Blatant LaFargery

As those of you who have closely followed my multifaceted career (Hi Mom!) are no doubt aware, I have long been interested in art that straddles the line of truthiness — having participated in such antics with The Yes Men, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Joey Skaggs, Jim Shaw, Jeffrey Vallance and others, as well as writing about and/or curating work by these and sundry intermittently unverifiable entities.

So it was a great pleasure to hear about, then delve into Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax, and Provocation, Antoinette LaFarge’s substantial new compendium of anecdotal evidence and theoretical musings concerning this kind of creative action, which she refers to as Fictive Art. Between a recent art residency in Fresno(!) and the launch of a series of live conversations with some of the contemporary artists profiled in Sting (more information on that here), we sat down in the plush foyer of the Museum of Forgery to chew the fat.

The book’s front cover features small cast-plaster objects created ca. 1907 ‘by’ Sophie La Rosière, a French painter invented by artist Iris Häussler.

LESS ART: First off, can you say a little about your background, your art practice, and how your interest in Fictive Art develop? Was there a single work that switched on the bulb?

Antoinette LaFarge: As an artist, I’ve worked in many media, generally choosing them to suit the project I have in mind. But one throughline in all my work has been that I am happiest at the places where words and images come together, whether that is performance art or artist’s books or fictive art. I am also more than a bit of a contrarian, so at some point in my 20s I started thinking seriously about why forgery seemed to be the last taboo in art— more frowned upon at every level of the art world than even the most controversial kinds of art. That led me to start noticing art projects that had an element of deception in them, and I sort of ‘collected’ them over the years in folders of clippings (remember when we all traded actual newspaper and magazine clippings?). So there was no one thing, but rather a slow accumulation of noticings. Then, around 1993, I decided to found my own Museum of Forgery as an artist’s project and fake institution, and the actual experience of working with deception took me yet another step down the road in thinking about how and why this kind of work exists— and in my opinion needs to exist. 

Eva & Franco Mattes, Press clippings on Darko Maver, 1998. The Matteses invented Maver as a controversial Serbian artist, killed him off in a flurry of press coverage, and then revealed that he had never actually lived. The project took advantage of the internet as a forum to promulgate fiction as reality.

LESS ART: What is Fictive Art, and what distinguishes it from pranks, forgeries, and interventions?

Antoinette LaFarge: I define fictive art as fictions that their makers attempt to secure as real and true by producing all kinds of visual evidence in support of the project’s factuality. That evidence could be ‘historical’ photographs or memorabilia or actual artworks ‘created’ by an invented artist. Fictive art has obvious affinities with pranks, hoaxes, forgeries, and art interventions, but I find some significant differences. Pranks and hoaxes are usually humorous, short-lived actions designed so that the moment of revelation will embarrass the pranked party— whereas fictive art projects tend to live longer in the shadows and are much more rarely targeted to embarrass someone. There is likewise a much stronger commitment to developing a rich and expansive central fiction and letting it evolve over time. That said, quite a few of the projects in my book have been tagged as pranks or hoaxes in the media— and one of my issues with these two words is that they are a way of dismissing the work without thinking about it carefully. 

Fictive art overlaps with forgery in that in both genres, someone’s work is passed off as someone else’s— the actual maker is concealed. But forgery is primarily carried out to make money by deceiving the art market, and that is clearly not the central motive of most fictive art projects I’ve examined. On the contrary, because of the concealment of the artist’s identity (sometimes for quite long periods) and the resulting censure when the ‘hoax’ is revealed, I doubt whether most fictive artists make much money at all on their projects. One major counter-example here might be Damien Hirst’s 2017 fictive art project Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable— I don’t actually know if he made money off this exhibition, but given his track record, it seems likely. But there was also almost no deception in this case– the fiction was tissue thin because the artist’s name was so prominent in the PR.

Fictive art is also related to art interventions in that it does not accept general cultural assumptions about what art should be and how it should operate. But many art interventions either don’t have rich central fictions, or they take place within art world institutions and so are already marked as art or performance. One of the things that makes fictive art interesting to me is that it challenges the viewer to figure out what it is at the most basic categorical level— history, science, archaeology, art history, art— true or false or neither? 

Detail of the first of the so-called Cottingley fairy photographs taken by Elsie Wright in 1917, showing her cousin Frances Griffiths with supposedly real fairies. 

LESS ART: At what art historical point do you see the category of Fictive Art beginning? When did artists start deliberately working in this medium or mode?

Antoinette LaFarge: In the book, I write about predecessor forms going back several centuries, especially in literature— I’m thinking here of Thomas Chatterton’s invention in the 1760s of a 15th century poet monk named Thomas Rowley, in whose name he produced a large trove of poems, letters, drawings, and other manuscripts. But I think that for all practical purposes, the form starts to emerge with the advent of photography and its power of seeming to be an incontestable witness to the past. So by the early 20th century, we find two teenage English girls faking photographs of fairies and deceiving even thoughtful observers like Arthur Conan Doyle. But as a form in which artists deliberately choose to work, we’re looking at the 1960s— that’s when early practitioners like Norman Daly with his fictive archaeology and Marcel Broodthaers with his fictive museum start to turn up. I attribute this emergence to various factors, including the rise of pseudo-events and artists working with and interrogating mass media— all these are important to fictive art because it is crucial that the (fictional) story at the center of the artwork gets circulated as factual. And then it really accelerates in the 1990s as artists gain access to image-processing software to help with creating fake evidence, and as they get on the internet, with its baked-in ability to support all kinds of facades.

Norman Daly, Home Votive Shrine in Two Parts (wood and metal, 1970) an object from his invented ancient near Eastern civilization of Llhuros. Courtesy of David Daly.

LESS ART: How does Fictive Art intersect with the widespread belief (cf: A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney) that Modern Art is a con-job, put-on, etc?

Antoinette LaFarge: In one way it intersects very nicely with that point of view— because, unlike most modern art, it actually is a con job! And this accounts in part for the reaction of anger that some viewers experience when they learn that a project they had accepted as real history, say, is actually entirely fictional. But it’s interesting that anger doesn’t seem to be the most widespread reaction— many viewers seem to experience something closer to delight or excitement at the moment of revelation. And I think that has to do in part with how much work the best fictive artists put into their projects— it’s impossible not to respect the depth and richness of the fiction and all its created objects and thereby to understand that the artist is a serious person rather than a mere prankster. In part it is because most fictive art projects have a ‘self outing’ aspect— they offer clues to their fictionality that allow viewers to slowly figure out that they are in the presence of fakery rather than be slapped in the face with the fact that they have been deceived. And I think it also helps that there is a big story at the heart of many fictive art projects; people gravitate to stories, and it seems to me that one of the reasons for the belief in modern art as a con job is the often opaque specialist language that is used to explain it, language that makes many people feel shut out and looked down on.

Jake Angeli, the QAnon Shaman

LESS ART: Was Q-Anon the greatest work of Fictive Art ever?

Antoinette LaFarge: That is certainly an arguable position, though I would hesitate on two grounds. In the first place, Q-Anon as a conspiracy theory has evolved and been promulgated mainly through words—on forums, in blogs, by talking heads. This aligns it better with various literature-centric forms like fake memoirs that I did not include in my book, since the emphasis in fictive art is on the creation of visual and tactile evidence. The ‘evidence’ for Q-Anon has largely been specious arguments piled atop untruths, though there is at least one false video associated with Q-Anon. And it has certainly prompted various other actions, including domestic terrorism, that its proponents see as helping to secure the ‘truth’ of Q-Anon. In these ways, Q-Anon has functioned like a multinym— a cover identity that anyone can adopt.

My other hesitation has to do with intention— Q-Anon is one of the cruelest and most unethical movements in my lifetime; its sponsors seem entirely unconcerned with the damage to actual human lives caused by their blatant lies. Can something this brutal qualify as art? Or do we perhaps need a different word for acts of imagination that are designed primarily to harm others?

LESS ART: I’m skeptical of the “must reveal” criterion for Fictive Art. If the artist consciously creates a Fictive work but never cops to it, isn’t it a better fiction? And isn’t the first and most profound effect of the assumption of a false identity the alteration of the artist’s consciousness? And aren’t such artists still operating in the same medium of consent either way?

Antoinette LaFarge: I think that if a fictive project is deliberately made so well that it is never outed, then in a certain sense it never enters our consciousness— it is just another factual kind of thing we think we already know about, as history or science, for example. I feel strongly that unless the project raises doubt in some degree, or outs itself at some point, so that there can be a moment of reflection, it is not actually doing anything very interesting. It becomes a work of supreme craft, one might say, but not fictive art. So the artist is of double mind— they are inside the false identity, as you note, in a way that can be psychologically very profound, but they are also attuned to the audience for whom they are staging the piece. I think it would be the very rare fictive artist who wanted to never engage in some kind of conversation with their audience over this kind of work.

