BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

Drive By: New Art from Los Angeles

BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 09 SEP 99

Theme shows are often dismissed these days; none more so than those selected along the lines of national or civic identities. They're often seen as reductive, which by their very nature they usually are, but no more reductive than the denial of social context altogether, or the belief that the only milieu that counts to artists is the global village of Biennials and art fairs.

To be located in New York as an artist is to have no more specific a relation to the place than its average citizen: one is simply an artist. In LA, by comparison, one is a Los Angeles artist, and that, I would argue, has been a good thing. It's nearly always apparent that art objects from LA are the result of a negotiation with the city's complex cultural psyche, as well as the usual negotiation with other, existing, art objects.

Younger LA artists tend to position their work in the nuanced interstices of culture as if conscious that the middle generation have finished the job of staking out the LA picture at large - Isermann's 50s decor and signage, McCarthy's Disney and film sets, Pettibon's film noir, Shaw's West Coast hippie fall out, Ruscha's boulevard beat poetics, etc. 'Drive-By: New Art from Los Angeles' is typical of some areas of the younger tendency, though its title suggests the expansiveness, diversity and occasional violence apparent in work by older artists.

Catherine Opie is best known for her series of sumptuous, heroic, unapologetic portraits of dyke acquaintances. Here she presented eight black and white studies of mini-malls (the title of the series, and what would have been a more appropriate title for the show). Taken outside opening hours, shop windows steel-shuttered, the photographs pay homage to a forgotten example of LA architectural vernacular. If Opie's various series of melancholic black and white architectural studies of malls, freeways and gated mansions have any connection with her portraiture, it is perhaps by reversing their values: she presents the (officially) straight world out there as a lonely place, drained of human presence. The formal qualities of the work though, resist metaphor. Their silence and stillness make one think of the Bechers on Ruscha turf.

Liz Craft's Lazy Daze (1999) and Jason Meadows' Revolver (1999) are painted metal sculptures: sad, decorative objects that would like to be serious abstract sculpture but instead look as though they might belong to Opie's malls. More mini-mall than minimal, Craft's black armatures - which, when considered in the round, spell out the once optimistic title - carry large purple, grey and turquoise over-sized abacus beads. The final letter has unhooked itself from the rest and stands beside a spherical object that pathetically depicts something between a Pac-Man, a frog and a mouse. Revolver similarly succeeds in re-formulating a defunct, suburban emulation of 60s sculptural concerns: a cube made up of six white circles balances at 45 degrees on a small section of the same form sitting on the floor - imagine a beach ball on a seal's nose. Two other pieces by Meadows play similar formal games between bends and straights, with materials drawn from garden DIY - wooden fencing stained tan and green. Straight shapes are made to coil, while arch shapes form an arabesque along the top of flat concertinaed planes.

Kevin Appel takes us indoors with paintings that share a similar concern with representing degr-aded, vernacular representations of formalist abstraction. Circles represent cheesy paper lampshades; upright rectangles represent doorways; diagonals describe the interior spaces beyond. The paintings' precise geometry and restricted palette (olives, greys and eggshell-blues), evoke a shopping catalogue's take on abstraction. The absorption of vanguard experimentation into the realm of middle class taste is turned back on to the art object, a move Appel, Craft and Meadows share with Isermann, Pardo, White, Prieto, Owens and other LA contemporaries. Appel's perfectionist paintings do so a little too successfully, as if knowing from the outset exactly what they are about.

Although Jeff Burton also depicts domestic environments, his photographs have little in common with the concerns of the other work in 'Drive-By'. Seemingly mundane to begin with, the images turn out to be shots taken on the edges of porn sets where Burton works by day as a stills photographer. On receipt of this information the viewer becomes voyeur - Meadows-like clamps, scaffolding, pads and plywood reveal them-selves as accomplices of the missing action. With too few clues to flesh out a narrative, the viewer is returned, frustrated, to the prosaic world of all that is actually depicted.

Taking us on too short a journey, 'Drive-By' is somewhat disappointing. For an art scene so varied and exhilarating, which British audiences have had so few opportunities to see first hand, the terms the show sets itself are strangely tame and narrow. Thematically too closely linked and politely installed, this arid view of Los Angeles would have been better placed in Cork Street than Peckham.