evan moffitt


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.



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.


Diane Rosenstein Gallery, Los Angeles

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Published in Art in America, November 2015

Sarah Awad’s paintings are sluices barely holding back a flood of Fauvist color. An emerald canopy bursts through an indigo grate. Dark leafy smears clash with splashes of fluorescent lime. Warring daubs of crimson and cornflower capture the full flame of a desert sunset.

Awad’s previous work was a lively and lucid play with odalisques and other motifs from classical painting. But for the twelve medium-sized paintings and six small works on paper in “Gate Paintings,” her fourth solo show, Awad has turned her gaze to ornament. In each painting, she renders a front-yard fence with broad strokes of oil on a canvas coated with matte Cel-Vinyl. The airy garden glimpsed through the subtle suggestion of a grid pulls the viewer from the pancake flatness of the Modernist plane into a semblance of spatial depth.

When depicted shut, a gate is a formal device that encourages the eye to look beyond its bars. As a grid it makes the painting flat; as a portal it gives it dimension. Pied-a-terre (all works 2015) spans two canvases, a small square attached to a larger rectangle, and the gate seems to swing across the joint. One can almost imagine the posts painted in the work’s right side cresting a low brick wall that hems the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone. Exuberant gestural strokes accrue as the playful, repetitious curlicues of ornamental ironwork. There’s a surprising amount of movement in Awad’s vision of a static object that is designed to limit movement. Each whorl twists off its rigid frame like a wiry hair stubbornly resisting the grid’s comb. This unruliness peaks in Blue Hour, where the lattice of a metal fence swaddled in crepuscular purple snarls like an errant kudzu vine, twisting in rusty tones at the painting’s lower lip.

In Studio @ 9, the door to Awad’s own studio is split by shades of ochre and cobalt. The screen door, a ubiquitous feature of L.A.’s industrial art spaces, allows light to pass in one direction. Its surface catches afternoon sun, turning opaque to passersby while remaining transparent to those inside. At night, interior light casts a glow on the sidewalk; the solid barrier becomes a translucent membrane. In the painting this transmission of light acquires a palpable presence. The sun’s full swoop is frozen in chromatic contrast.

In The Poetics of Space, French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard said of the word “door” that “through meaning it encloses, while through poetic expression it opens up.” The same could be said of Awad’s gates and their relationship to the history of painting. If Awad felt fenced in by the opposition of abstraction and figuration, the works in “Gate Paintings” managed to escape this constricting narrative by refusing to commit to either style. As much as the paintings seduce with surface beauty, they invite us to break through the picture plane and enter a garden of possibility.


Honor Fraser, Los Angeles


Published in Frieze, Issue 175, November-December 2015

Howardena Pindell made the collages in her first West Coast solo show at Honor Fraser using the simple medium of hole-punched painted paper. Colourful chads are affixed to thin wire or string armatures that form delicate grids on the surface of museum board backings. Many hang from tiny daubs of glue in seemingly random arrangements, like a child’s dashed fistful of rainbow glitter.

For most of her 40-year career, Pindell eschewed figurative art in favour of abstraction, partly to undermine the market’s aesthetic expectations of ‘black contemporary art’. As a result, critics considered her work insufficiently political; but her politics reveal themselves upon close study. Pindell’s visual preference for details over generalities is an aesthetic corollary to her belief in the value of human subjectivity. In her abstract collages, identity is atomized: vibrant dots, like unique human individuals, refuse to fully bond in the service of a whole. Each numbered form demands precise attention. Pindell has said that she chooses her numbers randomly. Rather than direct the eye outside of the frame, they draw it towards each labelled paper particle. The tension between compositional unity and singular detail gives the small, layered works a formidable yet lively presence.

While making her earliest collages, Pindell served as the Associate Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at MoMA, New York. Hole-punch scraps are a natural medium for someone accustomed to bureaucratic paperwork. But Pindell’s brightly hued chads seem to tremble on their threads like tiny flapping flags. Neither static nor flat, they stretch out towards the viewer as dynamic sculptural objects. In Untitled #27 (2003), for instance, razor-thin black paper circles jut out from their board backing like a bed of mussel shells on the belly of a seafront pier. The dense composition in Untitled #42 (2004–05) recalls a frozen flurry of red and white blood cells. In Untitled 6F (2008–09), a collage with the contours of a cumulus cloud, each cut-paper disc, coloured with an iridescent watercolour wash, seems, despite its resolute flatness, to shimmer like the scale of a rainbow trout.

On her travels in Africa, Pindell was inspired by the layered detail in indigenous costume and scarification. In many West African cultures, refined bodily adornment offers the wearer a means to communicate with spirits. Pindell was drawn to this idea of aesthetic transcendence, which she felt was absent from the cold conceptual concerns of Western contemporary art. The body is a space on which the free play of decorative ornament produces surface tension, like the wire frames on which she layers paper.

Pindell’s subdued politics sharpened in a series of ‘video drawings’ on display. Storms of arrows drawn in marker pen brew over photographs of paused television footage like a football coach’s notes on offensive plays. Indeed, many of the images show athletes in strained poses: linemen mid-tackle, sprinters bowed at starting blocks. Pindell has called the drawings formal exercises that break down the material structure of images by underlining the movement of figures. More than mere pictorial analysis, though, the drawings have a sharp, dissecting power. In one drawing, white faces cheer on two black boxers trading blows. Their heads folded inward, we cannot identify either man, but it is clear they have been thrown together in order to tear each other apart. The arrows emphasize the centripetal pressure of their violent embrace. In this context, the black bodies of Pindell’s chosen athletes seem less heroic than sacrificial.

