Beau Monde: Looking forward by looking back
Sometime between the morning of November 9th and the current holiday season, there was an interruption in the more or less weekly postings in this space. It’s not like it’s never happened before. I do drop out of sight now and again; and there are those intervals when I’m between destinations (or already there) and the wi-fi connections seem to vanish in some cloud that isn’t The Cloud. Except that AWOL wasn’t really AWOL, in the usual sense. Sometime between the 9th and the 10th, AWOL had gone into a kind of shock. It was sort of like waking up after a black-out drunk episode and slowly reconstructing the events of the previous evening and figuring out what might have happened in the ‘blacked-out’ bits; going over the narrative meticulously, only to arrive at a climax and ending that simply could not have happened. I think this might have happened three or four times in the first 24 hours, usually punctuated by severe nausea. (Hey that can happen after a black-out drunk night.) Over the succeeding month or so, I went through any number of days that began in anxiety, fear and anger (never a great way to start the day), periodically interrupted by ‘bubbles’ of denial from which I would emerge into a slightly dotty déja vu state – ‘oh, right…. It’s the same fright show it was two hours ago, right.’ Except of course it wasn’t – because with each fresh announcement, appointment, tweet from the Perp-Elect or his designated henchman or hench-wench, it seemed to just get scarier. And so it goes – as Linda Ellerbee once used to say.
I’m operating less in a ‘bubble’ and more of a ‘back-burner’ mode lately – the truly insane reality is always in the background (and on the front pages); but I’m trying to limit my focus on it to those morning and (usually) late afternoon moments with the newspapers and/or on-line and radio news. In the meantime, we have to try to get on with our lives; re-think, reformulate, mobilize, strategize and resist, resist, resist the drift towards ‘normalization’ which inevitably finds its way to front pages and broadcast news. And a lot can happen in 20 days.
For the moment, I’m going to go back to where I was in those 48 or 72 hours before November 8th. I was looking back then, too – though as a way to gauge how we might move forward – not necessarily with the hopeful, almost optimistic spirit I found so striking in the watershed moment I was taking stock of in those pre-election days, but with a view to how we might reframe and refocus conversations – not only about art, but about the culture, the disruptions and displacements wrought by new technologies, transformed economies and commercial models, and the tattered political ethos that seemed further challenged by social and economic inequities, institutional incapacity and environmental degradation. The anxieties remain the same; but also, I think, a slender hope. I’ll try to pick up where I left off when I come to that singular ‘moment,’ when I was just finding my way into the L.A. art world (and out of town at that)….
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As the country goes to the polls and Artillery prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary (would it be too presumptuous to claim to be some part of the ‘Obama legacy’ that needs to be sustained into the next Presidential administration?), it’s hard to resist a long and slightly wistful look back – conscious of the still larger shadow of history looming over one’s limited generational perspective. It’s impossible, almost inconceivable to take stock of everything that has led to this point both politically and culturally; almost impossible to point to any single factor that shifted the direction of our thinking and broader perspective. It’s harder still to reconcile that perspective with a significant part of the culture that seems to stand on the other side of a distorted two-way mirror; and difficult to ignore the aspects of our political and cultural reality that have led us to what cannot be called anything but a very bitter divide, if not the precipice of a neo-fascist political order. I’m too exhausted to be really angry; and beyond casting my vote and encouraging others to do the same, hesitant to commit to a political movement other than saving the planetary biosphere – the foundation of everything we have.
Artists will probably go on making manifestos for as long as they make art, but it’s impossible not to distrust almost any purported avant-garde manifesto on its face. The notion of an ‘avant-garde’ seems itself almost meaningless in a time when the art being made seems to reach in every conceivable direction, including the overlooked past; and spatial, temporal and imaginary dimensions unique to the individual artist. My favorite of the most recent crop is probably Grayson Perry’s 2014 Red Alan’s – ‘Red Alan’ being the ceramic sculpture of his own childhood teddy bear, ‘Alan Measles.’ (Makes sense to me – but then visitors to my bed would encounter not only my teddy, but a plush chocolate lab.) It’s certainly the most practical. Consider Item No. 2: “Failed paintings to be sent to DISASTER zones to be used to make tents.” Goddess only knows there are enough of them both.
The exclusionary micro- and macro-aggressions of so many of the manifestos of the 20th century seem almost beside the point when that point is not merely to articulate and privilege a place for a certain kind of art or art-making, but to build a world and conversation around it, to amplify and expand its possibilities and possible domains – in short to change the way we see, talk about, and make sense of the world.
