costume rendered in crisp detail. A painting Degas quit in 1897 shows a fallen jockey impossibly lying beneath the galloping horse that bucked him. In later galleries, it’s not clear that the works on view are actually unfinished at all; most historians believe that J.M.W. Turner’s famous late landscape paintings, filled with startlingly abstract bursts of white, brown and orange, to be complete works, finished when the painter’s eyesight was failing.

On the fourth floor, the exhibition makes conjectural leaps as it jumps through time to cubism and beyond. Many works there, from an oversized Luc Tuymans still life to a Piet Mondrian tape-on-canvas study, are not so much ‘unfinished’ as they are liberal with negative space. While browsing this latter half of the show, I couldn’t help but wonder what the featured artists would think of their inclusion. Does Yayoi Kusama really consider her precise and repetitious paintings non-finito? Is Sol Lewitt’s fugal installation Incomplete Open Cubes (1974/82) really a collection of partial objects, as its title suggests, or variations on a geometric theme central to the sculptor’s practice? What, if anything, is missing from Hanne Darboven’s series Letters and Indices to 24 Songs(1974)? The minimalist paintings of Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, when falsely characterized as unfinished, look like effects of laziness rather than rigorous transcriptions of painterly theory. Whatever few aesthetic similarities can be gleaned from a quick scan hardly relay differences in content or context. They also unintentionally invite derision: what makes many of the iconic artworks of the last half-century ‘contemporary’, it seems, is their slapdash appearance.

What, for instance, justifies grouping a Felix Gonzales-Torres candy spill together with Zoe Leonard’s desiccated fruit sculptures and Robert Smithson’s Mirrors and Shelly Sand(1969–70)? A wall label proposes the theme of ‘entropy’ – are the curators suggesting that the works aren’t ‘done’ until they’ve disappeared completely? Leonard’s and Smithson’s works are static objects, and Gonzalez-Torres’s candy gets regularly replenished. Entropy does not simply mean physical decomposition – it is a transmission of matter from one state to another. The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that this transmission is cyclical; the energy expelled by deteriorating bodies gets absorbed and reused by other matter. The exhibition presumes that artistic process is always oriented toward an end goal – but what if that process is itself the end? If a work is designed to ceaselessly change its shape, can we really declare it ‘unfinished’?

In both its strengths and weaknesses, ‘Unfinished’ is just what you’d expect: a dazzling parade of Old Master paintings chased by a disorienting jumble of postmodern art. The Met still excels at the older stuff; but with contemporary art it faces a steep learning curve. Met Breuer will succeed if those who manage it value contemporary art for more than just visitor figures. The historically conservative institution may never show the kind of ‘new media’ art that shocked and awed at last year’s New Museum Triennial, but it can be contemporary in its ideas: not fresh names but fresh analysis. It would have been far more provocative, for instance, to juxtapose modern and premodern, new and old. Perhaps the splashy gestures of Pollock’s Number 28 (1950) would read differently if hung beside the scintillating figures in Rubens’s unfinished history painting, Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry (1630). What would happen if you put Mengs’s faceless woman opposite the disembodied head in Lucien Freud’s 1965 self-portrait? Or Turner’s late pale, blotchy seascapes next to the muted white impasto of a Ryman?

Of course contemporary art is a tiny capstone on the pyramid of history – just a recent cultural blip of the anthropocene. Trawling through 5,000 years of art history while programming contemporary exhibitions is a formidable challenge, but one the Met can surely handle as well as any institution on the planet. Looking forward by looking back: this is Met Breuer’s paradoxical task. It must use the old to interrogate the new. Until that happens, it has unfinished business to attend to.

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FRED SANDBACK

Proyectos Monclova, Mexico City

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Published in Issue 178 of frieze, April 2016

‘Fred Sandback’s work is an art of objects without shadows,’ Andrea Fraser said of the artist’s acrylic yarn sculptures in a 2006 lecture at Dia Beacon. She was right – at least until the end of Sandback’s life when, in 2002, the artist had an epiphany in the presence of a shadow. It was cast on the wall of a convent church in Mexico designed by the iconic postwar architect Luis Barragán. El Convento de Tlalpan, completed in 1960, is a spiritually moving place even to the most agnostic of aesthetes. With screen-like yellow walls of windows, Barragan sanctified the grid – a ubiquitous modernist motif – by highlighting its cruciform structure. In the chapel, floor-to-ceiling glass casts stippled rays of natural light onto a large wooden cross whose shadow stretches across an opposing wall. Sandback was not a religious man (Barragán was), but he was struck by how the cross’s material form was superseded by its ghostly impression.

