Aggressively titled, “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the ‘90s” exploits a proven method for getting attention. At the Museum of Contemporary Art’s warehouse facility in Little Tokyo, the newly opened exhibition reaches for the spotlight simply by playing against type.
If the first indigenous art from Los Angeles to merit international recognition is widely regarded to have been the sleek and unprecedented ‘60s art of Light & Space, then “Helter Skelter” could most succinctly be described as putting its opposite on a pedestal: Fractiously chronicled is an art of Darkness & Claustrophobia. In his go-for-broke debut as MOCA senior curator, Paul Schimmel thus neatly contradicts a central cliche by which, for a generation, the visual arts in Southern California have been lazily described.
However, because the life of art is never that simple, this binary approach finally works against itself. By having defined its opposite, the established genre- cum -myth of Light & Space inevitably maintains its vested aesthetic authority. A slightly broadened but still too-narrow conception of supposed “L.A. art” is kept alive. (Maybe that explains why so few women--four--are among the 16 artists.)
Perhaps the greatest achievement of this large and ambitious show is simply the vigor with which it acknowledges important art being made here--an acknowledgment that has seemed shaky at best in MOCA’s past programming. Schimmel has assembled paintings, sculptures, drawings and installations, as well as commissioning poetry and fiction from 10 writers for the accompanying catalogue. Among them are some of the most accomplished artists (and writers) whose work has come to the fore anywhere in the last decade, including sculptor Chris Burden, Conceptualist Mike Kelley, and painter Lari Pittman.
Burden’s roiling, 5-ton, suspended asteroid of railroad tracks and mines, “Medusa’s Head,” may be the first successful example of a landscape sculpture , ever. Leave it to Burden to invent a whole new genre, take it to a peak and bring it to a close--all in a single piece.
Kelley’s commissioned design for the decor of meeting rooms at a local advertising agency consists of wall murals copied from the kinds of jokey signs and doodles workers typically post around their offices: “The flogging will continue until morale improves,” “You want it when???” and other, more vulgar or sexually explicit examples. The repressed psychological hostility of the corporate environment is here projected on surrounding walls, oddly transforming the rooms into fully human, even poignant places.
Pittman is a fabulist, miraculously transforming mundane images into dazzling concatenations. His obsessive, wildly ornate pictures continue to amount to some of the most significant painting being made today.
The work by all three is exceptional, but given their level of institutional recognition it’s also what one might expect to see. Less expected, and thus toting a special wallop, are a variety of other, similarly first-rate contributions.
Paul McCarthy has been doing broadly influential performance work for more than 15 years, but nothing quite prepares one for the wrenching installation called “Garden” he has constructed here. In a small patch of forest built from TV stage props, two motor-driven men engage in mechanically thumping sex, one with a tree trunk, the other with the moss-covered ground. At once voyeuristically riveting and awful, bizarrely funny and overwhelmingly tragic, this onanistic ritual presents another side of Eden.
In recent years Charles Ray has made an impressive body of sculpture that, appropriately enough, explores socially circumscribed bodily relationships. His remarkable new “Mannequin Fall ’91" is an 8-foot store dummy, fashionably groomed and coiffed, which disconcertingly looms above mere mortal viewers. Endowed with the presence of classical statuary, like some Sears, Roebuck & Co. Athena, the icily restrictive idealization in mundane modern icons fans a cold breeze down your spine.
And almost out of nowhere--he’s shown only twice before--Victor Estrada has risen to the present occasion with a powerful, monumentally theatrical sculpture of cast foam, called “Baby/Baby.” Two clown-headed creatures, grinning and frowning as mutant signs of comedy and tragedy, recline in a vivid purple room while, between them, a tumescent column rises up, part monstrous phallus and part mushroom cloud. It’s an unspeakable image.
Some disappointments will be found. Manuel Ocampo is represented by a strong group of paintings, but his foray into sculpture, which transforms his Spanish Colonial sources into decorative embellishments, feels empty. Similarly, the furious forms in Megan Williams’ wonderfully compulsive drawings don’t survive the transformation from pictorial whirlwind into physical installation.
The shabby, domestic crack-up of hearth and home in Nancy Rubins’ mountainous pile of wrecked mobile homes and ruined water heaters startles with blunt force, but little resonance follows the initial, gee-whiz impact. And Richard Jackson condenses the crack of time in a chamber built from scores of synchronized clocks, which grabs you by the mental lapels for but a split second.
As a title “Helter Skelter” is also a grabber, but the choice is a big mistake. Schimmel leads his catalogue introduction with a disclaimer: Rather than conjure the Beatles’ song and Charles Manson’s brutal madness, he simply means “Helter Skelter” to describe the hurried, confused, disorderly times in which these artists make work. You can’t exploit sensationalism, though, and then expect the audience to toss grandiloquence aside and ponder with gentility a dictionary definition.
The subtitle is a problem too. Forecasting “L.A. Art in the ‘90s” is presumptuous. Neither can it help but imply that a new tradition is issuing forth from multiple generations (the oldest artist is 57-year-old Llyn Foulkes, the youngest is 26-year-old Ocampo). Yet, in reality, it has been around from the start, as Mike Davis’ widely acclaimed 1991 book, “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles,” attested. For the postwar visual arts that tradition dates to the grim assemblages of Ed Kienholz, whose sharply moralizing art is contemporaneous with the perceptual emphasis of ‘60s Light & Space.
Significantly, the new writing commissioned for the catalogue might suggest a crucial relationship between literature and the curator’s rather vague claims for an art that explores “the dark side.” For the literary arts (including movies, especially the noir variety), the sensibility dates at least to the ‘30s, with the shadowy, beleaguered writing of Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and others. The paintings of Llyn Foulkes--the one artist here whose career spans the three decades since 1960--have always been marked by a literary edge, and it was precisely that supposedly extraneous element of literature that so-called progressive painting of the period sought to banish.
Like Kienholz, the difference between Foulkes and the rest of “Helter Skelter"is the distinctly moralizing tone of his art. Still, its literary qualities are obviously shared by Raymond Pettibon’s crazily insightful drawings, by the cartoon-like collaboration between Jim Shaw and writer Benjamin Weissman, by the woefully cliche-ridden video installation of Meg Cranston (TV as a hypnotic fireplace is depicted), by the tiresomely repetitive vulgarities of Robert Williams’ comic-book paintings and by most everyone else in the show.
The notable exception is likely Liz Larner’s disappointingly banal installation. A mechanically ordered system of Western perspective, pointedly constructed dimensions from steel chains and illusion-producing mirrors, is juxtaposed with a wholly natural system that is only seemingly disordered--namely, an actual buzzing beehive. The hive, of course, just happens to be dominated by a queen.
So, the question remains: Did the dark sensibility championed here come to prominence through the eventual collapse of the formalist prohibition against literary “contamination” of purely visual art? You won’t find out, alas, from reflecting on “Helter Skelter.” It’s rather too concerned instead with simply fiddling with established public perceptions.