There have been many fairs and biennials since I started writing for the magazine (and as long-time readers of the blog are aware, AWOL began as a fair/biennial blow-by-blow). But looking back, one in particular stands out – some five years before Artillery began – not simply for its quality (which may still be unsurpassed), but for its historical moment and everything it stood for at the time. It was a rare moment of optimism both for the larger art world and the Los Angeles art world in particular (and I give it some credit for underscoring that new reality). Closing out her stint at a well-known zine, my editor had sent me to a biennial, being curated by a writer, critic and all-round culture guru we both adored. The writer was Dave Hickey, a frequent contributor to what was then probably my favorite L.A. magazine, Art issues (which also featured a regular column by Doug Harvey, Skipping Formalities); and the biennial was SITE Santa Fe’s fourth, Beau Monde: Toward A Redeemed Cosmopolitanism.
Beau Monde staked out a very idealistic ground. Above and beyond everything else, before pointing or prognosticating in any specific direction (although it did in fact make a kind of speculative projection towards a certain open-ended view of where western contemporary art might be headed), it privileged a kind of conversation that up to that point had rarely been seen in the contemporary world. It was no accident that the show had been meticulously designed (by the Graft firm from Silver Lake), that the movement and rhythm of the space had been as deliberately (and comfortably) plotted out; that the vibratile Jennifer Steinkamp digital installation that ushered the audience into the space would be immediately answered by Alexis Smith’s elevated ‘salon’ with its flaming Ruscha-esque American Southwest sunset skies, repeated in the rich reds, yellows, amber and black striations (oxygenated with a bit of white) in the rug that covered the elevated platform of her installation space. Smith’s sky was inscribed with the legend, “Heaven for weather. Hell for company,” which might be interpreted literally – reflecting the physical beauty of its Santa Fe, New Mexico location; but might also be interpreted more ambiguously. The line is a paraphrase of a famous Mark Twain bon mot (he used several variations of it throughout his career) – implying that heaven would not in all likelihood be his social priority; that (as usual) the cool kids as might be cordoned off into a separate smoking section – in hell.
Hickey had already formed an idea of the kind of biennial exhibition he wanted and most of the artists who might be curated into it before he set to work (with his Graft colleagues) plotting out its installation. What he wanted from his artists was pretty much exactly what they were already doing (or had been: two of them were somewhat elderly and one (Hammersley) was in fact deceased); and he could trust them to deliver. But Smith’s piece was one of the few installations specifically commissioned by Hickey for the show; and although its slight elevation off the floor of SITE’s rehabbed (and Graft-transformed) industrial space dampened its impact, its point was made. This would not simply be a themed biennial, but a series of conversations that gave presence and substance to that theme – the stuff that might actually create and re-create that ‘beau monde.’ And even as Smith’s ‘statement’ piece was set apart, you quickly sensed its echoes – e.g., in the large Bridget Riley painting not quite directly across from it – a blue/yellow, pink/green beribboned abstraction (a kind of self-conscious interrogation and reconsideration of her own ‘Op-Art’ style); even in the Steinkamp digital waves only just traversed.
But nowhere did you sense that vibratile dialectic more than in the gallery where Hickey paired Ellsworth Kelly’s four irregularly rectilinear and skewed panels rotating just so, Blue Black Red Green, with Ken Price’s morphous, pulsating, almost fluorescently glazed ceramic sculptures – a conversation you could almost swear, emerging from the gallery, was substance-enhanced. (The picture here in no way does justice to the drama of the installation.) There were cooler zones, too – e.g., Josiah McIlhenny’s cool white tribute to Adolph Loos.
If you’re getting the sense that pleasure itself was privileged here, you’re not far off. Hickey (like me) is a beauty freak unembarrassed to wear that bias on his sleeve. But Beau Monde went beyond even those aesthetic parameters to approach something on the order of music, of dance, of play. No accident here that Steinkamp had teamed with Jimmy Johnson, who created music for the installation. By the time the viewer reached Jessica Stockholder’s slightly dystopic installation, s/he might be dancing. In that regard, too, the biennial was highly influential. Whether acknowledged or not, the most important museum (and for that matter some major gallery) exhibitions cannot today be considered fully, much less successfully, installed without consideration for the sheer pleasure of the experience. (LACMA gets this in spades; and Philippe Vergne just took the Geffen to this level with the Doug Aitken Electric Earth mid-career retrospective.)
