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COVER STORY : Art in the City of Angels and Demons : A sordid chapter from the past provided the name for ‘Helter Skelter'--a show that aims to reflect L.A.'s dark side

<i> Suzanne Muchnic is a Times staff writer</i>

There’s nothing harder to change than image. If you’re a public figure, you can always hire a press agent to help, but it’s a bit harder for a city to transform itself--particularly when the image suits the tourist industry and it’s sent around the world on The Big Screen.

In the case of Los Angeles, perceptions of the city have permeated the image of the art scene. Fun. Sun. Movie stars. Despite an endless list of L.A. art that doesn’t match the cliche--most notably a cynical strain of conceptually based work that has emerged from CalArts--the mindless image has been slow to die.

“There was always this perception of Los Angeles being Venice, Santa Monica and the beach,” says Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “It may never have been that, but that was a pervasive notion and a lot of the artists who are most internationally known from the ‘60s and ‘70s, be it David Hockney or Sam Francis, continued to support that in one way or another. And artists who didn’t, left.”

Now, Schimmel is fighting this narrow view of Los Angeles art head-on in “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” a big, brash exhibition of anxiety-ridden artworks, opening today at the museum’s Temporary Contemporary facility in Little Tokyo.

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The show features works by 16 Los Angeles artists who focus on society’s underside and pull no punches in their representations of sex, violence, perversity and alienation. From Jim Shaw’s narrative drawings of a serial killer to Nancy Rubin’s Gargantuan pile of house trailers, motor homes and water heaters, the artworks brutally undercut stereotypes of Los Angeles as a sun-drenched playground that produces pretty art.

There’s scarcely any residue of L.A.'s trademark “Finish Fetish” or “Light and Space” art to be seen in “Helter Skelter,” much less a whiff of the airy, optimistic painting that has long been identified with the city. All 45,000 square feet of the Temporary Contemporary are filled with such things as Richard Jackson’s room built of 1,000 identical, simultaneously ticking clocks, Paul McCarthy’s “Garden” featuring mechanical men who copulate with trees or holes in the ground, Megan Williams’ whirlwind-like drawings of men’s genital fixations and Meg Cranston’s suspended video monitor showing a genie who sends subversive music into various parts of the museum.

“I’m interested in art that’s going to be right in your face,” the 37-year-old curator says in the current issue of MOCA’s newspaper. “You know all those people who are confused about conceptual and abstract art?” he asks, walking through the galleries during the show’s installation. “Well, they’re not going to have a problem with this. It may be too explicit for some of them, but there’s a lot to see and read and be confronted with.”

Schimmel hopes viewers will understand that he means to round out the image of Los Angeles, not create a new, equally narrow one. But some observers question whether the old sunny image of Los Angeles is as pervasive as he thinks. Says Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens: “So many publications have done articles on how rancid the California Dream has become--you can’t drive, you can’t breathe, you can’t go out at night without getting shot--I don’t think anyone goes to California to get a part in ‘CHiPS’ anymore.”

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With an attention-grabbing title, an eclectic roster of artists and a slew of undeniably tough art, Schimmel knows he may be in for trouble from those who don’t want to be hit in the face with societal ills when they go to a museum, but he doesn’t shrink from the prospect. “To do a regional show in this day and age, you either have to be profoundly stupid or just love the controversy. Obviously, I love the controversy,” he says.

“You can’t do a show about what’s going on in your own community without having literally hundreds of other viable and significant options to do, and literally hundreds of people telling you what it is you should do.

“That keeps museums from doing shows about their own communities, which is crazy because Los Angeles’ image is being redefined in New York and Europe. I travel a lot and I see the importance that artists here are having in those larger international communities, and I don’t feel that we are doing enough to define Los Angeles art from our own perspective. And I know why, because every time you do it, you get bashed. It’s a lot easier and a lot safer to do a one-person show on an internationally recognized artist.”

Schimmel hasn’t been seriously bashed yet, but he has set off a buzz about “Helter Skelter.” If nothing else, he has proven his ability to get attention. For starters, the title seems to be a double-barreled attack on a lethargic art scene. “Helter Skelter” brings back horrific memories of the murder and mayhem visited on Los Angeles by Charles Manson, who used the title of a Beatles song as the name of his bizarre philosophy, which envisioned his killings as the spark of a racial holocaust that would lead blacks to victory. The rest of the title, “L.A. Art in the 1990s,” suggests that the museum is forecasting a nasty trend for the decade.

