When I wrote my last Los Angeles round-up, I was suffering from a syndrome common to recent immigrants to this vast burg; the impulse to bitch. "If the founders of Rome were succored by a she-wolf, then L.A.s children are scrabbling at the teat of an incontinent, corpulent coyote with cataracts." And so on...
This time, I want to try to be a little more generous about my host city, for example, how about extolling the virtues of its (literally) free press? The L.A. Weekly is one of the better things that happens in this town: every week, free, halfway decent writing about arts and politics and more gig-n-gallery listings and ads for plastic surgery than I know what to do with. Once a year they publish a Best of L.A. issue in which endless contributors pontificate on the citys best watering holes, markets, eateries and so on. Last years Best Of issue was a veritable yoga fest, oozing with "my guru is more enlightened than your guru" new age one-upmanship. This year, its middle-class as all hell. Every writer seems to be a parent, and its all about parks and gardens. Even the bad boy of performance art, Ron Athey, writes about his rosebushes.
The editor of this issue, Robert Lloyd, writes that the Best of L.A. "was made in its modest way to snatch the city back from the sour satirists, the merchants of noir, the pulp-fictional fabulists who represent Los Angeles to the world as a capital of desperate living and broken dreams." Well, I guess I have to plead guilty to the above for my last round-up. But hell, I was unemployed, carless, and living in a shoebox. Subsequent to its publication, I got a snazz Internet job, and, although I remained carless, I started carpooling everywhere with a snazz workmate, and I even moved out of the shoebox. Then I lost the job in a typical dot.bomb downsizing scenario, and then the Trade Towers collapsed, but even before then, apparently, the US job market was down by a whole third, the worst its been in 15 years. So now Im unemployed again (unless "part time gallery bitch" rates as employed) and Im still carless. So, dont come looking to me for a rosy view of L.A., Mr. Lloyd, just give me a job. I can write about petunias with the best of them (actually, no one got into the merits of the fabulous Silk Floss Tree, which I intend to extol the hell out of the minute I get the column inches).
One person who maintains a perpetually rosy view of this city is the painter David Korty, China Art Objects Galleries wunderkinder (dont listen to me, I work there). Kortys landscapes are charmingly Boy Scout ingenuous, even Telecom Art Award, phone-book cover-friendly, but he knows the light and lines of this city like no one else, and even manages to make smog look sexy. Now theres not a single sky-line of this city that I can take in without thinking about his proto-Sam Francis splotchy beauties. Funnily enough, the Best of L.A. had one writer ask rhetorically of the local light and smog, "Where are the painters, the real artists, to show us this stuff?" If they had any clue at the Weekly, they would have given the cover of the Best of to Korty, instead of some 80s throwback cartoon -not to mention the frightful photography peppered throughout.
Enough "sour satire", and on with my genuinely earnest quest for art with something to say other than "buy me". After 9-11, I had a sudden jones for the posters of Robbie Conal, whose self-described mission "to make ugly white men look even uglier" has involved a couple of decades of posters of Regan with bubbleskin and Jesse Helms looking, well, like he needs a blowjob (Conals own words). Conals appropriately gross renditions of Bush and Gore were plastered all over my hood pre-election. Post 9-11, I expected to see something - anything, to take the saccharine edge off the flag waving mania that swept the country. On every corner, you will find some Mexican guy that cant speak any English except "Two for five", holding a bouquet of flags like the camouflage theyre meant to be. God Bless America (Dont Hassle Me Cause Im Brown). And so on.
Actually, I wanted to make my own Conal-esque poster, of Osama Bin Laden, with "MADE IN THE USA" stamped across his rather fetching visage. Better than the "Wanted Dead or Alive" t-shirts of Bin Laden, also being sold by Mexican immigrants on street corners. But I didnt know where to start - printing, pasting - all those things Ive never done before, least of all here. Visions of being busted by the LAPD, or worse, some mega-patriotic thugs held me back (I actually DID hear someone say, "Lets nuke the ragheads!"). Before I knew it, I was a victim of my own ambivalence, encore.
So when I heard Robbie Conal was to be giving a talk with Carol Wells, founder of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, and Chaz Bojorquez, graff artist extraordinaire at Cal State University, I was, as they say in the local parlance, "stoked". Wells spoke eloquently on the fact that art had been depoliticised since the McCarthy era, and showed a clutch of posters critiquing the American flag - a series of images she was banned from showing on public television just weeks after 9-11. So much for freedom of speech.
When Robbie Conal took the stage he really went to town. The last time I had seen him, at the ill-fated Track 16 discussion involving Daniel J Martinez and other incendiary folk (see my last round-up), Conal had remained quiet, his background grimaces mimicking the overwrought facial torsions of his posters. At Cal State, he seemed overjoyed to have a young and malleable crowd to play with, and proceeded to charge around the room, gesticulating and harassing audience members. Conal loves preaching to the unconverted, hence his unabashedly lowest-common-denominator approach. Viewing his works in chronological order, I really started to appreciate what the man has done for issues visibility in Southern California over the years. But when the option came to buy a signed poster for $5, I just couldnt bring myself to. Those guys are just TOO ugly!
Chaz Bojorquez, a graffiti artist since the early 70s, showed work that was far from ugly. His personal tag is familiar - a skeleton in a pimps hat and coat called "Senor Suerte" (Mr. Luck) - a stencil that was appropriated by the Latino gang "Los Avenues". Bojorquez says over a thousand men have been tattooed with his tag, and many of them, on release from prison, make the pilgrimage to Bojorquezs house to show him their ink.
