The Los Angeles brand of cool is a breed apart: Arthur Lee could never have joined the Velvet Underground any more than Lou Reed could have joined the Byrds. Similarly the work of John Baldessari is cool in a way that Joseph Kosuth could never be, not only because Baldessari was funnier, but also because he was funny in LA, as opposed to New York. If something as necessarily elusive as cool can be defined at all, the LA variety could be said to manifest itself in a refusal to be consistently rational or intellectual, preferring to let an instinctive attitude towards style and aesthetics permeate the work.
The London air was touched with cool at 'Play It As It Lays', an exhibition of 17 artists from LA. As with previous group shows of LA artists held in the capital, such as 'Drive-By' at the South London Gallery in 1999, and the strong LA contingent in last year's 'Young Americans' at the Barbican Art Gallery, this show allowed the British gallery-goer the opportunity to see art that possesses such an aura of calm self-confidence that it made much contemporary British art appear consumed by a manic desire to be liked. Here abstraction and figuration, painting and assemblage, photography and video shared the space like a social experiment in communality. That these various approaches to art production - their dissimilarities once so ideologically charged and now apparently defused of their explosive potential - can peaceably co-exist is very much an indication of the current stylistic flexibility within art.
'Play It As It Lays' was so laid back it appeared to be less of an exhibition than a wander around a shared studio space, an intentional effect that reflected the environment where British artist/curators Declan Clarke and Paul McDevitt found the work. The pair visited LA, a city neither of them knew, and after making initial contact with artists in the Chinatown district, took their advice on other artists' work to look at. The recommended artists would then give recommendations of their own, and so on.
This year the in-crowd could be recognized by their tendency to make popular culture their own through a DIY reconstruction process. Take, for example, Francesca Gabbiani's paper cut-out recreations of the interior shots of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining (1980). High-tech Hollywood filmmaking, with all the expertise it requires, is mimicked via the paper-and-scissors technique of the schoolroom. Michele O'Marah's two videos comprised a re-enactment of a television interview with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and a low-budget reconstruction of a scene from a Vietnam War film. Although the immediate impression these works created was of watching TV in a state of slacker apathy, something more subtle was going on, in the way the artists declared their source material as part of their cultural baggage. And the very process of re-creating it challenged the passivity that source material demands and for which it is commonly enjoyed.
By way of contrast, Eddie Ruscha (no, not that Ed Ruscha) is an artist and musician, and his work Contact (2002) neatly reflects this duality. In a darkened room the strings of a 12-string guitar were struck by a rod attached to a revolving disco light that dimly projected patterns on to the walls. The guitar was open-tuned so that it played a chord when strummed, and was synchronized with a backing track that played softly in the background. It was a strange type of live performance with no performer, an amalgam of the automatic playback of recorded sound experienced in the privacy of the home and the event of the concert.
Analysing my reaction to another work, however, gave me pause for thought. In John Williams' Pizza Everywhere (1998) a Dan Flavin-style neon light arrangement has its purity defiled by a slice of fabricated pizza, complete with a bite taken out of it, and an item of drug paraphernalia resting on top. How can this work be understood? Perhaps as a commentary on the unquestioning consumption of art doctrine, a warning against getting the theoretical munchies, or perhaps it is just saying that Minimalism only makes sense when stoned. It is here that the hidden danger of LA cool reveals itself, a reminder that an intrinsic element of hip is a level of exclusivity and a code of behaviour that can restrict one's actions and neutralizes dissent.