LESS ART: One of my favorite aspects of your book is the multitude of anecdotes as opposed to a handful of airtight case studies. Why did you take this tack and what’s your favorite story?

Antoinette LaFarge: I knew from the outset that I wanted to cast a fairly broad net so that the wide range of methods, genres, and intentions could become clear, and also so that the areas of overlap with activities like forgery, hoaxes, and imposture could be explored in depth. I felt that for a kind of work that is relatively new to many people, it would be a disservice to start with a narrow field of examples, and it was for the same reason that I tried to write towards a general rather than a specialist audience.

I have so many favorite stories in this book! But certainly one that I come back to over and over is the African-American artist Leslie J. Payne and his Airplane Machine Shop Company. His fictional flights in his homemade airplanes really resonate with me for the way he tried to imagine what was for him an impossible future as an aviator into existence and make it real in the here and now.

Leslie J. Payne shown in front of one of his homemade airplanes in which he logged a series of fictional flights. Photo by Bob Jones, Jr., courtesy of the California Museum of Photography.

LESS ART: Let me throw out a few names that I was surprised aren’t covered in your book. Joey Skaggs? Alan Sokal? Desmond Morris/Congo? Clayton Bailey? The Blair Witch Project?

Antoinette LaFarge: The process of deciding who to leave out so that my book wouldn’t become a doorstop was certainly painful at times. Alan Sokal I actually wrote up but ended up leaving out along with an entire draft chapter on primarily literary projects— those that didn’t attempt to produce visual evidence and other realia. The Blair Witch Project I left out along with all the many variants on semi-fictional film and television— mockumentary, docufiction, docudrama, pseudo-documentary, reality tv, and so on. These struck me as deserving a book of their own that could explore the myriad ways that film/tv relates to truth-telling. Joey Skaggs could certainly be in the book, but his work as a prankster has so many similarities to Alan Abel and the Yes Men that I decided to leave him out. And there are also some folks I didn’t find out about until too late, inevitably, which is a sign I think of both how robust the practice is and how difficult it can be to unearth projects that are stealthy by nature.

LESS ART: What is the future of Fictive Art? Has its viability diminished with the advent of the era of deep fake videos and constant digital surveillance? What does it have to offer in terms of political and cognitive change? What will Post-Fictive art look like?

Antoinette LaFarge: We live in an era when people’s credulousness and their inability to parse different kinds and sources of information has become a major cultural and political problem. Because fictive art sets out to make us think hard about what counts as reality, truth, and evidence, I don’t think its viability has diminished. Things like deepfakes are the next-gen tools that fictive artists will be using. Quite possibly, artists will in fact ramp up their work along the truth/fiction border rather than backing away from it. And I think it has real value in helping people to shift the assumptions that underlie their thinking— it’s always our assumptions that get us in the most trouble. Being fooled by a fictive art project stems directly from assumptions we make about what it is (as well as from our deductions based on the ‘evidence’ provided). But I always think that trying to predict the future is a bit of a sucker’s game, and the odds are that there are changes in art practice already percolating out there that no one yet has a name for.

Sting in the Tale is published by Doppelhouse Books, and available wherever such things are sold.

Here’s a further in-depth conversation between Antoinette and Heather Jessup of Dalhousie:

Strangers with Eyecandy: Jenn Berger at CMAY

Jenn Berger — whose pre-Trump animatronic portrait of Hillary Clinton as a child was the subject of the very first LESS ART interview — is unleashing a major new body of work with her Stranger Friends show at CMAY gallery in Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile district. Eschewing the signature technological mashups of L’il Hill and her other other drawing/video/robotic hybrids (see that olde interview for a brief survey, and check out her website ya dingus!), Berger has turned her mad reanimatory skills to the perennially moribund genre of figurative drawing.

Employing an aleatory dada/Situationist selection process for her subjects, and a labor-intensive (8 years in the making!) multi-tiered execution schedule, Berger’s Stranger Friends operates on a different level of hybridity: simultaneous conceptual rigor, meditative craft, and sensual exquisiteness (her minute renderings verge on the psychedelic) — while broaching the whole relational aesthetics/social sculpture can-o’-worms with a profoundly anti-authoritarian and humanistic agenda.

Jenn Berger’s Stranger Friends runs from October 2 through November 6 at CMay Gallery (5828 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036, 213 528-4501) Opening Reception: Saturday, October 2, 3pm – 6pm. Mask and social distancing protocols are undoubtedly in place. The gallery is otherwise open Wednesday – Saturday 12pm – 5pm for which you seem to need to make an appointment.

LESS ART: I think your taxidermied people are neat. Where do you get your ideas?

Jenn Berger: Cool, thank you! I was drawing strangers that I encountered by chance and I had the urge to bring the drawings more to life. I wanted the subjects to be more present in the room than they felt to me on the paper, so I had the thought to make them three-dimensional. I think the goal of taxidermy is to make an animal feel as real and alive as possible and I had a similar desire – to bring these drawings I was making to life.

LESS ART: What was the first piece you made in this series, and what were the circumstances surrounding it?

Jenn Berger: The first piece occurred when I was walking down the street in Irvine, where I was going to school and living at the time. I think this was in 2013. A man was walking towards me and the style of his clothing reminded me of someone that could be in New Orleans, where I had lived before. I asked him if I could take his photograph to later draw from and he obliged. It wasn’t planned – I just felt compelled to ask. I was starting to draw at the time and I had the impulse to draw him. I got his business card because I had told him I would send him the drawing. It turns out he hosted a jazz, blues, and gospel show at the university’s radio station, which seemed to confirm something I had sensed about him.

LESS ART: That’s interesting, the sense of a subcutaneous narrative. I think that comes through in the work. I assume they all have these unspoken backstories, and that they overlap to some degree. Is this an important part of the work?

Jenn Berger: I’m not sure how important the backstories are at this point. I’m happy to share them but I also like to hear someone’s reaction without having the backstory – viewers often think they know one of the strangers. Recently, someone thought that one of the 3-D versions (of a woman named Rose) was a character in a popular horror movie. On the other hand, I’ve always had in mind a book element to the project where I would send the drawings to each stranger and draft an imagined response. I’d like to see how my imaginary response lines up with their actual reaction. I’m curious what they would think of the drawings – what would it be like to see yourself with all that detail included? I wonder if they would even remember our encounter (since it has been several years since I took most of the photos) and if that would make seeing the drawing even odder. Would all of the strangers still be alive or reachable?

LESS ART: The PR mentions  “post-apocalyptic scenarios in which characters of diverse backgrounds work together to form new societies” — can you expand on that a little? Any plans to pitch an animated series to Netflix?

Jenn Berger: I was thinking of post-apocalyptic stories like Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I could see those types of stories, where strangers must form bonds quickly in order to survive, as a way of framing this disparate group of characters in the show. I was also thinking of novels and movies where there is a seemingly random cast of characters and it’s eventually revealed what connects them. I like the idea that a viewer could make up their own story for why these specific people or characters are in the room together. No plans at the moment for an animated series, but I like the idea!

LESS ART: These drawings and sculptures (along with much of your previous work) have a powerful uncanny charge. Is this a quality you’re trying to evoke? Do you feel like Frankenstein, that you’re creating entities that have some sort of autonomous proto-sentience? Do you ever see them out of the corner of your eye and jump?

Jenn Berger: I think it’s just my natural sensibility with my work – making things that feel both strange and familiar at the same time. I’ve been living with the sculptures and drawings for a long time, so they don’t startle me so much by chance these days. With every portrait, the subject is looking pretty much directly at the camera. I didn’t ask anyone to, but it happened every time (and there are many more photos than I got a chance to draw). I wanted to create the sensation of all of these strangers looking at you. I’ve realized that you have to meet each stranger’s gaze too, though, in order for that feeling of being looked at to occur.

LESS ART: Can you explain the technical aspects of the work – what are you drawing with, on what surface, and how are you copying them onto the vinyl? Are there any quiltmaking type intricacies to the needlework?

Jenn Berger: I’m drawing with colored pencils on paper. Then I take a photograph of the drawing and have that printed on a vinyl/faux leather material. For the sculptures, I start with a printed “skin” and make the foam substructure subsequently. I begin by loosely pinning the drawing to the foam and then I move back and forth between the faux leather and foam as I get into more detailed areas. I shape the foam by looking at the drawings (and make the drawing from the photos) and I try to depict what I see in the drawings – sometimes a part of the face or body looks like it’s angled a certain direction and the next time I look up, I see it the opposite way. The same thing happens when I’m drawing – I see certain colors one moment and then other colors the next. I layer the different colors that I see. If something looks off in the drawing, then that may get emphasized in the sculpture. I try to adhere to the drawing, rather than trying to make the figures anatomically correct. I make cuts and folds in the material and use lots of pins – it’s all towards trying to make the “skin” fit as smoothly as possible over the lumps and folds of the foam. The pieces all have to fit together so as not to expose any of the foam underneath. I often fold over one of the adjoining pieces to keep the seams neat – this pieced-together quality may be like quiltmaking.