‘Los propriedades de la luz’ (The Properties of Light), organized by Proyectos Monclova in partnership with the Fred Sandback Estate, has realized a posthumous collaboration between these two creative minds, who differed greatly in visual vocabulary but shared many ideas about perception, light and space. In addition to six sculptures shown in a traditional gallery exhibition, several Sandback works installed in three Barragán-designed houses in Mexico City are perceptible only by their shadows. At Casa Gilardi, a private residence Barragán completed in 1976 and the only house open to the public, the blue yarn of Sandback’s Untitled (Sculptural Study, Two-part Cornered Construction) (1982-2006), strung across a blue corner above a reflecting pool in the dining room, vanishes as soon as it appears, giving dimension to a dead space while simultaneously flattening the corner into a color-field painting. Along the hallway, lengths of yellow yarn joining the wall and floor in acute angles (Untitled [Six-part Leaning Construction], 2002) dissolve in the tawny light that pours through onyx windows. It is, quite literally, a match made in heaven.

Light assumes a physical presence in Barragán’s architecture that is greater than paint or plaster. Diffuse sunlight, channelled through carefully measured windows, bounces off brightly painted walls, endowing whitewashed hallways, reception areas and dining rooms with the luminous, chromatic intensity of a multi-room James Turrell installation. The houses crack natural light into the component colors of its spectrum, each hue’s changing vibrancy reflecting the arc of the sun. At Gilardi, cerulean meets fiery-red in crisp contrast, their reflected tones just barely comingling on a dimly lit wall across the hall. In the foyer of Barragán’s personal residence, a wall painted in the architect’s signature pink meets a floor of black volcanic rock, and the adjacent white plaster pulses with both shades. At every possible turn, the eye is directed – towards a window of unusual height or a doorframe that opens parallel to a roof beam – to maintain a sense of visual consistency and order in a house where no two spaces are alike.

Such was Barragán’s singular genius: finding symmetry in difference. His precise orchestration of linear geometries and sightlines might be an architectural analogue to Sandback’s favorite forms. Like yarn, which is soft but strong enough to cut clay when taut, Sandback’s sculptures have dual natures: at once flat and volumetric, interior and exterior, forceful yet barely even there. Their long strings float like 3D lines in space – the materialization of a stray mark on a draftsman’s sketch – tracing volumes in space. In the domestic environment of Barragán’s houses, they fully reflect the artist’s desire to make an art ‘anchored in everyday, pedestrian space’.

There is a touching similarity, too, between both men’s relationship to material. Both architect and artist disavowed monolithic materialism; they didn’t need to erect skyscrapers or a concrete Stonehenge in Marfa to interrogate the body’s relationship to objects in space. They did so with house paint, wood, plaster and string – timelessly elegant and brutally effective in their simplicity.

As I departed Gilardi, midday sun began to stream through the skylights, stretching the patterned shape of the windows along the dining room wall. For just a moment, they seemed to merge with Sandback’s strings, glowing in unison as a single beam of light. ‘By removing himself to the extent that he did,’ said Fraser, ‘[Sandback] made a place for me.’ I stood in that place and wished I didn’t have to leave. Its beauty was far from pedestrian.

2015: YEAR IN REVIEW

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Published on frieze.com, January 2016

Growing up in Los Angeles, as I did, could be at times an exercise in collective self-pity. ‘LA is a teardown city,’ my architect mother used to say with sarcasm – a place where minimum construction spends would result in blandly functional temporary structures, easily replaceable when their occupants could no longer turn a profit. Outside critics have long bemoaned the ‘inauthentic’ nature of the city, characterizing key architectural movements like Spanish Revivalism as little more than an Epcot model of imported pastiche. Most locally produced art, however good, stayed local, limiting LA’s international profile to a place for blockbuster films and aerospace technology – a perceived provincialism in fine art terms that has made it difficult for the city’s missionaries (like myself) to sell its charms abroad.