You can dance with this, you can move with it (Darryl Montana’s Mardi Gras costumes even seemed to suggest a suitable sartorial accompaniment – a brilliant grace note to Hickey’s show) – the exhibition seemed to reverberate with this implicit message at every turn; or just hang out for a bit – as the couches on the periphery of the Stockholder installation invited us to do. This was an extension of another familiar Hickey preoccupation and critical criterion, really a linchpin of so much of his writing – the social space of art. This was never exactly a new phenomenon; but it was Hickey who drew special attention to its role, not merely in creating the ‘aura’ of an artwork, not merely in its capacity to animate the physical and/or cultural space around it, but the attention (or distraction) and dialogue of viewers around it – how that level of social engagement and its ancillary conversations themselves might contribute to and enrich the critical evaluation of the work of art. For Hickey, the significance of such social/spatial/temporal aspects are magnified in recent decades and have become critical factors in the evaluation of contemporary art.
It puts a slightly different spin on Jasper Johns’ wry 1967 commentary, The Critic Sees. We do in fact look and see with mouths wide open and tongues frequently moving at full throttle. For that matter, maybe the spectacle frames have some influence on the process. Nothing wrong with any part of it as long as we feel free to put it all into reverse and contradict ourselves, or look at (and talk about) it from another angle. I sometimes wonder if Hickey’s true philosophical antecedents aren’t closer to Oscar Wilde than to Charles Sanders Pierce or William James. (There was certainly some theatricality in evidence in some of the sections of that show – e.g., the aforementioned Kelly/Price gallery, the Murakami ‘balloon’ in its slightly liturgical niche, ready for its ascension.) But Hickey also seemed to be nudging us in the direction of what these objects and installations might become (consider the dramatic tension between the Prices and Kellys, the possibly ‘combustible’ product between the two); where they might take us – which is after all the essential point of this kind of exhibition. The ‘Johns-ian’ footnote to this would be that this might simply be another way of describing the way we encounter all works of art – the way an art object plays upon our perceptual faculties, and our experience and memory of the encounter.
There is the object – itself the product of this kind of transformation (‘take an object; do something to it; do something else to it’); our experience of it, and our conversation around it – both expanding over time; and finally ‘placing’ us in a new, slightly altered space – perceptually, conceptually, culturally. Whether artists actually create a beau monde or take us to it, they certainly give us some navigational tools, and ideas about improvising new ones. The ‘beautiful world’ is no less intimidating for its beauties, its transformations. It may be yet another circle of hell – but as Alexis Smith’s Santa Fe ‘salon’ implied, it just might be the place you want to be.
I’ve had some time to think further on that vision of a beau monde in the weeks since the United States took its great flying leap towards un monde où il ne ferait jamais beau – and certainly fresh hells seem to be opening every day. Whether the planetary biosphere, much less U.S. citizens, can withstand this government’s promised assault will not be known for a few years. But as Johns and all great artists remind us, an object and the world around it can change in the time we’re looking at it. There are no walls or barriers that can impinge upon our ability to look, alter, reconfigure, reshape, exchange, revisit, and revise views (or plead for new ones), and utterly transform those worlds – or transport us to new ones. I don’t necessarily think we need to leave the planet to find them – though I wouldn’t try to deter Elon Musk or Richard Branson or anyone else from trying. But while we’re still here, I’m hoping L.A.’s best artists – and the world’s – keep taking us to the farthest edges of their imaginations. If the political and cultural status quo present us with a reality where the very notion of ‘norm’ is effectively shattered (or certainly mocked – as it is on an almost daily basis in broadcast media), there is nothing to hold them back.
I loved that the special edition print Alexis Smith produced for Beau Monde – a kind of digitized rendition of her installation’s serape-like rug, was captioned, “NOTHING IS NEW EXCEPT WHAT HAS BEEN FORGOTTEN.” The phrase is actually taken from one of Marie-Antoinette’s often witty retorts to her opponents (and later, her jailers) and reads as fresh and timely today as Smith’s ‘heaven and hell’ citation for her salon installation. “Il n’y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié.” As newspaper front pages and websites fill with what has been effectively “forgotten” by the grotesques and gargoyles gnawing away (willfully or unconsciously) at their own platforms, it is the artists who will be charged with filling the void with actual news – and I hope to be here reporting some of it.