Curator Paul Schimmel has been a player in Southern California’s art scene for more than a decade–first at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, then, since early 1990, as chief curator at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. But 1992 marks his big-city debut. “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” the first major exhibition that Schimmel has organized for MOCA, is scheduled for Jan. 26-April 26. Advance publicity suggests that Schimmel will come on strong, provocative title and all. The Temporary Contemporary’s entire 45,000-square-foot exhibition space will be filled with works by 16 visual artists who have “a common interest in exploring universal human experiences–including fear, anxiety, obsession–and in portraying the dark, macabre or bitterly comic aspects of life,” Schimmel says. Ten Los Angeles-based writers who share this nasty vision will contribute poetry and fiction to “Helter-Skelter’s” catalogue.
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ART : Public Warm, Critics Cool Toward ‘Helter Skelter’
“I had it all wrong. I thought there would be a public outcry against the exhibition and a supportive critical response,” said Paul Schimmel, curator of “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” as the controversial show approached today’s closing. “Instead, the public has loved it. We have had about 100,000 visitors, a phenomenal number for a contemporary art show. They keep coming back and writing favorable comments. But at the same time, we have received some very strong critical opinions–some thoughtful, some outraged.”
None was more outraged than Time magazine critic Robert Hughes, who wrote: “If you thought new American art couldn’t get much worse than it was by the end of the 1980s, visit MOCA and learn.” He granted faint praise to works by Chris Burden, Victor Estrada and Manual Ocampo, but declared that Mike Kelley’s installation is “visual zit popping” and pronounced Raymond Pettibon “the nadir of this Valley Girl Dada.” Hughes’ conclusion: “Helter Skelter” proves that MOCA is the Louvre of adolescence.
New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman reached a similarly damning judgment: “The disappointment of the exhibition is less its attention-grabbing sensationalism than the pretense that this sensationalism amounts to something substantial and challenging. . . . Unfortunately, the movement turns out to be good old adolescent nihilism.”
Newsweek critic Peter Plagens also bemoaned the latest proof that art is “regressing toward adolescence,” then issued a report card: “Art, B-minus; Sociology, C.”
West Coast writers generally took more kindly to the exhibition but expressed serious reservations. Christopher Knight, The Times’ art critic, said that pitting “an art of Darkness & Claustrophobia” against Los Angeles’ defining art tradition–Light & Space art of the ’60s–didn’t work. “Helter Skelter” is too busy “fiddling with established public perceptions” to answer profound questions about the rise of this dark sensibility, he concluded.
Writing in Artnews magazine, Los Angeles critic Hunter Drohojowska applauded the show for “shedding light on several artists whose disturbing works have remained mostly underground phenomena” but complained that the message is “watered down.”
Ralph Rugoff of the L.A. Weekly charged that the show cops out by avoiding more issues than it confronts and by neglecting “the politics and aesthetics of race and class.”
“I’ve been quite surprised by the sheer quantity of coverage,” Schimmel said, in a telephone interview. “I expected a lot of local coverage and hoped for national attention, but I never imagined that there would be so much interest internationally,” he said, noting that lengthy articles have appeared in European newspapers and magazines and that Chinese, Canadian and British television have covered “Helter Skelter.”
The attention has been gratifying and many of the artists in the show have been invited to participate in other exhibitions as a result of the publicity, he said. But the critical fray has been troubling. “I feel that the show got too far ahead of the art,” he said, explaining that many critics got so carried away with writing about the show’s theme that they failed to address individual artworks. “I don’t blame the critics for that. It has to do with how the show was perceived,” he said.
ART VIEW; ‘Helter Skelter’ Reveals The Evil of Banality
LOS ANGELES— It’s not hard to figure out why “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990’s” has become the most talked-about exhibition here in a long time. Everything about this big survey show, organized by Paul Schimmel of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, aims to be provocative — from the intimations of Charles Manson’s bloody rampage in the title, to the violent and ranting essays and poems by Los Angeles writers in the catalogue, to the actual works on view (through April 26) in the museum’s Temporary Contemporary warehouse annex. Those works, by 16 artists, are as full of images of tawdry sex and serial murderers as are the tabloid television shows that masquerade as news programs.
“Helter Skelter” seems even more closely related, in fact, to another recent small-screen phenomenon. Like David Lynch’s defunct “Twin Peaks,” beneath its veneer of surreality is a cliche of America as one vast, roiling, sex-crazed, gun-toting wasteland. The disappointment of the exhibition is less its attention-grabbing sensationalism than the pretense that this sensationalism amounts to something substantial and challenging. At a time when the art world, always desperate for the latest trend, can cling to no dominant movement, the show eagerly celebrates one in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the movement turns out to be good old adolescent nihilism.
