Sharon Ellis' Shall Earth No More Inspire Thee 2001 Alkyd on Canvas at Eden's Edge
"I don't like the work- no man does-but I like what is in the work- the chance to find yourself. Your own reality-for yourself, not for others- what no other man can know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means."
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness 1910
Rather than traveling up river in Africa or Cambodia, I started preparing for the Eden's Edge show by driving Sunset Boulevard from downtown Los Angeles into Westwood. Sunset is a complete cross section of the city, an artery in which human energy and money can pulse from one side of the city to the other, transcending divisions of race, wealth, and class. I understood the grittiness of the streets with the dirt, graffiti, and the barred windows in the poorer sections of the city and the clean manicured green lawns of the upper class neighborhoods.
There is a proliferation of thousands of signs competing for your attention, and on that Saturday at least, it was all brought together under a beautiful warm blue sky. Sunset is a great connector and reveals the essence of Los Angeles in a way that movies or literature can never quite capture. Curated by Gary Garrels, Eden's Edge: Fifteen L.A. Artists, at the Hammer Museum until September 2, is a similar cross section of the art scene of Los Angeles bringing together work of artists as diverse as Ken Price, Lari Pittman, Matt Greene, Liz Craft, Anna Sew Hoy and the late Jason Rhoades.
I felt that when I was walking through Eden's Edge, I was traveling up river on my own trip wandering through the various studios of Los Angeles artists and wondering how deep the river really goes.
Ken Price Optimist 2007 Acrylic on fired ceramic at Eden's Edge
If New York is a place of the mind, then Los Angeles for me has always been about the body. What better way to make that perfectly clear than starting an exhibition like this with a room full of Ken Price's colorful ceramics including Optimist from 2007. His sculptures are acrylic on fired ceramic and easily recognizable by the layers of colored dots that define the surface of the piece.
Los Angeles is physical and visceral, a land of sun tans and small bathing suits especially in the summer. Maybe that is why New Yorkers have always been slightly suspicious of what happens in Los Angeles because from the outside it seems too easy. Sex, sun and glamour are its biggest exports and Ken Price gives a us a way to feel and explore the surfaces of those bodies, at least with our eyes. The sculpture is constantly puckering and bulging, alternately revealing and concealing. It is like the way the old Chinese painters describe the body as mountains and valleys.
One explores the sculpture the way you interact with another human body except that the more you explore, the more it changes so that you are never quite sure what you are looking at. Are the sexual references real or are you projecting those experiences on to his sculptures? You are never quite sure and he keeps you off balance by never explicitly letting you know one way or another.
I found Price's work compelling sculptural equivalents of the dramatic changes of scale and distortions that you find in De Kooning's paintings. De Kooning was able to turn a thumb into a thigh into... well, you can use your imagination from here. In Price's work, you are never quite sure of what you are looking at so it is up to you make your own sense of the experience.
Anna Sew Hoy Dark Cloud Version II 2006 Glazed ceramic and rope at Eden's Edge
On those terms, it is interesting to see Anna Sew Hoy's recent sculptures. One of the best is Dark Cloud Version II from 2006 because of the way that the beautiful black/ dark gray ceramic modules are held together rope so the piece is a mixture of hard language of the ceramic and soft language of the rope. Each material works according to its own intrinsic properties. The ropes make the piece interesting because it always reads as not as a single piece but as an accumulation of modules. Is the art in each of the modules? In the assemblage? This will be a recurring theme that occurs throughout he show.
Also, I was reminded off Araki's photographs of beautiful Japanese girls tied up in strange and interesting ways. In both cases, the ropes changes parameters of the body or object so the language of the experience so that is richer and more complex. Dark Cloud Version II sits on partially on a white mirror and partially on a black so not only is the piece doubled in the reflection of the mirror but it also provides a two dimensional graphic equivalent of the interaction of the solid and voids of the main sculpture.
Lari Pitman Untitled 2003 Acyrlic, oil and aerosol on canvas over wood panel at Eden's Edge
A little further through the galleries you encounter the painting of Lari Pitman. Pitman's paintings have always been about the way you can layer multiple streams of information so that you can create a painting whose experience is richer than any of those streams individually. When I look at his paintings I always feel like I am looking at 100 yards of Sunset Boulevard compressed into a flat picture plane with a lot of lens flare.
