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Hotel Texas

About fifteen years ago my dear friend Amy Weingartner introduced me to a particularly interesting term she coined. The descriptive phrase, as I remembered, was simply “Kennedy’s Children.” After a quick phone call, I was corrected. Her alliterative turn of phrase was “Camelot Kids.” Regardless, both descriptive monikers refer to those of us who were born during John F. Kennedy’s brief presidential administration. It places us squarely at the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, which is mostly defined as the post war surge in births from 1946 to 1964. I am a Camelot Kid.

President Kennedy speaks to the crowd outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, November 22, 1963. William Allen, photographer/Dallas Times Herald Collection Courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

President Kennedy speaks to the crowd outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, November 22, 1963. William Allen, photographer/Dallas Times Herald Collection Courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

It’s November and I just turned 51, one year shy of a full deck I’m fond of saying. I was one year and one week old when President Kennedy was assassinated. And I’ve been thinking a great deal about those fateful 34 months of his presidency. The intersection of personal and American history has always been of some intense interest to me. The intersection of art and political history is even more eclectic.

Jasper Johns. Diver. 1962-63. Charcoal, pastel, and watercolor on paper mounted on canvas, two panels, 7' 2 1/2" x 71 3/4" (219.7 x 182.2 cm). Partial gift of Kate Ganz and Tony Ganz in memory of their parents, Victor and Sally Ganz, and in memory of Kirk Varnedoe

Jasper Johns. Diver. 1962-63. Charcoal, pastel, and watercolor on paper mounted on canvas, two panels, 7′ 2 1/2″ x 71 3/4″ (219.7 x 182.2 cm). Partial gift of Kate Ganz and Tony Ganz in memory of their parents, Victor and Sally Ganz, and in memory of Kirk Varnedoe

Take 1962 alone. Jasper Johns executed Diver, one of my favorite drawings ever. Andy Warhol had his first one-man exhibition here in Los Angeles in July of that year. Yves Klein died of a heart attack five weeks earlier at the inconceivably young age of 34. Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me were both published in 1962. Lawrence of Arabia was the top grossing film that year but Lolita, Days of Wine and Roses and The Manchurian Candidate were also in the top twenty. On October 13th Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opened on Broadway. Nine days later my father whisked my mother, then eight months pregnant, off on a four-hour drive away from Manhattan, to upstate New York, Bolton Landing to be precise. The reason: the Cuban Missile Crisis.

To dip one’s toe in this simultaneity makes for a richer understanding of an era. Art history is almost always taught without popular or political context. Conversely, history is too often taught without the richly accompanied texture of (high and pop)culture’s offerings.

On Friday, November 22nd we mark the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. What few people know however is that President Kennedy travelled to Texas a full 30 hours before his ride in the open-air limousine at Dealey plaza. He and Jackie didn’t overnight in Dallas but rather 34 miles to the west at Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth. The reason for his trip was political. The upcoming year’s reelection campaign was already starting and his goal was to mend rifts between the liberal and conservative factions of the Texas Democratic Party.

Living Area, Suite 850, Hotel Texas  Living Area, Suite 850, Hotel Texas, Fort Worth, Thursday, November 21, 1963 Pictured: Lyonel Feininger, "Manhattan II," Franz Kline, "Study for Accent Grave," Morris Graves, "Spirit Bird"

Living Area, Suite 850, Hotel Texas
Living Area, Suite 850, Hotel Texas, Fort Worth, Thursday, November 21, 1963 Pictured: Lyonel Feininger, “Manhattan II,” Franz Kline, “Study for Accent Grave,” Morris Graves, “Spirit Bird”

Less than a week before his arrival, descriptions of Suite 850 at Hotel Texas were released to the public. Fort Worth Press art critic Owen Day thought the accommodations lacking and came up with the idea of decorating the three primary rooms with significant art that would properly convey to the President and First Lady the cultural sophistication of Fort Worth. He recruited prominent collectors and civic leaders, including Samuel Benton Cantey III, Ruth Carter Stevenson, Ted Weiner and Amon Carter Museum Director Mitchell Wilder. This ad hoc curatorial bravado included paintings by Claude Monet and Lyonel Feininger, an oil on paper study by Franz Klein and bronze sculptures by Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso. And this was just the parlor. Jacqueline Kennedy’s bedroom had a distinctly impressionist feel with works by Pendergast, Van Gogh, Marin and Dufy. And the President’s bedroom carried a more manly sartorial flair including Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley and Charles M. Russell.

Ruth Carter Johnson and Lucile Weiner with "Angry Owl" by Pablo Picasso, 1963  Courtesy of the University of Texas at Arlington Library, Arlington, Texas, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, Special Collections

Ruth Carter Johnson and Lucile Weiner with “Angry Owl” by Pablo Picasso, 1963
Courtesy of the University of Texas at Arlington Library, Arlington, Texas, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, Special Collections

This story has moved me tremendously ever since I heard it about a year ago. It speaks to me as a heroic act of generosity on the part of the inspired and ambitious civic leaders who pulled it together. It moves me as a grace note to the events of the following day and the tremendous scar that it left on a nation. It also, with great significance, is a reflection of the leadership role that the President and the First Lady played in championing the arts. It can be argued that no President before or after paid the respect to arts that John F. Kennedy did in his lifetime. The proof of this might be best witnessed in the linguistic fireworks of his speeches. Kennedy wielded metaphor and images at the service of inspiration, hope and aspiration. This attitudinal shift from the bully pulpit of the White House happened right at a time when the capital of the fine art world had immigrated from Paris to New York; from the old school of European tradition to the wild west of American Avant Garde.