Aside from the darker subtext of her video drawings, Pindell’s works are ultimately uplifting. With sparkling colours and animated arrangements, she highlights the parts of us worthy of attention. The result is a confetti-like celebration of life’s dazzling diversity, one that always begs a closer look.


Los Angeles


Published in Apollo, November 2015 

In Los Angeles, cultural institutions are carved from dry earth by billionaire scions. With the opening of his $160 million museum this month, real estate mogul-turned-philanthropist Eli Broad became the latest addition to a list that includes Armand Hammer, J. Paul Getty, Norton Simon, Gene Autry, and Frederick Weisman. Known simply as “The Broad,” the museum houses 2,000 works acquired over five decades behind a sparkling new façade on Grand Avenue, designed by Elizabeth Diller of star firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It is the latest addition to the architectural pastiche of downtown’s Bunker Hill, a formerly dense Victorian neighborhood razed in the 1960s to make way for a civic acropolis. Diller’s design, a jewel-box cased in concrete, is an apt metonym for the institution’s treasure-chest philosophy, marking both its strengths and limitations.

Diller describes this approach as “the veil and the vault.” A porous, alabaster-white curtain of angular incisions—slanted panels of cast glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC)— lifts seamlessly at two entrances. The panels filter diffuse yet surprisingly natural light into an expansive third floor gallery. The cavernous, womblike lobby marries organic fluidity with the obdurate modernist material of polished concrete. Cool yet subdued, it offers respite from the sun that bakes the downtown asphalt. Curving walls and ceilings give the impression of a cresting wave, the building’s monumental mass almost ready to come crashing down. Unusually for an art museum, the entire collection is housed onsite in a vault visible through two picture windows in a central stairwell. A pedagogically popular conceit in new museum design, the windows offer viewers a glimpse of the real-time storage and lending programs that will define The Broad, like a physical declaration of the institutional transparency to which the museum, at least in theory, aspires. It’s an appreciated but voyeuristic touch, like a glass-paned diorama in the queue for a space-age Disneyland ride.

The conditions of The Broad’s unveiling are as fraught as any in recent memory. The collection’s highlights were formerly displayed in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, a Renzo Piano-designed addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art financed personally by Broad, who retracted his tentative offer to donate them just before opening day as a rumored snub to LACMA Director Michael Govan. Its new location on Bunker Hill lies across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art, where in 2008, as founding board chairman, Broad catastrophically installed New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch as Director. Broad’s unsurpassed generosity has always come with strings attached. Veils can drop and vaults can lock; opacity is never far away.

On the whole, the collection is a grab bag of the bluest chips. Joanne Heyler, the museum’s founding director, curated its inaugural exhibition with commercial flair. Prior to her takeover of the Broad Art Foundation, Heyler was the Broads’ art advisor for nearly thirty years. Her debut looks like it was arranged by an art advisor, showcasing cost before quality. After a short escalator ride to the third floor gallery, visitors are first greeted by the glossy welcome mat of Koons’s Tulips (1995-98) and Christopher Wool’s Untitled text paintings (all 1990), a pairing more photogenic than informative. Most rooms are dedicated to a single artist: there is a Hirst room, a Warhol room, an Artschwager room. Heyler seems to have forgotten that conversation is impossible when only one person is talking. This is a Billboard Top 40 marathon of greatest hits, revealing less about context than market tastes.

In galleries that Broad’s collection couldn’t fill with the work of a single artist, corresponding temporal logic produces baffling results. David Wonjarowicz, whose queer, abrasive art assailed the selfsame institutions of capitalism and heteronormativity, would be presumably miffed to see his work hanging next to the overvalued paintings of his masculinist contemporaries Julian Schnabel and David Salle. The only parting message is that some people painted in New York in the 1980s. If decadism is a sanitizing curatorial sin, The Broad is surely hellbound.

The few women whose works the Broads collected are sidelined. Kara Walker’s silhouettes appear in a far corner past rooms filled with materially and conceptually unrelated works by male artists. Any visitor who finds Jenny Holzer’s 10 Inflammatory Essays (1979-82) deserves a prize: tucked on the backside of a wall pressed up against an exterior window, the powerful political piece is installed as if someone wished it hidden.

Several gems are worth the price of free admission. Bateau de Guerre (2001), Chris Burden’s whizzing battleship of children’s toys, is a charming surprise suspended in a ground floor gallery. Nearby, a room of Thomas Struth’s Audience (Galleria dell’Accademia) photographs (all 2004) amuse with their Brechtian candor, turning the eye to art-gazing audiences in Florence’s legendary museum. One hopes The Broad will actively encourage the self-reflection that Struth achieves with only a camera and photo paper; at least Diller’s building solicits as many curious gazes as that Florentine palazzo.

