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

April 26, 1992|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

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.

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COVER STORY : Art in the City of Angels and Demons : A sordid chapter from the past provided the name for ‘Helter Skelter’–a show that aims to reflect L.A.’s dark side

January 26, 1992|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is a Times staff writer

There’s nothing harder to change than image. If you’re a public figure, you can always hire a press agent to help, but it’s a bit harder for a city to transform itself–particularly when the image suits the tourist industry and it’s sent around the world on The Big Screen.

In the case of Los Angeles, perceptions of the city have permeated the image of the art scene. Fun. Sun. Movie stars. Despite an endless list of L.A. art that doesn’t match the cliche–most notably a cynical strain of conceptually based work that has emerged from CalArts–the mindless image has been slow to die.

“There was always this perception of Los Angeles being Venice, Santa Monica and the beach,” says Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “It may never have been that, but that was a pervasive notion and a lot of the artists who are most internationally known from the ’60s and ’70s, be it David Hockney or Sam Francis, continued to support that in one way or another. And artists who didn’t, left.”

Now, Schimmel is fighting this narrow view of Los Angeles art head-on in “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” a big, brash exhibition of anxiety-ridden artworks, opening today at the museum’s Temporary Contemporary facility in Little Tokyo.

The show features works by 16 Los Angeles artists who focus on society’s underside and pull no punches in their representations of sex, violence, perversity and alienation. From Jim Shaw’s narrative drawings of a serial killer to Nancy Rubin’s Gargantuan pile of house trailers, motor homes and water heaters, the artworks brutally undercut stereotypes of Los Angeles as a sun-drenched playground that produces pretty art.

There’s scarcely any residue of L.A.’s trademark “Finish Fetish” or “Light and Space” art to be seen in “Helter Skelter,” much less a whiff of the airy, optimistic painting that has long been identified with the city. All 45,000 square feet of the Temporary Contemporary are filled with such things as Richard Jackson’s room built of 1,000 identical, simultaneously ticking clocks, Paul McCarthy’s “Garden” featuring mechanical men who copulate with trees or holes in the ground, Megan Williams’ whirlwind-like drawings of men’s genital fixations and Meg Cranston’s suspended video monitor showing a genie who sends subversive music into various parts of the museum.

“I’m interested in art that’s going to be right in your face,” the 37-year-old curator says in the current issue of MOCA’s newspaper. “You know all those people who are confused about conceptual and abstract art?” he asks, walking through the galleries during the show’s installation. “Well, they’re not going to have a problem with this. It may be too explicit for some of them, but there’s a lot to see and read and be confronted with.”

Schimmel hopes viewers will understand that he means to round out the image of Los Angeles, not create a new, equally narrow one. But some observers question whether the old sunny image of Los Angeles is as pervasive as he thinks. Says Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens: “So many publications have done articles on how rancid the California Dream has become–you can’t drive, you can’t breathe, you can’t go out at night without getting shot–I don’t think anyone goes to California to get a part in ‘CHiPS’ anymore.”

With an attention-grabbing title, an eclectic roster of artists and a slew of undeniably tough art, Schimmel knows he may be in for trouble from those who don’t want to be hit in the face with societal ills when they go to a museum, but he doesn’t shrink from the prospect. “To do a regional show in this day and age, you either have to be profoundly stupid or just love the controversy. Obviously, I love the controversy,” he says.

“You can’t do a show about what’s going on in your own community without having literally hundreds of other viable and significant options to do, and literally hundreds of people telling you what it is you should do.

“That keeps museums from doing shows about their own communities, which is crazy because Los Angeles’ image is being redefined in New York and Europe. I travel a lot and I see the importance that artists here are having in those larger international communities, and I don’t feel that we are doing enough to define Los Angeles art from our own perspective. And I know why, because every time you do it, you get bashed. It’s a lot easier and a lot safer to do a one-person show on an internationally recognized artist.”

Schimmel hasn’t been seriously bashed yet, but he has set off a buzz about “Helter Skelter.” If nothing else, he has proven his ability to get attention. For starters, the title seems to be a double-barreled attack on a lethargic art scene. “Helter Skelter” brings back horrific memories of the murder and mayhem visited on Los Angeles by Charles Manson, who used the title of a Beatles song as the name of his bizarre philosophy, which envisioned his killings as the spark of a racial holocaust that would lead blacks to victory. The rest of the title, “L.A. Art in the 1990s,” suggests that the museum is forecasting a nasty trend for the decade.

