Los Angeles Roundup

Sabrina Tarasoff

February 21, 2020
Various locations, Los Angeles

“The Magic and Flair of Mary Blair,” an exhibition of the Disney artist’s dreamy, acid-laced concept pieces at the Hilbert Museum of California Art, burned to mind what freakish and caustic things fairytales can be. Best known for her work on Alice in Wonderland (1951), Blair’s mutant gouaches drag you with Alice into the fantastical inversions of Wonderland, a place “more like a corkscrew than a path,” where lawless helixes swallow rooms and minacious figures are found lurking in the Day-Glo darkness. Through the looking glass, everything from the houses to paths act on their own volition; even the flowers have a will (if you’re worth talking to): “You can’t possibly do that,” advises a Rose in Carroll’s sequel, “I should advise you to walk the other way.” Alice considers this bad advice, and so heads in the “wrong” direction, straight back to where she started. Which is to say, she’s quick to realise that in the context of the fantastic, if it appears you’re getting lost then you are probably going the right way.

Though this city is filled with the iconoclastic fantastic, its galleries during Frieze week seem more determined to exploit a bygone image of subversion than to risk getting lost in its twisted logic. In “All of Them Witches,” curated by Laurie Simmons and Dan Nadel at Jeffrey Deitch, the wily power of images is not so much channeled as diluted into an exasperated index of “something-possibly-weird-and/or-sexy.” In clinging to a purely aesthetic idea of “witchiness,” the show fails to capture, or specify, the narrative mechanisms and psychological motivations that give the witch her proverbial flight. The witch is about broken boundaries and disturbed definitions: about “living deliciously,” as Black Phillip incants in Roger Eggers’s The Witch (2015). Never mind how delightful the devilry of Marnie Weber’s totemic hags, photographs from Cameron Jamie’s Front Lawn Funerals and Cemeteries series, or Greer Lankton’s trash-glam puppets are on their own; amidst 170 mostly wall-based works, you remain so firmly grounded in the blah-real of a commercial space that it all fails to hex.

“Hollywood Babylon: A Re-Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome,” also a Deitch affair, co-presented with Nicodim Gallery and AUTRE Magazine, ditches the iconography of occultism for a “mystical” revisitation of Hollywood’s glamours. Haunting Wolfgang Puck’s former Sunset Strip restaurant, Spago, the exhibition builds on a proposition of pleasure carbon-dated back to a time where success was measured in Quaaludes and tabloid culture. As the press release put it, the show represents “an outsider’s longing look to the west.” But whatever sex, drugs, and deviance the show is meant to conjure are nonexistent in the exhibition. Even the glowing hellfire of Kenneth Anger’s short film The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) loses its wicked force within the clinical space. Ditto works by Mike Kelley, Kembra Pfahler, Genesis P-Orridge, Vaginal Davis. As cultural values shift, myths begin to consolidate as established narratives: if artworks are to remain animated, their context must be revised or upended. Instead, too many of these sprawling group exhibitions appear more concerned with a slick sales pitch than actually considering the ways in which featured works run against the grain of our reality, drag us into realms of surprise and delight, or react to the traditions they were once molded against. Propositions like the “Pleasure Dome” do little more than petrify wild narratives into clickbait, devoid of pleasure.

However, there are plenty within the art scene who do understand how to fuck with a themed exhibition’s central premise. This is the case at “From the Xmas Tree of Lucy Bull,” co-organized by the painter and Naoki Sutter-Shudo. Currently in its second iteration in Bull’s living room, the evergreen offers a festive critique of group shows, as artists are invited to decorate its boughs with bespoke ornaments. Immediately, questions arise. Who gets to make the star? (Mathis Altmann’s tie-dye scarecrow tee, untitled, 2020.) Who’s the tinsel? (Matt Copson’s Squid Loop, 2020.) How much branch do you get? (A formidable amount, in the case of Clémentine Adou’s mall-goth spikes, Pics, 2020.) What is made when responding to an object, rather than an idea? Ornaments range from a baroque, pearl-like toe by Eric Veit (Toe For Tree, 2020) to flying bats by Sarah McMenimen (Lovers, 2020) and a snail-infested internet bistro by Michael Zahn (Slime Café, 2020). There’s a certain pleasure in an off-season Christmas show, because at the heart of the proposition is a desire not only to keep the festivities going, but to keep their narratives in constant flux. As Tim Dlugos writes, in his 1985 poem “Pretty Convincing,” “the corpses change but the party goes on forever.”

In Owen Fu’s painting exhibition “Small Talk” at O-Town House, cartoon logic prompts thoughts about the sexiness of being squashed, smudged, and blurred, as pastel forms and figures lightheartedly test the limits of their allotted space. A pair of bare legs is covered in bright red sores; a moon-like face peers out of a belly, as if cannibalized. Something is amiss, but the scene is contented. Across the way at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, Michael Krebber’s exhibition “KAN IN CHEN” stages a similarly cute existential crisis on more metaphysical terms. Though Krebber has been at it for years, these conceptually reticent pastel abstractions are so at odds with what we’ve come to expect from Los Angeles art that they feel semi-startling.

In the realms of magic, we suspend our disbelief because doing so intensifies the thrill and makes possible the fantastic beasts, dreamlike spaces, and mutant spirits. In the art world, one quickly begins to question the conditions of such suspensions. Too many recent exhibitions have seemed categorically confused between art that operates under the narrative mechanisms of the fantastic, and work that is but a symptom of the cursed magical thinking of our current times. The real charm of fantasy lies in how it lurks within our known reality. In a city where upholding the illusion is forever more urgent than making sense, it’s a high priority to recognize exactly what makes the fantastic fantastic.

The Occult & Mysticism

Sabrina Tarasoff is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles.

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Hilbert Museum of California Art  / Jeffrey Deitch  / O-Town House  / Nicodim Gallery  / Reena Spaulings
February 21, 2020

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