LESS ART: Do you plan to have an event where you distribute the promised drawings (or copies) to the subjects, or will it be done privately, one at a time? Have you set a timeline for that?

Jenn Berger: I’ve always envisioned it as a private, one at a time, email or letter exchange of drawing and correspondence. I collected every stranger’s contact info (either their address or email) and imagined sending the drawing or a copy and awaiting their response. I even got a PO Box and one point, which is funny, because each of the subjects trusted me with their contact information, so what that does that say about me? The timeline has gone way off the rails in that I started this project in 2013 and it’s eight years later and I haven’t gotten around to contacting one stranger yet, but I think about it often.

LESS ART: Will you continue to work on this series, or do you feel you’ve reached some sort of closure to the project with this show? Or a bit of both?

Jenn Berger: A bit of both. I definitely want to take a break from this project and explore other ideas and approaches. I do feel this is a good stopping point, for now. If I was starting this series now with what I know from having done it, I’d probably end up with a different group of strangers. So I can imagine different configurations of this project, and other offshoot projects, like the book or animations, that are related, but I do see it as one singular piece and I’m ready to set it aside for now.

WTF Bonus Friday: 1/2 Price CHICK Art!

Just a quick referral to CHICK Publications, who are having a 1/2 price sale on their selection of Fine Art Prints but only through Aug 31. I’m too frightened and confused to fill out the forms myself, but I would dearly love to see the high-resolution version of this “Cast Into the Lake of Fire” painting, because from what I can make out, it looks like the Klan, mariachi bands, clowns and ballerinas, sumo wrestlers, royal guardsmen, Inuit, and professional basketball players are damned to eternal hellfire!

You can check out the rest of the prints here – there’s only seven total, and the most expensive – using the discount code ARTSALE – is the 12.25″ x 27.75″ masterpiece above, a steal at $7.50 + shipping. Hang on a second – is that Dave Hickey?!

PS: If you don’t know Jack Chick, dig The Imp!

WTF Thursdays: Potter on Lovewater

While I was sorting through the image files that Carter Potter provided for the interview I did with him apropos of his show at PRJCTLA (closing this weekend, along with fellow traveller David McDonald), I happened upon this uncharacteristically figurative piece.

It may be my pareidolia kicking in, but I’m getting some serious The Scream/Home Alone vibrations off this, on top of the Pop. Here’s a close-up in case you’re not catching the Popistic frisson…

Now this is intriguing to me, because although I’m a fan of both Potter’s woven film leader abstractions and his deconstructed couches, I’m an absolute sucker for artists that fold vernacular cultural signifiers into their formalist gumbos — and this totally fits the bill, in a way that is otherwise unrepresented in Potter’s oeuvre (although technically, there are some of the film weaves that incorporate actual sequences of imagery, which I also thought to be awesome.)

When I asked about the piece, the artist said that it’s brand new, has never been exhibited, and is entitled American Family. “It’s in response,” he added, “to the story of the Lovewater guy from Santa Barbara who drove his 2 kids down to Mexico and spear-gunned them to death and threw them in a ditch cuz  Q told him that his wife had serpent DNA.” But of course!

I don’t know how the story escaped me, but it was still breaking as I scurried to look it up. Carter sent me links to the sordid details at told by the UK tabloid the SUN — Matthew Coleman is the 40-year-old founder and owner of the Lovewater surfing school in Santa Barbara, has a masters degree in Spanish(?!) from UCSB, and, yes, murdered his two young children with a speargun to prevent their demonic reptilian genetics from coming to fruition and ending the world, a painful duty necessitated by his QAnon enlightenment. At press time, the Lovewater website still paints a sunny picture of the Coleman family’s perfect California lifestyle.

Sometimes the news is just too fucked up and tragic to wrap your head around. This kind of rapid response journalistic/poetic art circumvents rationality to capture the absurd heart of our sad and broken world. Like Goya. Some things just don’t make sense, and are only comprehensible vicariously through the eyes of an artist. Good one, Carter Potter.

PRJCTLA – 1452 E 6th St Los Angeles, CA 90021-1321
Duo solo exhibition with David McDonald and Carter Potter
July 25 – August 28, 2021
Hours: Thursday & Friday 2 – 6 PM Saturday 12 NOON to 6 PM
Book a visitation slot here.

Immerse This!

Back in January I applied for a press pass to this immersive Van Gogh lightshow selfie whatever, since I am known for my perverse openness to phenomena that the mainstream art community consider abominations. I had no idea what a thing it would turn into! Sadly, I never heard back from them. But I realized I may have reviewed it 20 years early using my formidable precognitive critical vibrations to extrapolate from LACMA’s 1999 Vincent à Gogh-Gogh extravaganza. It goes something like this:

“In 1935, when MOMA in New York hosted the first major American exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh, prankster extraordinaire Hugh Troy pulled a startlingly courant-sounding feat of creative museological intervention when he surreptitiously placed a vitrined, velvet-lined box containing an ear molded from chopped liver alongside the canvases, bearing an elaborately authoritative label reading, “This is the ear which Vincent van Gogh cut off and sent to his mistress, a French prostitute, Dec. 24, 1888.” It was several days before Troy’s unsolicited contribution came to the attention of the museum, and only then because of the huge crowd that hovered around it at the expense of the paintings. Troy had presciently stumbled on both the art of institutional subversion (a keystone of contemporary academia) and the future melding of exhibition and exploitation in the form of Barnumesque spectacle — a form that has since become a powerful art medium in itself.

Last week [+ 20 years], with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosting the first major West Coast exhibition of works by van Gogh in 29 years, I found myself caught in a ragged but elaborate choreography with many hundred others, scuttling crabwise to edge an inch closer to our ostensible common focus. Toes were inevitably trod upon. The wheelchair-bound were backed into. People were generally polite, as behooves a guest in a fortress of high culture, but there was an undercurrent. Pack that many primates into a space so heavily insured, and the pheromones get pretty thick. Tensions run deep. I kept expecting the crowd to erupt in some J.G. Ballard orgy of violence and sexual abandon, but everyone just kept shuffling and muttering — “His light ones are better than his dark ones,” “They made a good choice when they picked Kirk Douglas to play him in the movie.” What were these people doing here? What was I doing here? Critics don’t have to wait in line, but most of these people had real jobs and had waited in formation for hours.

We had all come to LACMA West to participate in the experience known as a “blockbuster show.” Prefigured by such riotous events as the French salons, the armory shows, the Nazi “degenerate art” exhibit and the opening of Andy Warhol’s 1965 retrospective at the ICA in Philadelphia, the blockbuster era began in earnest with the hypedelic King Tut exhibit of 1978 (also at LACMA). Nowadays, the packaging and hustling of blockbusters is an industry unto itself, replete with rival multinationals duking it out, venture capitalists betting the farm on “Treasures From the Moscow State Museum,” and sleazy borderline museological booking agencies pitching dubious (but possibly profitable) exhibitions like “Treasures From the Moscow, Idaho Museum.” At its worst, the blockbuster is a form of curatorial franchise: slick, authoritarian, and disempowering to more regional and idiosyncratic visions. At its best, however, the blockbuster can mobilize vast populations of the citizenry into mass ritual pilgrimages in pursuit of aesthetic revelation.

In the ’60s and ’70s, artists seeking to reconnect art to its roots as a much more physical and social collective tribal activity, with the attendant political and formal revolutions implicit, tried to find forms that would simultaneously attract a mass (literally, as in physically present) audience and engage it in a collective artistic gesture: a passion play, a protest march, a Fluxus concert, a beehive, a love-in. From the Living Theater to the Grateful Dead, from R. Murray Schafer to Baader-Meinhoff, countercultural instigators sought to re-configure the transformative Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece along contemporary post-McLuhan frequencies. For the most part, they tried in vain. Large slices of society were not so easy to come by, and artists such as Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch wound up organizing reassuring tableaux vivants for the already converted, which turned up in art magazines and “Out of Actions,” but hardly impacted the Global Village. It just seemed to be impossible to motivate huge populations to participate in stressful ordeals for the sake of art. Until the blockbuster.

What our most qualified artists could not bring about, commerce did. Keyed up by hype, charged 10 or 20 bucks and forced to run a noisy, crowded gauntlet, hordes of people began willing themselves to experience a meaningful group aesthetic experience, and succeeding. The structure, while prohibiting a traditional contemplative engagement with the artworks, succeeds in supplying a surrogate atmosphere of high-pitched delirium. Depending on the qualities in the work, the buzz can sometimes match that of a snake-handling service. And viewed from such altered states of consciousness, visual art becomes exponentially more powerful, slipping past everyday screening mechanisms and achieving a deep psychological impact.

