in Features | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Self-Portrait as the Garden Between Eve and the Snake

Liz Craft

in Features | 09 SEP 98

Los Angeles' city planners took Oscar Wilde's maxim about life imitating art to heart. Having no centre, the city adheres by each of its locales' convenient ability to morph into any other. Consider how NYPD Blue, amongst other TV shows and movies, appears to be shot in New York but is actually filmed in LA - and how inconceivable is the inverse. This flexibility is perhaps most beautifully symbolised by a domestic and commercial architecture which retains more than the surface qualities of a movie set: temporary, prop-like, light-filled, confusing inside and outside, spontaneous, worn at the edges, elemental, and mixed of a dizzying array of temporal and international styles frequently made miniature. Los Angeles has succeeded in this structural flux so well that its relationship with the movies - to art, artifice - is like most other American cities' relationship with LA: they look like Los Angeles, but with little of the panache, little of the erotic pay-off, little of the charm.

Liz Craft gets Los Angeles. She gets its beauties but also how it turns everything that might be the opposite of beauty at least into something fascinating. She gets its love of making something out of another thing (i.e. the desert made verdant through the will of irrigation); she gets its paradisial dramatics. Living Edge (1997-98) is her paean to all that she gets. Earlier pieces, especially the wonderfully odd Quo Vadis (1997), with its formal turnings and reversals (inside for outside, up for down, right for left) suggested an interest in architecture by dismantling it: shades of Gordon Matta-Clark doing a site-specific project in Disneyland, perhaps reconfiguring a home of the future for a three-day rave. With this newest piece it is possible to see, retrospectively, that her concerns are environmental - how everything inhabits space, whether the interior space of a radiant mind or an apartment, or the exterior space of a vegetable garden.

Living Edge is Los Angeles as a garden of Eden, maximally miniaturised, a radical sweep or quick pan of the city. A pale blue wooden structure, more plant stand than staircase, rises into an arc of freeway, sloping down to a palm tree top and white box kite, while various kinds of enclosures - a cave almost entirely overrun by ivy; a tiled wall with spindle and goblet finials; an aubergine panel; redwood fencing; a descending bit of brick partitioning - continue to wrap around Eden's still centre. These public limits of private space shield a tableau of quiet Wagnerian strangeness - Wagner by way of Fantasia. Two antlered bucks nuzzle, one standing on what could be a miniature golf green, the other, its severed head with a single silvery tear shimmering at one eye, wades in a pool (actually a dynamic, painterly affair). An almost bonsaied cedar holds Styrofoam snow clumps. All the while a snake, red tongue flickering, cats along, its tail tied to that of the kite. Two conifers, reaching to the sky like smoke rising, mark the boundaries of the diorama.

Detail busies the eye. Marianne Moore wrote that the truest poetry (read: art) excelled at providing 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them' - the thing itself alive on that edge between the imaginary and the real. The gusto and precision, the liveliness of Craft's imaginary garden arrives by way of the real trinkets, the small daily exuberances which knit life together. The choices prove so idiosyncratic, loopy and, well, crafty, that the elements can be seen as a kind of self-portraiture, which remains suggestive and accurate as well as wonderfully unverifiable: a rubber dog's-toy hedgehog, goofy yellow-capped mushrooms, tufts of grass spurting up like moments of happiness, zanily reconfigured hummingbirds (clear swizzle-sticks for wings), bumbleflies, a pink Playdoh-like snail with a 'real' nacreous shell, a 70s ochre figurine owl, a crystalline caterpillar with jet head and sparkling zircon eyes. The longer it's watched, the more everything blooms.

In The Four Seasons (1996), Jennifer Pastor approached contemporaneity in a painstaking study of verisimilitude by way of still life; her materials' denouement was her critique of the given. Craft, perhaps due to a temperamental allegiance to abstraction, a keen observance of the work of Jessica Stockholder (especially her meditative, yet funky, earlier work), and/or a wish to fuck up Disneyland's 'architecture of reassurance', can be seen to play the drop-out, bohemian genius to Pastor's valedictorian. Bluntly, in Craft's work everything breaks down: she abstracts and highlights and delights in the obvious fakery of her materials, of Los Angeles and of representation itself. Bits of unspraypainted foam show through her forest green conifers; there's no blood at the buck's severed neck but plush, crushed velvet; bugs hover on black wire; the cave depths glitter because of the plasticky untruths of the black Astroturf that they are made of. The bucks' torsos are shaped out of pentagons; the pool signifies water through its different hues of painted blue and stacked contours, and the fact that the buck is standing in water at all is ascertained by surface circles of blue ringing his legs. The pool is broken into two parts by a sharp gap, into which doubt flows. The garden's abundant growth attempts to fill such cracks, but instabilities keep returning.

While Craft's matter-of-fact enjoyment of this fakery can be taken as just that - a relishing of stuff and formal arrangements of things - it leads back to the perhaps inconclusive but nonetheless preponderant meaning of Los Angeles and its relation to the cinematic. Each leaf of the ivy overwhelming Craft's cave is expertly crafted out of some material suggesting the waxiness of many real leaves. Resolutely fake, through the camera's lens, from a distance or in a certain light, this fakery could appear otherwise. It's an allegory of the way cinematic reality - and other kinds of reality - are created from the perception and misperception of the made-up.

And when the apple of knowledge was eaten, what was learned was how difficult it can be at times to tell the real from the fake, and that fakery had its own charms. One of them was to entice reality to be probed even more closely. Adam long gone, Eve gone too, her echoes still sound in the garden, the edge, the gap, where the real and what is confused for its opposite abrade. Echoes saying, 'Does it exist? I am never sure if it exists.' (Eve was never concerned with consequence, but with the materiality, the abundant materiality, imagined or not.) Making Eden over, stranger, is one way to know it exists.