To me Pitman's paintings are about the movement of the body walking down the street. The things that we see are flattened together in our minds that is usually different from the original experience. Pitman makes images of the signs, patterns and textures and compresses them into create a critical mass that can start a nuclear reaction. When the painting works, the images go nuclear and the paintings completely transform from being an accumulation of images into a sort of transcendental state where everything has its place and the world is experienced holistically.
Jim Shaw Dream Object 2001 Foam, acrylic and wood panel at Eden's Edge
I felt a little like a deer in the headlights when I saw Jim Shaw's strange Dream Object (By the garage was a big Ganesha statue made of foam with phallic drips coming from the breasts and for a head...). Obviously brevity is not important when it comes to naming art work in Los Angeles. I found it so strange because the bottom part is a sculpture of the body of a large gray fat almost Buddha (or Ganesh) like figure except that it is made out of individual blocks and above is head quasi photo realistic head painted directly on a wood panel that is distinctly more red than a naturally occurring human head.
The piece is a weird mixture of the language of painting and sculpture. It reminds me of those children's books that as you flip through you can combine different heads with different bodies. The painting panel was pretty clever because unlike most painting you do not sink into the space of the picture plane. In this case, the head is read as a depiction, like a trompe l'oeil, and explodes off the wall.
The body is also strangely inert and you read it not as a single piece but as an accumulation of individual blocks. The way that it is assembled reminds of great sculptures of Angor Wat. The whole piece reads as an inversion about the way you feel and depict space in different dimensions. Despite it girth, the monochromatic gray color and the large joints between the units of the body, flatten its presence in a way that is closer to painting than to sculpture, or perhaps redefining the preconceptions of sculpture with the language of painting. These inversions make the piece a lot more complex than you might realize if you thought the sculpture was a big slap stick joke.
Liz Craft Death Rider (Virgo) 2002 Bronze at Eden's Edge
Liz Craft's Death Rider (Virgo) from 2002 is like a remake of the motorcycle of the movie Easy Rider if it was assembled by animals of the forest. Branches, pine cones, and mushrooms are assembled in a way to resemble a motorcycle except that this motorcycle is not going anywhere. She discovered a fertile area of inverted expectations, where form is separated from function. Her Ballad of the Hippie, a bronze sculpture with a peacock feather, of a hippie playing guitar with a column of smoke extending up from his eye is equally amusing. The juxtaposition of the musician and the smoke are like to sides of the same coin when you talk about the experience of the sixties, and maybe at some level they become interchangable.
Monica Majoli Rubberman #3 2004 Watercolor and goauche on paper at Eden's Edge
Monica Majoli's beautiful but faceless drawings like Hanging Rubberman #3 look like they were imported straight from the sex clubs on Sunset. Painted in beautiful washes of gray, pink and orange the images depict a faceless body in various positions in a rubber suit with dildoes placed in unusual locations. Anonymous sex is one thing but it is strange that these images that are so clearly about sex and yet so divorced from acknowledgement of the forms and contours of the human body, but I am sure was her intention. If sex is sometimes about procreation, these drawings are about the seed. We do not know anything about the person that inhabits the suit. They could be male or female, happy or sad, we just do not know. It is the disconnect from the body, or maybe a soul, that I find troubling.
She is emphasizing human sex as being quasi-vegetal, divorced from the experiences and features that make us human. The effect is heightened by the mostly gray colors of the body and the background of the drawings are deliberately lifeless, like the body that inhabits the suit. She drains the life out of sex and we are left with are these drained, soft, limp gray shells, or perhaps seeds, painted in the colors of a sunset on a rainy afternoon waiting for Spring.
Sharon Ellis' Fire 2002 Alkyd on Canvas at Eden's Edge
Sharon Ellis's paintings are like Disneyland after the apocalypse. Her paintings of flattened landscapes against deep brightly lit sunsets are always beautiful but something is always slightly out of key. While the paintings are clearly beautiful like Fire, from 2002, you sense that she distrusts beauty by itself and she wants to make it a little more difficult for you.
Her best paintings have a sinister black shadows in the middle ground the cast the foreground and background into high relief. In Fire, the black shadows bring out the unreal glow of the bright colors of the sky as if the sky and not the land was on fire. The appearance of the paintings is therefore always magical where the effect is more real than real, like a hyper lucid dream.
