Friday, November 23, 2007

Dangerous Curves II

I realize these notes come days after they were promised -- with scarce hard intel to offer the reader -- but I hate to leave anyone stranded whether on the streets of Los Angeles, or the virtual streets of the art world. Happy Thanksgiving, angels.

18 November 2007

I was almost ready to leave by the time the other art stars and the Hollywood demi-monde began to file in. Suzanne Somers was in the front gallery, dressed almost entirely in black, except for a spectacular pair of gloves in a creamy peach kidskin with bows at the wrists. I had to know where she got them. “They’re Prada,” she told me; and “they really cut down on the Purell.” Good luck with the shrimp and gazpacho shooters, I thought. Lauren Hutton came in on a tear with Ed Moses dangling off of her – or was it the other way around? It was as if they couldn’t wait to get into the back rooms. Following Fearless Leader’s orders, I tried to get a shot or two of them, but they hardly stopped moving. Or dangling. Or staggering. With Ed sometimes it’s a little hard to tell. After a fond farewell to the Ruschas and Hamiltons, I stepped outside to wait for my car. As the valet pulled up with my Volvo, Dennis Hopper, solitary and looking a bit forlorn, walked past me into the gallery.

Fourth Place and Molino is one of those L.A. twilight zones – in theory, more or less of a piece with the neighborhood of warehouses and artists’ lofts in which it’s situated; in actuality, a small indeterminate island of something born out of its past and carried into an equally ambivalent future – a bit more pressed and polished than it needs to be. I always feel I’m on the verge of getting lost each time I come down here and once or twice have actually parked before I was even aware that I was just around the corner from my destination – which was probably Dangerous Curve (readers of this blog may recall the performance I attended here in March – Parris Patton’s Because I Can’t Be Beethoven). It’s close to the Fourth Street Bridge – one of those erratic demarcations between downtown and East L.A. (not the East Side of Los Angeles or the east side of the L.A. River but EAST Los Angeles – part of L.A., yet physically, ethnically, culturally a thing apart and unto itself). It was the perfect place for a performance piece like Parris’s – I literally imagine Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock television-style scenarios unfolding in these not-so-mean-but-slightly-unnerving streets – but it’s also a cool place for a party (or for that matter a shoot); which is why, in addition to its program of exhibitions and performances, Dangerous Curve also hosts parties and events – this one for artillery – already a bit past its first-year anniversary (and IN THE BLACK) – but then it’s never too late to celebrate. The entertainment was music by the Mad Gregs and Forward Energy, who somehow found their way to this twilight zone from San Francisco and readings by several artillery writers, including (inevitably) that dean of dissipation, that arbiter elegantiae of L.A. inertia (and artillery’s poet laureate), John Tottenham (The Inertia Variations); that boho refugee from the Balboa Yacht Club, Gordy Grundy (who has a way of making even a downtown L.A. twilight zone into his own private Newport); and Mary Woronov, whose Retrospect column is almost always the first thing I turn to when I pick up a new issue of the magazine. I always think Woronov’s ‘retrospect’ is light-years ahead of most people’s notion of the next decade’s prospect. Woronov, who first seared her way onto this civilization’s Rosetta Stone with her performance as Hanoi Hannah in Warhol’s Chelsea Girls and graced the punk decade of L.A. performing in movies by Roger Corman and Paul Bartel, among others, wrote an instant-classic memoir-cum-fantasia on her years in the Warhol Factory, Swimming Underground. This came not long after the retrospective of her painting she published as Wake for the Angels, accompanied by a selection of incandescent vignettes, a few of which she would later turn into full-length stories. Woronov sometimes strikes me as a character straight out of a Camus or maybe a Gide novel – or maybe just Gide or Camus, himself. That is, if Gide or Camus had understood L.A., Hollywood movies, punk rock, American consumer culture and the California desert. Amazingly, she hasn’t been nominated for a Nobel Prize – a fact that would have astonished Alfred Nobel who, after all, invented dynamite.

She looked pretty dynamite Friday night, in a shocking pink trenchcoat, with her indestructible cheekbones, and very French-looking, Ines de la Fressange-looking hair. It was all I could do not to throw myself at her feet and declare, à la the Divine Iggy, ‘I want to be your dog’. (Really not such a bad idea at all: she has two fabulous dogs; and she takes fabulous care of them.) Now, having given us the hallucinatory fantasia of Swimming Underground, she’s at work, sans speed or psychedelics, on a more extensive memoir of her life. She’s also working on a novel; and she read excerpts from it – the sections styled as a pillow book of one of the characters – a stripper/exotic dancer, moonlighting in sexual favors for her customers: each more scabrous, scarifying, absurd and hilarious than the next.

