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Ascent of the Early Risers

A MOCA exhibition tries to capture the moment when new art and young artists made their mark on the real world.

April 01, 2001|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

In 1990, Jorge Pardo, a 26-year-old, UCLA-trained sculptor, introduced himself to the art world at Thomas Solomon's Garage, a makeshift gallery in a West Hollywood alley. In an astonishing blend of old-fashioned craftsmanship and up-to-the-minute ideas, Pardo created painstaking likenesses of domestic tools and other ordinary, manufactured objects-a ladder, a router, a set of wrenches, even a handmade sheet of plywood. Reviewing the show for The Times, critic Christopher Knight deemed it "among the more impressive debuts of recent memory."

The following year, Matthew Barney, a 24-year-old, Yale-educated artist who supported himself by modeling for fashion ads, created an extraordinary buzz at Stuart Regen Projects in West Hollywood. His ambitious installation, "Transexualis (Decline)," consisted of a walk-in cooler containing a weightlifter's decline bench made of petroleum jelly, assorted exercise equipment and a video of the nude artist engaged in a feat of physical endurance and metaphorical innuendo. When the exhibition subsequently appeared on the East Coast, the New York Times hailed it as "an extraordinary first show."

In 1994, it was Jason Rhoades' turn to flaunt his youthful ambition and ingenuity. In his installation "Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts" the 28-year-old graduate of Pasadena's Art Center College of Design turned Rosamund Felsen's West Hollywood gallery into "a domesticated landfill," as former Times reviewer Susan Kandel put it. Having filled the space chockablock with crude copies of Ikea furniture, plastic trash bins and assorted consumer detritus, then parked a yellow Pontiac Fiero outside the gallery, Rhoades was on his way to art stardom.

Meanwhile, in London, Rachel Whiteread, a graduate of Slade College of Fine Art, was making big plaster casts of spaces around domestic fixtures and furnishings. Chris Ofili, educated at the Royal College of Art, was selling clumps of elephant dung on a crummy street in the East End and applying the stuff to his luminous, dot-covered paintings.

Hottest of all was Damien Hirst, who was making ecosystems that incorporated life cycles of insects. In 1991, fresh out of Goldsmiths College, he took over an empty shop to install "In and Out of Love," a two-part reflection on life and death. In one room, butterflies hatched from cocoons attached to paintings, flew around a humid room and feasted on sugar water. After the butterflies died, Hirst attached them to paintings, displayed in another room with a table holding ashtrays crammed with cigarette butts.

These breakthrough projects-and many more-by artists who blasted out of art schools in the 1990s are the subject of "Public Offerings," opening today at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo. The exhibition, organized by MOCA's chief curator, Paul Schimmel, presents early work-including performance-based installations, conceptual sculpture, paintings, photographs and films-by 25 artists who studied at major art schools in Los Angeles, New York, London, Tokyo and Berlin.

"It's a historical exhibition about the making of the artist in the '90s," Schimmel says. The show marks a period when an unusual number of young artists burst upon the scene with remarkably ambitious, labor-intensive work that quickly won them recognition, launched them on the circuit of national museum shows and into the fast lane of the international contemporary art scene, and yielded financial rewards as well.

"What differentiates these artists so dramatically from preceding generations is that they gained recognition so early," he says. "The Abstract Expressionists were well into their 40s when they became well-known; the Pop artists were in their 30s, and that was considered very young at the time. These artists were in their early 20s. They went into a kind of public arena that artists at that age had never experienced so uniformly, across the whole generation."

The exhibition catches them at a moment when their work was still fresh and pure, and when they were compelled to spend an extraordinary amount of effort on it, Schimmel says. "When they started these pieces, they didn't know who they were yet, as artists. There is that sense of discovery within the works themselves.

"Whatever you can say in retrospect about these artists in terms of how strategic they were or how clever they were about marketing and the commercial implications, what they were doing was insane," he says. "They were doing it because they knew nothing else, and they were working day jobs to do it. They had to do it."

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