Ginny Bishton Walking (Yellow) 2003 Photographic collage at Eden's Edge
In Los Angeles, where so much information is distributed in the form of the newspapers, posters, photos and magazines, it was perhaps inevitable that they would be prime targets for being reinvented in the hands of willing artists like Ginny Bishton and Mark Bradford. In Bishton's work like Walking (Yellow) from 2003, the photos are atomized so that that they are drained of any content and become small circles of color.
These small circles are then reconfigured to create and unusual and beautiful micro-landscapes. Perhaps because the circle is directionless, the forms that she creates are curling and spiraling waves that pulse across the paper. The effect is not unlike looking at things in a petri dish through a microscope. You are given a view to a whole other world with its own rules and language.
Mark Bradford Black Venus 2005 Mixed media collage at Eden's Edge
Mark Bradford's paintings like Black Venus are large assemblages of layered rectangles of cropped posters so experiencing the paintings are like looking down on strange, alien cities. The small, colorful rectangles give the work a repeating tempo that alternately flatten and deepens the space. His paintings remind me of the color paint chips in Rauschenberg's Rebus. He applies the rectangles not in a one long horizontal line but across a two dimensional, and occasionally three dimensional, plane. The paintings become accumulations of the textures and layered spaces. By varying the color of the rectangles, he is able to create a rich web of spaces in which the painting is both assembling and dissolving at the same time. When you look at the painting you float in this interstitial space where you are not sure about scale, and so you open to yourself to the space and the experience.
Most of the artwork in the exhibition is not about a single move or gesture, I did not see any brash expressionistic paintings. There does seem to be a common thread in the way work is constructed and perhaps it reveals either a lot of about the way Los Angeles artists are working or perhaps it reveals a lot about Garrels' aesthetic. It seems that most of the artists' work are about a slow process of accumulation that generates an unexpected complexity. Different elements are arranged and layered in a way that the whole process becomes the dominant element rather than any one individual element. It is a process akin to building the painting with the body not the mind. The artist is literally feeling their way through there process in the dark and they do not know when the will get somewhere until they finally arrive. The conclusion is not arrived at beforehand. Besides Bishton, Bradford, Greene, Hundley and Pitman, although his paintings feel a little more arranged, a good example of this process is the work of Rebecca Morales.
Rebecca Morales Untitled (Dividing Caps) 2006 Gouache, watercolor, ink and pastel on calf vellum at Eden's Edge
Rebecca Morales work Untitled (Dividing Caps) from 2006 seems to have literally grown from the vellum. Her pieces grow from the accumulation of hundreds, maybe thousands, very small brushstrokes so that the drawing has a wonderful naturally organic quality. The drawing grows the way that any natural system operates, from the inside out. Because the vellum is natural and irregularly shaped you feel like you are only ever seeing part of the picture, and that you are looking at a small jeweled fragment of a richer more complex whole. The raw, unshaped quality of the vellum is a great counterpart to the natural richness of her process.
Matthew Monahan The seller and the sold 2006 Mixed media at Eden's Edge
If the most of the work in the show seems to be about assemblage in one way or another, Matthew Monahan's work seems to be about disassembling ideas and constructs, in this case, the preconceptions about classical beauty, In his piece the Seller and the Sold, classical beauty is inverted and twisted to fit a rectangular glass vitrine. You are never quite sure what side of the fence he is sitting on because his sculpture is beautiful, but different than a classical Greek sculpture. Is he just working on a new way of looking at the body, that reflects more of the potential, promise and insecurities of our time?
His drawings were equally beautiful through a relentless patterning created by pressing through carbon paper. In all of his work, he seems to be asking what place does art have in our lives, if the definitions of classical beauty no longer apply. For me, I have always felt that it is for each of us to decide uniquely, individually.
Matt Greene By the Lust of the Basidiomycettes 2004 Painting,acrylic, ink and collage on canvas at Eden's Edge
I could not shake the feeling the feeling that when I was looking at Matt Greene's By the Lust of the Basidiomycettes shall every perversion be justified (again, brevity of titles and reviews has no place in L.A.) from 2004, that it was a modern version Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. Although Greene's painting might have been called Penthouse Girls of the Aurora Borealis, it is a wonderful inventory of what the male mind must imagine that girls must do when they are left to their own devices. Actually there might be some males, amongst the hundred figures in the painting, it is just hard a little hard to tell.