2015 was LA’s year of positive self-realization. It was the year the city’s artistic community woke from a long siesta of self-doubt, prodded awake by a surge of new residents and a fetishistic media frenzy. The New York Times, which has served Southern California snark for a century, ran repeated editorials this spring labelling LA a ‘bohemian paradise’ and a ‘Paris Amid the Palms.’ (Though these were accompanied by sensationalistic coverage of the record California drought and resulting wildfire season, suggesting the traitors fleeing Manhattan for Manhattan Beach were kindling on a parched pyre.) Major events packed the LA cultural calendar, bringing in more than the usual international art crowd. A blockbuster contemporary art museum (The Broad) opened its doors, and another one (MOCA) won back local support with major institutional reforms. A major blue chip gallery (Maccarone) christened their new downtown LA branch, while two others (Sprüth Magers and Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel) prepared theirs for early 2016. Dior director Raf Simons joined his Saint Laurent colleague Hedi Slimane as a part-time LA resident, and German designer Bernard Willhelm relocated his Paris studio to Beechwood Canyon, at the foot of the Hollywood sign. Furious, unprecedented debate raged over the released renderings for Peter Zumthor’s demolition and redesign of LACMA’s campus, which prominently featured a building bridging Wilshire Boulevard – what critics dubbed ‘the freeway overpass.’

At the Getty Center, ‘Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World’ featured dozens of stunning, rarely exhibited ancient Greek and Roman bronzes, most fished from the bed of the Mediterranean and painstakingly restored. The well-researched show provided visitors with extensive information about Hellenistic bronze-casting techniques as well as the sculptures’ presumed origin, appearance, and function. The Getty exhibition title could have described Ode to Santos Dumont (2015), the last work Chris Burden completed before his passing on 10 May. Exhibited at LACMA after preliminary test flights, the semi-translucent dirigible turned circles around the museum’s vast Resnick Pavilion, its hull catching flashes of sunlight in a soaring testament to Burden’s creativity.

Eli Broad and Michelle Maccarone shared top billing in September, when the former’s jewel box museum and the latter’s warehouse gallery opened within days of each other. At Maccarone, towering translucent resin paintings by Alex Hubbard inaugurated the pristine space, catching generous sun from skylights in acknowledgement of Southern California’s greatest natural asset. Elizabeth Diller’s design for The Broad similarly embraced the sun with a vast open gallery floor topped by angular skylights. But the museum’s ostentatious opening (firework displays, a star-studded red carpet, press buffets and multi-day street closures), and the sanitizing decadism of its curation (pairing David Wojnarowicz and Julian Schnabel, for example) distracted from this architectural accomplishment. Across the street, in contrast, MOCA’s new Chief Curator, Helen Molesworth, rehung a selection of the museum’s permanent collection to feature scores of non-white and non-male artists in inspiring arrangements both clever and subversively queer.

MOCA also lent its institutional backing to the fledgling The Underground Museum, a storefront art space founded by artist Noah Davis – who passed away in 2015 – in the working class neighbourhood of Arlington Heights. Davis’s exhibition there last year, ‘Imitation of Wealth,’ showcased famous contemporary master works that the artist had replicated. Like the Sturtevant retrospective that travelled to MOCA that season, ‘Imitation of Wealth’ critiqued the art world’s racial and economic exclusivity. The knockout William Kentridge show that followed brought the ‘real thing’ to audiences that might not often make it to MOCA’s hallowed halls. Similarly Art + Practice, a pet project of artist Mark Bradford, transformed a Leimert Park storefront into an exhibition space, bookstore, and centre for foster youth. With support from the Hammer Museum, Art + Practice inaugurated its space with work by Bradford and Charles Gaines, followed by stunning shows of works by Njideka Akunyili Crosby and John Outterbridge. Both projects demonstrate that ‘giving back to the community’ is not a trite philanthropic sentiment but an important and attainable goal for art institutions. That charge is being lead in South Los Angeles.

