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Southern California in the Eyes of Its Artists


Chris Burden once invited a friend to shoot him with a .22-caliber rifle as an exercise in performance art. The political cartoons of Robbie Conal, reproduced as crude handbills, can be seen on telephone poles and utility boxes all over Los Angeles. Robert Therrien collected a few discarded china plates, stacked them up and displayed the resulting assemblage in a gallery under the title "No Title."

Each one of these efforts may be arresting and thought-provoking--but, we might ask, is it art?

Mark Johnstone answers this often-asked question with impressive clarity and insight in "Contemporary Art in Southern California" (Craftsman House, $50, 208 pages), a survey of some 43 artists whose work captures the richness and diversity and, at moments, the oddity of the art scene here. "Los Angeles, like a bubbling, sputtering, primordial pool, is endlessly . . . reinventing itself," he writes.

Johnstone is an artist, an art critic and a curator of art exhibitions. He also serves as the administrator of the Public Art Program for the Cultural Affairs Department of the city of Los Angeles. All of these experiences inform the choices he made in selecting art and artists for "Contemporary Art," but what makes his book so intriguing and so illuminating is his ability to show us what's really at stake in the artistic exertions of the men and women whose work he has showcased.

Southern California as seen by the artists in "Contemporary Art" is a startling if sometimes also troubling place. Frank Romero's "Freeway Wars," for example, depicts a shootout between the occupants of two cars racing along a stretch of California highway. John Divola offers bleak but haunting photographs of isolated cabins in the California desert, such as the one depicted on the cover of the book. Michael C. McMillen turns the iconic image of Mickey Mouse into an augury of madness and catastrophe. And "Mattresses and Cakes" by Nancy Rubins is an assemblage of 150 old mattresses and 300 store-bought cakes, all of them bundled up and suspended in the air like a nightmare of domesticity.

By contrast, Johnstone also shows us artists who still embrace the touchingly old-fashioned notion that art is still capable of comforting or inspiring or simply pleasing its viewers. Thus, for example, he shows us "Stellar Axis," a rooftop tower by Lisa Albuquerque at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Public Library that invites our eyes--and our thoughts--to ascend to the heavens. And he explores the work of Jud Fine and Harry Reese, who created a series of fountains and pools at the entrance to the Los Angeles Public Library in downtown L.A., using runes, hieroglyphics, pictographs and calligraphy to usher us into the near-sacred space of the library stacks.

"The noise of life" is how Fine's monumental public art is characterized in Johnstone's book, but the same phrase can be applied to much of the art that we find in the book. Burden, for example, confronts us with the reality of Vietnam by inscribing some 3 million Vietnamese names on a series of copper plates titled "The Other Vietnam Memorial." Even the most unsettling images in the book--a photograph of Tim Miller's performance piece "My Queer Body," for example, shows his naked body adorned with stick-on labels ("Head," "Heart," "Queer," etc.)--remind us that there is a very fine line between life and art.

"Contemporary Art in Southern California" features some of our most celebrated artists--David Hockney and Ed Ruscha are here, and so are John Baldessari, Bill Viola, Charles Ray and D.J. Hall, whose shimmering images at poolside and beach side capture--and caricature--the near-mythic elements of the California dream. But Johnstone concedes that any selection of art and anything he might say about it are necessarily arbitrary. "Explaining the art is to present a single perspective that cannot convey the awe-inspiring spectrum and depth of what is to be encountered," he writes.

Above all, Johnstone reminds us that art here is a moving target. "Viewing art in Southern California is about driving," observes Johnstone, and he means it literally. "A circle of culture meccas, with ever-widening rings, exists outside L.A. within driving distance." He is referring to the widely scattered museums and galleries of Southern California, so diverse in size and geographical location, but he is also hinting at an even more fundamental truth about Southern California art.

"Change and unpredictability," Johnstone writes, "happen with an urgency and speed that is unparalleled elsewhere."

In that sense, "Contemporary Art in Southern California" is an album of freeze-frame snapshots that allows us to see the landscape of Los Angeles through the eyes of the artists who have lived and worked among us. Their vision is sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes horrific, but the best of them succeed in changing the way we see the world we live in--and that may be the single best definition of what is and what isn't art.


West Words looks at books related to California and the West. It runs every other Wednesday.

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