The painting is an epic panorama of sex, even if it is more or less limited to one gender. There is no solid ground, even the sky (or clouds or lights) comes dripping down on the playful participants. It is the inventory of participants and positions that reminds most of Bosch. When we look at his paintings, we are not participants, we are observers and most likely very far away.
Although there are plenty of telescopes in Manhattan apartment buildings, it is the quality of being a voyeur that seems most like Los Angeles to me. Maybe because the people that you meet walking down the street, at least during the summer, are not really wearing very many clothes to begin with or maybe it is all the stories you hear of crazy parties in the Hollywood Hills. The sense that you are in the middle of something fun and exciting but somehow always separated from truly feeling that experience seems to be a critical part of living in Los Angeles. Maybe it is because Los Angeles is so big and there is always the unconscious fear that everyone shares, that there is always a better party going on somewhere else.
Elliot Hundsley Deathless Aphrodite of the Spangled Mind (Detail) 2003 Plastic, paper, color photographs, pins and wire at Eden's Edge
Elliot Hundley's work Deathless Aphrodite of the Spangled Mind from 2003 is an inventory of anatomy. We are left with a field of fragmented body parts all cut out and pinned to Styrofoam. Thankfully we are not left with the remains from a battle like in the paintings of Goya. Hundley's work is more clinical and encyclopedic. Each piece of the body is observed, noted, cataloged, and then he moves on the next part. It is a way of looking at the body without judgment, just noting its conditions. The work is full of arms and legs, people with an with and without clothes and each presented individually, like a fact of a natural condition.
The inventory of body parts reminds me of the Japanese filmmakers that attempt to create a character whose is beauty is derived by combining the features of the twenty most popular idols. But Hundley presents his work in a deliberately flat footed way. The people in the piece are not movie stars or models, they just seem more or less or normal. I think it somehow reminds me of a car factory, where all of the parts of car are stored before they are assembled. Every piece is just hanging there, waiting to be used when it is needed.
Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn Can't Swallow it, Can't Spit it Out 2006 Mini DV transferred to DVD at Eden's Edge
Video artists Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn humorous video of Can't Swallow it, Can't Spit it Out from 2006 explores the fertile crossover, if perhaps underrated area of Viking costumes, fake cheese, blond wigs, and of course Led Zeppelin all by the side of the road. The piece might have come across as a little self indulgent except that every couple of minutes an ambulance came screaming by so often that I became slightly worried about their safety. I mean what were they doing if ambulances were always going by. The sirens give the piece a bit of edge, maybe a little danger because you are not sure what you watching.
Is the piece about the woman who is performing a charming rendition of Led Zeppelin song on a piece of cheese on the side of the road or is it about the cars rushing by and the occasional siren. It made me wonder if each one of lives our life while the rest of the world, no matter what, quite literally passes us by.
Jason Rhoades Twelve Wheel, Wagon Wheel Chandelier 2004 Wire, neon, wood, plexiglas, lace, and plastic at Eden's Edge
We finally come to an end of our journey up the river with the work of the late Jason Rhoades whose piece Twelve-Wheel Wagon Wheel Chandelier from 2004 occupies a room that resembles a chapel. I learned that he requested to place his work in this room that has been used in the past to exhibit part of Leonardo's notebooks. The ultimate artist of the mind, Leonardo, meets an artist that walks on the other side of the street whose interests are all about the body and maybe, experiences that could not even comprehended by the mind.
When you look at Rhoades' work, it is literally out of control. The work looks like there was a hurricane or a tornado in a neon shop. The pictures do not do the piece justice. They make the piece seem more arranged and designed than it actually is. There are about fifty neon signs all floating in different directions in space, suspended by wagon wheels and colored Plexiglas.
The neon signs are different descriptions and slang for female genitalia but it is hard to concentrate on just one sign because you are overcome with the gestalt experience of the whole space. It is like Jason Rhoades ran through Bruce Nauman's neon signs and just kept going into place that nobody realized existed. At some level, the work feels like he left the language of the art world and went native, embracing the bright colorful signs of porn shops and strips clubs that are central feature of the life on Sunset. In his work, there are no more rules, "ideas", or cute sculptures. Everything that is not true breaks down. His work takes the chaos and confusion of the real world head on. He never backs down, never retreats, never surrenders.
