Conspiracy theories tend to start out as research. Dubious evidence piles up, endlessly repeated wild conjectures begin to take on the guise of fact and coincidences (however unrelated) add to a metastasizing plot. Originally planned for The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, but cancelled after the institution’s fiscal crisis, the simple foundation of Drew Heitzler’s recent exhibition in Blum & Poe’s second-floor galleries, ‘Sailors, Mermaids, Mystics. For Kustomizers, Grinders, Fender-men. for Fools, Addicts, Woodworkers and Hustlers. (Doubled)’, was a dual obsession with motorcycles and Los Angeles that together swelled into an epic paranoia.
In a dreamlike, three-channel video installation from 2009 (which lent its name to the title of the show), Heitzler vivisected and reassembled The Wild Ride (1960), Night Tide (1961) and Lilith (1964) – three black and white Hollywood films that feature the major débuts of three actors (Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson) who all went on to become counter-culture legends in Easy Rider (1969). Each of the films was spliced into the others, with overlays and half-fades, the images synching intermittently on two of the screens at a time. Heitzler’s editing swirled the plots and audio of the films into a strange, metaphysical mélange that beguiled even as its structure remained elusive. Like any good conspiracy theory, however, the obsession tales off on its own and the seeming senselessness of the jumble hangs on the brink of coming together into an impossibly grand interwoven narrative.
This isn’t the first time Heitzler has dreamed of motorcycles drenched in the post-Freudian death-trip nostalgia of Kenneth Anger’s 1964 Scorpio Rising (though sans its queer Satanism). His contribution (along with collaborator Amy Granat) to the 2008 Whitney Biennial consisted of a film that made real Jean Genet’s notion that the object of Werther’s unrequited love in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1787) should have been a motorcycle rather than a woman. In moving to Los Angeles, Heitzler took his newfound home as a site to be explored and researched – a seemingly shapeless mass of motorways and suburbs that must have been determined by some historical force or another. Motorcycles were one kind of Western myth-maker for the artist, and Los Angeles (and the oil bubbling just beneath its surface) became another. A stretch of road in the middle of the city adjacent to endless rows of bobbing oil derricks easily weirded Heitzler’s mythos of Los Angeles – included here as the short Untitled (Ladera Heights) (2007), in which petrol pumps are interspersed with palm trees.
I can’t help but indulge in the obvious poetry of this palm-tree wonderland, with all the blackness beneath the surface, a finish-fetish car culture fed on the dirty subterranean ooze, and neither can Heitzler. A long, unbroken row of around 200 small printed images in black frames mapped the perceived influence of the oil industry on the becoming of LA in both obvious and secret ways, somehow managing to connect the La Brea Tar Pits to the Ku Klux Klan.
Heitzler invokes famously conspiratorial novelist Thomas Pynchon’s narrative mapping (shown here in a neatly written and sinister flowchart, Study for Poster [Baldwin Hills, Venice Beach, La Brea Tar Pits], 2009). Like the reclusive writer (but unlike most conspiracy theories), this chart tracing the evolution of LA through the oil industry is imaginatively figured with a self-conscious hand. An endlessly sputtering secret plot, Heitzler’s speculative love-letter to Los Angeles presented a series of doctored and often unmarked evidence, ready for a paranoiac to piece together a conspiracy of their own.