Tottenham and Woronov are the poets of the magazine and they can never bore me. Tottenham also read new material (he’s a born sonneteer) and a few chestnuts from The Inertia Variations, which reads like the story of my interior life (rendering the toxic actuality of my hyper-active exterior life – or at least the part lived during the daytime half the work-week – utterly absurd).

I have no idea what Jason Flores-Williams was reading – poems, manifestoes, preambles or prayers to his legal briefs (he’s a lawyer as well as a writer), rallying cries (he has a certain track record as an activist – though I’m not sure how effective: the Iraq war still rages on, Bush is still the U.S. president, the Democratic Party slouches towards its ever more Republican Bethlehem), or simply rants – but it was very loud, and somehow deficient in, well, poetry. Or charm perhaps. His piece in this month’s artillery had a similar hectoring quality – and was so far outside the context of actual working artists that it actually worked as a kind of a funhouse mirror of this world – something outside the most outside of Outsiders (the theme of the issue). For someone who styles himself as an Outsider, though, he has a way of putting himself Inside a rather extensive range of places, scenes, movements, publications (e.g., High Times AND Hustler; do I sound jealous??? hey – I work in the Flynt Building – of COURSE I am; I’ll admit my porn reads like a bio-chem text; but I’m sure there are chem. profs who would find it REALLY stimulating.) and people. Putting that Very Big Outside into just about any Inside seems to be his thing (outside his law practice; though I understand he practices in more than one state). Hollywood being a place where such outSIZE egos seem to thrive, I have no doubt he’ll get a deal before he goes back to New York or New Orleans.

Speaking of criminal practice – I mean criminal defense – I was joined briefly, belatedly, by “L.A.’s Dopest” – and artillery advertiser – Allison Margolin and her very charming driver for the evening. Flores-Williams told me he had actually been in contact with Allison (which somehow didn’t surprise me), but had yet to meet her and wanted an introduction. I would have welcomed the opportunity to nudge him Allison’s way; but there was no way to tear him from the microphone and Allison had yet another stop for the evening.

Between Woronov’s brilliance and the attentions of Flores-Williams (and Allison’s driver), and perhaps an abundance of clear and red libations (this was the second bar for the evening), awol was about was wol as awol can be without losing her mind or getting arrested. Photographers Tyler Hubby and Lynda Burdick (who’s also a brilliant designer) got all the incriminating evidence on film. (Hubby managed to take a truly great portrait of Marnie Weber. Jim Shaw was a no-show for the evening; somehow he wasn’t missed. Mr. Shaw will be heard from here soon enough – with Mike Kelley (& Salvador Dalí?) – hopefully a bit later today.) Paige Wery was there, too – sans Parris – and somehow let slip the fact that before she became an artist, she had a budding career as a GOLF PRO. It was an evening for such OUT-of-the-box revelations. I made a date to play golf with her and her fabulous sister, Jill. We want to play at Hillcrest; but we’ll settle for Rancho Park.

I haven’t mentioned the art on the walls – which was by Max Markowitz. There were also charming sculptures in chicken wire floating through the space – but on this evening the abstractions were easier to see. He has a great color sense – which doesn’t really surprise me: his father is Barry Markowitz. It’s all in the DNA, isn’t it?

And I haven’t mentioned Huffington Post regular Michael Simmons who was the MC for the evening. Here’s another surprise: he was just fine.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Storyboards and stick-ups: an evening of dangerous curves

17 November 2007

Before I jump to Caroompas, Susan Silton (her Solway-Jones cannot be closing today – not while I’m still recuperating – not while my head feels this way), Barbara Zucker and Salvador Dalí – a note about last night. The evening was more or less evenly divided between events at Gemini G.E.L. and Dangerous Curve, each in very different ways oddly anti-climactic, each offering surprises, each smashingly successful. The Gemini event began on the early side of the evening – or did it? The guests of honor didn’t show until what was supposed to be (and at the very earliest) the last hour of the reception; and a number of quasi-celeb and art star invitees seemed to directly follow them over the next half-hour, so I have to wonder if there was some MOCA-sponsored (not sure why – but I know Stephanie Barron and Ann Philbin were there long before Jeremy Strick arrived with Dagny Corcoran) dinner or something beforehand. The show was a dual exhibition by that dynamic duo. . . . . that L.A. power-couple of fine art lithography and print editions. . . . . uh, not exactly. I was sort of prepared for the Ed Ruscha – I mean the new lithographs – because, if I’m not mistaken, Gemini already had one or two of these to take to Art Basel this summer. These were more in the same vein – a series Ruscha calls Cityscapes – a deliberately obtuse, sadistically ironic title; an abstraction; mordant yet opaque in its near transparency; an anti-map, an ‘anti-mask’, a cipher. ‘Meaning what?’ I had to wonder. The faint – as if delicately penciled in – inscriptions reinforced the ‘anti-map/anti-mask’ aspect – the implied violence carrying an urban ‘mean streets’ connotation. (E.g., “Stick Up” or “Listen If You Ever Tell,” or “If I Was You.” The actual inscription ‘clarifies’ the ‘context/content’; e.g., “LISTEN IF YOU EVER TELL, I’LL HURT YOUR MAMA REAL REAL BAD. THIS IS NO JOKE. I’M AFTER YOU STUPID PUNK.”) With one or two exceptions, these were mostly 3- and 4-color lithographs in grainy, earthen or heathery tones, with the imprint of what looked like sheer gauzy fabrics, or a digital output that might be a grassy surface, on paper or board, perforated in somewhat irregular rows or configurations by rectangular or squarish white spaces. It couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. They resembled nothing so much as storyboards with blank cards. So I suppose in a strictly L.A./Hollywood sense, these could be ‘cityscapes’ – the mean streets, the naked cities of police procedurals yet to be written, much less filmed or taped. Or ‘forget it better still’ – just like D.A. Fred Thompson, who seems to be recycling his old Law and Order lines into his stump speeches. Is it too much to ask, to dream, that within a few months, that gasbag will not only be off the campaign trail, but off the American political landscape and off of our airwaves for good? I’m not too concerned about the ‘cityscapes’ – as long as we can keep him out of New York and L.A., I’m happy – happiER.

