BY Michael Darling in Reviews | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Scene of the Crime

BY Michael Darling in Reviews | 01 JAN 98

Curated by Ralph Rugoff, 'Scene of the Crime' presented a highly selective survey of West Coast art-making over the last 35 years which plumbed the dark side of California practice. Any similarities with Paul Schimmel's infamously noir 'Helter Skelter' show of 1992 end here, however: Rugoff's exhibition dug deeper into the past to recover a body of material that helps to explain a long-festering proclivity toward the un-sunny. The often enigmatic, fragmentary, and/or resigned quality of Conceptualism directly informs the exhibition's approach. Didactic text panels and the accompanying catalogue urged the viewer toward a forensic reconstruction of meaning, artistic intent and characteristic patterns in a wide-ranging assortment of artworks.

The forensic method is a surprisingly effective tool, for it serves both as an approachable way for the general public to pry open the often hermetic shell of contemporary art (Columbo vs. Conceptualism), and as a viable critical model for understanding recent art that relies on clues, obscurities, and residue. The evidence includes classic Californian pranksterism such as Ed Ruscha's Royal Road Test (1967), a deadpan book that methodically documents, with the scrupulousness of an official evaluation for wear and tear, the destruction of a Royal typewriter thrown out of a speeding car. Like many other works in the show, Royal Road Test treats conventional destruction as a form of production that results in new, unexpected meanings. This attitude is equally evident in Postminimalist pieces such as Barry Le Va's Shatterscatter (Within the Series of Layered/Pattern Acts) (1968-71) - a pile of green glass sheets violently smashed at the centre - or Mike Kelley's Yarn #3 (1990) where a suggestively splayed pile of black, white and cream-coloured yarn, laid out on a child's blanket, looks like the eviscerated remains of a ravaged Snoopy doll. Sam Durant performs a similarly indelicate transformation in Abandoned House #5 (1995), where a model of a pristine, 50s era Modernist home is pierced and broken to suggest the comeuppance of contemporary (dis)order.

Insight into the significance of Conceptual art is often arrived at through the examination of what is not present, and adopting the stance of a criminologist can immediately transform unforthcoming, even mute works into alluring storytellers. Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz' White Easel with Machine Pistol (1975), for instance, comprises an empty stage set made up of galvanised metal, electric lights and an abandoned toy machine gun. It has the eerie atmosphere of a backwoods execution chamber and spurs the imagination to supply the missing culprits and victims. Likewise, Sharon Lockhart's banal colour photograph, Untitled (1996), slowly becomes increasingly ominous as one peers down the rocky cliffside and into the roiling ocean, unsure if a cluster of dark flecks just below the water's surface is a school of voracious sharks or a tangle of harmless kelp. Only those who have read the catalogue, or posses an acute memory for detail, will transform the yawning absence of visual information in Lewis Baltz's cryptically titled photograph 11777 Foothill Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA (1991) into an epiphany, but once one knows that this bend in a bland suburban thoroughfare was the site of Rodney King's fateful beating at the hands of the LAPD, the space crackles with creepy energy.

Finding the clue that transforms a dull photograph into a powerful social document is all-important in Baltz's picture, for without it there is no payoff, no redemption for the time, materials and effort spent. A good portion of contemporary art involves the tracking of such make-or-break clues, and Rugoff's concept of a 'forensic aesthetic' can make the game worth playing.