Franz Kline (1910–1962)  Study for Accent Grave, 1954  Oil wash on paper © 2012 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Franz Kline (1910–1962)
Study for Accent Grave, 1954
Oil wash on paper
© 2012 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I have, over the last several months, gone through what some might call a crisis of confidence. No feeling artist is immune to these occasional bouts of ennui. Some of this existentialism was based on the transposition of the financial inequities of the American economy versus the role that Fine Art plays in society in general. In a nut shell: if there is a 99%-1% split in the American economic landscape then perhaps, just perhaps, there is a 99.9%-.1% split in the American Societal landscape for those who consider that Fine Art is essential. Crunch the numbers and this comes out to around 313,000 people for whom Fine Art might matter. Glass Half Full? Or Half Empty?

But the lessons of Hotel Texas hold firm. Fine Art, and culture in general for purposes of this argument, is not only cause, it is effect. It is not only the light which illuminates our soul but also the mirror with which to judge the human condition. It is also both symptom and disease. In the end it is a catalytic converter of empathy. Most people may be intimidated by art, but the transformative potential never wavers.

For me, Art matters.

The Beatles in 1963.

The Beatles in 1963.

By mid December 1963 a Washington D.C. DJ named Carroll James started playing the Beatles on WWDC Radio. In today’s lingua franca, it went viral. On December 26th, a few days more than a month after those shots rang out in Dealey Plaza, the Beatle’s first album I Wanna Hold Your Hand was released in America, administrating, many could say, a most fortuitous pop culture salve of optimism, hope and tuneful distraction.

Art Matters! Culture Matters! Pop Culture Matters! Pop Art Matters!

Art, Music, Film, Dance, Books, Poetry are not luxuries, they are essential to the fiber of human spirit. They create the weave of experience. They afford us insight that allows us to move forward.

Mario M. Muller, November 2013, Los Angeles

Postscript #1:
The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth currently has an exhibition reuniting all the works that were displayed in the Presidential Suite #850. The Exhibition, Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy continues through January 12th, 2014

Postscipt #2
Click here to hear a three minute interview with actor Bill Paxton as he remembers hearing John F. Kennedy on the morning of November 22nd, 1963 in front of Hotel Texas.

Postscript #3

One significant catalyst for my near obsession with the interdependance of art and political history is a fantastic book called The Judgement of Paris. In it Ross King traces the trajectory of Manet’s career in Paris from 1850’s through 1890’s. But far from a standard monograph, he weaves societal, economic, political and art history in a way that makes one wonder how any area of expertise can be appreciated without this wide angle lens. NY Times Review and Amazon page.

Candice Breitz at Perry Rubenstein

Video as an art medium defies conventional expectations and desires. It is often for this reason alone that so much of “video art” falls so miserably flat.

It was with an arched eyebrow of mistrust and doubt that I entered the Perry Rubenstein Gallery about ten days ago to sample the art of Candice Breitz. Let me state on the record, it is a winning state of affairs for an artist to completely delight a viewer with such subterranean expectations. Ms. Breitz is not only a gifted artist but also an astute analyst of fame, desire and pop culture. Intellect and ambition are wedded to wit and a musical sense of rhythm and editing. The effect is hypnotic.

There are three installations on exhibit. Each has its own particular charm but the winner for me was The Rehearsal in the far west gallery of the Rubenstein complex. Six vertical video monitors deliver interviews with different characters. And this is as far as I’m willing to go on descriptive detail. Let me take a moment to explain.

Imagine for a second that before you sat down to see Citizen Kane for the first time, you were handed a press release or a review that said “What you’re about to watch is an examination of a man’s rise to power, the costs that power extracts on the human soul and the loss of innocence and youth as exemplified by a sled named Rosebud.” What I’m getting here is that press releases are spoilers, plain and simple. But press releases, and for that matter even non-partisan descriptive criticism are only spoilers for great art which delivers the impact of the artist’s intention through their work regardless of chosen medium. Press releases are apologies for failed art that needs the crutch of verbalized intention.

This exhibition needs no crutch. The work delivers its content. And furthermore, were I to describe the mise en scene in greater detail, it would only limit the interpretative range of the art. This is one of the rare examples of video art that has emotional range and possibility.

It is with this in mind that I refuse to articulate some of the back-stories on display here. I will however address the ingredients of brilliance, strategies of narrative engagement and technical prowess. Experience the installations for yourself. Then, and only then feel free to read the explanations offered at the front desk. To do otherwise is to rob yourself of the pleasures of discovery, the magic of epiphany delivered in the dark galleries of video monitors.

The Rehearsal, 2012 / From the trilogy The Woods Shot at Oakwood Premier, Mumbai, India: May 2011 Excerpt, Six-channel Installation Commissioned by ACMI (Melbourne) + PEM (Salem)

Candice Breitz, The Rehearsal, 2012 / From the trilogy The Woods
Shot at Oakwood Premier, Mumbai, India: May 2011
Excerpt, Six-channel Installation
Commissioned by ACMI (Melbourne) + PEM (Salem)

Ms. Breitz uses actors in conventional ways to solicit empathy and narrative identification. Her technical skills as a filmmaker are without question, which is a blessing. Too much video art is just sloppy and unlike a fingerprint smudged charcoal drawing, much video art comes off as amateurish rather than authentic. It’s a matter of the tactile reality of the video medium versus the rough feel of a cold pressed piece of paper. Breitz defies convention with multiple screens and disjunctive editing that draws you in rather than alienates. Her editing is symphonic. The rhythms are jazzy and syncopated but she establishes a beat first only to under cut it with flash edits and staccato sequences that exhilarate. Tight close ups are used as punctuation rather than verbs or nouns.

