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Art Review

'Downtown' Reflects Its Setting, Surrounding City

The exhibition's down-at-the-heels setting and gritty works give a visitor plenty to think about--and enjoy.

November 18, 2000|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An exhibition whose best works could easily be mistaken for a manhole coverand a trio of No Parking signs doesn't sound like it's worth a visit. But "Downtown," the inaugural exhibition of Side Street Projects' new location on the ground floor of the San Fernando Building at 4th and Main is full of surprises.

Organized by Karen Atkinson, executive director of the nonprofit artist-run organization, and guest curator Joy Silverman, this spunky show documents more than 50 performances and temporary installations that have taken place in downtown Los Angeles over the past 30 years. Like its surroundings, "Downtown" is more than a little rough around the edges.

Its photographs, videos, posters, murals and proplike objects have been installed in a stately old building that, to put it politely, has seen better times. Although similar buildings are often transformed into pristine galleries whose white walls glisten with the money spent to renovate them, this unfinished space looks like a construction site.

Works have been hung on unpainted sections of Sheetrock, whose metal studs protrude from the top. Exposed pipes gurgle. Electrical cords run across the tarnished floor, snaking their way around a big puddle to reach an unplugged fan. (Since it hasn't rained in a while, the source of spilled liquid is mysterious, and hardly reassuring.)

The unglamorous setting, however, suits the catch-as-catch-can spirit of the show. Documenting one-time-only performances (that often had very small audiences), the exhibit also records the fugitive histories of pieces various artists left in the street (to see what would happen, up close and in person, when art and life collided). As a whole, "Downtown" tells a story of do-it-yourself initiative, of events and activities that fly beneath the radar of an art-world obsessed with big-budget masterpieces and headline-grabbing extravaganzas.

Despite the grungy, unfinished state of the space, it's still a gallery. In this context, Marc Kreisel's homemade manhole cover has the presence of a cast-metal sculpture, one that resembles a coin dropped by a giant.

If this sly piece from 1985 were out in the street, capping a circular portal to the city's nether regions, you might walk by without noticing what's embossed on its surface: A logo-like design and text that reads "Sexual Relations between Students and Teachers." Neither endorsing nor condemning these relations, Kreisel's functional sculpture serves as an industrial-strength lid to a metaphoric can of worms, in which emotions and morals are tangled in a mess that many believe belongs in the sewer.

Posted well above the gutter but sending equally mixed messages are three silk-screened placards that Bob Zoell has made to resemble the red and white signs that publicize parking regulations throughout the city. In each, words are broken into fragments that are printed in different sizes and scripts. Forming funny phrases, they recall the mix-and-match typefaces of ransom notes, albeit extremely stylish ones.

In the early 1990s, Zoell placed his fake signs around Los Angeles. If you didn't look closely, you'd drive by without noticing. But once one of these playful pranks caught your eye, it enlivened its surroundings with the sense that secret messages could be read everywhere, if only you took the time to look closely.

The majority of the projects documented by the exhibit had an explicitly political edge when they were originally presented. In many, information was served up clearly and directly.

One of the most ambitious was "Hidden Labor," a series of window displays created by Common Threads, a women's political action group. Filling nine department store windows from 1997 to 1998, this sequential installation traced the history of women, unions and sweatshops in the garment district.

Art and activism likewise crossed paths in a 1985 voter registration campaign by LAPD (Los Angeles Poverty Department); a 1981 anti-nuclear demonstration by Sisters of Survival; and a symbolic scrubbing and mopping of City Hall by Mother Art in 1978. This impulse continues in Valerie Tevere's ongoing work with Union de Vecinos, a community-based group organized to improve public housing.

A volatile mixture of humor and politics spills from a 1988 tabloidlike poster by Mothers of Medusa, a feminist collective whose performances, mailings and general rabble-rousing mocked the art-world's male-oriented pretensions. Less scathingly but equally memorable was "Ant Hymn," a 1996 installation by Collage Ensemble. In an abandoned shop-window, this rough-and-tumble mix of words and images warned passersby that ants would soon rule the world.

Photographs of performances by LA Mud People similarly invite viewers to take a long view of history. With mud-caked bodies and bucketlike helmets covering their heads, the troupe looks like a tribe of prehistoric kachinas. Standing before skyscrapers, their presence in the modern city suggests that contemporary individuals are not as different from one another as we usually assume.

The show's only shortcoming is its wall labels, more than half of which fail to provide the dates and locations of the pieces they describe. But that's a historical matter that can be cleared up in the future. For the present, there's plenty to look at and even more to think about when you visit "Downtown."

*

* "Downtown," Side Street Projects, 400 S. Main St., (213) 620-8895, through Nov. 30. Open Friday and Saturday noon-5 p.m. and by appointment Tuesday-Thursday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.. Suggested donation: $2.

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