Anyway, as much of a departure as these are from previous ‘word’ pieces, the Ruscha 5-card/10-card/etc.monte/storyboards were the dry, witty, elegant works one might have expected them to be. Who would’ve thunk that these might just be a teaser for the real graphic, textu/r-al – textile – drama yet to come? And who’d’ve thunk that drama might be coming from Ann Hamilton? Do I sound surprised? Mmmmm. . . . .well . . . just a bit. I would never exactly write off someone like Hamilton. But two points: until relatively recently, her most characteristic work has been both unusually (a) body/boundary-conscious and (b) installation-oriented; with, for the most part, the two characteristics inextricably bound up with each other. Oh yeah – one more thing: it didn’t always work. Now consider one or two other things: Hamilton has some background in textiles. Her B.F.A. was in textile arts. (I only noticed this recently.) Now, go back to the Ruscha's for just a split second and consider their tactile/textural aspect. (I know – I’m building this up into just another TEASE.)

As with previous events like this, Gemini had opened up its entire space, including press, engraving and work rooms. The bar/buffet tent began filling up relatively early, but, minus my companion Gemini, and not seeing any familiar faces, I began to meander aimlessly with a lovely glass of merlot through the back-rooms, sighting here a Ruscha, there a Baldessari, here a Nauman, there a Serra – and finally in a printing room just behind the front gallery, where I found myself facing an ethereal matrix (odd to juxtapose those two words) of blue, pooling, whorling, eddying, as if in tidal motion, subdivided into separately configured sections. Mounted against another wall was a simple, more or less A-line coat in ivory-white wool, with black piping. On the opposite wall, an exquisite work on paper that, to look at it from only a couple of feet away, registered as fabric – a silky gauze in a kind of puce-plum with blue, green and brown undertones (even after examining it closely, it registers in memory as fabric) – transparent, and similarly whorling and eddying across the surface, not unlike the multiple-sectioned print hanging only a few feet away. Then I saw a pair of long bronze ladle-like implements in a box (a sculptural edition I was already aware of) and put it together. But it was still later, as I was noshing on the fabulous tortes, terrines, and shrimp-gazpacho shooters, that I considered Hamilton’s original background in textiles, and for that matter, the relationship of this work to more explicitly body/boundary-conscious (and mostly installation) work.

An odd, lucky coincidence, I thought, that the Ruscha lithographs should present a similarly membranous aspect (which of course harmonized beautifully with the stocking/ski mask implications of a title like “Stick Up”). But much as I admired the almost sadistically sardonic Ruscha’s – their wit and elegance, I felt, at least for the evening, transported by the Hamiltons. They easily eclipsed almost everything in sight. At least on the first floor. (Yeah, I know – this is a non-stop TEASE.)

No, I’m not forgetting the Gehry lithos. Do I really have to say ANYTHING about those cocktail napkin scribblings? I’m sure they were perfectly charming – on those original cocktail napkins – but I still wouldn’t pay a price like that for them. Not even with the cocktail thrown in.