It was also refreshing, in 2015, to see a new crop of projects in unusual and nimbler spaces. The gallery Arturo Bandini – named after the dejected LA writer in John Fante’s novel Ask the Dust (1939) – held its inaugural show in a temporary shed on the roof of a parking structure. Another ‘shed show,’ a group exhibition curated by Bolivian collective Grupo Anan called ‘Joe’s Cantina’, brought me to the dusty multi-acre hilltop plot of Cudayh, a new outdoor art and performance space overlooking downtown. Climbing the cactus-strewn road up to the titular cantina, its cracked asphalt too dangerous for cars, I felt as though I could be somewhere else entirely; though it was clear I was nowhere but Los Angeles. I drank mezcal at the bar, a corrugated aluminium hut, and watched dry ice smoke rise from the inside of a white wooden cube, upon which the show’s works had been hung. The quirky (and clearly illegal) ‘art bar’ reprised an earlier effort, by four Austrian artists-in-residence at the MAK Center, to turn one of the carports in Rudolph Schindler’s modernist, Mid-City apartment building into an approximate replica of Vienna’s Adolf Loos-designed American Bar. ‘Los Bar’ was, for the month or so it was open, my favourite place to drink in Los Angeles. Cramped quarters encouraged conversation between strangers squeezed up against the plywood bar and its blue pool noodle bumper. (There was blessedly no cell reception, and thus freedom from digital distraction.) Meanwhile, the Schindler-designed Bethlehem Baptist Church in Compton hosted a spare and serene solo show by Robert Barry. Clear vinyl letters covered the white walls, spelling words only legible from an angle in the chapel’s ample daylight.

Though far from small, the strangest exhibition space of all was 9800 Sepulveda Boulevard, which gave its name to the jam-packed November exhibition ‘9800.’ Organized by J. Shyan Rahimi in collaboration with seven fellow independent curators – Ana Iwataki, Courtney Malick, Pierre-Alexandre Mateos, Mara McKevitt, Mebrak Tareke, Charles Teyssou, and Marion Vasseur Raluy – the show occupied seven floors of a disused modernist high-rise office building on LAX airport property (built in the 1950s to house Ford Motors’ West Coast headquarters). Art found eerie company installed on dull blue-gray carpets under flickering fluorescent ceiling lights – used after its closure for police drills, the building’s walls are riddled with bullet holes. In the teller booths of a wood-panelled lobby bank, writer Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal cheekily installed text on glass panels and small video monitors detailing a lengthy investigation of the online psychic business, Oranum.com. The building’s creepy and cavernous basement featured dozens of works, including artist collective Encyclopedia Inc.’s revelatory installation dissecting Colin Powell’s false UN testimony prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Illuminated by a dim spotlight, in a windowless room with walls yellowed by age, the installation’s hanging banners and static audio vividly recalled the later horrors of Abu Ghraib.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favourite shows outside of Los Angeles. The Guggenheim’s elegant On Kawara retrospective coiled the artist’s quotidian practice and the museum’s architecture together in a spatio-temporal Möbius strip. Camille Henrot’s wacky, working phones at Metro Pictures (cue reference to Drake’s hit 2015 single, Hotline Bling) made my eyes well with tears of laughter on not one, but two visits. Dr. Seussian wall-mounted cord phones offered users creepily soothing advice on how to deal with frustrated, techno-illiterate fathers; disobedient dogs; philosophical and existential crises; and unfaithful lovers. Jim Shaw’s dizzying New Museum retrospective surprised, shocked, and amused in equal turns; it was unclear whether the contiguity between Shaw’s own work and his vast collection of Seventh Day Adventist memorabilia, also on display, was due to Massimiliano Gioni’s curatorial decisions or the artist’s aesthetic obsession for cultish arcana.

The past year was, for me, a tale of two cities as I moved from Los Angeles to New York toward the end of the year. 2015 certainly had its Dickensian highs and lows: record winter storms struck the East Coast while a record drought hit the West. Two venerable art schools – Cooper Union and the University of Southern California Roski School – were embroiled in controversies that raised fears about the future of arts education. A city with half a dozen premiere MFA programmes, Los Angeles has rarely doubted the security of its schools – but when in May all but one of Roski’s MFA students dropped out in protest of unilateral changes to the curricular and funding model of their programme, the whole city snapped to attention. Part of what makes LA great is the collegiality of its arts community; more often than not, big-name artists will happily discuss their work at openings with their younger peers. The increasing professionalization of art schools and the skyrocketing cost of higher education in America threatens to commercialize Los Angeles into, not a place for making things, but a place to make it.

