Inspired perhaps by the President's Star Wars initiative, the art world is developing its own defense against disasters--from nuclear holocaust to downtown muggings. Today's art deals relentlessly with themes of threat and destruction. Presumably this tactic will ensure that if catastrophe ever becomes reality, we will already be bored senseless and it won't hurt so bad. This is a desperate, somewhat futile maneuver whose practical effectiveness can't be predicted. Aesthetically, however, the movement is creating a new style that we might call Apocalyptikitsch.
Anyone who has not yet encountered Apocalyptikitsch will find numerous examples in a loudly touted exhibition of contemporary L.A. art entitled "Off the Street." It was whipped up with as much spontaneity as is bureaucratically possible by the city's Cultural Affairs Department and installed in a picturesquely dilapidated former city printing plant at 411 East 1st St. through May 26. (Hours: noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.)
The idea is credited to CAD general manager Fred Croton. Curatorial duties were carried out by Fritz Frauchiger, formerly director of the defunct Arco Center for the Visual Arts.
The exhibition, including works by 47 artists, is predictably a bit of a mess. The installation is chaotic. Too many half-baked artists are included, and the whole leans toward the ambiance of a Halloween carnival in a neighborhood park. That much said, it is also the first large-scale exhibition offering massed proof that Los Angeles' downtown art scene actually reflects the life of the area.
But it does. John Valadez's big mural delivers a life-size slice of Broadway's purgatorial street life. Gilbert Lujan's decorated '50 Chevy, called "Family Car," is not nearly as artistic as a real low rider, but it does suggest the way local Latino culture shades from East L.A. to Echo Park and beyond, as do full-scale graffiti wall murals by Harry Gamboa and Gronk. (Gamboa's is graphically effective in a rococo-psychotic style. Gronk has piled up so many layers of imagery that the work backs up on itself like a clogged drain.)
Marguerite Elliot offers two life-size tableaux of homeless street people. They don't come off expressively, but they seem accidentally to comment on the dilemma of the downtown artist. Elliot uses handsome store-window manikins for her downtrodden people. They are like symbols of artists' attraction to cosmetic beauty colliding with the the rough underbelly of L.A. Well, I sort of enjoy, you know, the fear thrills but I thought it would be a little, um, prettier.
Much of this art is big, raw and aggressive. It clamors for attention, then fails to reward it with anything but callow antisocial postures and bad smells. Anything close to ordinary scale or thoughtful concern--like Jim Morphesis' painting or Neal Taylor's photographs--looks prissy and arty in this company. Artist Molly Cleator takes a stab at lyricism in a little installation using real grass and plants. Significantly, they are dying, as if downtown had already succumbed to the apocalypse seen by Carlos Almaraz, Stephen Burns and who knows how many others.
Much of the art seems to come from a "Repo Man" fantasy where only cunning and brutality survive. It is so heavy-handed that there's no charge to it, and when something moves you, it's with a guilt-tinged, almost pornographic kick. Brian Tucker's punk Photo-Realist paintings have a knack for raunchy fascination.
Fred Tomaselli shows a grim prison-cell environment with a manikin playing a halved cadaver. The lower torso is wired so that it jumps fitfully, as if to an electric shock. This horrible evocation of torture in Central-American jails should not be risible, but it is.
The best parts of this exhibition maintain a little distance amid the prevailing hysteria. Jim Doolin's "Exit I" is basically just a superior painting of a staircase from the vertiginous angle of a Hitchcock thriller. Michael McMillen's "Alameda Street Bunker" confirms his talent as a brilliant maker of walk-in environments. This one evokes the lair of a crackpot survivalist armed with rusty bombs, guns and porno tabloids. It is redolent with keen touches like a peephole onto the street, but the the best hits are a toy sailboat in a pathetic little fountain and a huge net draped over the room. The boat tells us about the imaginary occupant's childishness. The net, clearly set to catch an intruder, will also entangle the survivalist, just as he is enmeshed in paranoia.
Artist Jeffrey Vallance says that McMillen's piece is his favorite. Others may be hard pressed to choose between it and Vallance's own offering. The conceptual prankster has tricked out an old printing plant office with all the usual workplace trappings--papers to be shuffled, a pot of singed coffee. . . . An apparatchik's desk is flanked by American and California flags.
Vallance, in his rather cherubic person, keeps regular office hours and will talk to visitors about whatever they like, interrupted, of course by phone calls. (With malicious irony, the fates gave Vallance Tom Bradley's old number, so he keeps getting calls for the mayor.)
The work is deliciously ambiguous. It may be a sendup of the establishment spine running through this supposedly rebellious show. More directly, Vallance may simply be saying that, well, yes, the Bomb is pretty awesome, but what's really scary in this world is walking into the boss's office.