(Hang on with me just another moment, angels. MORE DANGEROUS CURVES COMING THIS WAY.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fette's Fête (a brief detour)

14 November 2007

I have to return to fette for just a minute – to mark the occasion of her gallery’s first anniversary, which was celebrated last night at Robert Berman’s gallery at Bergamot Station. If anyone wondered why she might throw such a party at the Berman space or a comparable site, the evening demonstrated exactly why it could be nowhere else. Had she thrown it at her own gallery, the crowd would have spilled out of the house and filled her entire Culver City block. Even as I left, sometime after 10 p.m., hordes continued to descend upon the gallery. The party magnified Fette’s talent for spotting and supporting talent, and for networking generally. Artists, curators, collectors, other dealers, journalists, media, friends and fans; artists and pals from France; from elsewhere in Europe; and artists and pals based here in L.A. and elsewhere on the American continent. It was as if there was no part of L.A. she had failed to reach; and with any luck, in a few years we may be saying that about the world.

This being fette’s night, I assumed we would be toasting her with Champagne – or at least some good French wine or, well – almost anything would do (maybe they could have broken out some Beaujolais Nouveau). Vodka might have sufficed – unsweetened and unaccompanied by concoctions manufactured by Starbucks, which concession was apparently allowed to sub for the bar. (Whose decision was that? I refuse to believe it was fette’s.) Between the hors d’oeuvres – which were not, but instead some confectionary nosh on the order of tiny dessert cakes or biscuits – and the libations (I use the word loosely), I thought I was headed for a diabetic coma. Fortunately there was also beer, which, in addition to saving fette’s fête, probably saved lives that evening.

Of course there had to be a show to accompany the libations, and Fette decided to apply her proven networking approach to curating it – offering her artists and collaborators the opportunity to select works from among their own friends and colleagues or to develop their own ideas for independent collaborations. Not a bad idea in theory – and certainly very democratic – potentially offering a glimpse (not least to fette herself) into the direction of future shows or her own artists’ development. Art, alas, is not a democracy; and the results here were far from even in quality or originality. A few artists (e.g., Erika Eyres) more or less punted on this, by simply exhibiting hitherto unexhibited work (unless, perhaps, her drawing was actually selected by another artist). It would have been interesting to know which artist or curator selected each piece exhibited; but I’m assuming Fette, Berman, et al. were too pressed for time to include this information.

Time was the keynote here. This was a show that was intended as both backdrop and forecast; but the forecast had already been made – reflected in the gallery’s shows and in fette’s ever-roving and ravenous eye – what ends up on le flog; and, so far, fette’s prospects are pretty bright.

It occurred to me that Nicolas Sarkozy, who professes to admire and emulate American values, could learn a thing or two from fette’s one-woman cultural embassy: specifically, that there is absolutely nothing immutable about such 'values'; that the most ‘American’ value of all may be to ignore or act in spite of one’s received notion of them, always reaching beyond the visible horizon line toward something not merely new, but unknown and untested. Sometimes you end up toppling right over the edge and into some dark sludge, but sometimes you find a new source of illumination.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Toxic Clouds and Molotov Cocktails: The Human Stain

9-10 November 2007

En route to Fette’s (this is the evening of the 2nd, remember), I thought about where Emin might take her “Tracey Emin” project next (besides the fairs, of course). She’s not ready to do a film yet (yes – I know she’s done one; it’s not something I would look at without a (well-compensated) assignment). Television? With the writers strike on, a reality show might be a good vehicle. (Could an audience be persuaded to bypass Nip/Tuck or Project Runway for her? Hard to say.) Or she might go back to her “Tracey Emin Museum.”

Having considered the “performative” aspect of Emin’s work (which seemed almost the only possible way to excuse it), it was interesting, chez fette, to be confronted with work whose performative aspect was similarly available and, in one instance (or more precisely several short instances), explicit. Of the two artists whose work was on view, Erika Eyres (Canadian, but now based in Glasgow), was perhaps the more ‘performative’ – but only slightly. Each artist’s work was presented under its own evocative title. Eyres’ matched the near-brutality of her drawings: ShutUp Shut Up Shut Up Shut Up. Her medium – not merely pen-and-ink, but specifically ball-point pen – emphasized their severity. They were not portraits so much as poses – more or less realistically treated, but with a specific exaggeration or distortion: shadowed eyes apparently sunken in a pillowy mass of white; lips and mouth bee-stung or stretched and compressed into a slash; bodies pushed hard against an absent wall or simply slanted – neither standing nor reclining – against a banquette; figures bled of their integrity – almost not figures at all. They might be taken from life (e.g., faces that looked like cosmetic surgery victims from Brentwood) or entirely imaginary. The sense of distortion was emphasized by the deliberately(?) irregular edges of the paper – nearly but not quite square or rectangular – appearing to have themselves been ‘slashed’ from larger leaves or a sketchbook.

