L.A.'s growing pains, status

The six solo gallery debuts in Los Angeles that I admired most this year confirm something about the new millennium that we pretty much take for granted. The city’s cosmopolitanism and art’s internationalism are here to stay. ¶ Two of the six artists were born in the United States. At L.A. Louver, Ben Jackel showed stoneware sculptures on militaristic themes that fuse brutality, fragility and play, while humility wrestled with grandiosity in Justin Hansch’s witty paintings at Circus.

The remaining four artists come from all over the globe. Beijing-based Song Kun, whose paintings at Walter Maciel conjured vivid waking dreams, was born in Inner Mongolia, China. At Steve Turner, Camilo Ontiveros from Sinaloa, Mexico, showed a conceptually confounding installation of sleekly painted washing machines. Yo Fukui, a native of Shiga, Japan, now living in New York, had mutant evolution in mind for his large-scale mixed-media sculptures at David Salow. And at Gagosian, well-known Belgian artist (and former scientist) Carsten Höller, who works in Stockholm, offered imagination as the concomitant source of ruin and salvation in sculptures of briefcases filled with twirling psychedelic toadstools.

Art doesn’t change according to decades, of course, so the Aughts (or whatever 2000-2009 ends up being called) can’t be expected to reveal a specific artistic contour. Generations, though, can record seemingly seismic shifts as new ones layer on top of old ones and come into their own.

Roughly 30 years have passed since Cindy Sherman in New York and Mike Kelley in L.A. signaled a fundamental shift in American art. Her feminist-inspired photographs of media-manufactured identities forever eradicated the second-class status that camera work (not to mention women) held in the greater art world; his multimedia work probed adolescence, an American phenomenon wedged between the supposed innocence of childhood and the wisdom (or corruption) of maturity that artists traditionally explored.

Kelley’s swift rise to international prominence from L.A. was also a sign that New York’s singular, established dominance as art’s sole American production center was at a decisive end -- a fact mirrored by the return of long-muffled European art from relative obscurity. Europe stepped forward roughly a generation after World War II reduced the continent to ashes; and a generation after Southern California emerged as America’s postwar powerhouse, L.A. art stepped forward too. Both have remained strong.

Something else also happened a generation ago that tossed-and-turned the cultural life of the Aughts in ways we have yet to sort out. Reaganomics, the trickle-down fairy tale that says economic growth is most effectively created by dismantling corporate regulation and slashing top tax-brackets, began a massive, upward redistribution of wealth. It went into hyper-drive in the new millennium. The once-secure American middle class got shredded, while the richest got the gated precincts of a new Gilded Age.

The last time that happened, late in the 19th century, extravagant displays of New World wealth included amassing great collections of Old World art and artifacts. Now, with most of that art long-since spoken for (and transferred into museums), the super-rich angle for what’s left: Modern and, since those gems are mostly gone, contemporary art.

There’s nothing wrong with a robust art market. Rather, market gigantism is what’s dysfunctional, pushing everything else aside. In 2007, Damien Hirst’s tacky, diamond-encrusted platinum skull, with its phony-baloney $100-million price tag reportedly paid by a consortium of investors that included the artist, became its farcical symbol.

The past year’s global financial crisis has understandably been chronicled for its shock to cultural institutions’ bottom lines. But monstrous money and the freakish celebrity it fosters had another, less considered impact. The sobering 2008 travails of L.A.'s exceptional Museum of Contemporary Art were indicative: Its near-catastrophic collapse from recklessly spending down its endowment has made me wonder whether an institutional need to keep up, married to a talented and ambitious staff, was a prime factor.

Culturally, the Aughts’ other gigantism has been perplexing. Ever-expanding cyberspace has been a tremendous boon in networked information, further fueling the beneficial artistic internationalism that took off a generation ago. But the Internet landscape is a vast agglomeration of specialized niches, where targeted hunting typically trumps the unexpected pleasures of serendipity.

In an October lecture at the Smithsonian, critic Dave Hickey noted that, in the Internet’s vast territory, niches are the equivalent of villages. And art does poorly in the homogenized, provincial ether of a village.

To thrive art needs cities, where cosmopolitan diversity, conflict and sheer accident are the norm. Maybe Google will figure out a solution to that problem in the 2010s. Better yet, maybe artists will.