I’m often asked to justify to desire to move to Los Angeles. And, for all practical purposes, it’s a completely legitimate question from those who ask. They see L.A. as an over-populated, over-priced, urban sprawl and concrete jungle with no rhyme, reason, or common sense. These people meet my interest with a blank stare and a simple: “why?” To be fair, yes Los Angeles appears that way. And yes, some of their assessments are true to an extent. But, what they don’t understand is everything else L.A. is, at least to me. So, my intention with the following report is to clarify some of my perspectives on why Los Angeles is a good place, and why I’m drawn to it. But, I’m not planning on diverging into my personal affection for the city. I’ll keep that between the palm trees that dot the horizon out there and myself. Instead, I’d rather spend some time on art and explain myself that way.
For starters, if you’ve seen David Frankel’s: “The Devil Wears Prada,” you most likely remember the cerulean blue sweater scene when Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly more or less summarizes the entire nature of commodity and trend setting in under two minutes. Her astute, albeit condescending, monologue illustrates the fact that no art can exist in a vacuum, and that each artwork has its own specific home in the vast stratosphere of art. For the fashion industry, it ranges from high-end retail to places like J.C. Penny’s, and finally down to Payless and other casual corners.
The visual art world is built along a similar architecture. At one end of the spectrum, you have museums and high-end blue chip galleries. At the other end, you find what I call “coffee shop crap.” Between the two lies the ambiguous, and potentially treacherous, terrain of the mid-level galleries. This is a highly populated and unpredictable area. It ranges between kitschy to sophisticated, and I tend to divide it into thirds: low, mid, and high. While it’s an area that allows for a lot of both upward and downward movement for both the artists and the galleries, those potentials can often beguile the one in motion. The artist may mistakenly believe he or she is in fact far closer to a museum show than he or she is, and the gallery may think it is capable of handling a exhibition of that caliber when it would be better off to keep it simple with a quaint painting show of neo-Impressionism. These confusions happen when this middle field lacks the bookends of both the museum and the coffee shop.
I’m not going to spend time writing about who dictates the high and low, the museum and the coffee shop, and how he or she assumes the rank of “Officer of Aesthetics.” It is an area ripe with politics and backroom cultural dealings that are better left alone until another time. However, for better or for worse, those bookends guide and contain the unpredictable middle area, and they help to inform and regulate how the artists and galleries suspended there go about their business.
Los Angeles’s art world ranges the entirety of this spectrum. How could it not? The city itself is a vast sprawl where 300 million dollar deals are being made at the same time that 300 million people are flushing the toilet. The city’s variety is as complex as the freeway systems that spider web their way across its square mileage. And, with its sheer amount of people and capital alone, there are always going to be Officers of Aesthetics eager to jump in and give orders dictating what constitutes good and bad taste. But to be fair, in Los Angeles they are needed. Without their steady hand and watchful gaze that keeps one eye on the art market and the other on the rising talent, the art scene there would probably run amok with its own diversity and slip into a convoluted mess. A little structure at times is a good thing, at least in my opinion. For me, it facilitated a comparison I would have failed to make otherwise.
Currently up at LACMA is Noah Purifoy’s posthumous exhibition “Junk Dada.” It runs the retrospective range expected of an artist as diverse and prolific as Purifoy. Wall assemblages in one room lead into sculptures in the next, and the overall found object aesthetic links the show together illustrating Purifoy’s clear vision of style and visual rhetoric. Purifoy wasn’t always a museum attraction however. As rightfully recognized by LACMA, he is “a pivotal yet under-recognized figure in the development of postwar-American Art whose effect is only beginning to be fully understood.”
One of the positions Officers of Aesthetics often work from is the safeguarded vantage point of retrospection. It is easier to look backwards and see what has happened in order to justify different turns in taste as opposed to only looking at the present and trying with futility to predict the future. Clearly, the gang at LACMA is doing this by labeling Purifoy as “under-recognized.” Under-recognized by whom? Obviously themselves. But thankfully, they have the self-awareness to acknowledge this and give Purifoy an exhibition that thrusts him into the larger discourses of art his work may have missed had it been forgotten out there in the Mohave desert where he worked for the last 15 years of his life.
One of the unique aspects of Purifoy’s works is their ability to manipulate their material to the extent that the assemblaged objects lose any reference to their pre-art functionality. For example, in several pieces Purifoy uses shoes. However, due to how the shoes are shaped and attached to their supports, they cease to be shoes in any sense. Instead, they look like abstract forms that reference shoes—but only after a second glance. Through the elemental principles of design, Purifoy transforms the found object into something far away from its original intention and gives the viewer only things like shape, color, texture, and space to consider. Slight of hands like this reveal the non-inherent reality of meaning, the power of context, and the skill of the artist. By extracting the objects so far away from familiarity and rendering them as forms alone, Purifoy exhibits an ability that I rarely see in the work of other assemblage artists.
However, my realization of this ability is largely indebted to the work of John M. Sollom that I saw the evening before at PÄS gallery in Fullerton. Sollom also works with the recycled. However, his aesthetic is closer to the assemblages of Rauschenberg. For example, although the various items he uses are reassembled into complex and thought provoking compositions, the objects still retain some of their pre-art essence. The spam label is legible, and Mickey Mouse is still clearly himself. Because of this, they feel like they are forming a collection of things drawn together so as to speak with each other about some issue beyond the artwork. With the clever rhyming between Ram and Spam, and the juxtapositions between abstract patterns and plastic toys, these works pass commentary on the larger issues of consumerism, commodification, and popular culture with a slight of hand all of their own. It is difficult to read them as only aesthetic forms because they flatly deny art for art sake. Instead, they use art as a language of critique, and they remind their viewers that we are continually subjected to being subjected to visual debris.
Neither use of assemblage is superior to the other. Instead, they are only different and demonstrate both the potential of that aesthetic as well as the skill of the artist. From one side, the technique can radically transform something into being totally new. From the other, it can turn the object back on itself and the industry that manufactured it in a clever and biting critique. Pluralities and duplicity underscore the entire terrain and leave the viewer to sort out the details.
For me, this sorting out was due to that gallery spectrum I mentioned earlier. I was able to assess Purifoy in light of Sollom and vice-versa. One contextualized the other, and the visual play between the two was strengthened by their proximity to each other. Being only 34 miles apart, you can see them in the same day. But beyond this, the works demonstrate the ripple effect of style outlined by Miranda Priestly. Whether or not Purifoy or Sollom were ever aware each other or each other’s work, the aesthetic similarities and differences between them produce the beautiful overlaps and crosshatchings that make up the fabric of the art world. Ideas and techniques move from one artist to another, sometimes by very indirect routes. An artist is never alone in the creative act. Instead, he or she sits alongside fellow artists in the grand spectrum and history he or she participates in at the moment of decision to make “art.”
What larger institutions such as LACMA accomplish is the organization of the ambiguous middle terrain galleries by providing reference points for them. One is better able to see art and measure its true impact when it sits in the full and rich context any work of art deserves. The danger to any art scene comes when those middle galleries lack institutions such as these, wallow in the mire of the belief that the unfinished and shapeless disorganization of curatorial practices is the better modus operandi, and start believing they are bigger, better, and making a more significant cultural impact than they actually are. Artists can thrive in chaos, galleries cannot. And, it serves a gallery well to know their place on the spectrum so they can better achieve their goals. But, in order to know where you are, you have to look up and pay attention to those around you.
Posted 21st August 2015 by Arnold, H.C.