The videos featured the artist herself in a variety of brightly colored synthetic wigs. In a few, she appeared to play more than one role. The effect, however, was not to set one character off against another, visually or otherwise, as a kind of foil, or to create an opposition or contrapuntal dynamic, but rather to repeat and compound the effect – the ‘message’ – which was virtually without content – the message entirely reduced to ‘massage’ (if a ‘stress position’ can be considered a massage – tears will be shed). Consider the source material: “info-mercials”; Jerry Springer-style emotional (and sometimes physical) head-butting/head-banging; Oprah-style harangues; personal injury lawsuit mills with their principal huckster-lawyers; etc. In short, a succession of disinformation-breeders. What is performed here is a kind of disinformation chain reaction. (Hence the title?)

While some of Erika Eyres’ drawings had the intensity of paintings, many of David Ostrowski’s paintings (oil on cotton or paper, those on cotton being somewhat larger) had the effect of pen and ink drawings – swiftly drawn out and brushed, sometimes boldly and sometimes tentatively, with larger patches of gray washed over portions of the panels not as a tonal modulation or contour shading, but a kind of stain. The subjects (inasmuch as they could be discerned), some taken apparently from photographic (and perhaps film) sources, appeared to gaze through a toxic cloud, or in other instances, were partially enshrouded or not-quite-blotted out by the ‘cloud’ or ‘stain.’ Studied closely, some of them looked like film stills. (Films of Tennessee Williams plays seem to figure disproportionately here – e.g., A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof; why? If Ostrowski weren’t German, I’d be tempted to call it a Caroompas influence (see next posting – or her show (at Western Project). Even through a toxic haze or blotted out behind a cloud, there was no mistaking the iconic figures of Stella with her weeping Stanley, or Maggie the Cat begging Brick for attention.) 1960s- and 1970s-vintage papparrazzi glamour shots appeared to be another source for imagery.

Ostrowski’s title for the show was How to Look At Homegrown Terror, which, not unlike Eyres’ title, seemed to invoke a dual irony. I’m not sure, as one friend of mine put it, this has as much to do with the way Americans see things “post-9/11”, as it does with the way Americans (and others no doubt), consciously or unconsciously, construct a world – or a world-view – calculated to evoke (and perhaps provoke) terror. On one hand, one is inclined to say to that terrified gaze – it’s only Death; and on the other, to inquire/admonish – why are you so eager to invite it in?

There is something in the air at the moment – perhaps not just in L.A., although quite visible here – preoccupied with this kind of imagery, (heavily) filtered through a kind of scrim of contemporary angst and anxiety – a kind of poisoned nostalgia. Some of the work I saw just the other night (the 9th) at the Hayworth Gallery – by an artist named Miller Updegraff – seemed to partake of this same sensibility. (I’ll come back to that show – which also featured two artists – in another posting.) It’s not lethal – but you know you won’t be ordering that cocktail for some time to come.

Later that same evening (the 2nd again), I went to the Smart Building (as it’s called) in Venice for the launch of the new Rojo number – but more on that in a bit (or I would simply refer the reader to the magazine). I’m anxious to jump ahead a bit. The following evening, as some may be aware, saw the much-anticipated opening of Carole Caroompas’s show at Western Project, which was overall pretty great – and in which needless to say I took great interest. (MORE TO COME)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Glamour shot: the vibrant city; the dying planet

6-9 November 2007 (cont'd.)

The night before I met a collector pal downtown for one of the Central Library’s events – an interview/conversation with the architectural photographer, Julius Shulman. It’s almost impossible to visualize most of the Case Study houses and the most famous of the Neutra and Schindler houses without thinking of Shulman’s photographs (though I don’t mind trying). Fortunately, the discussion (to the extent there was one) did not really focus on the iconic architecture and Case Study showcase houses so much as the urban and architectural evolution of the City of Los Angeles. I appreciated the absolute absence of nostalgia from Shulman’s perspective and reminiscences – as much as he clearly cherished some of his childhood reminiscences of a much smaller, self-contained Los Angeles, with the areas beyond its limits, however variably defined, far more easily characterized as rural or agricultural than suburban – it hardly deflected him from his sanguine view of the City as it now stands – sprawling yet far more dense, the downtown skyline now ‘filled in’ with high-rise buildings verging on skyscrapers with more to come, even as older office buildings are re-purposed for residential lofts, and its population density begins to exceed its 1930s levels, with development continuing apace all the way into the warehouse and light manufacturing areas on its flanks (something I’ve had the opportunity to personally observe on my last couple of trips to artists’ studios on the downtown periphery). Even as Wilshire Boulevard continues its unbroken march of high-rise buildings clear to the Pacific. Even as the Valleys Shulman himself once knew as orchards, ex-urban villages and small agricultural tracts have become sprawling suburban tracts annexed to the City or small cities in themselves. (It’s hard for me to conceive of the San Fernando Valley as a separately incorporated city, notwithstanding its proponents, for that very reason. Setting aside its chaotic pattern of development, its interminable sprawl, the S.F. Valley already seems to have organized itself (in the loosest sense) around a scatter of suburban ‘centers’; e.g., Van Nuys; Granada Hills, Northridge and Reseda (I call it the ‘Devonshire Division’ area – with the police precinct station and the CSUN campus as its anchors; the palm-ier suburbs of Sherman Oaks and Encino anchoring the Valley’s southern end – with Ventura Boulevard becoming a kind of Wilshire Blvd. North; etc. In other words, there are probably somewhere between four and six small “municipalities” here.)