“Van Gogh’s Van Goghs” is one of a small, elite category of blockbusters — shows that are so special and expensive that they tour only a handful of venues (in this case just two). Like the Vermeer show before it, insurance and logistics will probably make this a once-ever chance for those not frequently in the ’Dam to see this particular body of work. And while there are a certain number of omissions, a certain amount of filler and a few odd side paths that maybe the artist shouldn’t have pursued, van Gogh is one of those painters whose work, no matter how many times you’ve seen it reproduced, takes on entire new dimensions in the flesh. Quite literally, as the topography of van Gogh’s surfaces can be dizzying, even nauseating to contemplate at close quarters. (In a crowd of a thousand, it’s easy to circumvent the “two feet from the paintings at all times” rule.) Strange biomorphic blobs and frantic areas of crosshatched grooves simultaneously occupy the same space as a depiction of a country lane or a forest floor.

Some of the paint seems to have been squeezed from a syringe or scraped from the studio floor and glued on in some arbitrary corner of the picture. The toxic luminosity of his palette is simply untranslatable through photolithography, and the incredible chances he took with his art — that is, the number of works that by all reason should be failures but somehow manage to triumph — are reiterated with an arrestingly physical presence. You’d think that after a century of artists trying to imitate him, his images reproduced on every possible surface in quantities that boggle, his tabloid lifestyle even more widely disseminated and his technical innovations debased into the stuff that formulaic TV landscape painters excel at, van Gogh’s work would by now be inaccessible through the cloud of cultural associations that surrounds it. Not entirely so.

But people don’t spend much time looking at art anymore. Our brains are hard-wired for the shifting flatness of the TV and movie screens, and the video-arcade windshield vistas of freeway driving. Yet we’ve been told all our lives that art is important and meaningful, even spiritual and transformational. If you’re already primed for and open to an exemplary fine-art experience, you could probably walk into any anonymous gallery and see van Gogh’s paintings for the great works they mostly are. For the rest of us, we depend on this symbiotic harnessing of the most powerful art form going — advertising — combined with the ages-old power of the controlled mob consciousness, to successfully convince us that we’re having an extraordinary experience. And not only is there nothing wrong with that, it’s a more honest account of how art can move humans in the contemporary world than most of what the art world offers. Plus, it pays the surprising dividend of permitting the citizenry to encounter great art again in a mass, public, almost religious ritual performance that threatens, but never quite manages, to overshadow the iconic objects it is “about.”

Not bad for $17.50.”

Screen grab posted by Mark Newgarden; Dialogue by Don McLean:

McDonald’s “Don’t Know” Meal

One of the most consistently formally innovative abstractionists working in Los Angeles is the prolific David McDonald, whose rickety-looking assemblages and castings are sad and funny and beautiful, with one foot in Arte Povera, one foot in Friedrich Froebel’s Kindergarten, and the third always tentatively probing towards the unknown. His restless inventiveness might seem at odds with his long-term commitment to Buddhism, but there is a stillness and curious sense of compassion in the work that suggest otherwise. For his current show at PRJCTLA in tandem with fellow painterly woodscrap geometry enthusiast Carter Potter (interviewed separately here), LESS ART caught up with him in his secret fortress of hydrocal and gave him the third degree. Here are the results:

Aikata 2010 Wood, Hydrocal, Plastic, Acrylic, Metal Chain 69″ x 39″ x 22″

LESS ART: I think your sculptures are neat. Where do you get your ideas?

David McDonald: I don’t know that I have that many ideas.  Most of my work comes from asking what would happen if….?  Most of my work is generated by the choice of material and what that material will do and what it will do in combination with other factors.  At the initial stage of a series it usually comes out of a surprise, something happens I didn’t expect but was interesting and I develop that.I also generate possibilities from abstract things I see in the world such as surfaces, colors, placements, masses, and such.I sometimes use things I see in artworks that inspire me, although less now than when I was younger.  My own work and history acts as a resource for current pieces as much as other artists work used to.

LESS ART: I always think of  de Kooning in Painters Painting where he says “I don’t think painters have particularly bright ideas.” and the dude asks “What do they have?” and de Kooning says “I guess their talent of painting things.”

gong 2015 Wood, Hydrocal, Pigment, Wood Stain, Sand 57″ x 18″ x 14″

The work of yours that I’ve seen the most consists of the accumulation of units of variegated material — usually including lumber scraps, and always with a very painterly awareness of color — into larger structures that add some sort of casting, and often resemble some sort of architectural, furnitureal, or industrial leftover that is beginning to morph towards the organic. (Is that fair?) 

David McDonald: I would agree with your assessment of the use of a painterly way with color, I was trained as a painter and I’ve always thought that many of my decisions were painterly decisions.  I’m not overly inventive in my forms and most of the work is about the surfaces and the area where two materials meet.  Those transitions between things take the most time.  I also thinkI’ve always played in the area between the structured and the organic, with one or the other occasionally becoming dominant.

Repair of the Web of Time #6 2020 Plaster Wrap, Wire, Metal, Wood, Enamel Paint, Polyurethane 32″ x 32″ x 31″ + detail

LESS ART: Can you take us step-by step through the building of, say, Repair of the Web of Time #6 (I think that’s the piece in the show?)

David McDonald: Repair of the Web of Time is a phrase spoken by the narrator of Sans Soleil, one of my favorite films by Chris Marker.  This piece began with the idea of a web and I started laying strips of plaster wrap across each other in an approximate circle.  I laid out some long strips that became the size and diameter of the piece and then started laying in cross strips to reinforce the larger strips.  I had originally thought the piece would be a wall piece made of three web like elements but when I took them to my studio I stacked them one on top of the other and I found that to be far more interesting.  

One day I saw a metal frame that I think was a plant holder of some type on the street and it seemed like it might work with the web forms.  I put them on top of it and the piece was found.  I reinforced parts of it with wire and strengthened some of the plaster strips.  The circular shape on top is the center of tape roll that I had been using to make circular forms in wire for another piece.  

The oil on the wire left a beautiful patina on the cardboard tape roll and I put it on the top mostly as a structural element.  To make it stronger I poured some plaster into it and then to seal it I poured some polyurethane in.  The polyurethane was old so it yellowed and became this beautiful amber color that you can now see.The piece was top heavy at this point and I kept knocking it over in my studio by accident so I cast a circular base to give it more stability.  As with many of my larger pieces a lot of the decisions were structural, with the visual qualities being by products of that.  

Installation view at PRJCTLA

LESS ART: The current show at PRJCTLA seems to avoid the accumulative approach, and spotlight examples from several different bodies of work. Can you describe the processes involved, in your work in general, and the stuff in this show in particular?

David McDonald: Regarding the new work, these pieces are much simpler and are more constructed, there is almost no engagement with found things.  The color in the new work is very subtle in the wall pieces and also in the table top pieces.  I’ve been using a concentrated watercolor in my plaster for color and it is much airier and less stable than the previous pigmentsI worked with.  I am much more interested in the interaction between color and light that produces tones that are in-between colors.  The new work is also very improvisational, I like to think that I’ve reached a point where I can work from the place of intelligence before thoughts. 

I think it was the beats who coined the phrase “first idea best idea”, and I’ve been working with that, there’s not a lot of re-working of the pieces in these new works.

LESS ART: “First thought best thought” is originally from Trungpa Rinpoche, though Allen Ginsburg made it famous and saw it as ratifying the Beats’ love of spontaneous improvisation. I didn’t get around to interviewing you for the practice Practice practice show — can you talk about your engagement with Buddhism and how it relates to your art?

L: Minor Monument #3 2008 Hydrocal, Mortar, Metal, Pigment, Enamel, Varnish 14 1/2″ x 14″ x 5 1/2″; M: Interconnected #5 2012 Oil on Paper 28″ x 22″; R: Everything is Broken 2013 Wood, Wire, Plaster, Wood Stain, Plexiglas, Enamel 68″ x 33″ x 27″

David McDonald: I’ve been involved with a Korean style Zen meditation center where I am currently the Abbott for the past 18 years and have a daily practice.  The phrase you hear over and over again at our center is “don’t know mind”, which is the mind before conceptual thinking arises, the mind before dualities are formed, and the mind that is our true selves.  It is not a place of ignorance but rather a place of clarity.  We practice meditation in order to be able to respond to situations, relationships, and actions in a way that is clear and direct and not encumbered with our opinions, thoughts, and biases. The practice is to help others and to function in a clear way in the world.