The title emerged after the curator had lined up about half of the work. “I was playing with different kinds of phrases--the dark side, extreme vision, anxious vision, the underside, the shadows cast in sharp light,” he says. “At one point I was talking to a collector in another country, describing what I thought in the broadest sense has occurred in Los Angeles over the last 20 years.

“As I was telling this foreigner about the show, he said, ‘Well, you know Los Angeles has always been this dichotomy in people’s minds between something very beautiful and something rather sinister and dark. He talked about all the movies--'Blade Runner,’ ‘Chinatown'--and then he mentioned Charlie Manson. When he said ‘Charlie Manson,’ I thought ‘Helter Skelter.’ ”

The idea stuck, though Schimmel says the title has been the most worrisome aspect of the exhibition. He ran the title by MOCA administrators, who didn’t object, and the artists, who reportedly like it. Since then, Schimmel has spent a good deal of time explaining that “Helter Skelter” refers to more than the Manson clan and the Beatles song, and that the term has a broader meaning, involving confusion or disorder. “It’s also the name of a roller coaster, and that kind of wildness and free form and out-of-control quality is something I wanted people to get a sense of in one quick (phrase),” he says.

As for “L.A. Art in the 1990s,” Schimmel is not forecasting a trend. “One of the big problems with ‘Helter Skelter’ is that people thought it was a ‘60s show. I thought it was important in the viewer’s mind to be situated in this time. This is not ‘Helter Skelter From the ‘60s to the Present’ or ‘Helter Skelter Through the Ages.’ All the work is new or done within the last few years,” he says.

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Critic Dave Hickey, who has long ties to the L.A. art scene, has no trouble with the title. His only quibble with the exhibition, which he characterizes as “a nice show of neo-beatniks,” is that it isn’t in the museum’s Arata Isozaki-designed building on Grand Avenue. “If Paul really wanted to helter-skelter the place, he would put the show in that Mercedes showroom that they call a museum. Putting it down there in the Temporary Contemporary just ghettoizes it,” Hickey says.

Nonetheless, the title has been a frequent subject of conversation. One local dealer calls it “shameful.” Newsweek’s Plagens terms it “tasteless” but says he’s “more tired and bored than shocked” by the title.

“I don’t know. I make up the worst titles for exhibitions, and I may have done it again,” Schimmel moans. But he admits, “You don’t open up Pandora’s box and then sit on the lid.”

“I want the title to be a lightning rod in terms of getting the attention of people who would not normally see a museum as being vital. I wanted something that in one fell swoop just sort of said it.

“I know one thing, there’s nothing frivolous about the exhibition. This is a serious show and these are serious artists. The title is a way of very quickly capturing a larger audience who would normally dismiss ‘Sixteen From L.A.’ or ‘Los Angeles Today.’ ”

Casually dressed in a bulky sweater, beige cotton trousers and white running shoes, Schimmel seems the picture of confidence and enthusiasm as he strides through the galleries and points out where each artist’s work will be--Llyn Foulkes’ intensely troubling paintings here, Mike Kelley’s re-creation of an advertising office, papered with faxed office jokes, there.

Chris Burden’s “Medusa’s Head,” a 5-ton, 14-foot ball of concrete, plywood, steel and toy railroad tracks that signifies the industrial world’s destruction of the natural landscape, will greet visitors at the entrance. One of Charles Ray’s generic male nude mannequins with realistic genitals will be positioned so that it can be seen from outside, through glass doors.

There will be epic paintings by Lari Pittman, chockful of his personal symbolism; a narrative frieze of pen-and-ink drawings by Raymond Pettibon and paintings of hooded Klansmen and bloated babies by Manuel Ocampo. Liz Larner’s installation will include a real bee colony and a sculpture constructed of chains, mirrors and hardware. Along with such artists, many of whom have established international and national reputations, Schimmel is delighted to have provided Victor Estrada’s first museum show and to have included Robert Williams’ nightmarish comic book-style paintings, which are better known in the pop music field than in the art world.

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Schimmel’s choice of 16 artists--and exclusion of dozens of others--will probably draw fire, as is usual in group shows. But Schimmel is under particularly strong scrutiny because “Helter Skelter” is the first big exhibition he has organized for MOCA since he took over the chief curator’s post two years ago. The massive show is seen as his debut and a harbinger of his tenure at a highly visible institution.

Plagens, for example, draws a parallel between “Helter Skelter” and “ Dis locations,"Robert Storr’s recent curatorial debut at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which broke barriers by allowing contemporary conceptual art into the museum’s mainstream galleries. When the two younger-generation curators hit the big time, they both made waves, and they both put massive works by Chris Burden in their debut shows. “Helter Skelter” seems to be “a bigger, nastier, more dangerous, spikier version of Storr’s debut at MOMA,” Plagens said, and that strikes him as rather odd. “It seems like Storr’s more refined show would have been the L.A. show and the New York show would have been gnarlier, bigger, darker.”