“Helter Skelter” tries vainly to elevate this nihilism, lauding its borrowings from pulp fiction, cult religions, extremist politics and cartoons. “The artists’ use of debased signs and symbols, and their embrace of raw subjects from everyday life, shock and disorient the viewer into another state of mind,” Mr. Schimmel writes in the catalogue, adding somewhat hopefully: “Indeed, by presenting such graphic explorations of sexuality and violence — which implicitly question contemporary standards of obscenity — the institution now becomes as much at risk as the artists themselves.”
Those artists include familiar figures like Chris Burden and Mike Kelley as well as newcomers like Victor Estrada. At 26, Manuel Ocampo is the youngest in the show; Llyn Foulkes, at 57, is the oldest. The show claims that this varied and loosely formed group presents an “updated” vision of Los Angeles that contrasts with the stereotype of the city as a “sunny dreamland of fun.” But the alternative picture that “Helter Skelter” proposes of Los Angeles as a dark and dangerous place has been no less a stereotype, at least since 1939, the year Nathanael West published “Day of the Locust.” As the work of Ed Kienholz makes clear, it has also been an aspect of the art scene here for decades. That the catalogue cites West and the history of film noir, and also suggests that the art on display somehow breaks ground, illustrates the fuzziness of the show’s thesis.
In part because its subtitle misleadingly implies it is a survey of the whole of Los Angeles art in the 90’s, “Helter Skelter” has provoked criticism for not including more works by women and minorities. This criticism seems to miss the point. The show deserves to be faulted on political grounds for including artists like Robert Williams, a co-founder of Zap Comix, whose paintings full of naked bimbos mark the exhibition’s nadir.
The works on view are a disconcertingly mixed bag. Perhaps the strongest piece is Mr. Burden’s “Medusa’s Head,” a four-ton meteorite strangled by dozens of miniature railroad tracks. The sculpture, which was on display last year at the Brooklyn Museum, serves as a parable of ecological catastrophe all the more potent for acknowledging the nostalgic connotations of trains.
“Baby/Baby,” by Mr. Estrada, presents one of the exhibition’s few truly haunting images, a sculpture of two gigantic, pinch-faced, bubble-gum-pink babies joined at the crotch by an enormous phallus in the shape of a nuclear cloud. Charles Ray provides an amusing bit of trompe l’oeil — a custom-made mannequin of a woman in a business suit, set apart in its own room so that a viewer does not realize at first that she stands eight feet tall. Mr. Ocampo’s antiqued canvases, full of religious symbols and references to the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, convey a raw energy despite their melodrama.
And Mr. Foulkes’s paintings-cum-relief-sculptures bring to mind the art of Francis Bacon in their combination of careful finish and macabre humor. One portrays Superman as an aging, shellshocked father, glued to his television. Even Superman, it seems, is defeated by the banality of American life.
For every interesting work in “Helter Skelter” there are too many others, like Richard Jackson’s pointless clock-filled installation, that simply fall flat. The few contributions by women artists are conspicuously weak. Liz Larner’s installation with mirrors and chains called “Forced Perspective” is one of them. Nancy Rubins’s mountainous pile of trailers and water heaters, a humorless imitation of something Vito Acconci might concoct, is another. And Meg Cranston’s video installation, with its image of a fireplace and its Muzak soundtrack, is yet another.
This sort of work doesn’t so much transcend as mimic the stereotypes of middle-American life, with its canned music, its trailer homes and its stupid office humor. Mr. Schimmel describes the attitude of the artists in the show, his first as chief curator at the museum, as “in your face.” He writes that “none are ‘do-gooder’ artists who seek to use their art for direct political ends.”
If the 1980’s gave rise to political correctness, which sees everything in moral terms, the decade also in its glorification of greed and selfishness fostered the spirit of amorality and alienation that suffuses “Helter Skelter.” It sometimes seems that for art to attract attention nowadays it must take place at one extreme or the other. What ultimately makes “Helter Skelter” such a chilling event is not the preponderance of blood and gore but the absence of compassion.
Photo: Victor Estrada’s “Baby/Baby” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art annex — Twins joined by a nuclear cloud. (Steve Goldstein for The New York Times)
ART REVIEW : An Art of Darkness at MOCA
Aggressively titled, “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the ’90s” exploits a proven method for getting attention. At the Museum of Contemporary Art’s warehouse facility in Little Tokyo, the newly opened exhibition reaches for the spotlight simply by playing against type.