L: Stone Web #5 2019 Hydrocal, Pigment, Foil, Plaster Wrap, Wood, Acrylic, Enamel, Watercolor, Polyurethane 39″ x 50″ x 22″; M: Glade 2003 Mortar, Wood, Joint Compound, Acrylic 14″ x 12″ x 12″; R: Supported Self #2 2014 Wood, Plaster, Modeling Compound, Wood Stain, Enamel Paint 30″ x 14″ x 14″

The relationship of zen to my art is hard to define.  It’s not a visual sense as is often thought but it’s more about where my mind is when I work.  I am trying to work from a place of “don’t know” and to trust that place and those intuitions.  I have realized that most of the art that I truly love has a center of mystery to it, there’s an important part that I don’t understand, but it is that part that makes it interesting and true.  I like Richard Tuttle’s work and could describe it by it’s sense of materials, and touch, and placement, etc., but those descriptions would just describe the piece but they wouldn’t be the experience.  To not acknowledge the “don’t know” part of his work  would be just like looking at a picture of the work rather than experiencing the work.

One of the best definitions of “don’t know” is intelligence prior to thought, and it is that intelligence that I try to attain in my work.

Our zen teacher often told students that if they wanted to understand Buddhism they should ask a tree.  A tree isn’t a metaphor for anything, every element of the tree has a function that is intrinsic to it.  The leaves collect sun light, the bark protects the core, the roots keep the tree in the ground and collect water.  None of these things are metaphors, they are what they are with a particular function, just that.  I hope to make sculpture that functions in that way, my works are not metaphors or markers for anything outside of themselves, everything you need is right there within the piece.  Surface, structure, color, material, physical presence, etc., these are all enough content for a sculpture and are serious and deep qualities for a sculpture.

PRJCTLA – 1452 E 6th St Los Angeles, CA 90021-1321
Duo solo exhibition with David McDonald and Carter Potter
July 25 – August 28, 2021
Hours: Thursday & Friday 2 – 6 PM Saturday 12 NOON to 6 PM
Book a visitation slot here.

Welcome Back Potter

Back in the early 90s, when LA’s art scene was considerably less predictable, one of the hottest up & comers was Carter Potter, whose almost schizophrenic oeuvre consisted of either deconstructed found couches soaked with housepaint or luminous weavings of film leader on traditional stretchers. It was sort of the ultimate slap & tickle for the bourgeois art consumer, though they wound up exclusively consuming the latter. Potter fell off the grid intermittently over much of the last couple of decades, but recently resurfaced with a spare but potent show at PRJCTLA in tandem with fellow painterly woodscrap geometry enthusiast David McDonald (interviewed separately here). LESS ART caught up with him in his secret fortress of upholstery and gave him the third degree. Here are the results:

LESS ART: I think your couches with paint dumped on them are neat. Where do you get your ideas?

Carter Potter: Thank you and that’s an excellent question.

I guess through the completion and reflection upon each succeeding artwork, an artist is presented with new questions that he/she/they feel compelled to answer, or attempt to answer, or to pose yet another question. In my case, regarding the couch paintings, I was in grad school at U.C.L.A. and making imaginary landscape paintings on found objects; signs that I liberated, T.V. trays, planks, thrift-store paintings and other such supports. I moved onto “straight” oil-on-canvas structures in order to isolate the oil paint from the novel supports in an attempt to progress my practice as an artist by making the paint itself as interesting as the painted supports had been.

For some reason, I had a facility for making these moody ‘scapes that people wanted to acquire. I had an epiphany that because of my success with these works, I was destined to become a “couch painter”; one making paintings to match and hang over couches. Of course, I was horrified. I decided to face my fears and literally make “couch paintings”.

This idea seemed so right- an intersection of language play and the deconstruction of painting all in one fell swoop. And these paintings would cost me nothing to make, except time and sweat. The couches were found on the street and the paint picked up for free from the Santa Monica recycling center on Michigan Avenue. I had to strip off some layers of upholstery so the paint could flow through, and in doing so, always discovered surprising elements. The semi-stripped couch would of course have to hang on the wall to become a painting and would also have to be oriented so as to contain the open and inverted paint cans that I would subsequently dump onto/into them. The paint would flow through the now modified structure, catch on some interior fabric and collect beneath it on the floor, indelible evidence of its shameful failure to become a proper painting.

Is This okay? Too long?

LESS ART: So far, so awesome!I would like to change “Thank you and that’s a good question. ” to read “Thank you and that’s an excellent question. “

What was the initial response? You actually had considerable success with your woven film leader grids, but it seemed that the couch pieces were kind of shoved under the rug. Can you recount your experiences with The Art World during that period?

C.P.: (I saw what you did there) Well, that’s a tall order, but to set the record straight, I need to establish a time-line. 
After I made some couch paintings for my last Grad review at the Warner Drive studios (now the UCLA Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios), I hand-forged and welded a branding iron that read “FAG”.  I made it to confront the fear that I had been branded a fag at work (deGraf/Wahrman, a computer-animation company. I was a p.a.), because I had left around some gay zines and was castigated for that by the receptionist because our main client was a Born-Again and we couldn’t risk losing our big project due to my “immorality”. 

I used the branding iron to brand patterns into some love-seats, cushions, and the sleeper-sofa of the boyfriend that had just dumped me. I exhibited these, along with the branding iron, in the Wight Gallery at UCLA for my graduate thesis exhibition, “Bash”, in June of 1990.

Sue Spaid had already been to my studio and had arranged to represent me. For my first solo show, (C-Ouch Pain-Tings), I decided to make some new couch paintings and as I remember, I dragged in, sliced up, hung, and paint-poured a couch right there in the gallery as a performance during the opening in the fall of 1990. I know people liked them, Dennis Cooper wrote a review in Art issues. and I was invited to do one in New York, and more in Los Angeles at a couple of great group shows, but no one ever bought any of these couch pieces with poured paint.

I continued to make couch pieces, but the colors and forms were so strong, paint wasn’t needed. These were shown at Burnett Miller Gallery and in a seminal group-show in New York at José Friere Fine Art called “Heaven Missing”. The Nortons bought the piece exhibited there and it’s now at the UCR Sweeney Art Gallery.

L: Loveseat (stripped, flipped, stacked, rotated), 1993 (UCR Sweeney, Gift of Peter Norton) R: Untitled, 1995; 35 mm and 16mm film over wood stretcher; 14 1/8″ x 12 1/8″

Meanwhile, taking out all the film-trash at my job, I decided to set up a contest between Film and Paint. I would weave the film to paint on top of to see which would triumph: the Film or the Paint. I was hoping the paint would dissolve the film and prove the primacy of that form over the new kid on the block, cinema. But it didn’t. I made a series of tenebrous landscapes on woven film and showed them at The Guest Room, in which I also jammed-up a couch in the closet.

By the time of my next exhibition with Sue Spaid in 1991, I had eschewed the paint for the colors inherent in the film itself and presented brightly-colored pixelated “paintings” in “Work-Pix, Leader, and Fill”. These were well received (Artforum review) and I sold a couple of them. So now I had these two bodies of work that I could zig and zag between. People liked the film-paintings more I guess because they were “pretty”. They took over, kinda like the delta variant.

After I went dry with the couches, I never poured again until the “Some Paintings” show you curated in 2008. And even then, it wasn’t me, babe. Funny story: I installed “Love-Coffin” in that show with UN-opened cans of paint perched on top of the flayed couches, along with a paint-can opener. I wanted the tension in the viewers minds that had seen my work before – “Would he pour?” 

Carter Potter Love Coffin, 2008 Found semi-stripped loveseats, latex paint, carpet 70 x 57 x 36 in.

That tension was resolved when some anonymous opening-night attendee took it upon themselves to open the cans of paint and have at-it in a kind of “Paint-it-Yourself” bacchanalia all over the unsuspecting Love-Coffin!
I loved it. It was complete. Were YOU the paint-happy satyr?

LESS ART: I think that was Laurie Steelink and Cindy Ojeda of Track 16, though I may have pitched in… You’ve worked in the film industry quite a bit, right? Has that allowed you to maintain a certain distance from the politics of The Art World? And maybe vice versa? 

C.P.: Aha! So you MAY have been involved in the vandalism! Well, it was good for the piece, so thank you.

Yes, I have worked in the film industry quite a bit. First, as a production assistant at deGraf/Wahrman (as I said before), where I would, among other things, go to the art store to buy art supplies for Jim Shaw, the art director there at the time. After that company dissolved, I segued to P.A. at Duck Soup Produkions, a traditional Ink and Paint animation studio. They specialized in T.V. ads, from Froot Loops to Charmin. I learned so much there.

You know, so many artists work in the film industry before they are able to support themselves from their work. I think if this can be an option, it can give young artists protection from the potentially demoralizing work they might find working for a gallery, say as an art preparator, which I have done as well.

Later, after I crashed and burned my nascent art career, I was again employed by Hollywood, this time as an assistant to an executive producer of T.V. films and mini-series. Now I had a view from the “above-the line” perspective of the captain of the ship, so to speak, and had a huge learning curve in dealing with studio bosses and top creatives, from the development of scripts and shepherding projects through to completion to arranging for gift baskets to be delivered to the stars at their hotel rooms, and learning the best snacks to get from Crafty on set.  Eventually, I had the title of associate producer.