Perhaps Shulman’s somewhat upbeat view of all this is to be expected. His photographs are “staged” no less.than some of these houses (many of them once conceived, democratically, as a kind of idealized ‘middle-class’ suburban housing) are now “staged” for sale – to a distinctly upper-class clientele. Many of his photographs glamourize the San Fernando Valley’s ‘carpet of lights’ no less than they glamourize the houses in the hills and canyons above it (and the lifestyle they represent). Consider the Case Study Houses, many of them perched in the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains, many of them designed with generous, sweeping views of either the Valley or the Los Angeles Basin. Shulman’s photography showed off those views. But beyond that, they encapsulate and glamourize a certain lifestyle: casual but leisurely; domiciled behind glass walls yet at some remove from one’s neighbors – high above or discreetly set apart; dramatically sited (and sometimes precariously perched), yet impeccably constructed, built to endure (I think especially of Pierre Koenig’s magnificent Case Study House 23). Or consider Shulman’s famous day-for-night photograph of Neutra’s house for the Kaufmans in Palm Springs – luxe, calme et volupté. Shulman’s photography enshrines a standard of sybaritic luxury that engendered a certain notion of the southern California “good life.” That this is a standard unattainable to most of the people who have flocked to the state in the succeeding years is one issue. The more troubling issue is that the consequences of these ‘advertisements for the good life’ have been far from happy.

The San Fernando Valley is a living advertisement for out-of-control development – with the land carved out into one suburban subdivision after another with no end in sight. How difficult is it to imagine the ecological catastrophe of the Amazon with that increasingly thick and shaggy carpet of lights at our feet? The Los Angeles basin could never have sustained the population and economy it had circa 1930-1950 without water conveyed from the Colorado River and, as it has evolved since, from points north. Arguably, L.A. required the density it has reached since the 1970s and 1980s to become what it is today – and perched, as we were that night, in that splendid auditorium, in that splendid library, surrounded by the splendor of that privileged quadrant of downtown L.A., who would wish it away? But how far can we expect it to continue? The problem is not simply Los Angeles; it’s state-wide. But I sometimes wonder if, like certain forest or brush-fires that are allowed to burn within limits until the fuel is consumed or a natural fire-break is reached, perhaps we should simply let particularly vulnerable residential areas go – by fire, flood, quake, etc. Certainly developers should be liable for the drain they impose on natural resources.

Should architects – and their photographers – be deterred from encouraging them? We (the entire planet) need a new standard – and maybe someone to glamourize it. I would never call Julius Shulman’s photography real estate or shelter porn (something I admit to having quite a yen for). But – I think of him drawing an elegant signature Wednesday evening across the skirt of the woman’s dress in his famous night-time photograph of Pierre Koenig’s dramatically cantilevered Case Study House 23 – imprinted on my friend’s tote bag – let’s face it and just enjoy it for what it is: it’s glamour photography.

I seem to be specializing in the side-track. Where was I? En route to Fette’s? Yes – but I haven’t even said anything about my dinner with M--. It was sublime. We were through with Shulman for the evening; but we managed to cover just about everything else – from art to the social and cultural zoo that is contemporary Los Angeles. The wine was from the Loire – we toasted Fette (hey – it’s her gallery’s first anniversary) – but the conversation was pure L.A. I might lament L.A.’s on-going development; but with no assist from Shulman whatsoever, it looked pretty wonderful Wednesday night.

Speaking of fette . . . . . (don’t worry, I’m almost there. . . . .)

Friday, November 9, 2007

Feux d'artifices: Argerich, Dutoit and the city aglow

6-9 November 2007

That’s the thing about L.A. One minute it can drive you (literally) to despair, and in the next to exaltation. I interrupt these notes (overall more times than I can count) to return a call to a pal in deep despondency. Goddess only knows I’ve been there. We toss Topic D back and forth a bit and discuss pharmaco-therapeutic strategies. Then I join him up on that razor’s edge for a minute – to talk us both back off of it – easier for me because I’m just coming down/coming back from an absolutely terrific high which he would have no problem relating to; but also because, at least within the practical workaday dimension, it’s within his grasp. (Translation: he’s the one with the book deal.)