It could be tempting to classify gentrification as a growing pain, part of LA’s rise as a global cultural capital. But the experimentalism that attracts so many young ‘creatives’ there is the very thing threatened by their exodus. The cycle they may well bring is familiar, perhaps even inevitable: as prices rise to meet demand, people are displaced, and neighbourhoods slowly change their character. If there has been an awakening in Los Angeles, some of it has been rude. Artists have seen rent become unaffordable in, ironically, the Arts District, where developers sold the presence of studios as hip credibility to new tenants of hulking mixed-used housing developments. Developers’ intentions are not malicious (just capitalist), but the effects of their labour could be described as the re-whitening of LA’s urban core. To love LA for its ‘teardowns’, for what it already blessedly is, may be to love what is soon no longer.

I, MEME, MIME

A conversation with Amy Yao

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Published in Issue 2 of Art Los Angeles Reader, January 2016

Amy Yao makes curiously unsettling objects. Her paintings and sculptures feature byte-sized phrases that read like resurfaced text messages, Craiglist ads, or Livejournal posts, floating beneath layers of high-gloss resin—as if locked behind a screen or trapped in millennial malaise. Teenage confessions ripped from memes (“All I do is surfing the Internet”) seem to comment on our contemporary moment of social networking, digital buzzwords, and their attendant sense of alienation. But the more oblique of Yao’s works extend this alienation beyond the laptop, to the challenge of self-identification in a dizzyingly pluralistic society. They refuse straightforward interpretation with the plucky indeterminacy of human beings. They seem to mock our inability to make sense of it all—either the art before our eyes, or the world beyond our periphery. Yao has encouraged this ambiguity by speaking little about her work, so I was keen to ask her questions about her practice that had long been on my mind. We both grew up in Los Angeles, and Yao’s involvement—along with her sister Wendy, the founder of Ooga Booga—in the early-2000s Chinatown art and punk scenes seemed like the natural place to start.

Evan Moffitt: You grew up in Los Angeles, and were involved in the punk and art scenes in Chinatown. How did your experience of the city influence your practice?

Amy Yao: I was born and raised here, mostly in the San Fernando Valley, although I spent a year in Orange County. I went to Art Center in the ‘90s, first to the Saturday high school program and them got my BFA there. It was an interesting time to be in L.A. The teachers I had a chance to work with were Sharon Lockhart, Andrea Zittel, Diana Thater, Chris Williams, Mayo Thompson, Stephen Prina. I was also part of the music scene at the time, going to punk shows at Jabberjaw. My sister Wendy and I had a band with our friend Emily Ryan. There was a nice intersection between art and music then. I started China Art Objects with Steve Hanson, who was working at the Art Center Library and very knowledgeable about early LA punk. I was really young at the time, and eventually I stopped doing the gallery after being involved for a year . They went on to become a serious commercial gallery. When I was involved it was a project space, more loose. We had music events, a Mike Kelley poetry reading, a record release party for Steve Prina’s record, informal exhibitions, and parties. Working with people and projects that give agency to the unformed or minority voices, who deal with confusion or fantasy, continues to influence what I do.

There’s a lot of space in Los Angeles, which I think allows for a lot of fluidity. I think that’s informed my practice—fluidity between different forms of working, whether that means programming film screenings or making objects. When I was in school there was an openness to the way one could work, I was not confined by one medium. The medium could be determined by what you were trying to say, based on the place the idea comes from. That continues to be the way I do things now. With the project I did with the ladders, three years ago, I was thinking about Los Angeles art history, and Finish Fetish more specifically—thinking about persona and character in relationship to object making. A lot of Finish Fetish artists were surfers or hot rod custom culture enthusiasts. So I was thinking about that, and about my identity as an Angelino, having recently moved back to Los Angeles from New York. I surf, I live in Long Beach. How does one come to perceive an individual and how is that relating to a wider collective sense of identity.

EM: The ladders are such a commonplace item in galleries, since every preparator uses them. Even so, they feel very bodily. Some of the ladders have anthropomorphic elements, like bows and strings of pearls.