Running an art museum is politically challenging business. Internal operations can be subject to the scrutiny of institutional criticism, and it’s clear from its opening show that The Broad lacks self-awareness. Across the street, in MOCA’s newly hung permanent collection, Andrea Fraser dry-humps the “sensuously curved” lobby wall of Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim in Little Frank and His Carp (2001), making a mockery of placeless, private art museums. Such spaces, as Fraser demonstrates, are showrooms rather than classrooms, designed to awe instead of educate. Heyler now must prove the Broad collection needed its own institution by doing what the museums it lends to couldn’t. Helming a hefty $200 million endowment, will she gobble up new works by younger artists like a private European art foundation, or focus on progressive public programming, like the Hammer? Will The Broad become a space for rigorous academic research, like the Getty? Will it continue to lend work widely, or shut its vault and keep fan favorites on the wall? Without an adequate answer to these questions, L.A.’s newest contemporary exhibition space will gleam only with an old-fashioned luster, like the palace of a faded monarch. It will have nothing new to offer.


François Ghebaly Gallery / The Bikini Factory, Los Angeles


Published in Frieze Issue 173, September 2015

The string bikini has been carving tanlines in the erotic imagination since its birth in 1946. With a less-is-more design, it announced a new sexual awakening and body consciousness. Anthony Lepore’s dual projects ‘Bikini Factory’, displayed at François Ghebaly Gallery, and ‘Splash, Glow, Fullflex’, installed at a women’s apparel factory by Lauren Mackler of curatorial collective Public Fiction, dissected this dream in a flurry of bright fabric. Like a poolside cocktail, the show’s photographs were sun-drenched and saturated with tropical colours.

The photographs were taken at the Lepore family bikini factory in east Los Angeles, founded by the artist’s grandfather in 1971. Lepore began the series when he moved his studio there last year, displacing two rows of obsolete sewing machines that were then displayed at François Ghebaly. At the factory, the four walls of Lepore’s studio form a sky-blue cube that sits incongruously in the centre of a vast hall, the drone of sewing machines and laughter of seamstresses playing Lotería always audible through its open ceiling. Lepore’s photographs are filled with childlike wonder at the harlequin delights of this workspace; one can almost envision the artist playing hide-and-seek as a boy in rows of garment racks. Iridescent spandex stretched over the jagged edges of wooden frames evokes the body even when no skin is shown. In The Boss (2015), his father’s balding head bobs through a hole in fabric printed with stars and shadowy moons, the saturnine factory owner hiding beneath what could be his son’s pre-teen bedspread.

Lepore relishes chance moments, photographing the scalloped guts of dropped fabric reams or the kaleidoscopic chaos in piles of discarded Lycra samples. Some images, installed in situ at the factory, engage with the steady work flow: a pyramid of packed shipping crates matches the fleshy foam of Gold Cup (2015), and a yard of red fabric left half-cut in front of Pusher (2014) amplifies its mermaid teal tones. Mirage (2015) records the reflection cast by swimsuit fabric on a puddle of mop water. Cleaners had arrived at the factory to wash the floors of ‘bikini dust’, a toxic film of pulverized polyester formed by fabric-cutting machines, when Lepore noticed the trick of light and snatched his film camera. The result is an LSD dreamscape, like rainbow ribbons of gasoline dashed across hot desert earth.

There was a seamier side to this show; a story of alienated labour and displacement. Some of the show’s strongest works are portraits of seamstresses’ metal chairs, hung from an outdoor wall hook in the sun’s full glare.The women covered the seats and back rests of their chairs with quilted scraps of recycled bikini fabric in order to make them more comfortable; each bears the trace of its owner’s hand and the weight of her body. The exhibition text refers to the colourful upholstery as an aesthetic ‘intervention,’ veiling the factory’s working conditions with art-historical jargon. Lepore’s formal appreciation for these uncomfortable chairs betrays his class privilege, his familial history obscuring this relationship in the service of an uncompensated creative exchange.

Lepore found the sweeping gestures of arms, buttocks, and breasts beneath tight fabric more aesthetically compelling than the slight yet dexterous movements of fingers holding sewing needles. Certain kinds of sweat – artistic sweat or beach-bum sweat – were privileged over the sweat of industrial labour. Lepore’s one nod to workers’ rights came in Cover-Up (2015), a photograph of a legal notice board obscured by a gauzy net of pink fabric. The board is a palimpsest of paper, layered pages listing minimum-wage increases and childcare services. All US employers are required by law to post such boards in public view, and the photograph’s title hints at the obstructionist tactics often employed by sweatshop owners to prevent workers from unionizing. At the bikini factory, another work (Spaghetti Strap, 2015) was installed over the board, hiding some of the flyers pinned to its surface. The installation was visually appealing but probably illegal, implicating both artist and curator in a cover-up that neither intended, one that aestheticized a long and difficult history of labour reform.

Visitors to the factory mostly amplified the racial and class divide between the photographer and his subjects, lending the experience an air of voyeurism. Without the aid of a didactic tour, Lepore’s photographs appeared to combine commodity fetishism with a fetish for the Other. The artist’s enviable talent for capturing light and texture produced a visually stunning series, yet approached a politically fraught subject with formalist disengagement. This attention to surface resulted in work content to remain there, floating above murky waters.


MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles


Published in Apollo, August 2015

For the final summer months, the best place to get a drink in Los Angeles isn’t a fancy craft cocktail bar or an upscale fusion restaurant, but a tiny carport in a midcentury apartment parking garage.

