in Frieze | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

Trading Places

Glen Seator's Fifteen Sixty One

in Frieze | 09 SEP 99

The idea is simple enough. An architectural recreation of Popular Cash Express, a low-rent cheque-cashing establishment from the Latino area of Echo Park on Los Angeles' eastern flank, is given a new address on a swank Beverly Hills street. Its flashing neon and loudly painted signage - 'Free Money Orders!', 'Open 24 Hours!' - interrupts the smooth flow of well-heeled elegance, the (questionably) tasteful period exteriors and coolly understated Modernist facades that line the block; home to high-end beauty salons and yuppie toy emporiums, as well as the Gagosian Gallery. Glen Seator has snugly tucked Popular Cash Express into the right-hand corner of the gallery, so that its noisy little mess is framed by the clean, straight, white lines of Richard Meier's exercise in Minimalist grandeur.

Seator's Fifteen Sixty One (the title is taken from the original building's address on Sunset Boulevard) is a convincing enough replica to attract customers, who, upon strolling inside, would be disappointed to find no one working behind the three cashier's windows (furnished by the Los Angeles Bullet Proof Equipment Company). Indeed, the interior seems eerily pristine: the chequered linoleum floor, the lightbox sign for Western Union, the rate sheets detailing commission charges, the fake wood panelling - all look utterly immaculate, giving the place the appearance of a newly-manufactured movie location before the set decorator has artificially aged it.

Peering through the cashier's windows, you can see into Gagosian's empty main gallery, but to actually enter it you have to go through another doorway down the street. Once inside the gallery, you encounter the reverse side of the store front - a raw plywood construction partially raised on blocks that recalls the back of a studio-made facade. Vertical two-by-fours create a caged space on a platform which, in the real store, would be occupied by the money-dispensing cashiers. But once again, visitors cannot access this space. In the gallery's back room, a single panoramic photograph of a scrubby desert landscape, just outside LA, wraps around four walls before culminating in a rolled-up bit, as if to remind us that this photograph - like the recreated cheque-cashing store - is an object in its own right as well as a representation of one.

Entitled 'Three' in reference to these three places, one being the emptied main gallery, Seator's exhibition is, on one level, a show about different kinds of emptiness, or what we imagine 'emptiness' to be. But emptiness, or at least a sense of vacated reality, is often associated with Los Angeles as a city, due not only to its role as a dream factory, but also to the cinematic quality of its horizontal landscape, the way it unfurls like a sprawling filmstrip, suggesting an endless surface devoid of cultural depths.

From another (and perhaps more interesting) angle, Seator's exhibition deals in matters of money, class and taste. Beyond the obvious provocation of putting a working-class financial racket in a neighbourhood virtually synonymous with wealth, Seator's Fifteen Sixty One raises questions about the vaunted 'mobility' of what could be called the Los Angeles lifestyle. Rather than suggest the interpenetrability of the different urban realities it makes use of, his installation presents visitors with a series of spatial dead ends, reminding us of the city's very real class and racial barriers.

The storefront's vibrant, unabashed signage is a distinct class marker - one that violates local building codes (special permission had to be obtained from city authorities before Seator's work could be installed). Just as there are different fiscal institutions for different classes, there are also different aesthetic systems: the Wells Fargo Bank building directly across the street from Fifteen Sixty One, an unassuming box with brown-tinted windows, is a model of moneyed discretion, as is the clinical Modernism of Meier's Gagosian Gallery (Meier, incidentally, is Mr Money in architectural circles, his firm having received $80 million for the Getty Museum job).

Near the beginning of this century, the Viennese modernist Adolph Loos wrote a short tract entitled Ornament and Crime (1906), in which he condemned decorated surfaces, whether tattooed bodies or ornamented facades, as morally unhygenic acts of violence against 'good taste'. Following Loos' principles, Gagosian and Wells Fargo advertise their names with barely noticeable lettering. The bright, blinking signage of Fifteen Sixty One, on the other hand, is the architectural equivalent of a tattoo, connoting a culturally-derelict, low-class venue that people with money should automatically shun.

Yet by installing his version of Popular Cash Express in a Beverly Hills gallery, Seator makes a joke about the art world's own dubious values. Galleries, after all, are also places that survive by taking healthy commissions. And while cheque-cashing stores often operate in a legal twilight (many will cash third-party cheques without making a fuss about ID), and are a key component in LA's economy of illegal migrant workers (who typically use such places to wire money south of the border), the art business has likewise been known to traffic in 'funny money', from auction houses dealing in stolen goods to unscrupulous dealers and collectors who take advantage of the fact that art sales are rarely regulated by contracts.

The fact that it would probably be cheaper to buy a real Popular Cash Express than Seator's replica represents another aspect of the funny things that happen to value in the art world. But perhaps the ultimate irony of Fifteen Sixty One is the way its virtual demeanour fits right into the prevailing theme park ethos of Beverly Hills, distinguished by its hodgepodge of make-believe historical architectural styles and the bravura simulation of Via Rodeo, a developer-built, Italianate street-cum-shopping mall that veers up a man-made hill off Rodeo Drive. The twist is that unlike theme parks, which typically reproduce grandiose environments, Seator's Fifteen Sixty One serves up the low-end of the cultural spectrum, and sterilises it just enough to make it seem right.