The title emerged after the curator had lined up about half of the work. “I was playing with different kinds of phrases–the dark side, extreme vision, anxious vision, the underside, the shadows cast in sharp light,” he says. “At one point I was talking to a collector in another country, describing what I thought in the broadest sense has occurred in Los Angeles over the last 20 years.

“As I was telling this foreigner about the show, he said, ‘Well, you know Los Angeles has always been this dichotomy in people’s minds between something very beautiful and something rather sinister and dark. He talked about all the movies–‘Blade Runner,’ ‘Chinatown’–and then he mentioned Charlie Manson. When he said ‘Charlie Manson,’ I thought ‘Helter Skelter.’ ”

The idea stuck, though Schimmel says the title has been the most worrisome aspect of the exhibition. He ran the title by MOCA administrators, who didn’t object, and the artists, who reportedly like it. Since then, Schimmel has spent a good deal of time explaining that “Helter Skelter” refers to more than the Manson clan and the Beatles song, and that the term has a broader meaning, involving confusion or disorder. “It’s also the name of a roller coaster, and that kind of wildness and free form and out-of-control quality is something I wanted people to get a sense of in one quick (phrase),” he says.

As for “L.A. Art in the 1990s,” Schimmel is not forecasting a trend. “One of the big problems with ‘Helter Skelter’ is that people thought it was a ’60s show. I thought it was important in the viewer’s mind to be situated in this time. This is not ‘Helter Skelter From the ’60s to the Present’ or ‘Helter Skelter Through the Ages.’ All the work is new or done within the last few years,” he says.

Critic Dave Hickey, who has long ties to the L.A. art scene, has no trouble with the title. His only quibble with the exhibition, which he characterizes as “a nice show of neo-beatniks,” is that it isn’t in the museum’s Arata Isozaki-designed building on Grand Avenue. “If Paul really wanted to helter-skelter the place, he would put the show in that Mercedes showroom that they call a museum. Putting it down there in the Temporary Contemporary just ghettoizes it,” Hickey says.

Nonetheless, the title has been a frequent subject of conversation. One local dealer calls it “shameful.” Newsweek’s Plagens terms it “tasteless” but says he’s “more tired and bored than shocked” by the title.

“I don’t know. I make up the worst titles for exhibitions, and I may have done it again,” Schimmel moans. But he admits, “You don’t open up Pandora’s box and then sit on the lid.”

“I want the title to be a lightning rod in terms of getting the attention of people who would not normally see a museum as being vital. I wanted something that in one fell swoop just sort of said it.

“I know one thing, there’s nothing frivolous about the exhibition. This is a serious show and these are serious artists. The title is a way of very quickly capturing a larger audience who would normally dismiss ‘Sixteen From L.A.’ or ‘Los Angeles Today.’ ”

Casually dressed in a bulky sweater, beige cotton trousers and white running shoes, Schimmel seems the picture of confidence and enthusiasm as he strides through the galleries and points out where each artist’s work will be–Llyn Foulkes’ intensely troubling paintings here, Mike Kelley’s re-creation of an advertising office, papered with faxed office jokes, there.

Chris Burden’s “Medusa’s Head,” a 5-ton, 14-foot ball of concrete, plywood, steel and toy railroad tracks that signifies the industrial world’s destruction of the natural landscape, will greet visitors at the entrance. One of Charles Ray’s generic male nude mannequins with realistic genitals will be positioned so that it can be seen from outside, through glass doors.

There will be epic paintings by Lari Pittman, chockful of his personal symbolism; a narrative frieze of pen-and-ink drawings by Raymond Pettibon and paintings of hooded Klansmen and bloated babies by Manuel Ocampo. Liz Larner’s installation will include a real bee colony and a sculpture constructed of chains, mirrors and hardware. Along with such artists, many of whom have established international and national reputations, Schimmel is delighted to have provided Victor Estrada’s first museum show and to have included Robert Williams’ nightmarish comic book-style paintings, which are better known in the pop music field than in the art world.

Schimmel’s choice of 16 artists–and exclusion of dozens of others–will probably draw fire, as is usual in group shows. But Schimmel is under particularly strong scrutiny because “Helter Skelter” is the first big exhibition he has organized for MOCA since he took over the chief curator’s post two years ago. The massive show is seen as his debut and a harbinger of his tenure at a highly visible institution.