AY: I’m thinking about the body in relationship to architecture and how architecture dictates how a body moves and feels through space. These sculptures have a totemic quality so they can also resemble bodies. As a tool, ladders are related to construction. In Los Angeles there’s always so much construction here, so much tearing down and rebuilding of buildings. I’m interested in the idea of things becoming, or being in-between, rather than being clearly defined and static. In terms of an idea or way of relating to things in the world, I am interested in that indeterminacy.

EM: Like being a “Valley girl” and a Chinatown punk?

AY: (laughs) Yeah, I guess so. With identity especially, the world we live in demands clarity. I’m interested in being unclear. That could be a punk position—though a statement that has its own kind of clarity, I guess. But being in a state of transition has always been interesting to me. It feels radical in some ways.

EM: You’ve also worked repeatedly with fans, a cliché, Orientalist fetish in the West. Are they meant as a critique of racist stereotypes?

AY: At the time I started making the fan pieces, I started working on this film—I’m still working on it, actually—it’s a series of short films shot in China, starting in Shanghai. During this time, I had a studio in Chinatown New York on Canal and Mott. From my window, you could see all the business transactions and tourism happening on that busy corner. Here, I thought about how people project a certain cultural identity onto me. I’m Chinese American, and there are souvenir shops throughout Chinatown that sell cheap tchotchkies that refer to an idea of China to tourists. The shopowners are Chinese. But if you went to the shopkeepers’ home they probably don’t have those trinkets. It seemed almost culturally subversive, selling your identity according to other people’s projections of you, making money off someone’s semi-benign racism. I jumped into that mess.

EM: Is the punk aesthetic in your work a projection too? I’m thinking here of your fonts. One of them feels particularly punk, in an almost spooky way—like the font of a pulp horror film poster or a Misfits album cover. But applied to words that might have come from Craigslist or AirBnB postings, floating in those semitranslucent skeins, that aesthetic doesn’t feel edgy so much as anachronistic. It feels intentionally out of place, more a ghost of punk than the real thing.

AY: Maybe spooky like the Cramps bubbling up. Something disembodied, put in a different context, has to be read in a different way. Context changes meaning. Think about “Occupy”—an easy example—which can mean so many different things in different situations. When I started using that in my work it was a buzzword in daily life and Internet culture, because of the Occupy movement. “Sublet” and “Live/Work” sound very different in a Craigslist ad, because you think about those words in terms of their utility. I was interested in that displacement of meaning that comes with a shift in context. Like, “Do you want to sublet my life?” (laughs). That free-floatedness of meaning also has a lot to do with how quickly we consume images online. The high speed of the Internet makes image culture and text culture meaningful and not meaningful at the same time.

EM: There’s a line that appears in a number of your works that seems to capture that fraught relationship to meaning in our networked culture: “All I do is surfing the internet. All day, I talk to the internet.” It sounds ironic, like someone who either doesn’t know how to use the Internet, or uses it so much they’ve forgotten how to speak.

AY: That statement was a quote from a Korean movie I found in a subtitled still that someone posted online, and I took it. I put the quote next to a list of artists who have spicy blogs and or have practices relating to internet use. I felt like the voice was supposed to belong to some sad, lonely girl. (laughs) A lot of the text I use, 80 to 90 percent, I didn’t come up with. Many words and phrases are so common that it may seem pointless to think about their origin.

It’s so far gone that it feels nearly impossible to be critical of network culture at this point. It’s probably changed the way our brains are configured. Before the Internet, subcultural people found each other through different visual codes. But now it’s so easy to find someone who relates to you, they can even live far away. Since everything is accessible, where can you disappear to? When I was young, my interests and tastes came out of boredom and a feeling of alienation. Now it seems to work in a different way.

EM: The more obvious forms of millennial alienation—being constantly glued to cellphone screens, our romantic lives reduced to Tinder swipes—seem to go hand-in-hand with a kind of Marxist alienation. Terms like “Live/work” and “sublet” are part of the vocabulary of alienated labor in the era of big tech.

AY: I definitely was thinking about the neoliberal situation we find ourselves in now, where AirBnB and Uber, for example, are supposed to improve working conditions via flexibilizing, but they really don’t change the balance of power. It’s a mirage.

EM: The utopian myth of the sharing economy.

AY: I’m critical of the way they meld together life and work through a false sense of freedom. I wonder how things are supposed get less precarious.

