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