Plagens, for example, draws a parallel between “Helter Skelter” and “ Dis locations,”Robert Storr’s recent curatorial debut at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which broke barriers by allowing contemporary conceptual art into the museum’s mainstream galleries. When the two younger-generation curators hit the big time, they both made waves, and they both put massive works by Chris Burden in their debut shows. “Helter Skelter” seems to be “a bigger, nastier, more dangerous, spikier version of Storr’s debut at MOMA,” Plagens said, and that strikes him as rather odd. “It seems like Storr’s more refined show would have been the L.A. show and the New York show would have been gnarlier, bigger, darker.”

“I’m not naive,” Schimmel says, when reminded that he is in the spotlight. “But there are times when, instead of waiting for the controversy to come knocking on your door, you might as well just go out there and look for it.

“I feel that, well, just look at this place,” he says, surveying the vast spaces of the TC’s warehouse-like building. “There’s just something you can do here that you can’t do any place else. I thought that, being new to this museum, I would have enough good will to make it happen.

“I really thought it was important to use this opportunity to articulate a significant aspect of what has occurred in the last 10 years in terms of our perceived change of what Los Angeles is as an art community. It’s not a coming of age. It’s not like this is the first time there’s been a group of artists that you can identify with Los Angeles. We’ve known a lot of these artists for a long time and there were times when they were sort of central to what was going on, but it seemed to me as if now, more than ever before, artists who had their own kind of unique and extreme image are really defining what the times are,” Schimmel says.

An energetic conversationalist whose sentences often run to paragraph length, Schimmel exudes such enthusiasm for “Helter Skelter” that he gives the impression it is the fruition of a long-term plan. It isn’t. The exhibition has been in the works for about a year and it was by no means the one that he envisioned as his MOCA debut when he joined the museum’s staff in 1990, after nine years at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

“Helter Skelter” came up rather suddenly because of a plan to close the Temporary Contemporary for 18 months–at an undetermined date–when a massive mixed-used development, called First Street North, gets under way. “We began talking about what would the last show be before the TC closed up, although we still don’t know exactly when this development is going to happen or if this will actually be the last show,” he says.

“Since the TC is such a special place and it really is for the artists, I felt–as a response to ‘The First Show’ (MOCA’s inaugural exhibition at the TC), which was about the greatest hits from private collections–that the last show should enter into this very risky proposition of trying to define the culture of the community in which we live. I thought we should make the last show about here and now, I mean this place, at this time.”

Schimmel initially had in mind an exhibition that would focus on mid-career artists in their 40s and 50s, such as Foulkes and Jackson, but as he and exhibition coordinator Alma Ruiz visited studios and did research, the scope broadened. The artists range in age from 26-year-old Ocampo to 57-year-old Foulkes.

“Eventually it became a thematically driven exhibition, but in the most kind of undefined way,” Schimmel says. “When you really try to do a theme show, usually you have artists of the same generation and the same outlook in dialogue with each other. I’m looking at a broader cultural phenomenon, saying that these attitudes are pervasive through various generations, various media and they cross the boundaries into the visual arts, literary arts and I think even into music.”

Some of the artists’ works are connected by their interest in popular culture, cartoon-like images, adolescent anxieties, large-scale installations or performance art. Half of the artists are affiliated with UCLA and more than a third are graduates of CalArts. The most prominent gallery connection is Rosamund Felsen, but dealers Fred Hoffman, Linda Cathcart and Asher/Faure also represent artists in “Helter Skelter.”

Sixteen writers are also represented in the exhibition catalogue, which is more like an anthology than a standard museum publication, Schimmel says. Like the exhibition itself, the idea of including writers came from artists, he said. When the curator learned that Shaw had collaborated with writer Benjamin Weissman and that Pittman and writer Dennis Cooper had produced a book together, he decided to seek out more writers who were dealing with the kinds of real life subjects that have attracted the artists.

Beyond the image issue, Schimmel wants to celebrate artists he believes have not been adequately supported at home. “Bruce Nauman is the probably the most interesting predecessor for some of these artists, in terms of interest in human body. Even on the heels of his big exhibition (in 1973 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), he says he was never very well supported by this community when he was here. So I wanted MOCA to support those kinds of artists that seem never to quite fit into the collector’s home or the aesthetic of Los Angeles. That’s not to say that some of these artists are not extremely successful. They are, but there are others who are unknown,” he says.

