High and Dry, Smoke and Fog
Phantom Galleries LA, Beverly Hills
15 June – 6 July 2007
by Shana Nys Dambrot
The subject of car culture has been repeatedly addressed since the first post-Ford Motors day on which an artist considered Los Angeles. Every medium from photography to performance and visual style from folk to conceptual abstraction, a heady array of pop and high culture references, social issues from class to race to gender and environmentalism have all been dragged into the fray, and every emotional button from lust to outrage has become worn from relentless pushing. So why bother doing it again? If Phantom Gallery’s lively, fresh and well-considered survey of contemporary and historically iconic fine art (in LA history means 30 years or so) is any indication, it’s no bother at all.
Curated by Price Latimer and featuring works in every media you’ve ever heard of and some you haven’t, made by a group of artists of which the same can be said, and inspired by the love/hate relationship Angelenos have to their automobiles as well as the advanced degree to which auto-based social structures affect every aspect of life in LA, the exhibition succeeds on several levels. As premises for group shows go, it’s as good as any other in the current swarm of survey shows making the case for LA’s emerging authority in new art.
Highlight’s included the painter Jason Adams’ series of six large scale paintings “Cadillac Ranch” (acrylic and spray paint on panel, 48 x 60 inches each) depicting graffiti covered classics, upended and stuck into the ground like Easter Island sculptures. Continuing to evoke the symbolically totemic force of their beckoning contours even as the artist’s assertion of power over their fate challenges it; as elements of art stripped of function and elegance, they lose their appeal as status symbols to consumers willing to pay $100,000 for a toy, but gain back their appeal to art lovers willing to pay the same amount for an idea.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, this trend of destruction, manipulation and redemption found other expressions. Mattia Biagi’s tar-covered motorcycle, with its luscious, nauseating rubbery black drips and frozen oozings renders it both fearsome and impotent like a chewy, sticky Liz Craft, attractive, repellent and amusing in equal measure. Deborah Fisher’s essentially abstract mixed media installation made of a destroyed fender and shredded car upholstery, with layered acrylic carpet arranged in almost geological striations manages to seem both accidental (quasi-organic) and violent. Other artists used experimental materials to reach toward the future of technology or the nostalgia of bygone carelessness with our natural resources; or in some cases cross-bred conventions of erotica (Schmidberger), landscape (Eddie Ruscha, Kim Schoenstadt, Jennifer Celio) and portraiture (Blue McRight) with their depictions, creating narrative structures that even when intellectually tepid stood their ground on craftsmanship.
But it was finally the conceptual sculptor, painter and installation artist Robert Reynolds whose monumental sculpture “Spirit Car” (2006, steel wire, cellophane tape, 58 x 186 x 60 inches) was the one single object present which not only covered the aforementioned bases (undermining the object mass, paying homage to its design while stripping it of function, using it as a platform for a labor-intensive formal undertaking, embracing the spectacle of its own cheeky majesty, balancing awe and rebellion, politics and poetry) but also remembered to address the spiritual vortex at the empty heart of such misplaced devotion.
The car is LA’s mascot, muse and mirror; the cause of and solution to all of LA’s problems. The freedom, the traffic, the pollution, the symbolism, the technology, the thrill, the self-expression, the sociopathy of the voyeuristic isolation that leads to hypertension and the mocking of pedestrians, the cinematic sex appeal, the intersection with human ambition and desire, the assigning of the feminine gender… it is the primary prism through which LA lifers measure their progress, and as long as this remains the case, it will never cease to be germane to the lives that are lived here, and what better subject could artists wish for than that?
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles. She is currently LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine, Contributing Editor to Art Ltd., and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Huffington Post, The Creators Project, Vs. Magazine, Palm Springs Life, Montage, Desert Magazine, LA Review of Books, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for art books and exhibition catalogs, curates and/or juries a few exhibitions each year, sometimes exhibits her photography and publishes short fiction, and speaks in public at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. An account of her activities is sometimes updated at sndx.net.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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