I’ve stated on several occasions that I believe filmmaking to be the singular medium of the 20-century. When compared with painting or drawing, film is still in its infancy, much like Los Angeles is a pre-teen compared with the likes of New York, Paris or London. And unlike oil painting or India ink, film became an industry, thus delaying its mature use as a fine art medium. And because of this, I believe film to hold potential that far outweighs what we’ve witnessed thus far. Breitz realizes some of this potential in this exemplary exhibition.

Candice Breitz at Perry Rubenstein Gallery continues through December 14th, 2013

-Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, October 28th, 2013

Candice Breitz at Perry Rubenstein

citizen_kane

Video as an art medium defies conventional expectations and desires. It is often for this reason alone that so much of “video art” falls so miserably flat.

It was with an arched eyebrow of mistrust and doubt that I entered the Perry Rubenstein Gallery about ten days ago to sample the art of Candice Breitz. Let me state on the record, it is a winning state of affairs for an artist to completely delight a viewer with such subterranean expectations. Ms. Breitz is not only a gifted artist but also an astute analyst of fame, desire and pop culture. Intellect and ambition are wedded to wit and a musical sense of rhythm and editing. The effect is hypnotic.

There are three installations on exhibit. Each has its own particular charm but the winner for me was The Rehearsal in the far west gallery of the Rubenstein complex. Six vertical video monitors deliver interviews with different characters. And this is as far as I’m willing to go on descriptive detail. Let me take a moment to explain.

Imagine for a second that before you sat down to see Citizen Kane for the first time, you were handed a press release or a review that said “What you’re about to watch is an examination of a man’s rise to power, the costs that power extracts on the human soul and the loss of innocence and youth as exemplified by a sled named Rosebud.” What I’m getting here is that press releases are spoilers, plain and simple. But press releases, and for that matter even non-partisan descriptive criticism are only spoilers for great art which delivers the impact of the artist’s intention through their work regardless of chosen medium. Press releases are apologies for failed art that needs the crutch of verbalized intention.

This exhibition needs no crutch. The work delivers its content. And furthermore, were I to describe the mise en scene in greater detail, it would only limit the interpretative range of the art. This is one of the rare examples of video art that has emotional range and possibility.

It is with this in mind that I refuse to articulate some of the back-stories on display here. I will however address the ingredients of brilliance, strategies of narrative engagement and technical prowess. Experience the installations for yourself. Then, and only then feel free to read the explanations offered at the front desk. To do otherwise is to rob yourself of the pleasures of discovery, the magic of epiphany delivered in the dark galleries of video monitors.

The Rehearsal, 2012 / From the trilogy The Woods Shot at Oakwood Premier, Mumbai, India: May 2011 Excerpt, Six-channel Installation Commissioned by ACMI (Melbourne) + PEM (Salem)

Candice Breitz, The Rehearsal, 2012 / From the trilogy The Woods
Shot at Oakwood Premier, Mumbai, India: May 2011
Excerpt, Six-channel Installation
Commissioned by ACMI (Melbourne) + PEM (Salem)

Ms. Breitz uses actors in conventional ways to solicit empathy and narrative identification. Her technical skills as a filmmaker are without question, which is a blessing. Too much video art is just sloppy and unlike a fingerprint smudged charcoal drawing, much video art comes off as amateurish rather than authentic. It’s a matter of the tactile reality of the video medium versus the rough feel of a cold pressed piece of paper. Breitz defies convention with multiple screens and disjunctive editing that draws you in rather than alienates. Her editing is symphonic. The rhythms are jazzy and syncopated but she establishes a beat first only to under cut it with flash edits and staccato sequences that exhilarate. Tight close ups are used as punctuation rather than verbs or nouns.

I’ve stated on several occasions that I believe filmmaking to be the singular medium of the 20-century. When compared with painting or drawing, film is still in its infancy, much like Los Angeles is a pre-teen compared with the likes of New York, Paris or London. And unlike oil painting or India ink, film became an industry, thus delaying its mature use as a fine art medium. And because of this, I believe film to hold potential that far outweighs what we’ve witnessed thus far. Breitz realizes some of this potential in this exemplary exhibition.

Candice Breitz at Perry Rubenstein Gallery continues through December 14th, 2013

-Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, October 28th, 2013

Irresponsible Arts Journalism

605.1943

On July 2nd of this year Edward Goldman wrote a post on the KCRW arts blog. Practically everything Mr. Goldman says therein offends me. For those of you outside of LA, Mr. Goldman is an erstwhile arts reporter and commentator who has a brief radio commentary segment called ArtTalk on KCRW one of Los Angeles’ primary national Public Radio stations.

Now I have to admit that Arts Journalism is a funny thing indeed. Opinions proliferate like summer kudzu growing in Alabama. And everyone with a penchant for soapbox articulation has a platform on the Internet to broadcast. Myself included. But when opinions become whines I get steamed. When those whines are based on fallacies and intellectual laziness, my temperature rises even further. Lastly when these opinions/whines/fallacies have a particularly pristine pedestal in the form of an NPR radio station, I can do nothing but rise to the occasion and volley an impassioned rejoinder.

While I encourage each of you to read his original blog, I’ll briefly paraphrase his primary points and address not only their flaws but, in the course of what follows, I wish to offer a more optimistic and proactive stance on some of the topics discussed.

Goldman’s three primary points are as follows: 1.) Retroactively Goldman complains about the lack of arts coverage by the New York Times. He begrudgingly admits the coverage has improved thus cementing Los Angeles’ importance in the International Fine Arts landscape. 2.) Goldman goes on to complain about the accessibility (hours of operation) of two of LA’s primary Art Museums, LACMA and MOCA. This complaint is framed against the news that the Metropolitan in NYC has recently announced that it will be open seven days a week. And 3.) Goldman lastly gripes about admission prices of LACMA comparing it to the free admission of London’s Tate Museum.

1.) Goldman’s inferiority complex.

orangesWhy in the world would anyone give the NYT the power to assess any city’s cultural significance? If, indeed, the Times has been paying attention to LA’s fine art landscape, it’s been doing so under the guise of playing catch up. To care as much as Goldman obviously does, speaks to an inferiority complex. LA’s gallery system is different. Better in some respects, anemic in others but different at its core. Artists in LA are less beholden to the pompous preening of the east coast. Thank god! And the museums in the vast landscape of greater Los Angeles are pound for pound better than NY. The quality and quantity of visual art offerings in this city is an embarrassment of riches. I make it my business to experience art first hand and month after month I painfully admit that I miss more than I get to see, and I see a lot of art.

Mr. Goldman, if you want to be a champion of Los Angeles’ cultural significance, don’t use the New York Times as your aesthetic barometer.

2.) Goldman as petulant crybaby.

appleTo admit envy at other city’s museums being open seven days a week is beyond me. The museums Goldman cites, NYC’s Metropolitan and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk are major institutions, each of which is a significant tourist destination. Yes, culture is a business! Goldman fails to mention that NYC’s MOMA also recently went seven days a week. These changes are in response to demand. It made financial sense for these museums to go seven days a week because they were loosing potential revenue otherwise. The hours of Los Angeles institutions are a reflection of our demand which is increasing but which simply can’t be compared with cities of cultural longevity. And lest we forget, LA’s culture was born in the film industry. When my European friends visit me here in LA, they have a different tourist hierarchy which includes Universal city walk, Hollywood Boulevard and the shops of Rodeo Drive and, if I can corral them, a cocktail at either Dan Tana’s or Musso and Franks. Goldman’s use of the term generosity also galls me because it infers through his criticism that our bastions of culture are somehow stingy! The surge of quality in exhibitions here in LA in the last six years is the very definition of generosity. They are all nurturing a sophistication and erudition for this city, which will leave a legacy for decades to come.

Mr. Goldman, please remember context when blithely criticizing major arts organizations in Los Angeles.

3.) Lastly, Goldman as economic neophyte.

13223_herringsTo complain about admission prices is the worst form of cultural entitlement. And to compare America with European institutions is naive and unbelievably short sighted. Culture is valued in Europe. It is the fiber of every European’s identity. They promote their historical culture with equal passion as promoting their contemporary makers of culture, whether it’s art, theater, music or dance. Conversely their governments fund culture. Lets crunch a few numbers for a moment. England’s first up. The combined national and regional funding for the arts equals approximately 3.2 billion English pounds per year. For a country with a population of roughly 49 million people that works out to be about 66 British Pounds Sterling per capita expenditure for the arts. The Netherlands clocks in with 1.9 billion euros for arts spending for a population of 16 million or 122 euros of arts budget for every Dutch citizen. Germany out does the rest with a combined federal and regional expenditure of 10.8 billion euros for a population of 82 million Germans. Germany’s per capita arts funding hits the mark at 131 euros for each and every German soul. And now for the sad numbers: America’s numbers are bleak indeed. Combined federal and state expenditures on the arts are roughly 466 million for a country that, by the latest census numbers, comes in at around 293 million “folks.” Yes, Mr. Goldman, that’s about a buck and a half per person. $1.59 to be exact for every American!

So what this means is that the British government is spending 63 times what Washington DC deems necessary on the arts. The Netherlands 101 times and Germany 108 times what the folks who allocate our taxes think is acceptable for the cultural well being of a nation. (These numbers were researched over the last couple of weeks. The statistics sited are mostly from 2005-7. An excellent example of the concrete numbers can be found in a report from the Canadian Government.)

So you see, by comparing American cultural institutions with those across the pond, Goldman isn’t really comparing apples and oranges, he’s comparing apples and herring. They are different food groups all together. Considering these aforementioned numbers, institutions like LACMA seem damn near heroic in their efforts at not merely maintaining but growing the cultural health of our fair city.

BCAM Jan08 0073If Mr. Goldman has earned or stolen a level of fandom or influence in the art world here in LA is anybody’s guess. With a readership and listeners who take his interpretations and opinions to heart, he has a bully pulpit. The whining that he exercises, not only in this but countless other posts, is made even more egregious because he has that megaphone. Every writer and critic has the perfect right to excoriate or champion an exhibition or even one piece or artist in particular. But this crybaby attitude towards the cornerstones of fine art based on the number of hours they are open or the price of admission is irresponsible. Did it ever occur to him that advocating for everyone who listens to his broadcast should immediately join as a member of LACMA? What if even ten percent of his listeners actually all converged on MOCA one weekend and ponied up the price of admission.

nailGoldman002My take is this: LACMA is doing a spectacular job of creating exhibitions that are educationally erudite and entertaining. MOCA has its challenges but has a collection to beat the band and the people of LA need to take ownership of the institution by using it. The Hammer, Norton Simon and Fowler churn out brilliant exhibitions that challenge preconceptions and cement the significance of Fine Art in everyone’s life. The Getty is the most generous of the bunch doling out money to the arts in the name of culture and the intellectual well being of not only Los Angeles county but California and America as a whole. If Katsuya restaurant, a swank sushi place, here in Brentwood can charge $10 for a valet to park your car less than 35 yards away then really the $15 parking fee is a mild price to pay for the architectural and aesthetic wonders of the Getty.

Mr. Goldman, stop your whining. Look at the art and make whatever judgment you will. Pony up memberships to the institutions that you frequent and where you can “afford” to see exhibitions multiple times because of your press pass. You can take it off your taxes and the institutions need your concrete support. Lead by example.

nailGoldman004Readers and listeners, beware of the viral effects of whining in any form and think before you blithely agree with accented self-proclaimed experts. Support the institutions with your attendance, your curiosity, your membership and your words of appreciation. These are your institutions, treat them well.

-Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, October 4th, 2013

Mid-Wilshire Roundup

Four exhibitions, all in the mid-Wilshire district provide a wonderful opportunity to see thoughtful and challenging art. Good exhibitions are avaialble 365 days a year here in LA, further proving that the “cultural season” is a thing of the past. Here are four reviews of worthwhile exhibitions that stirred all sorts of resonance. I’ve limited the illustrations, but I encourage you to click the links for more examples of the work discussed. Happy TruffleHunting!

Kenton Nelson at Peter Mendenhall Gallery

Kenton Nelson, Blue Dress, 2013, Watercolor on Paper, 9×12 inches Courtesy Peter Mendenhall Gallery

Kenton Nelson, Blue Dress, 2013, Watercolor on Paper, 9×12 inches
Courtesy Peter Mendenhall Gallery

The line between illustration and fine art becomes blurry sometimes. When this happens, both categories can benefit. The specificity and narrative potential of illustration’s paradigm can infuse fine art with a matter-of-factness so often missing. Conversely, fine art’s pretension can lend resonance to illustration’s cul de sac pleasures.
This “both/and” synthesis is in ample evidence at Kenton Nelson’s solo exhibition at Peter Mendenhall Gallery through July 13th.
The exhibition consists of one large oil painting and more than 20 watercolors in either of two rather intimate scales (10.25 x 7 or 12 x 9 inches.) While the oil painting is of a scale and consistency of Nelson’s aesthetic trajectory, it is the watercolors that sing and by their sheer quantity, take center stage. Nelson has developed a style and an iconography that has a decidedly post war baby boomer veneer. The populated tableaux are laced with sex but are seldom sexy. The landscapes are muted and clean and pregnant with narrative potential. The mood is close to the tension found in Todd Haynes Far from Heaven.
The Still Life watercolors play with out-sized scale. The thermos in Red Top has the same monumentality as William Eggelston’s tricycle on a Memphis sidewalk. In another titled Absent, we see an empty school desk with a blackboard in the near distance. A raking diagonal shadow cuts the scene into light and dark. The compositional approach of Absent is part interior and part still life. The planes of color, squares, rectangles and triangles deconstruct nicely into a quasi-Diebenkorn structure.
Nelson handles watercolor in a singular manner. The surface is chalky and matte even behind the glazing of the frames. The touch is deliberate and controlled. Improvisation is not in Nelson wheelhouse. But this level of control is at the behest of mood. It never feels restrictive
The titles are mostly succinctly descriptive: Lean, Setting Up, Wash Line and Front Yard. The only dissonant chord is struck with the title Strange Fruit which depicts a pair of sneakers hanging from a telephone wire. Not only is the image more rooted in a contemporary setting, but the quotation from Billie Holiday’s haunting elegy to lynching seems not only oddly insensitive but also out of character with the rest of the exhibition.
The star of the show is a watercolor titled Blue Dress. Compositionally rigorous, narratively comely, and striking a balance between the aforementioned Fine Art/Illustration polarities, Blue Dress packs a wallop. For it’s intimate scale, it works on nearly operatic terms. And the Blue of that dress, it’s tangible translucence and texture, exists only in the realm of aesthetic imagination.

Kenton Nelson at Peter Mendenhall Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., through July 13th, 2013

Ron van der Ende at Ambach & Rice

Ron van der Ende at Ambach & Rice

Ron van der Ende at Ambach & Rice

The pleasures of trompe l’oeil effects are immediate. However the gee whiz marvel over the technical ability to optically deceive fades fast like the precipitous drop in earnings of a wide release film in its second weekend receipts. In a new exhibition at Ambach and Rice, Ron van der Ende races headlong towards this cliff but miraculously never falls into a non-resonant abyss. Don’t let the double negative deceive, this is an excellent show.

The best diagnosis for van der Ende’s visual success may lie in the fact that he doesn’t traffic in narrative or naturalistic depiction. More often than not, these approaches become trite and cliché faster than summer lightning.

The boxes, cubes, letters and I beams that are van der Ende chosen subjects are, for all intents and purposes, abstract. In such, the artist can flex his sizable skill set of forced perspective and have the head-scratching charm of trompe l’oeil deception be the subject matter itself.

The second marvel in evidence in this fine exhibition is that these images are made of veneers of recycled wood nailed into an armature no more than four inches thick. No effort is made to conceal the flat head nails, which attach the veneers of colored wood to the structure and thus become part of the tone and rhythm of the piece.

A curious viewer yo yos back and forth, examining the sculptures up close to see their meticulously constructed feats and then slowly retreats perpendicular to the wall until the perceived three dimensionality snaps into recognition. Move side to side and the illusion continues to a point when it disintegrates again. The act of seeing and engagement is essential to the appreciation of van der Ende’s work and thus his art becomes a collaborative experience. This dance is particularly effective in the east gallery where four pieces are installed on opposing walls.

The color palette is distinctive. Weathered hues lend an air of the antique. Furthermore, no paint is applied to the patchwork quilt of wood and color. This artistic restriction is also a gift to the viewer. Perfection is eschewed in favor of approximation.

The I Beams in the west gallery are bombastic and macho. They seem tailor made for a trading room of a hedge fund where positions of perceived strength can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Perhaps most satisfying is to witness exquisite craftsmanship at the behest of substantive aesthetic inquiry. In Los Angeles, where artifice in the film industry (matte painting and model building) were once the tools of cinema’s magic, it’s lovely to be seduced by magic for magic’s sake.

Ron van der Ende at Ambach & Rice, 6148 Wilshire Blvd. through July 27th, 2013

Mathias Merkel Hess at Acme

Matthias Merkel Hess, Colonial Anvil, 2013 stoneware 7 1/2 x 21 x 12 inches

Matthias Merkel Hess, Colonial Anvil, 2013 stoneware 7 1/2 x 21 x 12 inches

Mathias Merkel Hess demonstrates an impressive power of aesthetic transformation with a contemplative and intelligent solo exhibition at Acme Art on Wilshire Boulevard. One of the foremost principles of art is an act of transformation. This can be as basic as observing the three-dimensional object and rendering it in two dimensions. Of course it can include transformations of scale, content and narrative. Imagined into reality; fact into fiction; low into high. At its core essence, Art is interpretation through transformation.

Merkel Hess’ chosen subject matter is the anvil. Each life size replica is rendered in slab-constructed ceramic covered sumptuously with a host of luscious glazes. The power of Merkel Hess’ transformation lies in a faithful depiction of the immutable in a medium of vulnerability. One faint blow from a hammer would shatter these sculptures. But the original objects are not only meant to withstand such abuse but their very shape and raison d’être is to work in concert with the blows of artisan crafting iron and steel into forms mostly for utilitarian use.

Here then a brief (and uncommonly well written citation from Wikipedia): “An anvil is a basic tool, a block with a hard surface on which another object is struck. The block is as massive as is practical, because the higher the inertia of the anvil, the more efficiently it causes the energy of the striking tool to be transferred to the work piece. In most cases the anvil is used as a forging tool. Before the advent of modern welding technology, it was a primary tool of metal workers.”

There are many reasons to admire this exhibition. The objects are indeed beautiful and elegant. Of course this beauty emanates from the source form itself. But the execution that Merkel Hess exerts on the ceramic medium runs the perfect tight wire between accuracy and approximation. The glazes, some matte and sensual, some glossy and pock marked, flirt with the viewer’s eye like a comely lover. Indeed the desire to run one’s hand over and under these objects and caress the surface can make you blush.

The exhibition is perfectly and humbly installed on sawhorses with functional plywood tops. Most are placed at hip height where they would reside in their functional setting. I have no doubt that they will work equally well in a vitrine or on a coffee table but this will be their second life in a collectors home. For the gallery setting, this is the perfect display methodology. It strips pretension while simultaneously engaging intellect.

Merkel Hess has assembled a diverse selection of anvil forms each with a specific origin of trade. Metal smiths, blacksmiths, saw makers and farriers all rely on this basic tool. Yet each form references function particular to the trade. This variety of forms is nice, for as the focus remains honed, Merkel Hess avoids the drone that variations on a theme so often devolves into.

Lastly, because the anvil and its historical purpose have largely been usurped by mechanical manufacturing and contemporary welding techniques, the show bears a subtle elegy to manual fabrication. This wistful scent can occur hours after one visits the gallery. Thankfully neither the work nor the press release drums this possible interpretation into the viewer’s frontal lobe. Merkel Hess thankfully is an artist of evocation and not dogmatic illustration.

Mathias Merkel Hess at Acme. 6150 Wilshire Blvd. through July 6th, 2013

Windshield Perspective at A+D Museum

Windshield Perspective-Installation View (Photo: M. M. Muller)

Windshield Perspective-Installation View
(Photo: M. M. Muller)

I’m a sucker for sidebars. Small boxes filled with tantalizing stats about a certain topic, augmented by a pie chart or per cent breakdown lure my eye away from a substantive narrative article almost every time. Now imagine an exhibition based on the sidebar concept and you have an approximation of Windshield Perspective currently on view at A+D Museum through July 9th, 2013.
The topic of the exhibition is a stretch of Beverly Blvd. here in Los Angeles. The windshield in question acts as framing device, lens and shield in the act of viewing this segment, from Normandie to Virgil. The framing device restricts our field of vision. The lens magnifies and focuses our attention on the stories contained in each building. The shield inevitably distances us from the immediate experience of both the present and the history. Driving is different than walking.

(clockwise from upper left) Lee Friedlander, Montana 2008, Dennis Hopper, Double Standard, 1961, Vija Celmins, freeway, 1966 and Ed Ruscha, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966 (Disingenous perhaps since none of these images are in the exhibition.)

(clockwise from upper left) Lee Friedlander, Montana 2008, Dennis Hopper, Double Standard, 1961, Vija Celmins, freeway, 1966 and Ed Ruscha, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966 (Disingenous perhaps since none of these images are in the exhibition.)

Any exhibition which takes a drive, both literally and metaphorically, owes a huge debt to Ed Ruscha who in 1966 created a photographic project documenting every building on the Sunset Boulevard. Along with artists like Lee Friedlander, Vija Clemins and Dennis Hopper, Ruscha created a visual language based in the experience of “behind the wheel” perspective. It is unfortunate that this exhibition doesn’t touch on the artistic precedence especially since it is such an inherently west coast if not Los Angeles experience. That said, the premise and the exhibition yields rich and unexpected rewards in ethnographic, demographic and anthropologic veins.

The exhibit presents a wealth of information on the city blocks of its focus. It would be an amazing IPad App especially if one were on the actual street and the narratives would unfurl as one ambles down the block. In such, the show, expertly curated by Greg Golden, acts like an ethnographic Zillow. Ownership trajectories, occupant vocations and geographic arcs unfurl in front of you. The history of development and neighborhood identity reveal themselves while reading the copious information.

The exhibit makes excellent use of large scale printing. These are not only applied directly to the wall but also to cut outs that create jarring and engaging tableaux. One can spend hours digesting the facts and stories and lists.