“Even the most well known artists in this exhibition have been supported to a certain extent here locally, but it’s when they start showing in New York and especially in Europe and they go from Europe back to New York and New York back to Los Angeles that their reputations have been made,” Schimmel says. “Los Angeles is able to support an artist to a certain point, but the artists don’t really enter into a mainstream understanding of what is important in terms of the visual arts in Los Angeles until they have gone out there and come back. I don’t believe that Los Angeles has done as much to internationally project what its own culture is about as cities like New York.

“When New York does it, we think of it as internationalism; when L.A. does it, it’s provincialism. I think you can do a regional show that has international consequences, and that’s exactly what I’m hoping that this institution can do. I think that bringing these people together and knowing the kind of audience that MOCA has, we will be doing something very specific in telling not just this community but the rest of the art world what is going on,” he says.

The museum’s last big Los Angeles show, curated by Julia Brown Turrell in 1985, simply provided space for a group of individual solo shows. Today, a timely exhibition of Los Angeles art needs to say more than “these are good artists working now,” Schimmel says. “It needs some kind of point of view, and that developed out of just seeing what people are working on. I’m always visiting artists’ studios, and there was a kind of energy that I saw in these very different individuals’ work–a single-mindedness, a development of their own language, their own symbolism. It has a kind of other-worldliness to it, a darkness, an extreme quality, a kind of charged psychology in some cases, a perceptional undermining of the norm.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s just unique to Los Angeles right now. Internationally there’s an interest in the human body, sexuality, politics, issues that are outside of the art world, outside of the kind of academy of the arts,” he says, noting that the L.A. version of this art may be particularly vigorous because the relatively weak gallery system does not force artists to make salable products.

“I’m not an advocate for local artists,” Schimmel says. “I’m not a nurturing kind of person, but I do think if you have really great art in your midst and you’re not representing it, you are not doing what is one very significant aspect of what a museum can do.”

Roster of Artists in ‘Helter Skelter’

Chris Burden: Born 1946, MFA degree, UC Irvine. One-person exhibitions at Newport Harbor Art Museum, Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and “Documenta” in Kassel, Germany.

Meg Cranston: Born 1960, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibition at Santa Monica Museum of Art; group shows: Stadtmuseum in Graz, Austria, and New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.

Victor Estrada: Born 1956, MFA degree, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. One-person exhibition at Bliss Gallery in Pasadena; group shows: Municipal Art Gallery in Los Angeles and Centro Cultural Tijuana, Mexico.

Llyn Foulkes: Born 1934, attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. One-person exhibitions at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; group shows: Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and “Bienal de Sao Paulo” in Brazil.

Richard Jackson: Born 1939. One-person exhibitions at E.B. Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Galeries Maeght in Zurich and Paris, and Menil Collection in Houston; group shows: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Mike Kelley: Born 1954, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and Reniassance Society in Chicago; group shows: “Carnegie International” in Pittsburgh, “Whitney Biennial” in New York and “Venice Biennale” in Italy.

Liz Larner: Born 1960, BFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Stuart Regan Gallery in Los Angeles and 303 Gallery in New York; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Paul McCarthy: Born 1945, MFA degree, USC. One-person exhibitions at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and Rosamund Felsen Gallery in Los Angeles; group shows: Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and University Art Museum at UC Berkeley.

Manuel Ocampo: Born 1965, attended University of the Philippines and Cal State Bakersfield. One-person exhibitions at Christopher Grimes Gallery and Fred Hoffman Gallery in Santa Monica; group shows: Sezon Art Museum in Tokyo and Saatchi Collection in London.

Raymond Pettibon: Born 1957. One-person exhibitions at Feature and Semaphore in New York, and Richard/Bennett Gallery in Los Angeles; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition and Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art.

Lari Pittman: Born 1952, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and the Newport Harbor Art Museum; group shows: Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Monterey, Mexico, and “Whitney Biennial” in New York.

Charles Ray: Born 1953, MFA degree, Rutgers University. One-person exhibitions at Newport Harbor Art Museum and New Langton Arts in San Francisco; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and Fundacion Caixa de Pensiones in Madrid.

Nancy Rubins: Born 1952, MFA degree, UC Davis. Public sculptures for Washington Project for the Arts in Washington and Cermak Plaza Shopping Center in Berwyn, Ill.; group shows: installations under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and at Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh.

Jim Shaw: Born 1952, MFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at St. Louis Museum of Art and University Art Museum at UC Berkeley; group shows: “Whitney Biennial” in New York and Newport Harbor Art Museum.