If the first indigenous art from Los Angeles to merit international recognition is widely regarded to have been the sleek and unprecedented ’60s art of Light & Space, then “Helter Skelter” could most succinctly be described as putting its opposite on a pedestal: Fractiously chronicled is an art of Darkness & Claustrophobia. In his go-for-broke debut as MOCA senior curator, Paul Schimmel thus neatly contradicts a central cliche by which, for a generation, the visual arts in Southern California have been lazily described.
However, because the life of art is never that simple, this binary approach finally works against itself. By having defined its opposite, the established genre- cum -myth of Light & Space inevitably maintains its vested aesthetic authority. A slightly broadened but still too-narrow conception of supposed “L.A. art” is kept alive. (Maybe that explains why so few women–four–are among the 16 artists.)
Perhaps the greatest achievement of this large and ambitious show is simply the vigor with which it acknowledges important art being made here–an acknowledgment that has seemed shaky at best in MOCA’s past programming. Schimmel has assembled paintings, sculptures, drawings and installations, as well as commissioning poetry and fiction from 10 writers for the accompanying catalogue. Among them are some of the most accomplished artists (and writers) whose work has come to the fore anywhere in the last decade, including sculptor Chris Burden, Conceptualist Mike Kelley, and painter Lari Pittman.
Burden’s roiling, 5-ton, suspended asteroid of railroad tracks and mines, “Medusa’s Head,” may be the first successful example of a landscape sculpture , ever. Leave it to Burden to invent a whole new genre, take it to a peak and bring it to a close–all in a single piece.
Kelley’s commissioned design for the decor of meeting rooms at a local advertising agency consists of wall murals copied from the kinds of jokey signs and doodles workers typically post around their offices: “The flogging will continue until morale improves,” “You want it when???” and other, more vulgar or sexually explicit examples. The repressed psychological hostility of the corporate environment is here projected on surrounding walls, oddly transforming the rooms into fully human, even poignant places.
Pittman is a fabulist, miraculously transforming mundane images into dazzling concatenations. His obsessive, wildly ornate pictures continue to amount to some of the most significant painting being made today.
The work by all three is exceptional, but given their level of institutional recognition it’s also what one might expect to see. Less expected, and thus toting a special wallop, are a variety of other, similarly first-rate contributions.
Paul McCarthy has been doing broadly influential performance work for more than 15 years, but nothing quite prepares one for the wrenching installation called “Garden” he has constructed here. In a small patch of forest built from TV stage props, two motor-driven men engage in mechanically thumping sex, one with a tree trunk, the other with the moss-covered ground. At once voyeuristically riveting and awful, bizarrely funny and overwhelmingly tragic, this onanistic ritual presents another side of Eden.
In recent years Charles Ray has made an impressive body of sculpture that, appropriately enough, explores socially circumscribed bodily relationships. His remarkable new “Mannequin Fall ’91” is an 8-foot store dummy, fashionably groomed and coiffed, which disconcertingly looms above mere mortal viewers. Endowed with the presence of classical statuary, like some Sears, Roebuck & Co. Athena, the icily restrictive idealization in mundane modern icons fans a cold breeze down your spine.
And almost out of nowhere–he’s shown only twice before–Victor Estrada has risen to the present occasion with a powerful, monumentally theatrical sculpture of cast foam, called “Baby/Baby.” Two clown-headed creatures, grinning and frowning as mutant signs of comedy and tragedy, recline in a vivid purple room while, between them, a tumescent column rises up, part monstrous phallus and part mushroom cloud. It’s an unspeakable image.
Some disappointments will be found. Manuel Ocampo is represented by a strong group of paintings, but his foray into sculpture, which transforms his Spanish Colonial sources into decorative embellishments, feels empty. Similarly, the furious forms in Megan Williams’ wonderfully compulsive drawings don’t survive the transformation from pictorial whirlwind into physical installation.
The shabby, domestic crack-up of hearth and home in Nancy Rubins’ mountainous pile of wrecked mobile homes and ruined water heaters startles with blunt force, but little resonance follows the initial, gee-whiz impact. And Richard Jackson condenses the crack of time in a chamber built from scores of synchronized clocks, which grabs you by the mental lapels for but a split second.
As a title “Helter Skelter” is also a grabber, but the choice is a big mistake. Schimmel leads his catalogue introduction with a disclaimer: Rather than conjure the Beatles’ song and Charles Manson’s brutal madness, he simply means “Helter Skelter” to describe the hurried, confused, disorderly times in which these artists make work. You can’t exploit sensationalism, though, and then expect the audience to toss grandiloquence aside and ponder with gentility a dictionary definition.