Los Bar, a project by Andreas Bauer, Christoph Meier, Robert Schwarz, and Lukas Stopczynski, is an almost-to-scale replica of Adolf Loos’s iconic American Bar in Vienna. It occupies one segment of a six-car garage in the Mackey apartments, designed by fellow Austrian modernist architect Rudolph Schindler.

The original Loos bar is a paragon of refined simplicity: Loos’s focused attention to material finish and simple, boxy geometry created an intimate space replete with red marble, onyx, mahogany, and wraparound mirrors. The bar still earns its name with a steady jazz soundtrack, white-coated bartenders, and a menu of stateside classics like Highballs, Whiskey Sauers, and Manhattans. Los Bar doesn’t offer quite as many options—no cocktail muddlers or lemon twists here—but the artists do take turns serving gin, whiskey, tequila, vodka, and beer. For studier guests they’ll mix a kitchen sink combination of them all, delivered in a glass glued to a heavy concrete plinth.

Both a play on the German pronunciation of “Loos” and the Spanish article in “Los Angeles,” Los Bar translates the understated elegance of Loos’s bar in cheap and readily available materials. Plywood walls and a cardboard coffered ceiling mimic marble. Thin sheets of mylar stand in for mirrors. Lampshades are cut from pieces of opaque packing foam. The artists reproduced the strip of onyx clerestory windows in Loos’s bar by sprinkling wood glue and sawdust between two strips of clear plastic. Small booths lined with electric blue air-conditioning filters wrap around diamond-shaped tables bearing ashtrays made from melted Pabst Blue Ribbon cans. (Smoking is prohibited in L.A. bars, but as an “art piece” Los Bar makes its own rules. Patrons are encouraged to light up, as they are in the hazy Vienna joint.)

Los Bar oozes folksy charm, a composite of its DIY construction and its background playlist of village pub tunes thoughtfully curated by Schwarz—ranging from German polka standards to crooning Mexican canciones de amor. If American Bar feels intimate, Los Bar is positively cramped—it’s a 0.65:1 scale reproduction. The central floor space has been pinched, pushing patrons into tiny booths or up against the bar, its bumper railing fashioned not from brass but an orange foam pool noodle.

L.A.’s lazy sprawl might seem a far cry from Vienna’s cold baroque grandeur, but the two cities share an historic bond often overlooked in the annals of architecture. Viennese architect Rudolph Schindler lived and worked in Los Angeles for more than three decades, some of that time with his fellow Weiner Richard Neutra. While in Austria, both architects had studied under Adolf Loos, and imported their older teacher’s spare style to Southern California. “California Modernism,” L.A.’s richest architectural legacy, was in fact an Austrian émigré.

Today the Schindler House in West Hollywood serves as the U.S. headquarters for the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, an offshoot of the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts. It preserves Schindler’s physical archive and organizes programs that try to resurrect the spirit of expatriate modernism. In Schindler’s Mackey apartments, the Center runs a six-month residency program for artists and architects. Like many residency programs, collaboration isn’t always assured; personalities and creative processes can sometimes clash. But 2015 artists-in-residents Bauer, Meier, Schwarz, and Stopczynski were an instant match. “We have the same sense of humor,” Stopczynski told me. Traces of that humor are everywhere in the bar—from a paper clock whose face bears the mug of Ferdinand Maximillian, the Hapsburg emperor killed by a Mexican firing squad, to a Plexiglas thermidore, complete with cork and baby powder cigars.

The four artists arrived in Los Angeles for the program with their own individual project plans. One day, while sitting on the apartment building rooftop, they looked down at the open carport and mused that the deep, narrow space resembled the famous Werkstätte bar. Their measurements confirmed surprisingly close proportions. And so they abandoned their plans, joining forces to play host to their host city.

If its primary reference is somewhat obvious, Los Bar is another kind of temporal link between the interwar capitols of Europe and Jazz Age America. Its diminutive size and cash-only, donation-based pay scheme are decidedly underground for Los Angeles, more vintage speakeasy than fashionable art crowd gin joint. The bar’s eclectic patrons and performers recall Chalet Hollywood, the 14-month speakeasy pop-up that artist Piero Golia installed at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in 2014, with help from Edwin Chan, Mark Grotjahn, and Pierre Huyghe.

The artists refer to Los Bar as a “social sculpture”—a physical work of art that facilitates social interaction. In this sense Los Bar also resembles Deiter Roth’s Bar 2 (1983-1997) and Rirkrit Tirivanija’s pad thai (1990), where the detritus of human consumption (and debauchery) aesthetically completes the work. The artists are dedicated barkeeps and keep the space fairly clean, but errant whiskey-stained cups or cigarette burns remind visitors that Los Bar was built to be used. Unlike Roth’s or Tiravanija’s works, which were meant to live in galleries and museum spaces, Los Bar is fully self-contained—a timeless capsule that precludes the world outside its shuttered screen doors. Installed in the garage, impervious to mobile phone reception, it offers the irresistible promise of escape, so rare in the twenty-first century.

Bauer, Meier, Schwarz, and Stopczynski trade heady conceptualism for heady liquor, and highbrow humor for barroom jokes. But that’s O.K. Part of Los Bar’s appeal is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and encourages its patrons to do the same. I’ve never felt more comfortable talking to strangers in a Los Angeles bar than I did squeezed inside that hot plywood box, taking in the communal draught of sweat and sour mash.


