Los Angeles: Capital of Contemporary Art?

Date June 30, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Author Kathryn M Davis

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Eli and Edythe Broad"€¦[donated] $60 million"€¦to create the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at LACMA"€¦to catalyze and advance the growth of Los Angeles as a global capital of contemporary art.


[M]ostly the exhibition just looks expensive. Really, really expensive.

Christopher Knight, The Los Angeles Times, February 200

Not that there's anything wrong with expensive art.

Most of us accept without a second thought that museum art is priced so far out of the average viewer's reach that a year's salary might pay for a few square inches of one masterfully executed and historically charged artwork. The problem is that we tend to believe high price = good art, when good art may not cost a lot (at least early in its provenance), and high prices most assuredly do not guarantee quality. Price tags with lots of zeros do, however, cause a kind of weird celebrity to be projected upon the object they're attached to. These objects frequently make a spectacular backdrop for a really, really smart cocktail party for people whose celebrity rivals that of the art they pose against. Plain and simple: owning a large collection of good (i.e., expensive) contemporary art is a sign, literally, of success.

And that's how the general public knows the BCAM: from Entertainment Tonight's broadcast of TomKat and Jennifer Aniston and other Hollywood A-listers' attendance at the really, really grand opening of Eli Broad's masterpiece, the Renzo Piano-designed complex for contemporary art on the still-expanding campus of the Los Angeles County Museum and La Brea Tar Pits.

But does the BCAM make L.A. "a global capital of contemporary art"€? Not exactly. Is L.A. the most important city for contemporary art in the U.S? Yep. (Globally, you can bet that Abu Dhabi's Guggenheim will buy the title.) Sorry New York, but the Big Apple, with its oh-so-serious MoMA, continues to cling to its post-War status and remains mired in Modernism with a capital M. Not that there aren't a lot of terrifically important things going on there vis-a -vis truly cutting-edge contemporary art-just as there are all over the country. Bottom line: it's time we all get over a New York-centric worldview when it comes to contemporary art. And the BCAM is one of the reasons why we can shift our spotlight to Los Angeles.

A stroll through the BCAM's three floors of art is like flipping through a text on Art Since 1945, only more fun. Walking into a roomful of Jeff Koons's primary-colored, shiny, bigger-than-life works is like being a kid in a candy store-conceptually slick and sugary sweet. And you don't really have to pay close attention to the art because you've seen most of it before, in news articles about the dire fate of contemporary art, in art magazines, and in classroom slides. Really, the most taxing thing about the Broad collection as presented is trying to put it into a theoretical context that makes sense and reflects some of the passion and urgency that I still want my art to have, at least on some level. It was rather startling to come across Leon Golub's paintings, especially White Squad V, in which a uniformed, gun-toting man kicks another man who writhes in pain on the ground. But the piece was made way back in the eighties when "bad"€ painting was avant-garde, which probably explains its inclusion in this cover-all-bases collection. In some ways, Koons's porcelain depiction of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles is much sadder and more profound, at least today. It certainly speaks volumes about what gets into museums via billionaires' collections.

When you've had enough of all the art that money can, and did, buy, head to Chinatown to see why L.A. really is the American capital of contemporary art. "Los Angeles is a city that privileges the present,"€ says LACMA's Michael Govan. Chung King Road in L.A.'s Chinatown is the site and the sign of what's going on now, for all Chinatown's cheese factor. In fact, cheesiness is a desirable aspect here, the art world's version of Paris Hilton's "That's hot."€ Chinatown is a wonderful place to spend a day perusing contemporary art and buying amulets to ward off the effects of the Year of the lousy Rat. The cheap trinket stores, the low-rent experience, the faux architectural touches that serve to trivialize a real, living culture; it's all there in a jumble that offers an alternative to Modern Art. In fact, Chinatown is so postmodern that it subverts labeling: slippage, indeed!

Make no mistake: the area has enough of its own bad art to qualify as a regular San Francisco, Santa Fe, or Santa Monica. Hell, it could even compete with Chelsea, Chicago, and Culver City. But that's half the fun of taking the time to investigate an art community-discovering your own treasures. Recent standouts were The Box, where director Mara McCarthy (artist Paul's daughter) throws BBQs, lectures, and exhibitions that reward viewers who invest a little of their focused attention. Naotaka Hiro's installation and video Skinny Wire Neck featured a skull hung, genital level, upside down from a wire; Hiro attempted to sculpt the bony form into a sphere using sticky rice. His work, about bodily disconnection, is not subtle, nor does it spell out its "meaning."€ It is poetic, difficult, and as unsettling as an earthquake of the three-to-four range on the Richter scale.

Also on Chung King Road, Peres Projects was celebrating its fifth anniversary (in other locations, including Berlin) with a re-creation of their first exhibition. The artist, fashion celeb and star personality Terence KOH, filled the basement of the gallery with a ghostly white, corn starchy substance, while leaving the whole upstairs space pretty much empty. His show, The Whole Family, was a morbid take on works by Brazilian Cildo Meireles-throw a Chinese-Canadian artist who lives in New York and Europe into Chinatown and you've got pure L.A., its charm level turned up to ten. It's not about ethnicity so much as worldview-jaded and fresh at the same time.

Sister and Cottage Home (a pair of spaces run by the same crew) rocked the scene with gorgeously intricate ink-on-Duralene works by Sandeep Mukherjee. But these two sites lacked the Chinatown look epitomized by China Art Objects, a gallery that kept the old marquee-style sign outside its quarters for a look that couldn't suit its environment better. Unlike its exterior, unfortunately, not much of interest was to be found inside.

Best of all, though, was a little place that had a great interactive thing going on: the Automat. Opened only a few weeks ago, the emptied storefront features two long picnic tables and four big red vending machines that sell everything from Ass Kickin Peanuts to a 50-gram box, in yellow and brown, of No. 18 rubber bands, made in Thailand. Every Burger is actually a box of cookies made to look like hamburgers; they tasted a little like Pepperidge Farm Milanos (also for sale). I have no idea where Every Burger is made-the packaging is covered in what appear to be Chinese characters-but I couldn't buy enough boxes for friends. Of course, you could wash it all down with an icy Coke in a classic glass bottle. The gallery sitter insisted it wasn't really meant to be art, but I remain convinced it was not only art, it was the best art I saw that weekend.

Kathryn M Davis is a writer, critic, and curator living in Santa Fe.