Bojorquez was refreshing in his shameless love of tagging, showing a slide of a tagged house in East LA and proclaiming it "gorgeous!" He compared tagging roll calls to petitions - registrations of dissent. For his writing brothers and sisters "Cali" isnt just the state they live in, its calligraphy as a way of life. He talked about the projects hed been involved in with gangs and street art - some of these works looked like amazing metallic mandalas - even hinting at the intricacies of Islamic calligraphy.
Bojorquez told a story of how a Tibetan Buddhist monk was asked to keep a bunch of gangsters busy by creating a sand mandala (and apparently that summer was more peaceful than any before or since). When the mandala was finished, there was un poquito media hoo-ha with some minor Hollywood Stars - Edward James Olmos (remember him? The origami guy from Bladerunner and recurrent celeb at every Latino event) and LeVar Burton (Geordie La Forge in Star Trek), helped the gangsters dump the mandala, as is customary, in the nearest water source, which in this case happened to be the sluggish green L.A. "river". The thought of this motley crew and their mandala really made me giggle. Sometimes you have to love L.A. for being so gloriously dysfunctional.
Hardly dysfunctional, and born on the East Coast at the Studio Museum, Harlem, was Freestyle, which wound up at the Santa Monica Museum in the bunker-like Bergamot Station. The premise was simply: new art by young artists who happen to be black. Curated by Thelma Golden, who posits the term "Post-Black" to describe the show, its an interesting mix of the political and the thoroughly a-political.
The stand-out pieces for me were all videos. Rico Gatsons Jungle Jungle fed footage from the original King Kong (which contains all kinds of black-face, nose-bone, tribal-drum tomfoolery) through a kaleidoscope. The effect is like a moving, morphing Tapa cloth, a kind of ethnographic psychedelia that becomes all the more palatable and fascinating for being cut up and rearranged. Susan Smith-Pinelo steals the show with her bouncing cleavage - literally, her ample bazoongas do the do to the soundtrack of Michael Jacksons Working Day and Night, while her necklace, which spells out "Ghetto", wiggles slyly in unison. The title of the work is Sometimes. Dave McKenzies Edward and Me is a performance in a non-descript public space. The artist seems to be tap-dancing, then collapses, gets up, spazzes, and collapses again. Its a conflation of the history of black man as entertainer, along with the spectre of black man as whipped slave, driveby victim, and homeless madman. Goofy, with a little bit of voodoo liminality, and a lot of frustration, thrown in.
Freestyle hosted a panel discussion chaired by the luminary father-son duo Charles Gaines and Malik Gaines, featuring numerous others, who all said that "Post-Black" was irrelevant and then spent two hours arguing about it anyway. Gaines Jr., surprisingly enough, used his 15 minutes to talk about the political apathy of the art world and the L.A. mayoral race, in which progressive Latino candidate Antonio Villaraigosa (try saying that out loud, go on, try it!) was pipped to the post by one of Robbie Conals "ugly white men". And apparently the Afro-American vote went to the ugly white man over the sexy young Latino man, which piqued Gaines Jr. no end. And me too. Although of course, I wasnt eligible to vote, and neither are a large portion of the Latino residents of this city.
Tragic End Note: it turns out most of the money for Freestyle was put up by Philip Morris, a tobacco company. And we all know about the statistics of tobacco related deaths and minorities. But this is America, the same country that thinks dropping food packages amongst land mines is a good idea.
Speaking of land mines, I know that ethically I shouldnt be touting the artists of the galleries that happen to pay my rent. But what the hell, this artist really touched me (in an ethical way, of course). Ehren Tool is an ex-US Marine who fought in the Gulf War and then wound up taking ceramics at the University of Southern California (he now teaches there). Tool has turned his traumatic experiences of war into the central theme of his work - everything from land mines to war toys gets recreated in his medium of choice: clay. In Letter from the President, at the Lord Mori Gallery, Tool displayed letters that he had sent to heads of government departments, along with the gift of a hand-made ceramic bowl. Each vessel was embossed with militaristic designs (toy soldiers, medals, etc). For the opening, Tool fashioned 650 of these beauties, and gave every single one away for free. Punters filled their cups with liquor provided by Tools lovely sister, and drunk themselves silly.
Tool conceived of this show before 9-11 precisely because no-one was talking about war anymore. Everyone was complacent and happily ignorant of the fact that, while they could still feed their gas-guzzling SUV the oil it so richly deserved, Iraqi children died of starvation due to US sanctions. Increasingly unsure of why he fought in the war, and uneasy about the outcomes of the war, Tool wanted to ask the people in power, and the man on the street, to cogitate deeply on the issues at hand, rather than just issue orders or watch explosions on a TV screen with the abstract fervour of a video game. Tool wanted dialogue, and so he started his mammoth mail-out campaign, making generosity the cornerstone of his practice.
All the heads of State he contacted replied. Madeleine Albright even sent Tool a saucy portrait of herself (none of the men did this, I wonder why not?) Though Tool could hardly be said to be anti-war (a giant of a man, he prides himself on his combat wardrobe). But neither could he be said to be pro-war. His most patriotism-deflating tactic, is to point warmongers in the direction of the nearest recruiting office. There usually follows a rather humble silence. Nobody really wants to fight. Even big guys in camo would rather drink beer and make pots. If only all ex-Marines were like this, what a country this would be!
Tessa Laird is a Los Angeles Housewife and part-time gallery bitch.