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COVER STORY : Art in the City of Angels and Demons : A sordid chapter from the past provided the name for 'Helter Skelter'--a show that aims to reflect L.A.'s dark side

January 26, 1992|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is a Times staff writer

There's nothing harder to change than image. If you're a public figure, you can always hire a press agent to help, but it's a bit harder for a city to transform itself--particularly when the image suits the tourist industry and it's sent around the world on The Big Screen.

In the case of Los Angeles, perceptions of the city have permeated the image of the art scene. Fun. Sun. Movie stars. Despite an endless list of L.A. art that doesn't match the cliche--most notably a cynical strain of conceptually based work that has emerged from CalArts--the mindless image has been slow to die.

"There was always this perception of Los Angeles being Venice, Santa Monica and the beach," says Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. "It may never have been that, but that was a pervasive notion and a lot of the artists who are most internationally known from the '60s and '70s, be it David Hockney or Sam Francis, continued to support that in one way or another. And artists who didn't, left."

Now, Schimmel is fighting this narrow view of Los Angeles art head-on in "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s," a big, brash exhibition of anxiety-ridden artworks, opening today at the museum's Temporary Contemporary facility in Little Tokyo.

The show features works by 16 Los Angeles artists who focus on society's underside and pull no punches in their representations of sex, violence, perversity and alienation. From Jim Shaw's narrative drawings of a serial killer to Nancy Rubin's Gargantuan pile of house trailers, motor homes and water heaters, the artworks brutally undercut stereotypes of Los Angeles as a sun-drenched playground that produces pretty art.

There's scarcely any residue of L.A.'s trademark "Finish Fetish" or "Light and Space" art to be seen in "Helter Skelter," much less a whiff of the airy, optimistic painting that has long been identified with the city. All 45,000 square feet of the Temporary Contemporary are filled with such things as Richard Jackson's room built of 1,000 identical, simultaneously ticking clocks, Paul McCarthy's "Garden" featuring mechanical men who copulate with trees or holes in the ground, Megan Williams' whirlwind-like drawings of men's genital fixations and Meg Cranston's suspended video monitor showing a genie who sends subversive music into various parts of the museum.

"I'm interested in art that's going to be right in your face," the 37-year-old curator says in the current issue of MOCA's newspaper. "You know all those people who are confused about conceptual and abstract art?" he asks, walking through the galleries during the show's installation. "Well, they're not going to have a problem with this. It may be too explicit for some of them, but there's a lot to see and read and be confronted with."

Schimmel hopes viewers will understand that he means to round out the image of Los Angeles, not create a new, equally narrow one. But some observers question whether the old sunny image of Los Angeles is as pervasive as he thinks. Says Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens: "So many publications have done articles on how rancid the California Dream has become--you can't drive, you can't breathe, you can't go out at night without getting shot--I don't think anyone goes to California to get a part in 'CHiPS' anymore."

With an attention-grabbing title, an eclectic roster of artists and a slew of undeniably tough art, Schimmel knows he may be in for trouble from those who don't want to be hit in the face with societal ills when they go to a museum, but he doesn't shrink from the prospect. "To do a regional show in this day and age, you either have to be profoundly stupid or just love the controversy. Obviously, I love the controversy," he says.

"You can't do a show about what's going on in your own community without having literally hundreds of other viable and significant options to do, and literally hundreds of people telling you what it is you should do.

"That keeps museums from doing shows about their own communities, which is crazy because Los Angeles' image is being redefined in New York and Europe. I travel a lot and I see the importance that artists here are having in those larger international communities, and I don't feel that we are doing enough to define Los Angeles art from our own perspective. And I know why, because every time you do it, you get bashed. It's a lot easier and a lot safer to do a one-person show on an internationally recognized artist."

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