“I’m not naive,” Schimmel says, when reminded that he is in the spotlight. “But there are times when, instead of waiting for the controversy to come knocking on your door, you might as well just go out there and look for it.

“I feel that, well, just look at this place,” he says, surveying the vast spaces of the TC’s warehouse-like building. “There’s just something you can do here that you can’t do any place else. I thought that, being new to this museum, I would have enough good will to make it happen.

“I really thought it was important to use this opportunity to articulate a significant aspect of what has occurred in the last 10 years in terms of our perceived change of what Los Angeles is as an art community. It’s not a coming of age. It’s not like this is the first time there’s been a group of artists that you can identify with Los Angeles. We’ve known a lot of these artists for a long time and there were times when they were sort of central to what was going on, but it seemed to me as if now, more than ever before, artists who had their own kind of unique and extreme image are really defining what the times are,” Schimmel says.

An energetic conversationalist whose sentences often run to paragraph length, Schimmel exudes such enthusiasm for “Helter Skelter” that he gives the impression it is the fruition of a long-term plan. It isn’t. The exhibition has been in the works for about a year and it was by no means the one that he envisioned as his MOCA debut when he joined the museum’s staff in 1990, after nine years at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

“Helter Skelter” came up rather suddenly because of a plan to close the Temporary Contemporary for 18 months--at an undetermined date--when a massive mixed-used development, called First Street North, gets under way. “We began talking about what would the last show be before the TC closed up, although we still don’t know exactly when this development is going to happen or if this will actually be the last show,” he says.

“Since the TC is such a special place and it really is for the artists, I felt--as a response to ‘The First Show’ (MOCA’s inaugural exhibition at the TC), which was about the greatest hits from private collections--that the last show should enter into this very risky proposition of trying to define the culture of the community in which we live. I thought we should make the last show about here and now, I mean this place, at this time.”

Schimmel initially had in mind an exhibition that would focus on mid-career artists in their 40s and 50s, such as Foulkes and Jackson, but as he and exhibition coordinator Alma Ruiz visited studios and did research, the scope broadened. The artists range in age from 26-year-old Ocampo to 57-year-old Foulkes.

“Eventually it became a thematically driven exhibition, but in the most kind of undefined way,” Schimmel says. “When you really try to do a theme show, usually you have artists of the same generation and the same outlook in dialogue with each other. I’m looking at a broader cultural phenomenon, saying that these attitudes are pervasive through various generations, various media and they cross the boundaries into the visual arts, literary arts and I think even into music.”

Some of the artists’ works are connected by their interest in popular culture, cartoon-like images, adolescent anxieties, large-scale installations or performance art. Half of the artists are affiliated with UCLA and more than a third are graduates of CalArts. The most prominent gallery connection is Rosamund Felsen, but dealers Fred Hoffman, Linda Cathcart and Asher/Faure also represent artists in “Helter Skelter.”

Sixteen writers are also represented in the exhibition catalogue, which is more like an anthology than a standard museum publication, Schimmel says. Like the exhibition itself, the idea of including writers came from artists, he said. When the curator learned that Shaw had collaborated with writer Benjamin Weissman and that Pittman and writer Dennis Cooper had produced a book together, he decided to seek out more writers who were dealing with the kinds of real life subjects that have attracted the artists.

Beyond the image issue, Schimmel wants to celebrate artists he believes have not been adequately supported at home. “Bruce Nauman is the probably the most interesting predecessor for some of these artists, in terms of interest in human body. Even on the heels of his big exhibition (in 1973 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), he says he was never very well supported by this community when he was here. So I wanted MOCA to support those kinds of artists that seem never to quite fit into the collector’s home or the aesthetic of Los Angeles. That’s not to say that some of these artists are not extremely successful. They are, but there are others who are unknown,” he says.

“Even the most well known artists in this exhibition have been supported to a certain extent here locally, but it’s when they start showing in New York and especially in Europe and they go from Europe back to New York and New York back to Los Angeles that their reputations have been made,” Schimmel says. “Los Angeles is able to support an artist to a certain point, but the artists don’t really enter into a mainstream understanding of what is important in terms of the visual arts in Los Angeles until they have gone out there and come back. I don’t believe that Los Angeles has done as much to internationally project what its own culture is about as cities like New York.