Megan Williams: Born 1956, BFA degree, CalArts. One-person exhibitions at Santa Monica Museum of Art and University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara; group shows: the Drawing Center in New York and Otis/Parsons.

Robert Williams: Born 1943, attended Chouinard Art Institute and Los Angeles City College. Customized hot rods and created comics in ’60s; exhibitions include Los Angeles Art Institute and Otis/Parsons.

MOCA Advises Discretion

MOCA officials said that when the “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” exhibition opens today at the Temporary Contemporary, visitors will find a warning posted at the entrance stating: “This exhibition contains imagery and language that some people may find offensive. Viewer discretion is advised.”

The museum is at 152 N. Central Ave. The show will continue through April 26; Tue.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thur., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; free admission Thur. from 5 to 8 p.m.

Information: (213) 621-2766.

Los Angeles Times Articles

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React, but don’t try to predict the future


July 15, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Art Critic

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar’s critics whether there are any reviews they regret. One in a series of occasional articles.

When “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art shortly after New Year’s in 1992, the show marked a cultural turning point. An unprecedented boom in the art market had hit the skids, and suddenly the conflation of vital new artists and a strong institutional base, both of which had been building in the city throughout the 1980s, galvanized attention around art’s value, rather than its price. Something crystallized in the zeitgeist. Los Angeles, long a second city, moved squarely into the international top tier for contemporary art.

I was enthusiastic in print. “Perhaps the greatest achievement of this large and ambitious show is simply the vigor with which it acknowledges important art being made here,” I wrote. That feeling was widespread — not least among the more than 5,000 people who jammed the opening night party at Little Tokyo’s Geffen Contemporary but also among the generally favorable reviews the show garnered. Word traveled fast that something big was up.

The glaring exception was the New York Times. The Manhattan art world had been coming to terms with the 1980s’ return to prominence of European contemporary art, headquartered in Germany, a full generation after the ruination brought by World War II. For nearly half a century, New York pretty much had the territory to itself. Perhaps sensing that its postwar rank as America’s sole major center for new art was also at an end, the New York Times huffed, “The disappointment of the exhibition is less its attention-grabbing sensationalism than the pretense that this sensationalism amounts to something substantial and challenging.” “Helter Skelter” got slammed.

I didn’t like everything about the show either — didn’t like all the art in it and did complain about some things I thought should not have been left out. But there was an obvious abundance of terrific work, and most of its 16 artists are now important international figures.

For years after, whenever I recall “Helter Skelter” in my mind’s eye, the first image that usually pops into my head is Nancy Rubins’ monumental sculpture, “Trailers, Drawings and Hot Water Heaters.” A “tower of power” composed from industrial junk stacked in a rickety, Brancusi-like endless column and plastered with sheets of paper covered in a silvery skin of dense graphite marks, it reached into the rafters. The precarious pile was held together with what seemed like miles of baling wire.

The primacy of this memory is odd, given all the competition from other strong work in the show. Perhaps that’s because of what I wrote in my review. “The shabby, domestic crack-up of hearth and home in [Rubin’s] mountainous pile of wrecked mobile homes and ruined water heaters startles with blunt force, but little resonance follows the initial, gee-whiz impact.” The “yes-but” observation came in a section of the review describing disappointments. A sculpture I can’t forget is one I criticized as unmemorable.

Gee whiz.

Six years ago, MOCA acquired a monumental Rubins sculpture, this one wired together like an improbable industrial tree and now “planted” on the museum’s main plaza. Its eccentric, branching form had taken shape according to the available spatial dimensions of the gallery that first showed it, adding the intangible space of its construction to its heady accumulation of commanding physical materials. Descriptively titled — hang on — “Chas’ Stainless Steel, Mark Thompson’s Airplane Parts, About 1,000 Pounds of Stainless Steel Wire, and Gagosian’s Beverly Hills Space at MOCA” — it is a powerful amalgam of rusted and rust-proof metal shards, clinging to a central post yet resting lightly in space. A strange and formally beautiful force-field, it gives me a thrill every time I walk by.

I do think the newer piece is better and more resolved than the “Helter Skelter” work. But the lesson from 1992 is fundamental: No prognostication allowed. Art is experience, which needs to be trusted as it unfolds. The better part of criticism is in understanding that.

christopher.knight @latimes.com

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