I’m not sure if “the beauty” (as one of my psychologists once put it) is what keeps us going; but it sure doesn’t hurt. D—is never going to be too far away (especially given the abundance of external triggers – personal, political, etc.). But once in a while, the stars glitter a bit more brilliantly here in our cosmopolitan gutters. I’m still coming down from the exhilaration of this evening’s performance of the UBS Verbier Youth Orchestra at Disney Hall. A performance that began a bit anti-climactically yielded one climax right after another, each a bit bigger than the last. It would have been worth going to see and hear Martha Argerich alone. It was a bit stunning to see Argerich on this kind of bill to begin with – but maybe not. In the years since her recovery as she's returned to concertizing, she has become increasingly involved in mentoring youthful pianists and other musicians, sponsoring competitions and symposia and fostering music education for talented youth worldwide. It was just a bit less stunning to see Charles Dutoit as the conductor; but there was no getting around the fact that these were two high-wattage names committing their prestige to this enterprise (they’ve embarked on a world tour with this orchestra). Argerich has worked frequently with Dutoit over the years, and it was hard not to imagine something good coming out of this musical chemistry – even if it only involved the two of them. There was at least one other factor working in their favor. This was music they both knew in their bones – almost too well. Dutoit worked without a score the entire program.

And what a program: the Prokofiev Third piano concerto in C major for the first half and the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz for the second. Not exactly giving the kids (or anyone) something easy to warm up to. All virtuoso-level stuff – and you sensed the kids’ tentativeness at the start of each half. But that’s another thing (I didn’t know) about Dutoit. On top of being a great conductor and knowing the music as if he wrote it himself, he’s a great music coach. Working with a full orchestra right down to a full percussion section (for the Berlioz), he managed to rein them in and whip them up to peak performance. He was so physically engaged with each section of the orchestra, there were moments when I thought he was going to jump right off the podium and into one or section or another of the orchestra. The strings, being closest, really came in for a trouncing. It was a kind of deliverance framed as their worst nightmare. The audience had to stifle a sympathetic laugh or two as Dutoit all but hectored his cellists with his baton. But why bother about what it looked like? It worked.

Maybe they needed it. Maybe Argerich needed it just a bit. As tentative as the orchestra may have sounded as the violins picked up the clarinets’ sentinel in the first movement and began their ascending cascade, Argerich jumped right in – but maybe just a fraction off the beat – seemingly feet (or fists?) first – missing a few notes and actually hitting a couple of clinkers in the first movement’s opening staccato fusillade and wild tarantelle over the keyboard before somehow regaining her balance in those deliberated chord progressions and meshing back with the orchestra’s jagged rhythms now wonderfully articulated by the flutes and woodwinds. As Argerich began that oriental figure that descends down the keyboard to the recapitulation of the movement’s opening, I shared a sigh of relief with my companion. What briefly threatened to be a casually slapdash rendition would be nothing of the kind. Argerich was back to her sublime self with that enchanting reverie/rhapsody of the second movement – the conductor of her piano as she steered her way securely through the variations – as Dutoit’s orchestra followed with equal assurance. The third movement saw each through to that Elysian domain of the sweeping, haunting, almost Rach-like figure that closes fast upon the swirling staccato cycloid that drives the final movement to its fiery finish. No lighters or cellphones required – the audience was on fire and on its feet. Who expected an encore? This was love – but Argerich returned it in full – first with a Scarlatti sonata – dazzling; then with an improvised excerpt of the Schumann Kindersehnen. Pure poetry. There was nothing (musically) left to say, but the audience kept her returning for one curtain call after another until the lights came up.

The Symphonie began just a bit slowly (but then, it’s supposed to be a ‘dream’, right?); but the kids were warmed up by now and Dutoit kept them exactly where he needed them. It soared, swept, (slept?), and scared (just a little) – in all the right places. The Walpurgisnacht movement left everyone as fired up as we were after the Prokofiev; and the Orchestra rewarded itself and us with an encore they had clearly planned with some savor – the Ravel Rhapsodie Espagnole, which fireworks they set off as easily as Argerich rolled out her Scarlatti and Schumann.

They left us breathing (panting, gasping). I’m kidding – and I’m not. I realize I’m getting a bit side-tracked here. It’s such a cliché, but there’s no denying it. There are things that change the way you look at the world. And the last couple of nights have been nothing short of that. Last night, it was simply dinner with a friend (following, I might add, a “conversation” – an L.A. Public Library event – with the architectural photographer, Julius Shulman – but in this instance, the architecture/photography conversation took a back seat to our own). Tonight (which eases into this morning), it was Argerich, Dutoit, and the UBS Verbier Orchestra. The champagne (a single glass – I swear) doesn’t hurt; but L.A., chilly and fog-enshrouded, for a few minutes seemed the most beautiful and luminous city in the world.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

I'll Leave You Breathing.