EM: Isn’t that what being an artist is about? Like the title of an essay by Nina Power, “The artworld is not the world.” I have to remind myself that sometimes. I don’t blame you for living in Long Beach! (laughs)

AY: It’s true… we also live in precarity with a false sense of freedom.

EM: Can you tell me a little bit about your upcoming show at Various Small Fires?

AY: I live in Long Beach and my studio’s in Commerce, between two train tracks on the Union Pacific and BNSF. I’m working on a show at Various Small Fires in Los Angeles, which speaks to this. My commute follows truck routes between the Port of Los Angeles and industrial warehouses in Commerce. I was thinking of the pollution and industrial waste along that route, and the neighborhoods that surround it, and the economic condition of individuals in those areas subjected to toxic materials. The further you get away from that the less of it you see, and the more you consume, perhaps, because you make more money and you shop more. A lot of products that we purchase enter through the port and travel along this route, and there’s something very bleak about that.

EM: The mime—the word, if not the figure—appears frequently in your work. The mime is an interesting tragicomic symbol to use, maybe the most alienating of performers. What does the word, or the character, represent to you?

AY: I was thinking about learning through images and copying them, or acting through empty gestures, like a mime might do—like opening a door that doesn’t exist. I was thinking about that somewhat critically: we see an image of someone buying something with their credit card, and it enters our subconscious and we want to do the same thing. So I was thinking about that effect of images, and what the actions they produce might mean. Mimetic gestures seem even emptier than imitation.

LE LOUVRE, LAS VEGAS

The Pageant of the Masters

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Published in Issue 3 of CARLA, November 2015

In 1985 Jean Baudrillard arrived in the warm, verdant hills of Orange County. It was a land of soymilk and honey, humming with sprinkler water and gasoline. He had come at the end of a trip across the anti-Europe, to see a young country that bewildered him.

He was delighted and horrified by America. It was everything he expected. The Pacific was a “crystal prison” wall; the desert a “cinematic vision.”[1] Santa Barbara was filled with “funereal” villas and beaches where joggers prolonged death through a “morbid…semi-ecstatic cult of the body”.[2] Los Angeles, the capital of cinematic illusion, was for him no more than a Hollywood metonym, a real city sloppily slathered with artifice. “For us the whole of America is a desert,” he wrote in his travelogue, which later became his book America. “Culture exists there in a wild state: it sacrifices all intellect, all aesthetics in a process of literal transcription into the real.”[3]

I thought of old Uncle Jean last September, when I found myself in Laguna Beach fifty years after his visit. I had come for the Festival of the Arts, a commercial art fair on the grounds of an outdoor amphitheater. It was a warm weekend showcase of Sunday painters with aspirations of Dale Chihuly—pleasantly middlebrow family fun. The real draw, though, was a staged performance at nightfall unlike any in the world, a spectacle known as the Pageant of the Masters.

Since 1933, an all-volunteer cast and crew have assembled each summer to recreate famous masterworks in exacting tableaux vivants. From unsigned Roman sculptures to Edward Hopper paintings, the program is a broad survey of art history. Each figural subject is a live human posed motionless in an elaborately painted set. No curtains are ever drawn, but in a pall of onstage darkness props are placed, gigantic frames are cinched, and bedecked models take their places. The hyperreal results I witnessed would have given Baudrillard an aneurysm. When the lights went on, those deep sets seemed truly flat; painted shadows on costumes perfectly mimicked blocks of shade in oil. Live actors, frozen still, became statues. Poses were held for only a minute or two, while a narrator described the work being imitated; then the flattened set was dismantled and the next artwork patched together. The whole stunning sequence was set to a live orchestral score. This was a museum with intermission and buttered popcorn, its prep team black-clad stagehands.

“Where Art Comes to Life!” the Pageant website promises. “Why just look at art when you can experience it.” What distinguishes the act of looking at art from a true perceptual experience isn’t clear—though I doubt the fair organizers were consciously making phenomenological claims in their advertisement. The experience they sell is a spectacle for awed yet passive consumption. The program is what Baudrillard would call “a mark of cultural ethnocentrism”[4]—an art-historical drive-by from the safety of an air-conditioned safari Jeep. Its theme, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” washed each work with sunny, patriotic pep that made art history cozy and communitarian rather than dangerous and dysfunctional (as I believe it to be). The field felt foreign as I sat there listening to the cheerful story of Norman Rockwell. The syrupy sentimentality of Currier and Ives—an audience favorite—went down like an inedible concession stand sweet. No opinions but a profound admiration for traditional notions of beauty were necessary.