L: Everest Head 11 A, 1998 R: Untitled (Sputnik), 1993

Working on a team, as one does on a film, is extra-fascinating and magical, actually, and contrasts so much with the day-to-day existence of the traditional artist working alone in the studio. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of daily magic to be had in the studio, but it can be very lonely too. During that 10 years working in the Biz, I made little work and showed it seldomly. So to answer your question, yes, this other world filled with its own set of politics (Hollywood) allowed me to maintain a certain distance from Art World politics, and to also allow the Art World to have its own little mystery, (as if anyone cared), “Where’s Carter?”

LESS ART: How did you crash and burn your nascent art career?! 

C.P.: That may have been too dramatic a characterization. No huge scandals, but just the tried-and-true garden-variety recipe of drinking and drugs, (never needles) that so many artists, and people for that matter, cook up to sabotage their success and well-being. Having mental illness exacerbated by the chemicals didn’t help either. I didn’t keep proper records or maintain business relationships. I didn’t follow through on commissions, I didn’t maintain friendships. There were a few rounds of these kinds of breakdowns and recoveries before, with the help of people who truly loved me, I got the therapy and help that I needed.

Picture Head 1992

LESS ART: One day at a time, baby! Have you considered making your own films, or have you made any?

C.P. I have, and I have! Working with the film, in the 1000’ rolls of “slug” that I would buy, I became fascinated with the way it would freely un-spool when held aloft by the central core. It really has life of its own and I guess if one were to perform a physics experiment, one would find the energy used to wind up the film would be recovered in the release of it. I did some public performances of this type of aktion on various rooftops at different art venues. 

Still from Ease Every Owl

When I ran into the most “famous” of the nude models from UCLA life-drawing classes, I put into motion the film project that I had been planning to show at my art lecture to a class at Art Center in Pasadena, CA. I trained the model to unspool the film and recorded him, (he being nude, of course), as a stand-in for me in my black-lit Hollywood Blvd. studio, itself festooned with altered political and film location signs. I used the 16mm wind-up W.W.II camera that had been Linda Albertano’s, which I picked up at a yard sale. Talk about serendipity!

Anyway, I screened the film to the class and achieved perfect symmetry by stripping down to nothing and unspooling an IMAX roll myself between the projector and the screen while having a very patient student film this new and layered aktion. Then things really got out of hand and the students themselves, newly inspired by the screening, took rolls of film (I had brought about 40,000 feet of this 70mm film to the lecture), went onto the roof, and simultaneously unspooled these 70mm cancelled films off the side of the Craig Ellwood canyon-spanning building that is the pride and joy of Art Center College of Design. I just caught the tail-end of this escapade on film myself and incorporated all the new footage into a film titled, “EASE EVERY OWL”. I would be very happy to screen it for you sometime.

Stills from 70mm Blue Machine

LESS ART: Maybe we should schedule a LESS ART screening while the show’s up – Carl was asking me to do some events there. Do you have any other shows you want to plug? What’s with Odd Ark? I saw your stuff up there, but you haven’t shown there yet, right?

C.P.: Oh there’s the show at Blossom Market in Chinatown with tons of peeps, and a group show in London right now at Rocket gallery. Dani Tull at Odd Ark has been really supportive, but only an online viewing room so far.

PRJCTLA – 1452 E 6th St Los Angeles, CA 90021-1321
Duo solo exhibition with David McDonald and Carter Potter
July 25 – August 28, 2021
Hours: Thursday & Friday 2 – 6 PM Saturday 12 NOON to 6 PM
Book a visitation slot here.

Pierre & the Lion

I just learned that Pierre Picot died last Saturday, Aug 7th. I didn’t get to know Pierre as well as many of his LA friends but I wish I had! Here’s a piece I wrote a while back when he was showing several of his then-current projects at Jancar Gallery in Chinatown.

Once upon a time a boy named Pierre went into the woods … actually he first went to the San Fernando Valley — it wasn’t until much later that he made it to the woods, although clearly it was worth the wait. The Pierre in question is Pierre Picot, an artist with a quintessential L.A. pedigree — UCLA undergrad in the ’60s, CalArts student in the ’70s, and a lengthy teaching stint at Art Center — but who was actually born in France and emigrated here at the tender age of 12. His relationship with Art Center ended on a sour note (as relationships with Art Center often seem to) a few years ago, and by a string of coincidences, he wound up teaching at the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in Brittany, right next to the Bois d’Amour forest, where Paul Gauguin invented modern art. That’s when he went into the woods.

When he emerged, Picot had embarked on a series of landscapes — ink on paper and oil on canvas — that have carried him along for the last four years, and make up half of his new show at Tom Jancar’s Chinatown gallery. It’s Picot’s first solo exhibition at a commercial gallery in many years. Though he crops up regularly in group shows and has been featured at venues like Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, his profile has been restrained compared to the a-go-go ’80s, when he was part of L.A.’s contingent of neo-Expressionists, exhibiting alongside the likes of Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Robert Longo. “I was doing the right stuff at the right time — it was sort of punky New Imagery. For five years it was like fwishhhht!” Picot makes the sound of an ascending bottle rocket. “But I hated the art world. I quit the art world and my gallery — Jan Baum — in 1985.”

For a dropout, Picot has maintained a respectable — though distinctly patchwork — level of visibility through teaching, writing, curating, editing and publishing his own art magazine, as well as quirky side projects like his live collaborative portrait sessions with Francesco Siqueiros and Paul “Not Dark” Bob. When Bob’s studio burned down in 2006, Picot and Siqueiros curated a smoky, singed retrospective from the remains at Robert Berman Gallery. Collaboration is a regular theme in Picot’s work — the other half of his Jancar show consists of excerpts from a projected 1,000-page series of infinitely inventive 11-by-9½–inch ink drawings titled Ecstatic Manifestations of the Physical Universe — many of them brushed over collaged photocopied images of women’s faces from the back pages of the L.A. Weekly.

One subset of this ambitious project is the focus of the show: a group of approximately 30 collaborations with other artists, ranging from Picot’s former studio neighbor Chas Garabedian to recent USC grad Maya Lujan (Jancar’s gallery assistant and co-curator of Picot’s exhibit). The playful experimentalism of Picot’s solo Manifestations is amplified by the indeterminacy of the collaborative process, and the seriality of the format and media — as well as Picot’s flair for graphic design — is cheerfully undermined in search of terra incognita.

Yet, as much as this selection of Manifestations encompasses strategies and practices dear to my heart — diaristic serial graphic design and collaboration, to be specific — it’s Picot’s large-scale landscape drawings that stand out here. “I saw a Van Gogh exhibit,” recalls the artist, “and was amazed at the landscape drawings — how he had one style of mark for wheat, another kind of mark for rocks, another kind of mark for clouds, and so on. It brought into question the idea that an artist has to develop just one style.”

Armed with this insight, and his sojourn in the Bois d’Amour — augmented upon his return with a period of daily sketching in a section of Griffith Park gutted by the 2007 fire — Picot has produced a series of tumultuously fantastic topographies that resemble Durer woodcuts reconfigured through a digital sampler.

Cobbled together from a vocabulary of visual styles, ranging from Chinese shan shui painting to Cubism — and incorporating an array of techniques, including stippling, meticulous brushwork, stenciling and surrealist decalcomania — Picot’s landscapes ought to collapse into a jumble of incomprehensible fragments. Instead, they are so pictorially coherent that Picot has been able to push further — destabilizing traditional perspective and gravitational logic, garbling the horizon — while retaining an immersive spatial illusionism and improbable symbolic consistency. Much of this strength would seem to result from the fact that the works are monochromatic, in black ink on uniform rectangular lengths of paper. But in translating his montage technique to oil paint — represented here by a single enormous 10-by-10–foot canvas — he manages to keep his balance while incorporating a whole new range of art-historical allusions and experiments in color and surface technique, resulting in the most challenging and innovative landscape painting to come out of L.A. since Constance Mallinson’s impossible, vertiginous mash-ups of the early ’90s.

The Jancar Gallery page for Pierre’s show is still online here.

Constance Mallinson: On the Importance of Being Small

E.F. Schumacher Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered Harper and Row – New York, 1975 Cover design by Eve Callahan

“Today we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of gigantism.”

“There is wisdom in smallness.”

                                                           E.F Schumacher

Mid  2021: The Coronavirus Pandemic is yet to be fully controlled.and may never be The global economy is experiencing a nervous recovery with inflation looming. The underpinnings of American democracy are being threatened by extreme polarization in the U.S. electorate. Income inequality and disparities widen. Debates and action on race relations are exploding. Siberia, the Rainforests and the western U.S. are on fire while the Arctic and North America are experiencing record heat waves. Amazon continues to post record profits having successfully swallowed retailing whole. As it corresponds to some of these events, the art world is undergoing major changes with a plethora of gallery closings and the openings of ever hopeful new ones as major artists command skyrocketing prices and new rising stars enter the system. Digital exhibitions that proliferated during the COVID shutdown seem a permanent fixture for the increasing ranks of the under exhibited and non-represented.