Parker Ito at Kaldi, Smart Objects, White Cube, and Chateau Shatto


Published in Issue 2 of Carla, August 2015

Emerald green parrots.

Black fulvic trace water.

Ceramic figurines, bespoke slippers, smoke.

These are just a few materials from a recent string of shows by Parker Ito, Post-Internet art’s enfant terrible. Ito typifies what Geert Lovink termed a pharmacological web 2.0 citizen[1], a filterless image processor with a penchant for Xanax and deviantArt. Ito lives in a junkspace coated with powdery Cheeto dust and Doritos® Cool Ranch® seasoning, shiny like the crumpled skin of a half-drunk Capri Sun® pouch. His work a stereotypically American propensity for binging on junk-culture to the point of aesthetic obesity.

It all began at Kaldi, a small coffee shop in Atwater Village, where Ito anonymously hung a series of demure still-life paintings of artificial rainbow-colored roses. This was the prelude to a yearlong saga of shows that were all woven together by a mysterious character: Ito’s cyberpunk handle Parker Cheeto. Some of the rose paintings were remade/rehung in Parker Cheeto’s Infinite Haunted Hobo Playlist (A Dream for Some, a Nightmare for Others) at Smart Objects. Its title recalled the California low-fi band Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. The main gallery space at Smart Objects was left empty, with art hung in an elevator shaft and displayed in the kitchen and bathroom. The rose work hung amidst a strange mish-mash of neon, Technicolor plastic flora, and grainy anime-inspired wall paintings.

Next came Maid in Heaven/Plein Air in Hell (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Cheeto Problem) at White Cube in London, the title this time a mash-up of Jeff Koons and Kanye West. At White Cube, Ito’s additive process became clear: material was added but seldom removed, lumping together in an indigestible bolus of visual stimuli. His anime character paintings appeared again, this time suspended throughout the gallery at oblique angles within a jungle of low-slung, pigmented chains populated by live parrots. Wallpaper depicted the artist drinking Yoohoo. Paintings of Joan of Arc, pictured from a waist-cropped photograph of an 1843 marble statue Ito found in a Google Image search, joined in the circus.

If this is starting to sound schizophrenic, it is. Ito’s work is characterized by a bulimic intensity. Images culled from trolling the web are projectile-vomited back at the viewer as paintings, sculptures, and textiles, producing immersive installations “so total that you can never zoom all the way out.[2]

White Cube was just a staging ground for Château Shatto’s A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night, the middle movement in Ito’s opus. For the exhibition, the gallery temporarily rented a 7,500 square foot warehouse, which Ito claustrophobically crammed with art. Visitors who entered were lost in the deep whirlpool of Ito’s browser history; each painting jut out like a new tab announcing its site title with an animated gif—Read me! Read me! One hardly knew where to look.

The cast of characters this time included some familiar faces (Joan of Arc) alongside some new players (Venom, Kate Moss, the Terminator, and Liv Barrett, Ito’s gallerist and girlfriend). There was buff anime Parker in molten silver armor, holding parrots on a beach at sunset. There were numerous bronze and ceramic sculptures of the Western Exterminator, the mascot for a pest removal company who leers from billboard perches off the 101 and 405 freeways. The Exterminators floated through the space enmeshed in light, like roadside images viewed through a windshield at 80 miles an hour. Analog pop-up windows.

All this sensory slop was bound by brightly colored metal chains and plastic tubes of LED lights, a visual metaphor for the network’s edges. A chaotic Gordion knot, and even a little delicate: step on the wrong strand, knock over the wrong vase, and the whole tangled mess might come crashing down, smothering you in the process. 

A Lil Taste was the Debordian spectacle made manifest,[3] the worldwide web’s weltanschauung materialized in a warehouse on Pico Boulevard. It declared all life mere appearance, material form just a pixelated image spit out by a universal means of production. And all lit by the unblinking glow of a thousand twisted hanging light strands: “the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity.”[4] Just peel back your eyelids and let it wash over you.

If the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan famously proposed, there may be nothing extractable from the implosion of all distinct media, their cold collision like the prophesied Big Crunch of our universe, time in rewind. What emerges from this Post-Internet barrage of bit-torrent PNGs and CCTV clips, scans of 3D-printed figurines aping 19th century marble sculptures? There is no message, for there is no medium.

So, who is Parker Cheeto, ghost in this machine? Other names may include: Deke McLelland Two, Creamy Dreamy, L’atelier de PPPPPP. The artist as character, character as artist, has a long history of associated pseudonyms: Rrose Selávy, Monty Cantsin, Banksy. Parker Cheeto is a personality and a glove, a Guy Fawkes mask that signifies a specific person and no one at all. Far from anonymous, though, the name is a juvenile joke—a half-baked stoner pun backlogged for later use. According to Brad Troemel, “what the artist once accomplished by making commodities that could stand independently from [themselves] is now accomplished through their ongoing self-commodification.”[5] Parker Cheeto is the commodity, the double-branded avatar of an Orange County kid-cum-artist and an orange junk-snack puff.

The studio assistants are also Parker Cheeto, and were credited alongside him in the White Cube exhibition. They facilitate Ito’s hyper-productive aesthleticism[6], churning out work with a speed and scope that would be physically impossible for any one artist: the Factory production model doped on a steady dose of Ritalin in order to reach algorithmic velocity.