4 November 2007

The reader who routinely checks this space might be forgiven for wondering what awol does when awol is not looking at art (or movies or theatre or dance; or listening to live music); or driving to or from it; or reading or writing – or blogging about it – since she hasn’t been doing as much of it as might reasonably be expected – in short, when awol is not exactly awol. By now everyone has some idea about what happens for me between 9 and 5 (or is it 9 and 9?) on most Mondays through Thursdays. But after 9? And after that? Round midnight?? It might not be midnight. It might just be darkness at noon – could be earlier, could be later. It might just as easily be over lunch as over dinner or a nightcap. It’s what we might call the haunting – as distinguished from the obsession. Of course there are obsessions – the most ordinary thing in the world – and therefore not worthy of comment. There are the concerns, the preoccupations public and private. We can admit the obvious ones: the body personal and politic; the private finance, the public exchequer; personal liberty, civic space; the zeitgeist, the civilization; the biosphere, the planet (I’m not sure where humanity fits into that scheme – all we can be sure of is that there’s too damned much of it – by somewhere between 2 and 3 billion units).

The haunting is something that takes place in three- and sometimes four-dimensional space – oscillating between the physical and the psychological, between the sensory and the purely cerebral, between historical time and the infinite now of consciousness. (Yes, maybe it is something of a Twilight Zone.) I could start by telling you where I’ve been the last couple of nights – but it’s not necessarily the most important thing. (As I was looking this over, I was interrupted by a telephone call from an art world friend who unluckily touched on this very point. I couldn’t offer him the assurance I think he was looking for – i.e., that these were important things, at least for artists or the serious art audience.)

So I’ll start with where I was the last couple of nights. Speaking of obsessions. Speaking of the most ordinary thing in the world. I was actually looking forward to the Tracey Emin show at Gagosian. She represented the UK of course at the Venice Biennale – but I hadn’t seen much coverage of it, aside from some rather pallid watercolors and monoprints; and so I really hadn’t seen new work by her in some time. Suffice it to say that I have mixed feelings about the notion of “confessional” art – and I really think her ‘breakthrough’ work (“The Bed”; the famous Tent that burned along with a number of other Saatchi works in London) went somewhere conceptually well beyond that pejorative. At one point in her career, she reportedly cited Munch as an influence; and one had the sense, not that she was emulating Munch, his particular line or style, or halting, bottled-up but explosive expressionism, but that she was exorcising the Munch of the mundane, the self-evidently abased.

The monoprint is an ideal vehicle for Emin’s project which, as far as I can tell, seems to be in the largest sense “The Tracey Emin Story” (exactly like that, quotes, caps and all). In other words, the cursory, smudged sketch set off again at one remove – the graphic equivalent of a quotation mark; the enigmatic/emblematic gesture reduced to a cipher. There’s little point, however, in any kind of analytic appraisal of the individual pieces or even an overall assessment of this particular show. Emin’s draughtsmanship has never been exactly anything to write home (or YOU, Reader) about; but that’s hardly her point (or maybe it is a point – but I doubt it). But the prints, drawings, embroidered pieces and paintings (there were also standing sculptures and works in neon, including the title piece, You Left Me Breathing) couldn’t carry the feather-weight of their titles. Emin overworked one title for both two- and three-dimensional work – “Trying to Find You” – and maybe it would have been a more appropriate title for the show. With Emin apparently unable to find “Emin,” in a variety of media and treatments, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the crowd at Gagosian wasn’t terribly interested in even bothering to look. An oppressively bourgeois-looking crowd saw no reason to interrupt their pre-strike deal-making (or just posturing) with art-viewing; and having looked it over myself with some thorouhgness, it seemed pointless to try persuading anyone to do otherwise. Looking at some of the embroideries and monoprints, I suddenly felt a spasm of nostalgia for . . . . Feiffer. As in Jules Feiffer – his electric, agile, choreo-graphic narratives of neuraesthenic, neur-athletic pondering, posturing, negotiating, temporizing, expostulating, exasperating, coping and convulsing through thousands of cartoon panels over the years. Sex, exploitation, disappointment, disillusionment – were just four of the hundreds of themes, moods, controversies, conditions he explored over the course of a career that is far from over – with breathtaking, precision and lethal wit.

I have to reconsider Emin’s work – perhaps in its totality. I’m not being fair to the work right now. But there really isn’t a lot here for me to work with. You Left Me Breathing didn’t leave me laughing, thinking, gagging, or …. (Well I guess I’m still alive.) It didn’t leave me because it never arrived. Needless to say I got tired of waiting and soon left – for Fette’s Gallery (more on that in a minute) – but not before finally spotting Emin in the crowd – with someone who looked vaguely like Orlando Bloom. They blended in well with the Gagosian crowd.