The 2008 California Biennial will be taking place at the Orange County Museum of Art (and other locations) now through March 15, 2009.
Before I get to the exhibition, I want you to think back to a moment that’s nearly universal among Californians. When we were learning to drive there was a time when we left an empty parking lot and first ventured onto roads with traffic. For a few anxiety-filled moments we were stepping, shifting, and turning amid a sensory overload of knobs, dials, pedals, mirrors, gauges, and oncoming traffic.
In some ways, this was the shared experience of viewers at the recent biennials in Venice and New York, plus the most recent iteration of Documenta. It may be said that the zeitgeist of our time is sensory overload, and our brains are suffering the overwhelming input of record-setting art and oil prices, seven years of Middle East war, global warming, two years of presidential campaigning, and the pillaging of nations by the rich and well connected from America to Zimbabwe.
It has been a rough start to the new millennium, and sadly art survey shows have failed to reflect the context in which art makers and viewers live. Thankfully Lauri Firstenberg of LAXART has remedied the disconnect with the 2008 California Biennial. She also appreciates the uniquely Californian context where the artists themselves are fabricated: those degree-granting factories that employ a mix of working artists to assemble the next generation of art makers from bits of theory, activism, beer, and art supplies.
The show begins even before one enters the building. Like a head bursting with ideas, the art spills out the front door and into the parking lot, with additional work in Tijuana (Estación Tijuana), Joshua Tree (HDTS), San Francisco (Queen's Nails Annex), and Los Angeles (LAXART, 533, and more).
Driving to the Orange County Museum of Art from the Jamboree exit, one sees clusters of yard signs for the upcoming election. Outside the museum Pato Herbert gives voice to the id of the electorate, powered by aphorisms.
Sam Durant's banners (in English and Spanish) hijack the OC's civic-boosterism-via-banner-blight, by reminding residents that their comfortable homes were built by the sweat of an undocumented workforce, on a piece of land that once flew the flags of Mexico and Spain.
Inside, Julio Cesar Morales reminds visitors (with his video, Interrupted Passage, depicting the transfer of California from Mexico) that borders are both mutable and porous things.
In Addition to Marcos Ramirez' graffitied signs, he is also hosting a live feed (at the museum's reception desk) from his exhibition space on the border, turning his camera on ICE's surveillance of the no-man's land of razor wire along the fence, as seen from el otro lado.
If you miss the performance of Ortiz Torres' pimped out scissor lift at the CB08 opening, it will be crossing that other border--the Orange Curtain--to perform November 15 at LAXART.
A case in point on the hodgepodge of recent international survey shows was Pettibon's unfocused contribution to the Venice Biennale. Rather than curate from Pettibon's vast archive, Robert Storr played Pope Julius II and had the artist paint on the wall (to lukewarm reviews). Here Firstenberg focuses on Pettibon's war drawings, and then the artist ties the grouping together with hand-painted banners. The selection illustrates several different voices, but as one reads through the work, there is cohesion to the topic at hand.
In the drawing on the lower right a solder drags two of his fallen comrades with an American Flag in the background. Pettibon writes, "No stars here. But we earn our stripes," referring to the marks made by the bloodied boots. This is the first room of the exhibition space proper, and it sets a topical tone for a tour of the rest of the rooms.
Daniel Joseph Martinez'
Call Me Ishmael; or, The Fully Enlightened Earth Radiates Disaster Triumphant 2006/2008
Off the lobby is Martinez' animatronic self portrait--dressed in white--which periodically spasms, then convulses to life. In the context of art it can be read as fits of existentialist angst. By thinking (outside the art cube) to CIA secret prisons, the room becomes a place of torture by solitary confinement. By entering the installation the viewer becomes part of the piece, implicated like a complacent guard at Guantanamo Bay.
The age range of the CB08 artists nearly spans a half century, from Yvonne Rainer to Kara Tanaka, with works by both artists evoking dance. In CBTHOTS, a mechanical Sufi Dervish whirls to automated transcendence, while next door Rainer's dancers move to the sounds of a BBC reenactment of the riotous first performance of the Rite of Spring.
These movements take place in a cultural forum that makes bedfellows of Rumi and Nijinsky, and Firstenberg shows us that representation can come from animatronics and reenactments--in addition to the stuff from art supply stores.
A couple thousand years ago (when the sun god became the son of god and Saturnalia morphed into Christmas) the hammer of the sun (son) would be the instrument of god's will. Tanaka's representation of sublime ecstasy is achieved by a rack and pinion, the same mechanism that moves the flaps that control a commercial aircraft. It might be said that for the pilots and their accomplices on September 11th, the rack and pinion was the instrument that helped them to achieve god's will...and their own slice of transcendence.
I figure that Marco Rios is about an inch shorter than I, since the ceiling in Vanishing Intent was lowered to his height. For taller folk, I can imagine that the room might be claustrophobic (a bit of table-turning on Rios' part). For myself, Rios' room made me acutely aware that personal space extends up as well as out.
Oddly, the exhibition is bookended by two small enclosed spaces with doors and a single light source.
Near the entrance is Michael Arcega's space, cleverly disguised as a pile of 2x4s, held together by a couple of nylon straps.
While leaders from Alan Greenspan to Dick Cheney fail to learn from history, Justin Beal's installation offers a teachable moment of when the United States was transitioning from a war- to a peace-time economy--something we can hope may happen again. Besides reproductions of war-time adverts for building materials, he beautifully riffs on Eames' off-the-shelf aesthetic with an adjustable chair.