Nancy Evans The Blue Boot Aqua Resin painted boot covered with glass bead, 6″X10″X 4″, 2012

Charting a path forward for the arts in challenging times has always required novel approaches and unorthodox thinking. The current state of the arts and its requirements to retool for a more equitable approach had me rereading a prophetic little book Small is Beautiful  by the renowned eco-economist E.F. Schumacher whose ideas first came to my attention in 1973 via an environmental policy wonk in Washington, D.C. As in the 70’s when the urgency of environmental politics began to gain traction, the life altering nature of our present seems to beg revisiting some of Schumacher’s most profound premises. I have taken the liberty of applying some of his ideas to an artworld that has expanded beyond this then 24 year old artist’s wildest expectations.

Greg Rose South Fork Soliloquy Gouache on paper, 16.5X16.5 inches, 2017

Schumacher deftly interwove environmentalism and economics, critically advocating an economics which served the needs of the people rather than obscenely rewarding the few–clearly not its present MO.  Technology would be used to combat corporate conglomerates that are exploitive of nature and people and to create sustainable communities. He questioned the assertion that broad industrialization absorbs all communities into prosperity, observing instead that populations are shifted to larger and larger urban areas that cannot support everyone.

Siobhan McClure Belle Testing the Air from the Time of Masks Oil on panel, 7×5 inches, 2020

Moreover, he believed that a Buddhist influenced economic model held that “to satisfy human wants from faraway sources rather than nearby signifies failure rather than success.” Such gigantic capitalism, he argued, is destroying us and precious waning resources, creating “an orgy of envy” (the very cause of its expansionist success), a “perversion of free being” in its mechanized and dehumanized workforce, and fomenting social tensions. Schumacher reminds us that hypertrophied institutions and organizations tend to fall apart into smaller units. By focusing on small scale manageable enterprises and local self sufficiency far fewer demands are placed on the environment and vulnerable populations. While never claiming to create mass wealth, he suggests that following this course, embracing a philosophy of “enoughness” and intelligently using human ingenuity and energy would result in a more equitable and dignified system. As we now know, Schumacher’s ideas were never adopted.

Hilary Baker Baby acrylic on canvas, 12″X12″ , 2019

Those familiar with the contemporary global art market can certainly recognize Schumacher’s descriptions of capitalist economies in its practices, especially as it strove to “supersize” just as the rest of the corporate economy. Epicenters of art production such as New York and Los Angeles attract huge numbers of aspiring artists every year despite the inability to support the numbers.  For many artists eager for even the possibility of surviving on one’s artistic output requires thinking and acting on a global scale. Artworks that attract wealthy collectors eager to fill big walls and expansive corporate boardrooms,  a steady supply of  easily identifiable or “brandable” product,  big studios with assistants in which to produce and exhibit artworks often mimicking exhibitions at the best urban museums and largest commercial galleries, the imprimatur of glossy magazine articles, and a presence at large international  art fairs are the entrance fees. Further reinforcing this Darwinian model, art schools and university departments teach to the near myths, padding their departments with renowned artists commanding big perks to keep studios filled with $50,000/ year students.

Karla Klarin Landscape Study #110 Oil on Canvas, 12X26 inches, 2018

Within a short time span, in New York, Los Angeles huge galleries took over entire city blocks and formerly blighted areas to become cultural destinations complete with hip cafes and book and merch vendors. Cities encouraged the development, and despite the obvious drawbacks to many in those communities who were eventually displaced, large commercial galleries were promoted as beneficial for everyone. Pushback in communities such as East Los Angeles could be fierce as long time residents feared gentrification that could cost livelihoods, family and neighborhood ties, a loss of unique cultural communities. Some wondered whether that cost was worth propping up a gallery system aligned with the ethics and goals of stock market speculation in which most of the rewards have gone to the top producing artists and dealers. Little transparency or data is available in this unregulated system.

Marie Thibeault Umbra oil on Canvas, 18X18 inches, 2019

Few smaller gallerists, hungry to get in on any art booms, will be suicidal enough to candidly discuss their precarious situations. There have been bubble years as well as droughts but this basic approach has remained intact despite the disappearance of mainstream galleries, with few critics willing to attack the industry formula and its attendant mythologies. The size of international art fairs continued to grow, augmenting already bloated artistic reputations and continuously introducing new foreign competitors. Installations have become more spectacular insuring capacity crowds and headline grabbing press, driving new sales records and valuations for the select artists and their controlling galleries. 

Virginia Katz Shared Sustainability Acrylic paint formed by hand on wire fence, 16x15x5 inches, 2019

What goes up, however, eventually must come down. Not until early 2019 was a major contraction even conceivable. Art magazines had been suffering for some time but long standing reputable galleries had begun closing for lack of sales and exorbitantly high rents. Art consultants who had driven sales for many years disappeared perhaps due to changing tax laws on deductibles  and the 1% mentality of investing money in only the very top artists,  so many artists saw their incomes evaporate along with meager opportunities for exhibition.

Gegam Kacherian Refraction B Acrylic and ink on  UV coated mylar, 12.75″X12.75″, 2018

Conversations with a number of Los Angeles artists revealed the gross inequities of existing art world paradigms. Artists who had received prestigious grants lacked gallery representation or the possibility of museum exhibitions. Artists who had raised families seemed doomed to invisibility. Financial difficulties, declining affordable studio space, isolation resulting from moving to affordable areas outside the city, lack of critical dialogue and attention, declining exhibition opportunities, were prevalent problems. While artists have always struggled, ageing, competition, affordability, systemic racism and sexism, have exacerbated these conditions. It is becoming increasingly clear that the art world/market has served the elite, not its artists.

Lawrence Gipe Study for Convoy 1945 oil on panel, 11″X14″, 2018

The further problematizing of the standard art world operating procedures by the pandemic, however, entailed a reappraisal of how art is exhibited, appreciated and sold especially in the huge global art fairs and their attendant crowds that drove the system pre-pandemic. Digital exhibitions have flourished to fill the void but virtual shows have been justifiably criticized for their inability to duplicate the qualities of experiencing artworks in person.

Coleen Sterritt Rubber Round About found rubber objects, spray paint, foam, dryer lint, dog hair, 9.5X12X9 inches, 2019

The crisis, while difficult to maneuver and survive in myriad ways, has provided an opportunity to reassess the possibilities for needed change. It is possible that we are living in what one writer called “a plastic hour”—a rare crucial moment in history when the time is right to act decisively,  with purpose and new understanding.  Discourse on the unfolding changes is emerging: Critic Jerry Saltz wrote at the very beginning of the pandemic,”Art is flexible, adaptive, pervious and hungry for change.” (The Artworld Goes Dark, Vulture Magazine, Mar. 20, 2020) Subsequently he wrote crises usually have “shaped, not destroyed  [the art] community”…art is much deeper than the business that supports it.” We need to “adapt to change as it comes along, not [fall] back on old, outmoded, mean, or inapplicable dogma…..maybe all those gigantic artist studios with scores of assistants won’t be as much of a thing.”” (The Last Days of the Artworld and Perhaps the First Days of a New One. Life After the Coronavirus Will Be Very Different, Vulture Magazine, April 2, 2020)

Kay Whitney A Brief History of Abstraction #17 wood box, felt, pompoms, hardware, closure strap, 8.5X 3.5X 8.5 inches, 2019

To effect changes we can consider like Schumacher that size matters. He insisted that we must stop basing our economics on gigantism and begin to strive for the manageability of smallness.  Doing so, of course, would necessitate eschewing the fantasies of mega careerism in favor of other goals. As Holland Cotter wrote in “The Boom is Over, Long Live the Art” (New York Times, February 12,2009), “artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction.” Scaling back the size of artworks and exhibitions and the “need” for them or at least finding a balance between big and small is part of that effort.

Julia Couzens Tiny Dancers Skibble Out From Beneath the Floorboards. Mixed textiles, 23″X14″, 2020

Outsized artworks, of course, have always been a part of how and why we are moved by art: epic portraits, battle scenes, religious pageantry, and landscapes astonished, intimidated, overwhelmed and excited viewers with their virtuosic visions of power. One can only wonder how the American West would have been settled without the grand paintings of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. Similarly, large scale Modernist masterpieces dwarfed and absorbed viewers in a universal sublime experience intended to transform and transcend quotidian existence. One was inside a swirling Pollack cosmos, awestruck and helpless. Scale equaled importance and seriousness. Smaller artworks, however, could not participate in these effects and were easy to dismiss as trifles, or bourgeois baubles. There are gender implications here as well since many women artists without access to large studios were considered less ambitious and significant, derivative versions of male artists.