The subtitle is a problem too. Forecasting “L.A. Art in the ’90s” is presumptuous. Neither can it help but imply that a new tradition is issuing forth from multiple generations (the oldest artist is 57-year-old Llyn Foulkes, the youngest is 26-year-old Ocampo). Yet, in reality, it has been around from the start, as Mike Davis’ widely acclaimed 1991 book, “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles,” attested. For the postwar visual arts that tradition dates to the grim assemblages of Ed Kienholz, whose sharply moralizing art is contemporaneous with the perceptual emphasis of ’60s Light & Space.
Significantly, the new writing commissioned for the catalogue might suggest a crucial relationship between literature and the curator’s rather vague claims for an art that explores “the dark side.” For the literary arts (including movies, especially the noir variety), the sensibility dates at least to the ’30s, with the shadowy, beleaguered writing of Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West and others. The paintings of Llyn Foulkes–the one artist here whose career spans the three decades since 1960–have always been marked by a literary edge, and it was precisely that supposedly extraneous element of literature that so-called progressive painting of the period sought to banish.
Like Kienholz, the difference between Foulkes and the rest of “Helter Skelter”is the distinctly moralizing tone of his art. Still, its literary qualities are obviously shared by Raymond Pettibon’s crazily insightful drawings, by the cartoon-like collaboration between Jim Shaw and writer Benjamin Weissman, by the woefully cliche-ridden video installation of Meg Cranston (TV as a hypnotic fireplace is depicted), by the tiresomely repetitive vulgarities of Robert Williams’ comic-book paintings and by most everyone else in the show.
The notable exception is likely Liz Larner’s disappointingly banal installation. A mechanically ordered system of Western perspective, pointedly constructed dimensions from steel chains and illusion-producing mirrors, is juxtaposed with a wholly natural system that is only seemingly disordered–namely, an actual buzzing beehive. The hive, of course, just happens to be dominated by a queen.
So, the question remains: Did the dark sensibility championed here come to prominence through the eventual collapse of the formalist prohibition against literary “contamination” of purely visual art? You won’t find out, alas, from reflecting on “Helter Skelter.” It’s rather too concerned instead with simply fiddling with established public perceptions.
ART : The Museum as Stage : As ‘Helter Skelter’ demonstrates, exhibitions have become theater, with former performance artists involving viewers in the drama
Performance art is not a genre included in “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” the energetic exhibition that has been packing in the crowds at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Little Tokyo satellite for the last three months. Painting, sculpture, drawing, installation art–yes. But, not performance.
At least, not directly. One of the curious aspects of the frequently raucous exhibition, which closes today at the Temporary Contemporary, is how several of the strongest works on view are by artists for whom performance art has been a significant feature of past work. The ghost of the genre haunts the museum’s galleries.
In the 1960s, performance had emerged as part of a larger effort to get art out of the rarefied precincts of the museum and away from the commercial imperatives of the marketplace. In the 1980s, as the museum and the marketplace together roared toward an unprecedented position in the popular artistic consciousness, certain performance strategies and imperatives were absorbed into sculpture and, especially, into installation art.
Chris Burden gave up performance art more than a decade ago, but he pioneered an important form of the genre in the early 1970s. In events where violence and physical danger loomed, he suppressed the strictly perceptual phenomena more common to visual art; instead, the audience was offered extreme confrontations with moral dilemmas.
Should the artist be stopped from having himself shot, in the name of art, by a rifle-toting accomplice? Should his body be dragged away from the precarious pairing of electrical wires and water bucket, which could electrocute him in a flash? A spectator was always made to wonder whether or not he should intervene in Burden’s carefully chosen performance activity.
During the last dozen years, Burden has successfully transferred this confrontational stance from performance art to sculpture. His 5-ton “Medusa’s Head,” ominously suspended by a muscular chain from a steel I-beam in MOCA’s rafters, is a planet ravaged by toy trains that relentlessly mine its rocky innards. As the sculptural form is opened up, extinction threatens. Deepening and complicating the awful conflict inherent in any moral predicament, “Medusa’s Head” merges a childlike playfulness and stark brutality.
Sculptor Charles Ray groped toward his mature work in the 1970s and early ’80s by incorporating his own body into otherwise highly formal sculptures. They would be displayed as if a brief tableau. The gallery door would open to admit viewers, and the artist himself would be on view visibly encased in a wall-hung box or huddled naked beneath a cold steel plate, as if entombed inside a Donald Judd sculpture or buried beneath a Carl Andre floor-piece. After several minutes, visitors would be ushered out and the gallery door would close.
