3-4 May 2008
There were three (maybe four, if you count Gagosian) big events this evening; and I only made it to two. I just missed the RAID Projects “Swap Meet” opening – the last show for an independent space that has really earned its street cred and then some – which might be the show I really wanted to go to the most; and I also skipped out on the Incognito benefit for the Santa Monica Museum which is usually so much fun – such a great place to see my favorite artist buddies, who are as busy as I am and so – rarely to be seen out except at events like these. I just couldn’t muster the energy (physical or petrochemical) to get out there; and besides it’s too much of a temptation. (I have an art habit; and unlike Nancy Reagan, I can’t say – and won’t bully myself into saying – no.) My first stop was the Murakami show, Davy Jones’ Tear, at Blum & Poe, which I thought had to be overkill after the LA MOCA and Brooklyn Museum circus; but was actually interesting enough to renew my fascination with Murakami.
I didn’t quite understand the “Davy Jones” reference – having missed Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest, the Disney/Bruckheimer extravaganza featuring Johnny Depp. From where I stood, it seemed that Murakami was both reaching back and picking up where he left off – specifically with the Daruma portraits that were a kind of elegiac pendant to the ebulliently ‘bright, guilty world’ of the (other) extravaganza that was (and is) the Murakami retrospective. When I was writing last fall about the dark undercurrents, commercial, political and otherwise, that linked such a surrealist sui generis as Dalí with someone like Murakami, I was struck by certain less-than-fully-acknowledged post-war and mid-century Japanese influences on Murakami, such as that echt disaster film-maker, Inoshiro Honda. Now, moving from the transmogrified classicism of these Daruma fantasies to the ‘landscapes’ and abstractions in the next gallery, it occurred to me that not only was Murakami expanding further on his own playfully abstracted extrapolation of Edo screen painting traditions and the Nihonga hybrid painting of his earliest academic excursions, but also moving forward through the last century’s mad clash of formal and pop cultural influences -- from varying degrees of abstraction and expressionism, from ab-ex drip painting to the pastiched graphic half-tones of Pop, to intensely saturated primary and secondary hues, to quasi-calligraphic eruptions and various quasi-historical or cultural references (e.g., Murakami roundels that morph into ttraditional Japanese stylized chrysanthemums), to the psychedelic hues and graphics of late-1960s commercial art (cf., Kubrick 2001 Star Child poster, referenced in the posting just below.)
The unanswered question here is just what is being represented or expressed. After the elegance and flashiness (yes, they coexist here) of the show, the B&P press release is informative but doesn’t help me draw any conclusion. The coupling of abstracted ‘landscape’ or ‘seascape’ or waves (or an abstracted hybrid pictorial formula whose ambiguity is underscored by the artist’s and staff’s obscure intentions) and ‘keyholes,’ surface ‘eruptions,’ dripped paint that seems to enter from another world, the surface play of traditional Japanese elements – all of it seems intended to juxtapose two actualities, each ambiguously exterior and interior: the ‘natural’ world (however defined or stylized), and an interior, ‘denatured’ or abstracted world – the world evoked by the Daruma paintings (or alternatively, the Inochi character and objects, the robot/replicant boy seen in the retrospective). But that may be part of the point: to stretch the 2001 analogy (since I seem to have it at hand), it’s that keyhole or black hole into another, possibly parallel universe (consider the Keir Dullea character’s (Bowman) re-birth in an antiseptic Alberti space), replete with the cultural and historical emblems of the other seeping, wafting through it; or alternatively, one universe afloat atop another. In the meantime, does the Daruma Zen icon simply answer the open-ended ‘Why?’ of the Mr. DOB trademark? A kind of ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’ for the 21st century? Or simply emblematic of a permanent oscillation between stasis or inertia and historical cycles – watchsprings in a perpetual motion machine? But there’s almost too much going on here – from the lushness of the jewel-like saturated colors, to the clash of surface incident, to the flash and polish of the silver and gold screen backgrounds. Murakami may be looking for the way out of one misconceived/misbegotten universe, but you feel lost in its dazzle before you find your way into the next one.
What did I just mean by that? That whatever ‘parallel’ universe we conceive freshly is bound to be as mathematically/aesthetically warped, inaccurate, messed up as the one we’re swirling around in? Gee – something else to think about as I take (took) in the very here/now (well, (t)here/then) universe of Gregory Crewdson’s show at Gagosian. As in so many Crewdson productions, it’s the magic hour settling over a quiet suburban setting – this one a Midwestern-looking community, by turns winter-bound and spring-thawed, of wood-frame gabled and saltbox houses, some opened or partially opened up to reveal a private moment of nascent or inchoate drama. I want to say, Crewdson is about the ‘magic hour visible’ – analogous obviously to the Miltonic ‘darkness visible.’ Whether the ‘magic hour’ (sunrise or sunset – or some simulation of it), or the glowing jewel-like twilight of so many of his other photographs (a kind of ‘sapphire hour’), there’s something anti-nostalgic about Crewdson’s superficially ‘nostalgia’ imbued pictorials (and similarly, an ‘anti-mystery’ about his ‘mystery’ shots) – the kind of hell Cheever mapped so masterfully in his novels and stories. These are Sartrean suburbs – imagine Huis Clos set on the Wisteria Lane of ABC’s Desperate Housewives.
Yes, I liked the show – more than I thought I would – but so what? I was getting – not bored, but a little anxious, distracted; feeling crowded and unmoved (it’s a Gagosian opening, remember?) at the same time – when I ran into artist/curator Kristin Calabrese in the company of bright young thing Josh Aster. We chatted a bit about the last UCLA MFA show (which, after all is where I first encountered Aster’s work), which we’d both seen a couple days ago, and caught up with each other’s news. I’ve been a bit of a fan of Calabrese’s for a few years, and even more of a fan since a couple of shows she’s curated (both at Angstrom and Honor Fraser – long before they became next door neighbors) which both seemed very much on-the-pulse and brilliantly sweeping and perceptive surveys of their aesthetic and intellectual terrain. Anyway – so we’re wandering around in the upstairs gallery – and Kristin mentions she has a show coming up – which is exciting right there; and well, maybe Sarah Watson still has one of the new paintings in her office and … well, I saw it. I felt blown away by, let’s call it a Guston-gust, when I saw it. (In other words the kind of feeling I had when I first saw Guston’s works in the 1970s.) Speaking of Sartre – let’s just say, Crewdson suddenly felt like Sartre-lite compared to this very real presence. And there was another. We went back downstairs to the backroom and there it was – unobtrusively unforgettable. I’m not going to give it away; you’re just going to have to wait and see it. Let’s just say it’s Andrea Mantegna meets Charley Ray meets John McCracken. Those two paintings eclipsed everything else (including the dazzle of Murakami) that evening; I could have gone home right then and there and just spun a little Haydn on the speakers. I’ve always thought Calabrese was an artist and thinker of considerable scope, but it occurred to me I was only just beginning to take the measure of her range – which is amazing.