And then came Epilogue: PBBVx4.5213418505240406714305462110190527PPPPPPPPPPPPPP (an exhibition title like a hellish URL, so long I had to copy and paste it here). It was Cheeto’s final show, the avatar’s somber retirement party. As if on cue, the end to Ito’s saga commenced with a concert of scanners, printing scans of rubber Venom masks and bronze Joan of Arc figurines. Black-and-white printouts would drop from the machines into buckets filled with thick black water—“blk,” a trendy H20 brand. Soggy paper scraps were sucked from the buckets by plastic tubes and sent on a looping course across the gallery floor and walls, plunging into pink vinyl backpacks or disappearing through the floorboards below. It felt as if the combined corpus of Ito’s trilogy was being drained of its blood. The sound of churning pumps and printers was strangely melancholy. In the basement hung a photograph of Ito in a leather frock and Burberry boxers, a riff on a fashion magazine spread featuring Kate Moss as a militant nun. Parker Ito as Kate Moss as Joan of Arc; the artist playing dress-up in his characters’ leftover corpses.

Unlike Hito Steyerl or Trevor Paglen, Ito belongs to a younger generation of Internet artists who have given up on the web’s revolutionary potential for insurrection. All is corporate, all is surveilled in his vision of a digital future: better instead to comment, like, and reblog with irony and detachment. To accept our subordination to simulation. True life is the excrement of the Internet, a poor fictive residue of our social media selves. Second Life is a first order reality.

Troemel argues that we need a certain dose of apathy to find anything of value in this barrage of data: “To maintain the aerial view necessary for patterns to emerge, one must cultivate a disposition of indifference.”[7] This disposition privileges quantity over quality, and ditches art historical discourse for the 140-character Tweet. Ito trades in C++ semiotics; he speaks a digital language in which every image is equally fungible. Ito’s painted Joan is his figurine Joan is his photocopied Joan is his Google Image search Joan is his source image source sculpture Joan. There is no original, there is no copy. There is only ceaseless circulation, mutation, and multiplication. Like a bit of viral code.

[1] Geert Lovink, “Soft Narcosis of the Networked Condition.” Adbusters, 7 March 2013, https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/106/soft-narcosis-networked-condition.html

[2] Parker Ito to Sarah Nicole Prickett, “Parker Ito,” Interview Magazine (June 2014).

[3] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994).

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Brad Troemel, “Athletic Aesthetics,” The New Inquiry, Vol. 16 (May 2013).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.


Depart Foundation Project Space, Los Angeles


Published in SFAQ, August 2015

The Internet is for porn. The worldwide web’s precursor, ARPANET, was created  by U.S. Department of Defense scientists in 1969 as a communication network in the event of nuclear war—but the network’s development into an advanced system of information exchange really began with users’ attempts to share nudie pics while evading government censors.  As the hunger for simulated flesh grew, early ASCII porn—erotic images drawn with computer typography—became thumbnail photographs, requiring higher bandwidths and better graphics processors. Sexual fantasy has always been an engine of technological innovation, and the Internet opened infinite depths of desire to plumb.

Petra Cortright’s exhibition at Depart Foundation in West Hollywood fits somewhere along this historical continuum of robotic erotics. In NICKY, LUCY, LOLA, VIOLA, virtual strippers that Cortright purchased on VirtuaGirl.com dance against a green screen and two animated desktop backgrounds. What’s first striking about the women is their photorealism. They appear real because they are: VirtuaGirl films and records live models acting out specific motions in front of a green screen, creating recombinatory sets of seductive dance moves that can be customized and replayed endlessly by paying clients. It’s basic software that’s been around since 1998, but recent upgrades allow users to customize the strippers’ features too, from varying skin tones and hair colors to the height of their heels or the amount of fringe on their skimpy Santa Claus costumes. The next logical step, one can imagine, are the intelligent “teledildonics” of Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie, or yet-to-be-programmed orgies enjoyed via Oculus Rift.

Cortright downloaded the strippers using a prepaid Discover card to avoid catching viruses. She dressed each one in “sexy” apparel—pink thong and white pasties, a latex nurse uniform, black garters and a leather eye mask. They came with their own names, which appear in the show’s title. In the exhibition’s largest work, the four named females and several digitally altered clones twirl around poles anchored in the screen’s lower edge, or crawl with arched backs, staring straight at the viewer. They lustfully return our gaze, yet with eyes vacant of subjective agency—tirelessly performing the same movements that grow stale with each reoccurrence. In addition to this work, Niki, Lucy, Lola, and Viola also appear on green flags that hang above the gallery entrance, waving at Sunset Boulevard like derby girls at a testosterone-fueled Nascar race. The seeping scent of cigar smoke from the tobacconist next door is a happy accident, a bit of sensory sleaze that heightens the strip show’s fleshy realism.

