There’s something about Los Angeles that makes people constantly wrestle with what it means and never tire of describing how life is lived here. No other place, not even Paris or New York, has sponsored such a compendium of self-reflexive art and literature, almost all somehow both obsessive and ambivalent at the same time. L.A. is the kind of place where people who’ve never been here have more passion and frequently more insight about its nature than natives, which is to say, Hollywood especially, is such an aspirational, archetypal place, that there’s almost more cultural currency in projection and fantasy than in a direct yet diffuse experience of it.
L.A. possesses great natural beauty, egregious urban design, racial and economic inequality on an operatic scale, high-profile social progressivism, an industrialized science realm, and the twin-engine rush of celebrity worship and intensely casual spirit-balm self-care. Its nifty quality of light is legendary, its emblematic palm trees are non-native, its water supply is stolen, “Chinatown” was a documentary, and the people that live in Los Angeles think about Los Angeles all the time. Its cultural standard bearers and the ancestors they claim form a lineage of insider/outsiders, or perhaps it’s outsider/insiders, a cyclical and inter-generational situation with visual artists working across all mediums, whose investigations are never-ending, irresolvable, ongoing, historically engaged, and wide awake to the present moment.
For culture critic, art writer, and curator Michael Slenske (himself a recent transplant to the city, flush with curious enthusiasm in both his personal life and profession), the opportunity to occupy a space with an ersatz gallery program presented the ideal occasion to unpack all of these omnivorous and omnipresent ideas through the lens he knows best — visual art. The resulting show, Greater Than L.A., inaugurates a short-term-ish run of shows and projects in a second floor courtyard space on Beverly, by taking this plurality of related topics head-on. When it comes to physical L.A. itself, it’s not, as has famously been said, that there’s no there, there; it’s that there are too many theres there to know which there to start with.
Similarly, the exhibition is easy to experience as a whole before taking it piece by piece; the space being intimate, the work being mostly small to mid-scale, and the installation feeling quite breezy for such a well-stocked salon. As with the city, it’s best to just dive in and figure it out as you go. Sometimes getting lost can be the best way of learning. But prose and arguably time are linear, so one must begin somewhere. If there’s one place to start that’s just slightly more perfect than the rest, it’s got to be the absolutely beguiling and surprising 1968 photograph “Alpha Wave,” by Larry Bell. All roads, no pun intended, lead to and from it along an axial continuum of concept, subject, content, and action.
“Alpha Wave” is a strange image. As one reads in the accompanying catalog — a unique compendium of first-person narratives from the artists themselves — it resulted from a series of happy accidents and deliberate obfuscations of agency which Bell undertook in the late 1960s. Essentially rigging up an analog GoPro prototype, Bell created a series of still photographs which captured both the landscape around him, and in its randomness and distortions, the artist’s movement through the world. In so many ways, it kicks off a multivalent series of juxtapositions and recurring conceptual, compositional, and material motifs with a taste for local historical figures and episodes, all always tethered to the city’s ephemerality.
Eve Fowler’s softly evocative portrait of her companion driving a car through the city on a momentous particular day, with its melancholy solar flare and soft-focus pavement, manages to convey its absolutely Angeleno place and spirit with precision yet with but a modicum of specific information. The same is true of the crispy pastel schematic, wafer-like architecture of a painting by Jake Longstreth; there’s nothing to point to for proof of its assertively regional quality. Gajin Fujita’s stenciled negative-space cityscape compressions speak to ghosts of aspiration and cultural access, while narratively festooned ceramic vessels by both Jennifer Rochlin and Ben Wolf Noam conflate the tactile tumult of the wild spaces and cemented sprawls of our civic map, full of rich vibrato detail and a post-folkloric texture. These works and others nearby, they could not be more different to look at — so then by what operations are they all so very actually undeniably L.A.? That’s the sort of question that comes up a lot in this show.
Henry Vincent’s interference-paint technique depicts architecture in a painting that changes as you move and/or the ambient light changes, serving to highlight both the qualities of his style as well as to embody the famous atmospherics of the place, anchored as is only proper by the silhouette of a healthy palm tree. Natalie Arnoldi’s planes in fog against the dark horizon of the sea, and the surfer who emerges from a frothy sea of brustrokes by Hans Weigand — these paintings also change dramatically and deliberately with angle and motion, again echoing this dynamic of both embodying and depicting L.A. phenomenology.
Seffa Klein’s color-bricks arranged in awkward but structurally sound gridded clusters activate marginal spaces in the room with moments of absorbing color tones, in a way that doesn’t look like the city or anything but itself really, and yet in the context of this exhibition encourage an allegorical reading for ways in which we build and use the spaces of this city. Zane Lewis disrupts his own saturated color fields with chromatically shifting glass shards the threaten injury in the place of brushstrokes, made of shattered architectural elements that make me think about Light and Space and also earthquakes. Kelly Lamb’s bevelled triangle mirror hangs on the ceiling, where it is decracinated from an apparent function of vanity and reconstituted as a synecdoche more referential to the object’s origin story as a meditation device before existing as an element of design and finally a conceptually rich fine art installation. It is possibly the most “L.A.” thing ever.
Except for maybe Ry Rocklen’s sculptural encasing of a touristy “I Heart LA” t-shirt, complete with its “Made in Mexico” size tag. That’s pretty L.A. Except too for Robert Yarber’s ultra-neon neo-archetype post-modern post-80s turbo-painted vision of The Hills. And also John Knuth’s mylar-blanket mountain ranges collaged with homeless signs he purchased from their makers. That’s exceptionally L.A. Oh and Awol Erizku’s floor sculpture with its potted hybrid succulent and purloined road sign, Alex Becerra’s urban car-window video documentations, Lauren Halsey’s hand-carved hieroglyphics of the ‘hood, Genevieve Gaignard’s self-portrait in the spirit of a neighborhood woman posing before a pastiche mural of figures from African-American history. David Quadrini’s oil-sketch homage to a bygone generation of L.A.’s early counterculture icons, hanging out in their favorite donut place. It’s not Randy’s, it’s a different one, but Randy’s makes an appearance elsewhere in the show. Because in Los Angeles that’s a thing.
These are but a few of the prominent moments of recognition and insight, as well as material and storytelling panache that unfold in this sharp-edged touchstone of a show. Also take time to read through the rather brilliant accompanying catalog with works of all the artists augmented by their personal narrations. Featuring first-person accounts by Natalie Arnoldi, Alex Becerra, Larry Bell, Awol Erizku, Gajin Fujita, Genevieve Gaignard, Lauren Halsey, Seffa Klein, John Knuth, Kelly Lamb, Jake Longstreth, Rachel Mason, Ben Wolf Noam, Steven Perilloux, David Quadrini, Jennifer Rochlin, Ry Rocklen, Matthew Rolston, Grant Shumate, Henry Vincent, Han Weigand, Andy Woll, Robert Yarber.
All images courtesy of the artists and Desert Center | Los Angeles.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly and a contributor to numerous publications, including Riot Material. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange.