LA Art Show and its (Dis)contents
By Tom Pazderka
There seems to be a general fear in the art world that things will not go on as they have in the past. Doomsday! Armageddon! The feeling of anxiety pervades thoughts of impending disaster. But of what, of whom? The mood is somber, even though the colors are bright and cheerful. Blasé attitudes counter bursts of energy. The shakeup is coming. Nobody knows when or where or how, but it’s on its way. The almost sublime hubris of the elites that were on full display in last year’s “The Price of Everything” is an omen of things to come. They know it, the ‘markets’ know it, the investors, the collectors, they all know something is afoot, but the public has a ways to catch up.
I went to the LA Art Show to soak up its atmosphere. To see and experience art in its authentic naivete on a grand scale. To write about this experience itself would take much more than just a few notes here and there. I would have to go deep. I didn’t relinquish the role of the notes, copious thoughts, scribbled into my phone.
What is my angle? How to describe what I saw, or what I didn’t see? Would I be able to read back what I wrote in almost indecipherable scratch? I would have to consult the master of observation, the good doctor Hunter S. Thompson. I would have to do some research by rereading one of his early master works “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’ to get at the bones of the event we colloquially call the art fair. How would he write about it? What would he think? What would he say?
Before my arrival, I was sure of one thing, I was going to hate every piece of artwork on display. I was going to expose the vanity and the aura of bullshit hanging in the air. Oddly enough, once inside, something changed—a chance encounter, a warm welcome, human contact (a strange thing in California)—I saw more than just an exchange of money for art commodities, or the vulgar display of wealth and power. I saw vulnerable people going about their vulnerable lives, art making a difference, but not in the way one would expect.
To make sense of this, I split the article in two. For those of us who still remember fiddling around with cassette tapes, this is familiar territory. Side A of an album would usually be the “better” side, jam packed with the favorites, the catchy tunes, sometimes radio-friendly, unless you were too dark and went for the extremes, grind core, thrash, death and black metal, experimental noise. This was the fun, positive side. Meanwhile Side B had the leftovers, one could say the darker side, with the occasional pounding, heart-stopping track, the ballad, to go out on an emotional note. It wasn’t always pretty, but it kept you coming back for more, it kept things real, so that you’d eventually turn the tape over and restart from A again. If there ever was a need for a fair and balanced reporting on the art fair, this may be when, though I’m afraid that I’m much too biased to deliver the goods. For the reader this presents an interesting choice. If you’re like me, you’re probably going to enjoy side B more. It’s acerbic and grating, unpolished criticism of the here and now. I’d call it irreverent, if I didn’t hate the word or rather the (mis)use of the word so much. But if you don’t care for the party-pooping that makes up much of negative criticism, side A may be more to your liking. There were plenty of good and interesting things to see and god knows I didn’t see it all. Skip the bits you want, read the ones you like. F*** it, I’ve said enough!
Side A (Positive)
We arrive in LA midday, a clusterfuck of cars circling around the Convention Center. We are in tow. There seems to be parking somewhere. The signs are pointing to the right, then straight. We are now off the main drag, inching away from where we want to be. One lot is totally full. Next is filling up quickly. We exit, not wanting to pay the $30 fee for a terrible location. Eventually we circle back and find parking underneath the West wing of the Convention Center. The lot is packed. We get out and join the crowd slowly waddling upstairs to the Mecca that is the LA Art Show.
We’re greeted by the overbearing sounds of some tasteless dance music coming out of the PA. There’s a DJ, though no one’s dancing. As expected, most people hanging out in the front cavernous area of the lobby are either passing through or on their phones, all ignoring the DJ and each other. We make it past the so-called security and into the bowels of the fair.
The floor is flooded with people. Streams of them flowing along the corridors, there and back, between the cubicles that are the gallery booths and displays, strategically lit by spotlights from high above, adding to the aura of atmosphere, mystery and institutional importance. We have arrived inside the temple.
Almost immediately we run into friends. They’re on their way out and they didn’t like the show very much. Artists are a tough crowd. We turn the first corner and stop. Something looks familiar hanging on the wall. I look at the tag and read Channing Peake (work from the 1970s). For the past year and a half, I’ve been working at the Channing Peake Gallery, a municipal regional space named after a regional abstract artist of the same name. I’ve wandered off into the netherworld of art and stumbled onto familiar territory. It was like meeting a B-level celebrity, not DeNiro, but maybe a Bruce Campbell or Joe Don Baker, still exciting but without being completely smitten. I’m informed that this is the first time that Peake is being publicly sold at a fair by Peake’s grandson. He and his wife are watching the booth that also shows a fantastic Navajo wall hanging. I’m all in.
We make the rounds. Lots of painting and stuff on the walls, almost nothing on the floor, hardly any installation is to be found here. There is an interesting phenomenon playing out here, hundreds of people, sometimes shoulder to shoulder passing each other without actually bumping into one another despite the fact that no one is looking at anyone else. More painting. We stop by to eyeball the old-school Muchas, Klimts and Schieles. Very daring by today’s standards. Patrick Painter is showing some fantastic European painters. I’m a sucker for the fast brush, the drips, the kind of painting that is made with a sure hand but looks a bit like trash or a sketch at best. The political leanings are obvious, paintings of riot cops, youth throwing Molotov cocktails, rock’n’roll #idontgiveafuckisms. It’s a bit of a formula for modern neo-realist painting, but it works for me. Jerome Lagarrigue and Stephan Balleux have some painterly chops. Their tradition going back a ways, from pretty standard social realism taught in Eastern Europe through much of the twentieth century, to modern realism’s poor cousin turned golden boy Leipzig school, that went further down the rabbit hole and exited in places like Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic with artists like Daniel Pitin and Adrian Ghenie, the love children of La’s Mihai Nicodim, a Romanian art dealer, conspicuously absent from the LA Art Show. It’s male-centric for sure, aggressive painting (if such a thing actually exists), phallic even, testosterone is all over these paintings, but that is their ultimate allure.
Tucked away in the middle of all this is Zeo Crosher’s respite from the madness. Four black and white photographs of a parched California (LA?) landscape facing each other and four golden palm fronds on the floor resting peacefully away from the buzz and the traffic. It’s the moment of Zen and clarity, the abyss of human relationship to the environment. No wonder there’s nobody here. It’s all reflection, but nothing is reflecting back, no faces, no political or ethical pseudo-struggle. It is what it is and it’s hard to get a hold on, much like the impending doom that awaits our late capitalist neoliberal dystopia.
There’s so much at the fair and much of it is easy to miss. Walk around and you’re bound to miss something. But walk around the middle and there’s one thing you won’t miss, and that is Chuni Park’s giant painting. It’s made of several, quickly painted, black and white canvases that wrap around the corner, probably over 100 feet long. My first question was, where did the artist get the money for the display? Answer, who cares. It’s a fantastic piece, a long continuous landscape, like a panorama, but with disparate parts all sewn together. It’s a Korean Caspar David Friedrich on a vast scale. A tiny yellow figure walks the path in a dark forest, Friedrichian Chasseur, a meta-reference, to art and painting, Anselm Kiefer, the Romantics, nostalgia and reality, the whole fucking world. You take a walk and may never come back—the forest and the dark side. I think I need a drink now.
Side B (Negative)
What is new in the world of art and on the stage of LA Art Show? I’m tempted to say, not much. Warhol still sucks, yet he continues to sell and inspire countless hacks and also-artists. Painting is still gold and makes up about 90 percent of every work of art on display. Nothing wrong with this, mind you—I like painting, I’m a painter myself—it is the standard currency of the art market whether we like it or not. Stick it on a wall and hope some rich bastard will come to offload his laundered cash on you and buy whatever fashionable dregs you’re willing to push on him.
The art fair is a symbolic representation of modern American puritanism. All the vulgarity, hedonism and public displays of wealth and arrogance are there, but completely subsumed by the sterile, business-friendly environment. Every seemingly subversive act or daring work of art, sits nestled in a safety-net of an already approving, left-leaning audience and art fair establishment figures. We live in an era where the richest men in the world like Tim Cook, Bill Gates and Elon Musk are called socialists. Musk is now the leading proponent of universal basic income. Let’s be clear, universal basic income, gender equality, human rights, animal rights, environmentalism, debt forgiveness, tax on corporatists, single payer healthcare, etc., are great ideas and ought to be enacted, but it does present a dilemma for the artists and the art world that supports them, because all the issues that are at stake on the political and social front are totally hegemonic, part of the master discourse. Nobody would approve more of current social justice positions than the unelected and unaccountable de facto totalitarian “leader” and the grey eminence of the Western world Mark Zuckerberg.
That the art world is fully behind the basic principles of social justice is not surprising. Social justice is important but selling social justice as just another fashionable commodity is more than problematic. In the 1960s, the pointy heads managed to monetize and sell the hippy lifestyle. Despite the early resistance, eventually hippies accepted their fate and label. Having money in their pockets was better than not having it. All their struggles became pseudo-struggles, sanitized and ad-space ready. Today the same thing is happening with migrants, feminists and women’s rights, LGBTQIA+. In short, technocrat utopians like Zuckerberg and Musk act like socialists while they fully participate in neoliberal style late capitalism, and the art dealers denounce capitalism while they openly commodify every work of art and the artists themselves.
Sarah Trouche, Performance stills, “You Should Wear Your Revolution”
Sarah Trouche’s performance piece “You Should Wear Your Revolution” stands out in the section Diverse LA— carefully curated and with art notably not for sale. The work folds into prescient conversations of political struggle, a culmination of fifteen years of social engagement around the world on the part of the artist. Trouche performed “You Should Wear Your Revolution” two times during the LA Art Show, each performance lasting six hours, a lone endeavor underscoring the temporal and physical weight that women (and women artists) bear. The duration also subjects the viewer to both the imminent and the unending sense of struggle for change.
As part of the performance, hundreds of pieces of underwear either lying on the floor in piles or wrapped around circular barbed wire evoke and remind us of women’s emancipation and the Sans culottes during the French Revolution. A photographic work of two women, one wearing a nun’s cloak, the other a sari, change between partially nude and fully dressed, comments on shame and body issues and the commodification of the body.
Trouche’s work aside, fair spectators come across a precarious line between in-the-art-context and out-of-social context. We hack it, political and social commentary can be provocative but run the line of coming off as disingenuous, sometimes forced and obsolete. Protest art – check; blasé disregard of cultural norms – check; snarky commentary – check.
Conspicuously absent are issues of classism and the poor. But this is the art world after all. The marriage between elitism and PC culture are not exactly news, so when the ugly beast rears its head, one better stay on the other side of the fence. Fake it till you make it is the running theme and by this faulty logic the poor are out, while the art world curates the hell out of its favorite marginal subcultures. Perhaps the best way to describe the dark side of the art fair would be to quote David Brent, the fictional British boss from “The Office.” “I don’t make jokes about the disableds, because there’s nothing funny about them.” The phrase is meant to evoke horror and loathing and the brash stupidity and crassness of the idiot speaker. One can imagine an art dealer saying something similar, “I don’t sell works about the poor, because nobody wants to see them.” Translation: the vast majority of the poor and semi-poor of the world are not chic enough to be put on display, plus they don’t buy art, so why bother with them? The art world has an uncanny ability to turn noble struggles into methods of extracting money from the elites.
The floor is awash in tall socks, white shoes, high and tight pants, jeans with pre-torn holes, all of which are still inexplicably in vogue. Musclebound dudes, manscaped beards and handlebar mustaches, yoga pants and water bottles pepper the landscape. The fashion industry has done a number on these poor bastards and they don’t seem to know it. Or worse, they know it and don’t care, or love it. They’re there to take selfies with the work, much of it obviously selected for its Instagrammability. I’ve become more interested in the boring art tourists, the normies and people in ill-fitting suits, people whose very nature prevents them from becoming popular on social media. The poor gallery assistant is infinitely more interesting than the socialite.