Windshield Perspective-Installation View (Photo: M. M. Muller)

Windshield Perspective-Installation View
(Photo: M. M. Muller)

As fascinating as all this information is, the question that arises as one leaves the exhibition is “Where’s the thesis?” With such an abundance of information and history, there doesn’t seem to an actual conclusion. While the dispassionate presentation of materials is thoughtful, well organized, visually engaging and to the best of my acuity, accurate, there doesn’t seem to be a strong narrative voice. Seeing Alex Gibney’s riveting documentary Park Avenue recently on Netflix streaming I was struck by this fact in stark relief. If a filmmaker would fail to come to a conclusion after a tsunami of research, the film would be deemed a disappointment of misplaced potential. Gibney states his conclusion in them first five minutes and lets the assembled material, statiscal, interpretative and anecdotal, support his thesis.

But maybe it’s visual journalism that A+D is after rather than the editorial column. If that’s the case, then kudos and congratulations are in order.

The wistful suspicion though is that the exhibition is the love child of a talented graphic designer and a hyper zealous fact checker. A cantankerous opinionated author is nowhere in sight.

Windshield Perspective at A+D Museum, Through July 9th. 2013

-Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, July, 2013

Great Art in Ugly Rooms

Philip Guston
from Great Art in Ugly Rooms

Well…every so often you see something and you think “That’s Great!” The more out of the blue it is, often the more you love it. “Cool!” Unexpected aesthetic arrest if you will. “Awesome!”

A couple of nights ago I happened on a site that gave me such pleasure I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Succinctly and accurately titled Great Art in Ugly Rooms, the site is is a tumbler image role of just that. Meticulously photoshoped pictures of banal rooms with artworks from the canon of art history. A Matisse hung over urinals in a public bathroom. Elsworth Kelly Prints on wood paneling of a cottage. Two Brâncuși displayed gingerly in a small bathroom. And Jeff Koons’ porcelain MJ and Bubbles on a booth table of a single wide trailer. “You had me at Hello.”

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Robert Motherwell
from Great Art in Ugly Rooms

Technically they’re pitch perfect. Drop shadows, perspective, tone matching and exposure make the placement completely believable. Suspension of disbelief is thoroughly accomplished. They are completely dead pan and with their desert-like dry wit they work and resonate because ultimately they are sincere. There is no snark. There is no academic irony. There’s as much affection for these ugly rooms as there is for the art. The visual equivalent of a Stephen Wright stand up routine.

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Marcel Duchamp
from Great Art in Ugly Rooms

Lastly, I found myself thinking that Great Art makes Ugly Rooms livable. Great Art does transform. So while I might not prefer rattan chairs with a floral print couch, if the sofa-sized art over said couch is a Robert Motherwell, well then, I would consider living there.

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Jeff Koons
from Great Art in Ugly Rooms

Shooting from the hip, here are several other reasons that this visual flight of fancy transcends the disposable trappings of a one liner.

  • The blog, as it stands right now, is anonymous. The prodigious talent behind this effort is offering these surreal meditations of high culture in base environments generously. The difference is not to be trifled with. It says look at the work rather than look at me. The generosity doesn’t stop there because each of the artist’s names is hotlinked to a google image search.
  • The work also contains commentary of the haves and the have nots of our economic climate. The art is the asset class of the one percent while the homes are the residences of the 99 percent.
  • Humor can be a powerful tool of parody but only when the knife is sharpened on both sides. The title of the project may be Great Art in Ugly Rooms but to the uninitiated the adjectives could just as easily be inverted. If I love an Agnes Martin, does that make me immediately an aesthetic enemy of a painted brick wall in a basement family room?
  • The artist is taking requests of art and rooms from the audience thereby creating a collaborative environment. Crowdsourcing the ideas creates an ownership in the artist’s audience while making the project nearly infinite.
  • The artist tackles the medium of digital deception in a fresh way. We know it’s fake but it’s fakeness is merely the conduit for a narrative. I never thought for an instant that Robert Downey Jr actually flew in Iron Man but allowing myself to buy into it delivered a rather entertaining two hours at the multiplex.

What can I say, I’m a fan. The artist is posting more daily.

http://greatartinuglyrooms.tumblr.com/

Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, May 24th

Paris Photo at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles

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Let’s face facts: art fairs are entertainment. They provide an opportunity for the mildly culturally curious to scan and peruse 40-80 galleries which trot out their chosen best. All under one roof. Art fairs are pop up malls of the visual culture world. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are pretentious, expensive and self congratulatory. Some try for a raw, young and rough veneer, which they believe to be proof of authenticity. Some just look needy from the start.
On the entertainment basis, Paris Photo Los Angeles was a game changer. The venue made for one of the most pleasant art fair experiences ever. Most art malls are mounted under one roof, mostly a convention center or civic auditorium. The most recent physical incarnation has been the outsized tent, which lends an air of revival meeting circa 1952. Paris Photo settled into the sound stages and fake streets of the Paramount Studios like a bespoke glove. Three large ceilinged sound stages became the familiar milieu of rows of booths. But visitors had to walk (something foreign enough to Angelinos) from one site to another. And on these walks visitors got a chance to amble the mock streets of the venerable studio. Turn a corner and you were in a Greenwich Village street with brownstones and stoops. Another corner offered an erstwhile Chicago street scape and in each area photo dealers, exhibitions and bookshops occupied the stores.
Couple this thematic art mall with the brilliant sunshine and moderate temps of Los Angeles and you get a user friendly entertainment for the aesthetically minded. The vernissage even sported theatrical lights beaming down the warm glow of 20k fernels. Artifice meet Art. Art, Artifice.
The art in question and on display neither exceeded the expectations nor fell far below. The usual suspects were mostly on display, always with room for a few new discoveries. And as with any fair that is medium specific (really only Photography carries the dubious mantle of media exclusivity) the greatest pleasures often lie in historical material. Here then a few highlights.

