Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
In 1955, Italian émigré artist Rico Lebrun posed a question for the Abstract Expressionists, “O.K. what you have done was fine and necessary but where the hell do you go now?”
Quoted in curator Michael Duncan’s catalog essay, Lebrun’s sentiment captures the essence of “L.A. Raw: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The exhibition of work by 41 artists explores the roots of the unruly figurative art Los Angeles became known for in the 1980s, exemplified by artists like McCarthy, Mike Kelley, and Jim Shaw. As such, it contests a New York-centric version of art history in which progress involved ever finer degrees of abstraction, and offers a different spin on the dominant narratives of L.A. art history, which (until the advent of PST), tended to center around the Ferus Gallery and Light and Space art. As Lebrun’s comment implies, in this alternate trajectory, moving forward involved looking back.
While looking back seems to be all the rage these days, amid the shiny, consumerist optimism of the immediate postwar era, it was decidedly unfashionable. However, the artists in “L.A. Raw” for the most part took a darker view of the times, drawing on Surrealism and European Expressionism to explore the dehumanizing effects of war and the alienation of modern life. Lebrun’s painting, “Buchenwald Cart,” from 1956 depicts a pile of jutting, bone-like shapes in which individual bodies are no longer recognizable. In other works, he painted monstrous religious icons or faceless, splayed figures inspired by the writings of the Marquis de Sade.
Similarly anachronistic, Howard Warshaw’s untitled portrait of a woman from 1944 draws on Old Master conventions filtered through Surrealism and topped off with a Gothic tinge. The woman, with her sad, almost skeletal face and tattered clothing, looks surprisingly current—she might feel right at home in a Pop Surrealist exhibition. Of course from today’s vantage point, the schism between abstract and representational art seems silly, but in the 1940s and 50s work like this must have looked severely retrograde. Hence the term, “Abject Expressionism,” which Duncan seems to have coined.
Yet more than simply highlighting the bleaker side of figurative art, “L.A. Raw” effectively widens its purview. The bulk of the work in the show dates from the 1960s and 70s, when conceptual, feminist, and performance art emerged in force. The exhibition smartly reminds us that these experimental forms were, in many cases, figurative. Lithographs by Judy Chicago, in which guns take the place of penises, are both surreal and direct in their critique of sexual violence. Video documentation of Nancy Buchanan’s 1974 performance, “Please Sing Along,” juxtaposes naked men dancing with women wrestling. The piece upends gender stereotypes, but also, in this new light, comes across as a comment on debased physical spectacle.
Of course no show about degradation and the body would be complete without the work of Chris Burden, represented here by documentation of classic performances in which he crucified himself on a car, had himself shot in the arm, and lay naked on the floor with flaming sheets of glass propped on his shoulders. However, when seen as figurative art, his work comes across as more vulnerable than macho, making it oddly sympathetic with the work of some of his feminist contemporaries. Conversely, the show provides a welcome broader context for works by Chicago, Buchanan, Barbara T. Smith and Carole Caroompas, in which the general frailty and mutability of the human body emerges alongside specifically feminist concerns.
“L.A. Raw” also provides a different frame for the work of artists of color, although this effort turns out to be more problematic. It’s difficult to see the proud, beautiful portraits by artists Charles White and Judith Baca as “abject” in any way. Their intent, unlike many of their white contemporaries, was not to destroy or dissect the figure, but to find a way to represent those previously pushed to the edges of art history. Similarly, the work of John Outterbridge and Betye Saar, while it employs the patchwork aesthetic of assemblage, is much more about putting the pieces together than taking them apart.
Outterbridge’s lumpy, doll-like sculptures made from scraps of fabric, metal, and wood are far from naturalistic, but they are more like makeshift totems than debased bodies. Contrast them with Paul McCarthy’s painting, “Pawnbroker Girl,” in which an image of a bare-breasted woman is covered with crude, burnt, and decayed-looking splotches. While McCarthy’s work conveys a sense of desperation and disintegration, Outterbridge’s is about making something out of nothing. Just because a body appears fragmented, doesn’t mean it’s abject.
Still, despite this looseness of interpretation, “L.A. Raw” makes a cogent argument for figurative art as a potent reminder of both our frailty and our humanity. Of course, images of the body are not the only places where that can happen, but they are perhaps the most immediate and accessible. Seeing a body creates an immediate awareness of one’s own body, one’s own position. And whether we like it or not, we must acknowledge the relationship.
Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena, (626) 568-3665, through May 20. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.pmcaonline.org