"When I was a student, it was Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg who were clearly the most important artists," said Thomas Lawson, a painter and dean of the School of Art at CalArts. "Them and Andy Warhol. Everybody agreed that they were the ones. Now, because there are such diverse possibilities, it's much harder to say."
Of contemporary art today, two things, and maybe only two things, can be said for sure.
First, there is more of it -- made in more styles and materials, by more artists who live, work and have exhibitions in more places -- than ever before.
Second, it doesn't fit into neat categories or hierarchies. Thanks to the Internet, the ease of travel and the growth and globalization of the art market, the days of a single dominant style are long gone. Despite the proliferation of electronic media, many hip young artists devote themselves to drawing and painting or defy classification by dipping into a mixed bag of materials. The notion that an artist must live in a particular place to be successful is also a thing of the past. If there's such a thing as a prevailing trend, international eclecticism must be it.
"If you talk about local art, you sound like a Luddite," said John Baldessari, a pioneering Conceptualist who has been based in Los Angeles for decades but had his first success in Europe and is still in high demand there. With big museum shows in Germany and Belgium this fall, he's planning a retrospective at the Tate London in 2008.
To see his point and get a fix on contemporary art's big picture, consider the fall openers at Los Angeles area galleries. Painting, sculpture and photography coexist with new media, often in the work of a single citizen of the world who may be a visual storyteller, formal purist or social critic.
Among visitors from abroad, Joao Louro, a Portuguese impresario said to choose media "as a director selects the musicians for his orchestra," shows paintings and wall reliefs related to the film industry at Christopher Grimes Gallery. Henry Coombes, of Glasgow, exposes violence and domestic distress below the surface of British middle-class life in paintings, sculptures and a video at Anna Helwing. "Sea Change," an international group show, explores "ideas of three-dimensionality" in painting and sculpture at Roberts & Tilton. One artist, American painter Jimmy Baker, gives a surreal gloss to the evening news in highly refined but bizarre images drawn from popular culture.
American artists based outside L.A. also have a large presence. Tony Oursler, a New Yorker who merges video with sculpture and sound to mesmerizing effect, has dreamed up a history of space exploration in an installation at Margo Leavin. "Spaced," he calls the show, in a witty warning to visitors. Ernesto Caivano, who also lives in New York, has made up a tale about lovers reunited after a 1,000-year separation in a suite of 100 ink drawings at Richard Heller. Hung Liu, who cut her artistic teeth in China during the Cultural Revolution and lives in Oakland, has created a group of paintings based on her heritage for her L.A. debut at Walter Maciel.
"Translation is part of art-making," Liu says, "whether you are working from a photograph, a sketch, an observation, whatever. You lose something in the translation, but you also liberate yourself."
As for the home team, new media luminary Jeremy Blake presents "Sodium Fox," a digital, animated film made in collaboration with Nashville poet and musician David Berman, at Honor Fraser. Blake says he was inspired by Eugene Delacroix's romantic painting "Liberty Leading the People," but his version includes strippers, tattoos, graffiti, neon lights and Wal-Marts. Conceptualist Rodney McMillian offers a huge painting of a sky, for sale by the square foot, with pieces priced according to the buyer's income level, at Susanne Vielmetter. Frohawk Two Feathers, a.k.a. Umar Rashid, spins a narrative about colonialism and imperialism in paintings and sculptures at Taylor de Cordoba. Kevin Appel explodes buildings in meticulously crafted paintings at Angles.
The mix is no less daunting at biannual exhibitions that attempt to define the zeitgeist worldwide.
In "Still Points of the Turning World," Site Santa Fe's current contemporary art roundup, guest curator Klaus Ottmann dispensed with a theme and organized side-by-side solo exhibitions by 13 artists from Poland, Norway, Germany, Spain, France and the U.S. As Laura Steward Heon, director-curator of Site Santa Fe, wrote in the catalog: "In these postmodern times, the idea that a biennial could encapsulate a tidy overview of the art of a moment or place has been abandoned as hopelessly reductive."
The 2006 California Biennial, opening today at the Orange County Museum of Art, is limited to emerging artists who live and work in the state, but nine of the 36 were born outside the U.S. Their collective vision is said to reflect "today's eclectic communities, cultures and art movements."