Distinct echoes of this explicit, person-to-person encounter are found today in Ray’s cleverly manipulated department store mannequins. One otherwise generic example in “Helter Skelter” is fashioned into a faithful portrait of the artist. Another is unclothed and equipped with highly realistic genitals. A third is perfectly ordinary–except for the rather disconcerting fact that she is 8 feet tall.
A fashionable, high-style Athena, Ray’s female mannequin dwarfs the unsuspecting viewer who encounters the commandingly poised figure. Suddenly she bursts forth in the mind as Everymom–a culturally idealized image of graceful female perfection, yet also distant, unknowable and coolly intimidating.
Visceral, evocative and broadly influential performance works have been presented by Paul McCarthy in the United States and Europe since the late 1960s. Sometimes the performances are executed in private and videotaped, for viewing later by an audience. In a startlingly effective exhibition at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in December, a video performance called “Bossy Burger” was displayed together with the room-size set in which it had been enacted.
The presence of the set created a bizarre “behind-the-scenes” experience for a television show that will never see the light of broadcast. As a result, the “private” videotape seemed painfully intimate, the act of watching it an awful intrusion into the psyche of a stranger.
At MOCA, McCarthy’s “Garden” is also reminiscent of a stage set in which any stark divisions between public and private have been thoroughly scrambled. Built atop a big, raised platform and employing a carpet of artificial grass, papier-mache boulders and fake trees, the component parts of the installation were indeed salvaged from a television soundstage. Within the faux -forest primeval, acutely observed mechanical men simulate sex with the ground and a tree, the repetitive ca-chunk of their whirring machinery providing a chilly soundtrack for the voyeuristic scene.
Nature is a cultural fabrication in McCarthy’s extraordinary “Garden.” The manufacture includes the fully human nature displayed by spectators, who inevitably crane their necks to get a better look at the pathetic sexual activity hidden in the bushes.
Ordinary inventions of people-like-us are likewise central to Mike Kelley’s work, and performance art was the initial engine that drove the exploration. Kelley would develop a thematic body of drawings, sculptures and installation pieces, which would be shown as independent works of art. Significantly, these discrete objects also functioned as working notes for the artist, notes toward culmination in a performance piece.
Kelley’s installation in “Helter Skelter” is a “Proposal for the Decoration of an Island of Conference Rooms (with Copy Room) for an Advertising Agency Designed by Frank Gehry.” This remarkable ensemble conceives of an office as already a kind of stage set, where the drama of distinctly modern life is daily played out.
A suite of typical, all-white rooms has been decorated with images created not by the artist, but by anonymous office workers. From a variety of sources, Kelley gathered up the sorts of rank doodles and sarcastic cartoons–often sexual, scatological and adolescent in their humor–that decorate the typical contemporary work station. These he enlarged to mural size and silk-screened with black paint onto the surrounding walls of the conference rooms.
Originally commissioned by a large advertising agency, Kelley’s incisive installation merges his activity as an artist with the artistic expressiveness of office workers. Rather than imperiously adding a sculpture to the lobby, the artist here presents “corporate culture” as a developed entity, complete with its own familiar visual codes, social rituals and repressed anxieties. These are given telling (if unacknowledged and unexalted) form through the “urban folk art” of office cartoons.
A crucial feature of Kelley’s installation is its reconstruction of an office copy room, outfitted with a copy machine, metal shelving, work table and coffee maker, and marked by a closely observed aura of casual disarray–right down to the coffee-cup rings that mar the table. Restricted to “Employees Only” and the one room in the office suite that is locked to museum visitors–you peer in through the windows to peruse it–the copy room is revealed for what it really is: the artist’s studio for corporate culture.
Like their prior endeavors in performance art, the “Helter Skelter” sculptures and installations of Burden, Ray, McCarthy and Kelley audaciously perform. They’re highly theatrical because, with candor and straightforwardness, they acknowledge and address a spectator standing before them.
Ours is an era when big, expensive exhibitions have become an imposing form of political theater, replete with a variety of often hidden agendas. Performance-related sculpture and installation art have come to the foreground because they have a particular role to play in this rambunctious scenario.
More than any other genre, including the time-based mediums of video and film, convincing performance art has been characterized by a sharp difference from other forms of entertainment: Rather than complaisantly amuse, it means to transform the audience from passive viewer into active spectator. For an audience more commonly primed for inertia, artists with a history in performance art have a special capacity to create a bracingly self-conscious condition of spectatorship. In an elaborate show like “Helter Skelter,” several do.