The narrator’s soothing baritone lubricated our effortless glide from Mughal India to Rococo France, not unlike those pacifying headsets available at museums for a sizeable surcharge. Lulled by his omniscient tone, audience members’ studious gazes glossed into vacant stares. Look away from the frozen corpses strewn before our first President’s victorious steed in Washington’s March (Thomas Ball, 1869); think not on the vicious proclivities of Shiva, Lord of the Dance (Anonymous, 950-1000). Cyrus Dallin’s Native American Scout (1910) knew nothing of the Trail of Tears. In that amphitheater, art history was a pleasantry enjoyed by the rich, cleansed of politics and other nasty blemishes. It was a story of victors; losers don’t sit for portraits.

This was Reagan country, and the show could’ve been mistaken for a late summer Fourth of July extravaganza. In Laguna Beach, recreations of 19th century pioneer paintings felt self-referential, celebrating a Manifest Destiny fulfilled on the Pacific shore. Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour (1756), plopped awkwardly between Revolution-era American artworks, and was cast as a lush celebrant of aristocratic capitalism. The mercantilism of Louis XV seemed suddenly close to the austere economics of Orange County, Le Petit Trianon a Neoclassical summer villa on the shores of Emerald Bay. The pursuit of happiness ended in projected fireworks at the show’s pre-intermission peak, while an actor dressed as George Washington rode a live white steed before a plaster and bronze-painted flesh facsimile of the Jefferson Memorial.

What is a pageant but a striptease, a cakewalk, a Christmas play—a parade of beauty or patriotism or faith? Pageantry means values presented with panache, ideology displayed with celebratory flair. Its propagandistic spirit makes history into myth, the dialectic of civilization into a precession of simulacra.

Baudrillard believed our modern world to be a stream of copies without originals. America—and especially the West—was founded on this simulacral premise, a desire to resurrect the dead for the pleasure of the living. “One of the aspects of [Americans’] good faith,” he wrote, “is their stubborn determination to reconstitute everything of a past and a history which were not their own and which they have largely destroyed or spirited away. Renaissance castles, fossilized elephants, Indians on reservations, sequoias as holograms, etc.”[5] For him Disneyland was the consummate simulacrum, a fabricated world that refers only to the realm of fantasy. On his visit, Orange County’s infamous theme park cast a shadow of fakery over the entire sunny region, one that gave me chills as I sat in my amphitheater seat that night.

As I watched history’s classic artworks shamelessly reconstituted, I sympathized with the departed French curmudgeon. Larger than life, these tableaux were actually nothing like the art they aped, a fact made inscrutable by distance. My opera glasses grew foggy with body heat as I clutched them close, trying to spot the cracks in the Pageant’s narrative. I felt like a kid on a Disneyland ride looking for exit doors, safety valves, and track lighting; I yearned to dismantle the artifice. But everywhere I turned, it was there to face me off: nothing hid behind its mask but another mask, another layer of illusion.

Both museum walls and theater stages are contextual frames within which work performs; even static objects are full of motion, engaged in a parallax with the bodies that perceive them. Perhaps the Pageant illustrates the way art really behaves before our senses, less a stable material to consume at will than a living force to contend with. The Pageant tableaux are mimed performances more than faithful recreations, but they transmit images and concepts to viewers the same way paintings do—and ultimately that merits just as much study or casual enjoyment as any Manet. In the end I resisted Baudrillard’s postructuralist panic: though overwhelmed by the ideological spectacle my field of study had become, I was fearful of being too rooted in the discipline. The faces around me were alight with wonder; art most of them probably knew from dry textbooks felt suddenly dynamic and alive. Their excitement might be worth the whole simulacrum. If we were in Las Vegas or the Louvre, it didn’t really matter. I decided relax and enjoy the show.

[1] [1] Jean Baudrillard, America, Trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1988), 30.

[2] Ibid., 35.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, America, Trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1988), 101.

[5] Ibid., 41.