Cortright is one of Internet art’s hottest tickets. Her speechless yet intimate YouTube videos meditate on the way images are circulated and manipulated in our self-involved selfie era. In these videos, readily available online, Cortright uses subtle digital editing to distort her own image, recorded by a laptop camera and reflected on a screen. In snow1??? (2011), for instance, white pixels drift across the video’s glitchy frames, settling on Cortright’s shoulders and hair, looking a lot like fresh snow and a little like dandruff. In sick hands (2011), a wave courses through the frame, rendering her body like an undulating Edvard Munch figure. In each work, Cortright confronts the camera and the viewer, always seemingly on the verge of a verbal address, recalling the millions of home movies uploaded by YouTube users speaking to anonymous listeners—public confessions that usually fall on deaf ears. “YouTube celebrities,” whose popular videos have led to TV shows and book deals, make the rest of this confessional traffic seem frivolous and self-important by comparison. Cortright’s work appears to comment on this condition of public anonymity intensely heightened by social media, and our perpetual hankering for likes, shares, and retweets. Seen through her online work, she’s a cyberpunk pixie who embodies the meme generation’s stale disaffection with a shrug.

In the vein of her videos, Cortright’s projections at Depart cycle like endlessly repeating GIFs, their animated movements progressively predictable. Their motions are familiar to anyone who has ever visited a strip club—a quick yet seamless succession of breast-pumping hand gestures and booty-bumping squats.  Bean bag chairs strewn about the dark vaulted space invite a studied viewing, but it doesn’t take long to realize that those repetitious gestures are all that’s there to see. Could there be a hidden message, one wonders, in a projection of a digi-stripper being dragged upward by an invisible computer mouse and dropped in a sky-blue expanse filled with seagulls, her miniskirt billowing in the wind? These are not carrion birds, and the stripper seems to feel no pain or pleasure in the act (unless they’ve taught computers how to do that too).

In a third projected video, a stripper dances teasingly on the mottled earth of a desert expanse, an animated flame burning eternally on its pale white horizon. Beside her, an elephant walks hopelessly in its tracks, and a horse tosses its head side to side—a literal one-trick pony, trying to satisfy a desperate itch. A generous reader might regard the woman here as debased, like an animal, by male sexual objectification, groomed for saddle or slaughter. But the aesthetic of Kid Pix 3D has dropped each figure into a visual wasteland too conceptually starved for striking associations to bloom. This is in marked contrast to Cortright’s first stripper video, Vicky Deep in Spring Valley, which premiered in Berlin in 2012. In it, a stripper dances around a pole atop an outdoor architectural folly: an Egyptian colonnade that is at once an aquarium, an aqueduct, and a jungle garden pavilion, housing black swans and tropical fish. Amplified to absurdity, each artistic element serves only to please the viewer, its substance subservient to their gaze. Cortright’s self-conscious embrace of digital fantasy makes her ironic detachment from such scopophilia all the more apparent.

Cortright’s latest work makes no claim to gender politics, though such motivations have been ascribed to it. She does seem to examine biopolitics in the digital age—at least how we turn on to get off. But interpreting this strip show as an act of feminist subterfuge would rely too much on the artist’s presumed sexual and gender identity. Art must use the aesthetic and institutional tools at its disposal to render such politics legible to a viewing public, or else fail to move even its staunchest ideological bedfellows.

In itself, VirtuaGirl is an appealing subject for feminist annotation. E-commerce and phallocentrism collide online, commodifying the female body so extremely that male sexual desire often takes not flesh but pixels as its object. The Internet makes no excuses for its Rule 34 diversity—a dizzying wormhole of perverse fantasy where two girls and one cup mean a lot more than a shabby cocktail party. Often the IRL bodies exploited by this web-streamed system disappear in service of male pleasure. But they’re no more visible at Depart Foundation, where even the exhibition didactic fails to mention the live videos of live girls VirtuaGirl uses to produce its simulated Build-an-Escort factory. Indulging in this roulette wheel of erotic selections might be the first step towards a fruitful critique of male chauvinism—but it is certainly not its last. Cortright’s politics stop cold at consumption, missing the chance to make a truly meaningful statement, leaving the viewer with conceptual blue balls.

The exhibition’s hype is predicated in part on the spurious presumption that “new media” means new ideas. There is nothing more sycophantic or sexualized about Cortright’s girls than the frivolous females in a Fragonard or Boucher painting. They are no more or less vulgar than de Kooning’s lascivious women. They are, part and parcel, the inscription of male fantasy, carved violently by hands invisible within the project’s frame. Is there agency in such outlandish debasement? If so, who does it belong to—“real women” or computerized figments?

Maybe Cortright isn’t interested in these questions, or maybe she’s just having fun. It’s not the critic’s job to spoil good fun, but to give credit where it’s due. Cortright puts on a good show, one more at home on a Fantasy sports league website banner than in an art gallery—two disparate platforms whose collapse is surely a welcome (if slightly unexpected) exercise. But, conceptually, the work performs little more than a regurgitated fantasy. It makes the strange not a bit stranger, rendering a space for us to enjoy our guilty indulgences even at the expense of others. The Internet is for porn; and that’s all there is to it. Now go grab your Kleenex.


Nahuel Vecino at Del Vaz Projects, Photograph by Daniel Sahlberg (12) (1)

Published in Apollo, July 2015

It’s no secret that Los Angeles is an ascendant global capital of contemporary art, with blue chip galleries flocking to the city and two new museums opening next year. Part of the buzz, though, has nothing to do with high-profile names like Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel or Sprüth Magers – both major international galleries soon to set up shop here. It’s the result of highly innovative, alternative exhibition spaces that are questioning distinctions between public and private, commercial and residential, high art and the everyday.