Man Ray is still da man!

Man Ray Meret Oppenheim, Untitled and Erotique Voilee 1930, 1932 and 1933 respectively 12 x 9 cm each Courtesy 1900-2000 Paris Gallery

Man Ray
Meret Oppenheim, Untitled and Erotique Voilee
1930, 1932 and 1933 respectively
12 x 9 cm each
Courtesy 1900-2000 Paris Gallery

Gallerie 1900Δ2000 Paris offered a uncommon opportunity to see a bevy of vintage prints each a jewel from the man who wielded photography with innovation, wit and daring. Double exposures, solarizations, unexpected compositions and artistic collaborations with a peer group of surrealists and founders of Dada were all on display. Man Ray didn’t think as a photographer. He used and experimented with photography as a tool of creation and interpretation. Several pieces are routed in genres of the nude, still life and portrait but while their origin may be tradition, his Midas touch of transformation left tradition choking on the dust of his fertile “anything is possible” imagination.

Abstraction is different than Abstract!

Allison Rossiter Two examples from  Eastman Kodak Azo, exact expiration date unknown, ca. 1940, processed in 2012  Four Gelatin Silver Prints  4.25 x 3.25 inches each element  Unique Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery

Allison Rossiter
Two examples from
Eastman Kodak Azo, exact expiration date unknown, ca. 1940, processed in 2012
Four Gelatin Silver Prints
4.25 x 3.25 inches each element
Unique
Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery

It’s always such a welcome moment when you see more of an artist’s work and like it even more than you did before. Such was the feeling when encountering the lyrical art of Allison Rossiter at Yossi Milo Gallery. Rossiter is an artist of the highest caliber. She combines the intellectual rigor of a Sol Lewitt with the organic charm of an Elsworth Kelly. And in an environment of art fairs where people gravitate to art that shouts and screams for attention, Rossiter’s intimately scaled works are whispers that draw you in for further investigation and dialogue.
Made with expired silver gelatin papers anywhere from ten to 70 years old, Rossiter exposes and paints with developer letting the forms unapologetically appear. For a medium that is almost indivisible from the shackles of depiction and referent, she coaxes form that is wholly abstract. But our eyes read forms as adobe structures, pyramids, skyscrapers and leaves. We can’t help ourselves. But the pleasures of truly abstract art are undeniable. There are so few who have the chutzpah. She gets my vote as inheritor of the mantle of Malevich and Reinhart.

Fissures in the provincial nature of the photo world.

Brian Bress Cowboy (Brian led by Peter Kirby)  2012  High definition single-channel video (color), high definition monitor and player, wall mount, framed  38.5 x 23 x 4 inches  30 min., 19 sec., loop (While this is not the piece that was on display at Paris Photo, it resembles this earlier work enough for this photo to stand in as its avarar.)

Brian Bress
Cowboy (Brian led by Peter Kirby)
2012
High definition single-channel video (color), high definition monitor and player, wall mount, framed
38.5 x 23 x 4 inches
30 min., 19 sec., loop
(While this is not the piece that was on display at Paris Photo, it resembles this earlier work enough for this photo to stand in as its avatar.)

Photo fairs were notoriously slow to include either digital methods or video in their comfort zones of provinciality. Digital origins or manufacturing limped in and video is still eyed with a suspicion. The fine art world has neither hesitation nor disdain for the new. Thankfully there are a few video artists on the art fair horizon that create work that demands the medium’s kinetic elements. We should all be thankful for Cherry/Martin gallery for vigorously supporting the work of Brian Bress. I was fortunate enough to see Bress’ one-man exhibition at the gallery in Culver City last fall. Bress has a dark wit, which he pairs with high key lighted surrealism. No doubt, the Gee Whizz factor is there, which often can fade into a chorus of Patsy Cline’s “Is that all there is?” but there’s subversive and thoughtful content that shines as resonance long after the vertically placed wide screen has been unplugged. He understands that video art has to work both on an episodic, 20-second encounter and on the long (for him the 20 minute loop) form landscape. Bress also understands that humor can be an on-ramp for both attention and curiosity. But a Henny Youngman joke is good for a giggle but I’d venture to guess that hanging Henny on my wall would get old fast. This last malaise is the death nell for most video based work. Bress avoids any of these trappings while delivering sophisticated technological wizardry with compositional and content acumen that resonates with the impact of any narrative painting master.

The fair that allows and encourages an exhale.

Real galleries inhabit the fake facades of NYC Brownstones.

Real galleries inhabit the fake facades of NYC Brownstones.

If seeing art, booth after booth, wall after over hung wall is an experience of visual inhaling then Paris Photo in its new LA incarnation has mastered a built in exhale. I know no one who can continue to inhale endlessly. After a while, it all becomes white noise. With the physical layout of the fair spread over stages and streets, visitors had a chance to exhale; sip a coffee in the sun and chat about their favorites with fellow art enthusiasts; strike up conversations about either art or the relative merits of sliders versus turkey focaccia sandwiches with strangers and wing men alike. Paris Photo has managed a paradigm shift that might be hard to replicate elsewhere but has, in the process, set a new high water mark for the very concept of what an art fair can be.
In this regard, much has been made that Paris Photo chose Los Angeles as their first non-Parisian branded version. The standard line has been what a gift to LA it has been that Paris photo is here but I’d like to venture that it’s LA’s gift to Paris Photo.

Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, April 27th, 2013