“When New York does it, we think of it as internationalism; when L.A. does it, it’s provincialism. I think you can do a regional show that has international consequences, and that’s exactly what I’m hoping that this institution can do. I think that bringing these people together and knowing the kind of audience that MOCA has, we will be doing something very specific in telling not just this community but the rest of the art world what is going on,” he says.

The museum’s last big Los Angeles show, curated by Julia Brown Turrell in 1985, simply provided space for a group of individual solo shows. Today, a timely exhibition of Los Angeles art needs to say more than “these are good artists working now,” Schimmel says. “It needs some kind of point of view, and that developed out of just seeing what people are working on. I’m always visiting artists’ studios, and there was a kind of energy that I saw in these very different individuals’ work--a single-mindedness, a development of their own language, their own symbolism. It has a kind of other-worldliness to it, a darkness, an extreme quality, a kind of charged psychology in some cases, a perceptional undermining of the norm.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s just unique to Los Angeles right now. Internationally there’s an interest in the human body, sexuality, politics, issues that are outside of the art world, outside of the kind of academy of the arts,” he says, noting that the L.A. version of this art may be particularly vigorous because the relatively weak gallery system does not force artists to make salable products.

“I’m not an advocate for local artists,” Schimmel says. “I’m not a nurturing kind of person, but I do think if you have really great art in your midst and you’re not representing it, you are not doing what is one very significant aspect of what a museum can do.”

Roster of Artists in ‘Helter Skelter’

Chris Burden: Born 1946, MFA degree, UC Irvine. One-person exhibitions at Newport Harbor Art Museum, Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and “Documenta” in Kassel, Germany.

Meg Cranston: Born 1960, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibition at Santa Monica Museum of Art; group shows: Stadtmuseum in Graz, Austria, and New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.

Victor Estrada: Born 1956, MFA degree, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. One-person exhibition at Bliss Gallery in Pasadena; group shows: Municipal Art Gallery in Los Angeles and Centro Cultural Tijuana, Mexico.

Llyn Foulkes: Born 1934, attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. One-person exhibitions at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; group shows: Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and “Bienal de Sao Paulo” in Brazil.

Richard Jackson: Born 1939. One-person exhibitions at E.B. Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Galeries Maeght in Zurich and Paris, and Menil Collection in Houston; group shows: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Mike Kelley: Born 1954, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and Reniassance Society in Chicago; group shows: “Carnegie International” in Pittsburgh, “Whitney Biennial” in New York and “Venice Biennale” in Italy.

Liz Larner: Born 1960, BFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Stuart Regan Gallery in Los Angeles and 303 Gallery in New York; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Paul McCarthy: Born 1945, MFA degree, USC. One-person exhibitions at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles; group shows: Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and University Art Museum at UC Berkeley.

Manuel Ocampo: Born 1965, attended University of the Philippines and Cal State Bakersfield. One-person exhibitions at Christopher Grimes Gallery and Fred Hoffman Gallery in Santa Monica; group shows: Sezon Art Museum in Tokyo and Saatchi Collection in London.

Raymond Pettibon: Born 1957. One-person exhibitions at Feature and Semaphore in New York, and Richard/Bennett Gallery in Los Angeles; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition and Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art.

Lari Pittman: Born 1952, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and the Newport Harbor Art Museum; group shows: Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Monterey, Mexico, and “Whitney Biennial” in New York.

Charles Ray: Born 1953, MFA degree, Rutgers University. One-person exhibitions at Newport Harbor Art Museum and New Langton Arts in San Francisco; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and Fundacion Caixa de Pensiones in Madrid.

Nancy Rubins: Born 1952, MFA degree, UC Davis. Public sculptures for Washington Project for the Arts in Washington and Cermak Plaza Shopping Center in Berwyn, Ill.; group shows: installations under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and at Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh.

Jim Shaw: Born 1952, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at St. Louis Museum of Art and University Art Museum at UC Berkeley; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and Newport Harbor Art Museum.

Megan Williams: Born 1956, BFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Santa Monica Museum of Art and University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara; group shows: the Drawing Center in New York and Otis/Parsons.

Robert Williams: Born 1943, attended Chouinard Art Institute and Los Angeles City College. Customized hot rods and created comics in ‘60s; exhibitions include Los Angeles Art Institute and Otis/Parsons.

MOCA Advises Discretion

MOCA officials said that when the “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” exhibition opens today at the Temporary Contemporary, visitors will find a warning posted at the entrance stating: “This exhibition contains imagery and language that some people may find offensive. Viewer discretion is advised.”

The museum is at 152 N. Central Ave. The show will continue through April 26; Tue.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thur., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; free admission Thur. from 5 to 8 p.m.

Information: (213) 621-2766.


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