Putting Disgust on Display

"Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the '90s" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

A lightning rod and a scandal--that's what the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the '90s" is supposed to be, I think. Borrowing its title from a British idiom for a wild twisting slide, which mass-murderer Charles Manson appropriated to refer to a race war he was anticipating, the exhibition promises chaos and mayhem before one even sees it.

The actual subtext of "Helter Skelter," however, is disgust (sometimes couched as adolescent rebellion) with the official and unofficial violence and social denial of contemporary American society. In addition to its 16 artists, it offers an exhibition catalogue that includes fiction by 10 Los Angeles writers who anatomize sex and violence.

Choosing a theme piece for the exhibition is easy. It would have to be Llyn Foulkes' painting-installation Pop (read pop art, popular culture and fatherhood). One of Foulkes' bas-relief assemblage paintings, it sits in a darkened room lit by the incorporated lights of its living room setting. A father with an exposed Superman outfit under his pullover sweater stares with glazed eyes at a television while his son wears a walkman and holds a notebook in which he has written this mind-numbing school punishment: "I will be a square shooter in my home, in school, on the playground. I will be a good American."

Completing the installation is Foulkes' audiotape of "American the Beautiful" sung to a parody herky-jerky polkalike beat. Dad has finally burned out on the whole idea of American fatherhood in a culture that seems to have lost interest in providing the social support for nurturing its future (or present) generations.

Cartoons in LALA Land: Foulkes' Clark Kent/Superman figure is a kind of running joke for the notions of "Truth, Justice and the American Way." But here "the American Way" clearly implies neither honesty nor justice. In Rape of the Angels, a cartoon-outlined Clark Kent sits next to a city planning commissioner in an office whose window overlooks the scene of Los Angeles' explosion of '80s downtown "redevelopment" high-rises. "LALA Land Co." reads in reverse letters on the window, and the commissioner's face is torn open to reveal two hands exchanging wads of $100 bills.

"The Bastards!" Superman's thought-bubble reads. This Superman seems to be aware that, while '80s wealth went into this downtown redevelopment and upscale Westside housing, much of the rest of L.A. continued in its tailspin of decreasing wages and slum-lord decay.

The show is predominantly male, but let's continue with one of the women artists so as not to give the impression that the alienation expressed is entirely masculine. In Everything is Beautiful (the installation's Musak title song plays in the gallery's bathroom, by the way), Meg Cranston sets up a self-help "relaxation" videotape (complete with "in and out" breathing exercises) of a female New Age guru in palm reader garb who encourages the audience to "find the [inner] space" of "comfort and safety."

As if to underscore the social denial implied in such tapes, Cranston presents a series of gaudy childlike pink-on-royal-blue "Jane and John Doe" paintings that simply list the heights and weights of "anonymous" street people cremated by L.A. County during a "typical month"--people who could apparently not find their "inner space" of peace.

Of the rampant cartooning in the exhibition, Jim Shaw and Benjamin Weisman's collaboration, Horror A Vacui, is most noir in taking up the exhibition title's allusion to Charles Manson and Los Angeles. Three "L.A. Themes" dovetail in difficult-to read (at least in the gallery) subplots: (1) freeway mass-murder, (2) weapons industry engineering, and (3) Hollywood horror movie special effects.

All come to a head when a realtor/mass-murderer kills a half-mad young chemical engineer real-estate client, then runs into a terminally cancerous Hollywood horror robot technician who throws himself in front of the mass-murderer's car to commit suicide. The plot has all the "inventive" lack of plausibility of a typically bad Hollywood movie based on horrific television news headlines removed from any of life's ordinary difficulties. In its excess, Horror A Vacui parodies Hollywood horror movies, which are already distracting parodies of society.

Uptight and up-tempo: In five "conference rooms" for a purported ad agency designed by architect Frank Gehry, Mike Kelley stencils mural-sized appropriated office jokes, most of them "off color" and some "politically incorrect" (an advertisement for "gerbil gear," the drawing of a "PMS World" amusement park, a list of rules that explain why men are always wrong in any argument a woman starts). Many are downright hostile to "the management."

The impression one gets is that a large section of the general population is a lot less uptight than the pious moralists who want to take over the political realm. At the same time, one wonders what pressures of daily life give rise to the impulses behind these jokes and cartoons.