On the wall are full sheets of rolled Aluminum, asking us to enjoy the patina from their manufacturing and handling. In a way it's WPA-era social realism--championing the value of labor--updated via Donald Judd.
(Volcanic glass on linen on panel)
Once again I'm reminded of the Venice Biennale, where the best painters included were the ossified men that could easily be seen in Gardner or Janson. Firstenberg shows us that there are interesting things being done on canvas by more recent art school grads. Included in the show are a quartet of optical works by Mark Hagen.
Jordan Kantor brings other optical issues into play, updating Jack Goldstein's re-presentation of the "spectacular instant." For Kantor, works are scaled down from Goldstein's cinema-screen size to dimensions, more in keeping for a generation that watches wide-screen movies on the back of an airplane seat. Rather than churn out similar objects in an old school way, Kantor mixes media and styles.
For his spray-painted shadows, you are reminded that the diagram of an eye--with a cone of light coming to a point on the cornea--is similar to the cone of paint droplets emanating from the nozzle of a spray can. Light and Space gets updated with the tagger's tools.
Rodney presents us with a yin and yang of flag paintings that seem more Robert Rauschenberg than Jasper Johns. The well-worn and slapdash look of McMillian's work and makes it easy to approach. He's like the chemistry teacher who made the subject fun and not so overwhelming, so it becomes easy jump in and then figure out what's going on--even when it's big and abstract with gigantic cojones.
Of course you might miss the trees for the forrest if you wallow in the juicy strawberry swirl of pigment instead of penetrating the surface.
I have to admire someone who has painted for so long that their rendering skills have been ingrained in muscle memory, and with a few days, a brush and some scaffolding, can crank out a wall-size mural. I remember seeing Gronk in a performance at MOCA where he painted an Amazon-sized Tormenta and then tore it to pieces to the gasps of the assembled crowd. Gronk represents an era when art making was about the idea and the labor, not phoning it in to a fabricator.
Coming from the days when ASCO tagged LACMA, Gronk's "big mouth" has developed a case of Twomblyesque Tourette's.
Again, I'm back in Venice. But unlike Isa Genzken's detritus in the German Pavilion, Amanda Ross-Ho holds no shattered illusions about America. America manufactures and sells shattered illusions. Displaced studio walls transform into chunks of displaced evidence, like the Unibomber's shack carted off to a crime lab. Viewers are left to sift through fake bling, with memories of drive-bys in other people's neighborhoods.
Jedediah Cesar's performative process involved driving around California for a month and picking up little bits along the way. In the end we're presented with his road-worn Toyota, sagging under the weight of its collection.
I reminded of an article from the NY Times. We all remember that Sacramento is the capital of California, but we don't remember where we first picked up that nugget of information. The scary part is that some of those data chunks we regurgitate could have come from a peer-reviewed journal, while others arrived via the World Weekly News. If we heed Jedediah Cesar's cautionary tale, we need to stop accumulating, and stop tossing stuff out the window too!
For another work, he drove around Los Angeles with a big chunk of styrofoam, then coated the grime-pocked brick with epoxy. In the end, we have a Donald Judd version of our lungs, turned inside out.
In a more positive inspired approach to process-based art making, Edgar Arceneaux set up a professional musician in a New York gallery, and his mentor Charles Gaines in a West Coast studio, both recording Charles' composition. Over the course of twenty minutes, the two performers flow in and out of sync.
Touring the galleries counter-clockwise, you end with Bruce Conner's found footage of above-ground nuclear testing. Making the rest of the show seem like an interactive walkthrough version of Dr. Strangelove.
To the OCMA's and Firstenberg's credit, this is the first survey show or biennial I've seen that has exhibited art that reflects the current plethora of crises we live in. Throughout history, artists have represented the times they live in. When train stations were built, the impressionists went in and painted them. When current events were reported, artists represented them, from the Raft of the Medusa to the Execution of Maximilian.
As either a coda or an apertif, The Backroom's installation of artists' source materials for their work can be sifted through in the lobby.
Andrea Bowers' El Numero de las Casa Blanca 2007(The number of the White House is (202) 456-1111)
And rather than end with a mushroom cloud, it would probably be better to pick up one of Andrea Bower's unlimited edition prints with the phone number for the White House (and tack it to your wall). Whatever candidate occupies the White House in January, the number will still work.
Journal of Aesthetics and Protest's Issue 6 2008
We shouldn't be incapacitated from the shock and awe of our ability to destroy countries, lives, and economic systems. From the quagmire of the past eight years the current issue of JOA&P show us in three thematic sections examples of collective action, responses to war, and a way forward (in the section on theory). Fitting into the architecture of the lobby, and looking like HVAC ducting, JOA&P will be periodically (get it?) dispensing books by adjusting the sluice gates on their contraption, which dumps them unceremoniously on the floor.
As William Mulholland said, "There it is, take it."
In addition the the show at OCMA, artists exhibiting off site include Kelly Barrie, Walead Beshty, ESL, HDTS, Matt Lucero, My Barbarian, Aaron Sandnes, Jim Skuldt, and Joel Tauber.
OCMA will host the CB08 Salon Series on Sundays at 2:00pm:
November 2Andrea Bowers, Sam Durant, and Marcos RamirezDecember 7Journal of Aesthetics and ProtestJanuary 4Edgar Arceneaux and Rodney McMillianFebruary 1Mary Kelly, Anna Sew Hoy, and Shana LutkerMarch 1Jedediah Caesar, Kara Tanaka, Daniel Joseph Martinez, Marco Rios, and Aaron Sandnes