BY Lars Bang Larsen in Reviews | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

Sunshine & Noir: Art in LA 1960-1997

BY Lars Bang Larsen in Reviews | 10 SEP 97

One of the noticeable things about this ambitious show of Los Angeles art is the display of institutional muscle as manifested in its impressive array of key art historical works. For example, we are presented with seminal works such as Ed Kienholz' The Beanery (1965) and David Hockney's A Bigger Splash (1967), along with more recent ones by artists such as Paul McCarthy, Jennifer Pastor, Catherine Opie and Jason Rhoades. You will have seen most of the works on display in books and magazines, and the list of lenders is longer than the criminal record of Charles Manson.

Prestigious as it is to historicise movements or particular art scenes - and much more so when it comes to LA and its aura of 'ahistorical' space - the curator has the arduous task of reconstruction in the face of retrospective unequivocality. The problems here are, among others, questions of representation and whether the reconstruction should take off from what remains of that period (as subsequent historical constructs), or from a more active negotiation of how and why things happened the way they did. 'Sunshine & Noir' falters between the two, all the while intent on planting its flag on the 'virgin' territory of the historical LA art scene.

What could have been world class curation (considering the competence of Lars Nittve and the general excellence of the works) instead turns out be a show that glides in and out of focus. Given that 'Sunshine & Noir' is the first declared attempt to make a comprehensive historical exhibition of LA art, one is left with the feeling that the curators could have made a more challenging and complex exhibition than this heavy, retrospectively affirmative survey. The devil-may-care stance of many of these great artworks suffers from weak-willed hanging and occasionally inscrutable curating. When it comes to the more recent part of the show, it is difficult to make out what the grounds of the selection have been: the 'personal passions' of the curators is hardly an advantageous departure point for a discussion, unless you happen to be in the same bridge club.

Reflecting the intention of the curators to 'reconstruct for a European public [...] the artistic contexts that some of the artists they know call home', the artworks are employed as units in the construction of the exhibition-as-city. This places the art works in an unwieldy double bind: they are at the same time the backdrop for themselves and the subject matter that this context should highlight. The result is that works surface in instrumental roles. For example, David Hammons' 'Spades' series is almost reduced to decoration, while Johanna Demetrakas' video Womanhouse (1974) is doomed to neglect due to its curious, user-unfriendly placement in a pillar. This dominant curatorial aesthetic rarely allows a statement to emerge before it is neutralised by stylistic or thematic juxtapositions and contrasts. This way, of course, you get a feeling for the drastic genre impurity and remarkable artistic diversity of the LA scene. But however favourably you may view the Louisiana's intimate Modernist spaces, they can hardly support this kind of crowded visual presentation, which risks lapsing into accumulation. While the urban organisational principle is connected to the curators' conception that LA art is characteristic of the place in which it is produced, the vision of LA is given an unfortunate direction. The show's sensibility recalls William Gibson's definition of LA as cyberspace: its matrix is reduced to what is seen from 1500 metres up - you are never really down in the thick of it.

LA's special nature as a generator, receptor and repository of myths about itself was the subject of an essay by Anthony Vidler (Magic Geographies: L.A. Myths, in Art + Text no.55, 1996). Vidler commented on the almost impulsive drive of foreign visitors to fabricate, repeat or experience the myths about the city, and the compulsion of many of its inhabitants to replay or repeat these same myths. He proposed the 'somewhat unorthodox notion that this condition is not a product of Hollywood alone; indeed, I would advance the reverse hypothesis: it is because LA is so myth-prone that it is so comfortable a home for the movie-industry, which as a result, can buy into and simulate its invention of a "mythic LA"'. Living in a dream is not the same as dreaming it. However urgent it is to get to grips with the mythic aspects of the city, proposing the duality of 'Sunshine & Noir' as a projection onto the living map of LA unfortunately tends to interfere with a concerted revision of artistic and art-historical policies.

When reading the comprehensive and very informative catalogue - where dues are also paid to social aspects of LA and its emerging art scene - one element that gradually asserts itself as the dominant feature of the LA scene is the radicality and complexity of the discussions of its loose-knitted, but committed and energetic artistic community. In the light of this, the two 'Sampler' video collections of the work of southern Californian artists - one compiled by Paul McCarthy, the other by Diana Thater - are among the hits of the exhibition. Here the public can pick and choose from two libraries of tapes with fascinating mixtures of artists, periods and styles. Despite such fine initiatives, discussions about local aspects of feminism, performance, happenings and political art are still missing from the main exhibition.

Paradoxically, given the fact that the LA art scene embodies aspects of the volatile and of extra-aesthetic unpredictability, 'Sunshine & Noir' seems to repeat already (and unnecessarily) cemented art historical schema. It is probably unfair to fault an exhibition for not being something it didn't set out to be, but as a curatorial statement 'Sunshine & Noir' seems unwilling to discuss its promise of representational reliability. The show's comparison of myths to maps is hardly fortuitous - this strategy too easily becomes magic geography, or 'histories with holes in them', as Frederic Jameson once put it.

Lars Bang Larsen is a writer, curator and director of artistic research at Art Hub Copenhagen, Denmark.