Megan Williams offers cartoons in which everything is a blur of juggling that seems to express the speed-up and turnover of contemporary life, while Raymond Pettibone wallpapers one room with obsessive cartoonlike sketches with enigmatic captions that suggest existential angst. Robert Williams, familiar to readers of Zap comics, presents 20 paintings that, among other things, parody themes of adolescent male sexuality extended into adulthood: car obsessions abound, as well as bug eyes staring at aloof nude women--bombshell waitresses and nude princesses on cigar boxes.

On the issue of "sex," two of Charles Ray's three mannequins present ambivalent responses to gender "role reversals" that read like an allergic reaction to feminism. Mannequin Fall `91, a giant eight-foot-tall "career woman" in red business suit, stands alone in one room with her hands posed aggressively on her hips. What if, it seems to ask, one has to deal with a self-righteous power-and-money-driven female?

On the other hand, Ray's nude Male Mannequin has all of the normal stiff and jointed features, except its realistic replica of male genitalia. It combines male role-induced awkwardness with an image of male vulnerability.

Some work is less psychologically but no less politically charged. Chris Burden's contribution, Medusa's Head, is a gigantic fabricated "asteroid" suspended from the ceiling and choked by model trains that snake around and bore through it. It is a monumental image of technological-ecological disaster, as if a formerly habitable planet has been strip-mined down to bare rock.

Nancy Rubin's Trailers and Hot Water Heaters is another of her enormous junk-heaps of discarded consumer or industrial items; it is constructed of a base of two construction-office trailers, perhaps a hundred discarded home water heaters strapped atop them, and two pint-sized barely habitable trailers at the very top. It reads like an oblique commentary on skewed U.S. housing priorities.

The youngest artist in the exhibition is Manuel Ocampo, a Filipino who depicts his sense of the horrors of colonialism in a roomful of paintings that incorporate figures of grim reapers on battle fields of skeletons, or the image of an infant with a world globe for a head and a bloody amputated hand. At the center of the room on a pedestal of four painted panels is a hooded and robed figure holding a sword. Although the work uses a vocabulary of catholic imagery, it is also critical of the role that religion has played in colonialism, as when Ocampo paints the words "The Church of Sick Catholic Kings of Spain" into one of his paintings.

Out of place: At least three artists seem out of place in "Helter Skelter," however interesting their work might be in its own right. The repeated flat symbols of Lari Pittman's paintings (the yin-yang number 69, spurting phallic candles, filigree chains of spurting drops, symmetrical ownl shapes and symmetrically arranged silhouettes of 18th-century wigged figures) are all keenly balanced and seem removed from the kind of representation of disorder in the exhibitions other paintings.

Liz Larner's and Richard Jackson's respective installations, Forced Perspective (reversed, reflected, extended) and Big Time Idea, are simply more conceptual and theoretical than other work. Larner arranges chains from wall to wall and ceiling to floor to mimic grids of perspective (in this case, central perspective) in traditional representational painting, as if to suggest the general idea that single perspectives "chain" the viewer to potentially narrow (ideological) viewpoints. Jackson's room installation of 1,000 synchronized clocks, which all startlingly jerk ahead every two or three minutes behind prisonlike chain fence, tends to throw viewers out of perceptual (spatial) balance for a second. The idea that we are prisoners of space or time, however, seems to have no sense of the lived experience (albeit in a media-saturated culture) that the other work in "Helter Skelter" oozes.

"Helter Skelter" deliberately defies the right-wing effort to censor the messenger for the message (or to sanitize art), whether or not one thinks that particular artists in the exhibition have got the message right. One thing one can say against the exhibition is that its predictive subtitle "L.A. Art in the '90s" has all the hubris of a big institution trying to steal the fire of ideas from the whole L.A. art scene and the many artists and smaller institutions that constitute its network. In other words, in no way does the exhibition represent the full scope of interesting art being done in L.A. at the present moment. Nor does it predict the future.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, as far as I know, has written no apologies to Jesse Helms or Patrick Buchanan, nor need it. The exhibition promises to be MOCA's most well attended. Sorry Pat, judging by the large number of people willing to attend and think about this exhibition of "problematic" art (whether the work hits the mark or not), there is an audience for such work, and it "pays taxes," too.

Peter Kosenko, published in In These Times (1-7 April 1992), pp. 20-21.

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