When you walk into the room you can almost feel him grab you by the back of the neck and force forward into the unknown. It is like being in a car with him and driving down Sunset at a 150 mph. It is so fast everything begins to blur together, it is extremely dangerous, and he never hits the brakes. As a passenger, or you when look at his work at the Hammer you have to come to terms that you are not in control, he is.
Rhoades' work at his best is not fun or exciting, but terrifying. The Chandelier practically fills the chapel room and so you have no choice but to surrender to the experience. You are overwhelmed and can barely breath because it completely fills the space, and he just keeps relentlessly driving at you until the boundaries begin to dissolve and you discover a new unexpected freedom. He attacks and mocks you, always challenging you to take the next step and constantly trying to make you set yourself free. Your preconceptions and ideas begin to break down because they are revealed to be artificial constructions because they are based in ideas and not experience. It is about the body and not the mind.
His work transcends the kitsch and irony that plagues most contemporary art, he found a way to push through veil of the everyday world and create a real experience. He does not quit until you discover your freedom. It is not about whether or not you like Chandelier, which is sort of beside the point, it is that you can not escape because it sucks up all of the air and space of the room. If you walk in the room, you have to deal with it, you have to enter his world. All of the theories, posturing, and ideas are either broken down or thrown away and you are left with a strange form of transcendence.
At the end of the journey we find ourselves right back where we started in the real world but with a new vision, or at least a new way to see the world around us. Maybe we learned a thing or two about ourselves and Los Angeles along the way. The neon signs, the advertising signs, the strange colors of the buildings, the electric night of the 24 hour TV screens, and the ridiculously large palm trees are all equal fodder for the artist that is willing to embrace them and push through to other side. I think this the real value of Eden's Edge because it demonstrates that beauty in Los Angeles is definitely not just skin deep. It is deep well spring of an energy that sees itself very differently than most other cities.
I learned that art in LA does not always have to be passive, that it can still engage Sunset Blvd. in its own language and that is does not have to be cloistered away in museums and galleries. In a city like Los Angeles that is constantly reinventing itself, maybe it's important that at the end of the journey we find death, and perhaps a new way of living.
"They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity -like yours- the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being meaning in it which you-you so remote from the first night of ages-could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything- because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future."
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness 1910
There are lots of ways of making art. Jason Rhoades chose his path through immersing you in a sea of neon signs and environmental installations because it seemed true to his experience of the world. There is a strange symmetry to his work and the way that he died but I think it would be a mistake to glamorize the tragedy of his life by making too much of the live fast, die young credo, especially as a path to making great art.
Being an artist is hard, I mean that you only have too look at the way the bodies are piled up: Van Gogh cuts off his ear and commits suicide, Arshile Gorky commits suicide, Jackson Pollock was an alcoholic perhaps slightly suicidal, Willem De Kooning was also an alcoholic but died from Alzheimer's years later, Mark Rothko committed suicide, and Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a drug overdose and these are the ones that I can think off of the top of my head.
This very partial list is a role call of the dead with a lot dysfunctional personalities and these are only people involved in the visual arts. I did not include film makers, writers, or rock musicians... There has to be a better way. Plenty of people throw their lives away and never make any kind of art all. Jason Rhoades made his choices about the way he chose to live his life. There is no glory or glamour in dying of a drug overdose, it is probably very dirty and sad, just ask the family he left behind. It was just a choice he made at one moment that perhaps had unexpected consequences. It does not make him a better artist.
It might be helpful to look at Jason's work in terms of its restlessness. He was never satisfied until he started making art that took the objects and experiences that we have around us everyday and transformed them into a new way of looking at the world. He found transcendence in the neon signs of strip clubs and porn shops and in environments that when you first entered them, you could not believe was art. But it was art, and it was a new way of looking that crass consumer culture that we live in. He was like the antithesis of pop artists: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, and Oldenburg because like the culture he engaged in, his work was layered, complex, confusing, dirty, and you were never quite sure what you were experiencing. He was just way out there, looking at the world through a new lens that showed the cracks in the façade of society, and he made his art to exploit those fissures.