In a distinctly American grove
In the first room of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s concise and winning survey of work by Sam Durant, a suite of six color photographs from 1995 shows chairs tipped upside-down. Artlessly composed, with haphazard cropping and the glare of a flash creating hot spots and murky shadows in the prints, they look like tabloid photographs taken at a crime scene -- Weegee without the people. The chairs are surrogate victims.
What’s the crime? Most likely, the violent demise of Modernism.
Each of Durant’s tumbled-over chairs is distinctly modern in design -- molded fiberglass, tubular steel, bent plywood, wire mesh and other familiar materials from America’s post-World War II efflorescence of Better Living Through Modern Design. Each “victim” is displayed with its front smashed into the floor, its legs up in the air, its underside exposed. This fanny-first pose is weirdly humiliating, as if some psycho serial killer had wickedly arranged his corpses in the most embarrassing posture possible. Clearly, their artless appearance has been carefully contrived.
Durant has a sly and thoughtful manner, which slowly seeps through the superficial simplicity of his work. He gets a lot out of a little.
Based in L.A., Durant might be seen as a second-generation “Helter Skelter” artist. That was the title of a hugely influential 1992 MOCA survey, which catapulted a dozen of the city’s painters, sculptors and installation artists to the forefront of international consciousness. It also consolidated L.A.'s reputation as an art scene of astonishing depth, breadth and resonance. Durant’s work is singularly inventive, but it builds on hybrid themes of aesthetics, class, violence, entertainment and other aspects of American society central to that show.
Mike Kelley, whose potent collisions of working-class aesthetics, rigorous high art and casual American mayhem were the pivot on which “Helter Skelter” turned, is a clear source for Durant’s work. So is another, perhaps less-expected artist -- Robert Smithson, the New Yorker whose Earthworks became a touchstone for American art in the early 1970s. (Smithson died tragically young, at 35, in 1973.)
Entropy is the Smithsonian mantra most evident in Durant’s art. The steady, inevitable degradation of mass and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity is a heady concept. When it’s applied to something familiar from the kitchen, like a molded plywood chair, it takes on a strange afterglow. If the universe is running down like a clock that needs winding, Durant’s art gives its key several unexpected twists.
Also in the first room of the MOCA show, which was ably organized by curator Michael Darling, are the sculptures that first brought Durant to critical attention. Called “Abandoned Houses” (1995), they are homemade models of sleek domestic designs from L.A.'s famous -- and famously failed -- postwar Case Study experiment in modern architecture for middle-class mass consumption.
These are not the glamorous models produced by an architect’s office to wow the client. Instead they’re a hobbyist’s efforts, made with cheap foam-core board, plexiglass, spray paint and tape, resting on spindly tripod legs made from wooden dowels.
None stands more than 3 1/2 feet tall. They demand that you look down on them.
They’ve also been trashed -- vandalized, marred by graffiti, scattered with debris, stripped of their crystalline, utopian beauty. A nearby group of 11 photocopied pictures of sleek Case Study House interiors has likewise been violated, via elements of collage. The high-minded abstractions of modern life are disrupted by the stylistic transgression of a Chippendale chair, the class intrusion of a lowly pine cabinet and the social misbehavior of beer-drinking bikers.
The remainder of the exhibition focuses on what could be called monuments or memorials -- think Smithson’s ironic monuments to Passaic, N.J. (his childhood home), where rusted-out industrial sites possess the historical gravity of ancient Greek temples. Durant’s monuments to his own youth (he was born in 1961) are installations that fuse pop music and high art, social upheaval and arcane satire. History becomes a malleable substance that can be reshaped, offering unforeseen options for the future.
Say “rock garden,” for example, and Durant will blend the Zen grace of a contemplative environment by Isamu Noguchi with the raucous musical genre of 1970s Southern rock ‘n’ roll. Fake boulders hide stereo speakers, while clustering around an institutional-style trash can from a public park, a receptacle naturalized by a decorative covering of pebbles.
Visitors are invited to head over to the far end of the room to the false front of a ramshackle cabin, complete with high-style rockers on the front porch, and select records from plastic milk crates to play in simultaneous opposition on dual turntables. (One turntable plays the music backward.)
The trash can in the center is a metaphorical pivot for the ash heap of history, through which Durant and his audience gaily rummage. Martha Graham’s 1944 “Appalachian Spring” meets Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers; Shaker simplicity collides with a Japanese variety. You might not know that Noguchi designed the country cabin set for Graham’s ballet, but Durant’s unexpected connections create a sturdy platform for new experiences.
Durant’s best work has a distinctive tone of melancholic optimism. Aggressive turmoil is fused with calm rationality. He fabricates still moments of clarity when you’re able to see the vortex of contemporary culture spin in all its wild and terrible ferocity.
Nowhere is that sensibility more in evidence than in a brand new work, which is a highlight of the show. “Upside Down: Pastoral Scene” is a memorial grove. A dozen fiberglass tree trunks are fused with actual stumps, their tangled roots probing the space like Medusa’s hair. Each upended tree stump is set on a mirrored square, which reflects it in an abstract space.
The formal vocabulary is again Smithson’s. But the syntax is pure Durant. The subject of these reflected roots is African American culture. Each stump is fitted with a speaker, from which a repertoire of jazz, blues, soul, rap and other music emanates. When Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” drifts from tree to tree, with its haunting lyrics of the aftermath of the lynch mob, Durant’s grove becomes a killing field.
It might seem unusual for a white American artist to make an elegiac poem to black American culture -- but then, it isn’t African Americans who need to empathize with racism’s brutality and cost. That curious fact is integral to the power of “Upside Down: Pastoral Scene.”
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: Tuesdays-Wednesdays, Fridays-Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.;
Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Ends: Jan. 19
Price: $8, adults; $5, students with ID and seniors 65 or older; free for MOCA members and children younger than 12. Admission is free to all on Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m.
Contact: (213) 626-6222