An ‘off-space’ tour might take you first to Park View Gallery, located near the lively MacArthur Park, where residents lounge on the banks of a lake and vendors peddle mango slices with chilli pepper and lime. On the second floor of the Oso Apartments (Spanish for ‘bear’), gallerist Paul Soto has plastered and painted every surface of his small one-bedroom unit a brilliant white. Virtually devoid of personal effects, it’s hard to imagine that Soto lives there. Park View is the commercial white cube transported to a private home, where Soto has shown work by familiar favourites like Charles Atlas, Silke Otto-Knapp, and John Divola, alongside talented younger artists like Paul Pescador, Katie Aliprando, and Matt Siegle. This mix of well and lesser-known names is an insider’s trick Soto learned while running blue-chip Susanne Vielmetter Projects.

Park View shows usually include sly domestic references, like Benjamin Carlson’s gesso-cast Amazon box paintings hung in a walk-in closet, or Hot(2015), an old-fashioned shower knob Aliprando installed outside the door to the bathroom. ‘I wanted to think through a space that has idiosyncratic architectural details and requires artists to respond in kind,’ says Soto. This marriage of spaces is also a money-saver, cutting down rent costs: ‘It’s a nimble business practice that allows me to focus more on what the gallerist is supposed to do, communicating about the work of emerging and younger artists more actively out in the world, rather than addressing an art market consensus.’

The domestic-commercial ambiguity at Park View is markedly different atDel Vaz Projects, Jay Ezra Nayssan’s apartment gallery in West Los Angeles. Located in a relatively new, multi-unit apartment building that Nayssan manages, Del Vaz doesn’t project the white cube into the gallerist’s home. Visitors are welcome to kick off their shoes and share tea at Nayssan’s glass dining table, browsing his personal art collection alongside the installed temporary exhibition. ‘Playing host is second nature to me,’ Nayssan says, referring to his Persian cultural tradition of hospitality.

A spare bedroom has housed art and artists alike: in 2014, three members of the New York collective KHOLE lived and work there as artists in residence, and artist Marie-Caroline Hominal lived there while performing her show ‘Le Triomphe de la Renomée’. ‘There is an attitude, a mood, a form that people take on when they are at home and this allows work to be reconsidered on a far more intimate and personal level,’ says Nayssan. He recently explored issues of domestic intimacy in ‘Tulipomania’, a show organised in the Paris apartment of Daniele Balice of Galerie Balice Hertling, which featured artists as varied as Julien Ceccaldi and Francis Picabia.

(2015), Nahuel Vecino at Del Vaz Projects.

In Los Angeles, commercial and residential space is clearly demarcated. Once you turn off a main thoroughfare like Sunset Boulevard, you find yourself on a tree-lined street of houses or low-rise apartment buildings. Historically, strict municipal zoning laws prevented ‘mixed-use’ cohabitation typical of European and Eastern American cities, contributing to LA’s quasi-suburban ethos and its vast, topographical sprawl. As Nayssan puts it, ‘Single-family detached homes are the paradise of Los Angeles; in New York it’s the street, in Paris the public square.’

There’s a certain amount of social friction that comes with ‘downsizing’ a commercial gallery venture to fit in a small inner-city apartment. A couple of LA projects are exploring single-family homes as viable spaces for exhibiting art. Before moving out in May, gallerist Alex Freedman ofFreedman Fitzpatrick held exhibitions and performances at her Silverlake house. The closing show, a series of projections and sound installations by Hannah Weinberger, filled the empty rooms with ghostly traces of memories – snapshots from trips to Disneyland and a languid lapse of a flowing river.

Not far away, in the hills above Echo Park, the Tom of Finland Foundationmaintains an archive of the iconic gay erotic artist’s work, hosting exhibitions and events in his former home – a vast three-story craftsman with a terraced yard, filled with cacti and urinal fountains. Further west, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by palms, lies Villa Aurora. The 1928 Spanish-style mansion sponsors an Artist-in-Residence programme for artists and writers fleeing oppressive regimes in their home countries, reminiscent of California’s rich European expatriate community during the Second World War. Rotating exhibitions of fellows’ work often occupy the historic library and study.

The gallery is almost entirely absent at Chin’s Push, a space founded just last year by Lydia Glenn-Murray in her Highland Park home. Located on York Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of the slightly sleepy downtown LA suburb, Chin’s Push includes a storefront space for exhibiting art, which has variously been occupied by a TV repair shop, an electronics store, and a Chinese takeout restaurant. In the attached house, Glenn-Murray invites artist and musician friends to take over the living room or her bedroom (actually a walk-in closet); performances take place in the concrete backyard, under a mango tree or in front of an Airstream trailer that houses an artist residency. These smaller spaces focus more attention on the work and enable an intimate viewing experience fitting for a home. There are domestic traces everywhere: makeshift walls separate bedrooms; homemade kombucha ferments above the fridge; kittens play in the couch cushions. Despite its casual vibe, Chin’s Push has hosted an impressive array of emerging talent, with work shown and presented by artists like Martine Syms, Jesse Stecklow, Lex Brown, and Wrinkle Decker.

Big-name galleries and prized private collections may draw the most international press, but spaces like these are pushing the envelope in Los Angeles’s burgeoning contemporary art scene. Responding to the built environment of the city, house and apartment galleries are asking thought-provoking questions about domestic space, commercial institutions, and viewership.