Joan Weinzettle Rereading magazine pages, thread, 12X9X1.5 inches, 2020

Largely missing in the comparisons between massive and diminutive scale is how ongoing intimacy with an art object yields a much different experience. Small artworks are universally accessible and collectible, generally less expensive and require less space to exhibit. Might then these artworks entertain values contrary to those of power, wealth and prestige? Something akin to a devotional object –not a sublime or unsettling experience but one of inspiration, daily meditation, imagination, sustenance, connectivity. Artworks subject to local output and distribution are also freer to respond to local conditions and less beholden to totalizing aesthetic trends i.e. the “isms” that tend to dominate production as well as the carbon footprint of transporting art all over the world.

Robert Walker Rachguine mixed media on paper, 20X16″, 2020

Not pandering to an international market allows artists to maintain a certain ethical relationship to art and to explore new inner directed forms of expression. Defining oneself as an artist requires resisting the accepted cultural norms and capitalistic, market driven conditioning, as well as a questioning of personal motivations.  Artist communities need to support this. Schumacher never discussed art in his writing, but he argued that the human potential for creativity would be immeasurably freed up when not dominated by huge soulless economies. He most likely would have been in favor of redirecting and reorienting the production of art to these ends rather than creating global profits. 

Alain Rogier The Amusement Park acrylic, oil pastel on canvas, 24X 18 inches, 2018

When Schumacher used the adjective beautiful to describe his economic philosophy– having written “Beauty is the splendor of truth”– he was using the word  not conventionally but in the sense of Bella– beauty raising us to enlightening thoughts, the common good, promoting the ethical and humanistic.  Interpreted here, the beautiful is not simply pretty or mindlessly pleasing. Nor is beauty to be found only in its adherence to conceptual formalism such asthe beauty of a perfectly conceived mathematical equation or perfectly composed and resolved artwork.  “Small is Beautiful” is predicated on the near ritualistic, careful, sustained examination of and involvement with a concept or object in great detail, allowing for the slow reveal as opposed to the instantaneous spectacular hit. Such reflection can generate new insights, deepening and transforming consciousness. 

Installation view, Post-Process/Post-Materials, 2020, I-Beam Gallery: works by David DiMichele, David McDonald, Gerald Giamportone and Carolie Parker.

As 2021 now forces a reckoning with global climate catastrophes, an examination of art world practices that embrace costly, energy consuming, hyper sized exhibitions could be analogous to local food movements in its subsidizing of many more artists and reducing carbon footprints. While as Leon Golub once remarked making monumental changes via artworks feels like battling tanks with broomsticks, cultural shifts towards cooperation between institutions, businesses and individuals centered on sustainability and shared prosperity can still prove to be highly consequential in shaping perceptions of our ever smaller planet.


Several Los Angeles artists were solicited for their thoughts on realizing their formal and thematic concerns in smaller scale works, though each is known for excelling at a larger scale Attention to aesthetics and visual impact as the prime conveyor of content are paramount to these artists. Reflecting Schumacher’s insistence on harmony with the natural world., most prevalent are landscape/nature centered works exploring ecological conditions.

Nancy Evans’ cast resinsculptures of small found objects take on the power of rusted, decaying relics and ruins to suggest a post apocalyptic or desolate landscape. She asks “Why make small works now? Obviously the world is a crowded place. One hopes that small expressionist gestures can effect people—a token in their hand of something larger. Compression can intensify feeling.”

Exquisite portraits of dead trees from pinpointed California locations by Greg Rose recall Romanticism’sinfatuation with nature but with an emphasis on ecological impacts on plant communities.  He states ..”reduction is scale assists the viewer in taking a more introspective view …much like in the way the Bonsai gardener produces a miniaturized view of something  more digestible with the human experience.”

The disturbing, darkly surreal, dreamlike landscapes containing expressive human figures of Siobhan McClure suggest the fraught psychological states of contemporary life and for her are “inherently intimate and seductive, they don’t scream for attention but they can explode like a grenade or bloom like a flower when you come close. Slow down. Savor the small.”.

Hilary Baker portrays stylized native wildlife most often set within iconic Los Angeles architecture to provoke meditations on their continued coexistence with humans. She finds the “beauty of small can offer us the antidote to excess, greed, and grandiosity.’

Referencing expansive aerial views of expanding urban landscape s in her diagonally lined geometric abstractions rendered in evocative colors and gestures, Karla Klarin produces small finished studies to rapidly move through visual ideas.

Known primarily for her large hybrids of abstraction and figuration, Marie Thibeault compresses a sublime worldview into a window that focuses intently on natural elements as they interact with human constructions and systems. “This scale forces me to distill ideas and simplify structure…and proclaims [its] objecthood in a different way. There is something magical about being transported into the vastness through such a small portal.” 

By fashioning sculptural facsimiles of plant forms from actual paint and intertwining them with industrial materials Virginia Katz muses on the relationship of the natural and human made and the landscape painting tradition. Her “small and subtle works have the power to surpass size and convey important messages.”

Gegam Kacherian’s vivid, near hallucinogenic abstraction /figuration amalgams on mylar oscillate between micro and macrocosms suspending viewers in a tense dance between differing realties. Smaller scale is analogous to “writing poetry instead of a novel.”

Sourcing historical photographs of military and industrial scenes, Lawrence Gipe’s nostalgically tinged paintings contrast our highly polarized, insecure era with earlier modernist narratives of empires, progress, and heroism. The small scale enforces the references to the important source material.

The witty interplay of discarded manufactured objects and natural detritus in Coleen Sterritt’s three dimensional works are formally inventive with profound ecological implications.  “Small is the size the piece is supposed to be. Small might be the scale but not the scope.”

Known for her large sculptural installations with industrial materials, Kay Whitney uses colorful craft store materials in an open book format, obliterating distinctions between high art and homemade crafts and parodying iconic oversized male abstract masterpieces..The scale honors women artists and crafters who often had no dedicated studio spaces and their contributions to the history of abstraction.

This impure attitude blurring lowly craft and “serious” art informs Julia Couzens’s constructions fabricated from scraps of found fabric and painted canvas loosely bound and sewn, like Whitney, are modest appearing but proclamatory feminist interrogations of accepted art making practices. 

Evoking ancient scrolls, Joan Weinzettle’s machine stitched layered grids of magazine texts that crumble and decay under the needle also insinuate the demise of the printed word in the digital age. Her materials begin small.

Abstract painting, most often executed in large formats, is labor intensive and meditative in the small mesmerizing patterned works of Robert Walker, bringing to mind Eastern spiritual practices. He comments” It has been said that small subversions…can serve as subtle political acts when we are living in a regime of ostentatiousness.”

Alain Rogier’s bold muscular abstractions recall the emotive qualities of mid-century expressionism while overtly putting into dynamic tensions pressing humanistic dilemmas encountered in a fractious world. “Small images require more stringent editing, eliminating the superfluous and distracting elements” to intently focus our minds.

As Schumacher reminded us, small scale operations are less likely to harm the environment than large scale ones and more apt to provide the free space to do the unimagined. The I-Beam Gallery, a recent project for Instagram by artist and critic David DiMichele cleverly manipulates space and the perception of scale by photographing diminutive artworks in an 8’X4’ facsimile of vast  Gagosian style space. Because viewers are so accustomed to digital gallery shots of exhibitions, DiMichele’s installations fool the eye while simultaneously critiquing massive gallery offerings in gargantuan white boxes.  His tiny gallery symbolizes a reorientation towards  curatorial sand community self sufficiency  in lieu of limitless materialistic expansion under the control of huge financial entities. 

A version of this text appeared as the catalog essay for the exhibition Small is Beautiful curated by Constance Mallinson at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, October 16 – December 12 2020

Constance Mallinson Unhappy Meal Self portrait in oil on McDonald’s Happy Meal Package, 9×10 inches, 2018

Constance Mallinson is a Los Angeles based painter, writer and curator who has exhibited recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She has written for numerous publications and contributed catalog essays to many exhibitions at galleries and institutions.

Pathé Fridays: The Laciest

The great “English eccentric” Bruce Lacey was the subject of not one but three (at least) Pathé newsreels, as well as a short Monitor profile by Ken Russell in his TV days, and a short feature length documentary by the artist Jeremy Deller. Two of the Pathés are on youtube – the third covers the same show as the British Movietone short embedded below.

Bruce Lacey was one of those pivotal figures that pursue their own idiosyncratic trajectories, but nevertheless wind up in the right places and times to generate an inordinate amount of influence. Lacey was way ahead of his time with his distinctive mashup of Kienholzian assemblage, robotics, satirical slapstick, performative ritual, social sculpture, DIY cinema, and electronic composition. His kinetic junk sculptures saw him collaborating with Jean Tinguely, landing a high-profile solo show at then über-prestigious Marlborough Gallery, and being featured in the influential Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the ultra-chic ICA. But only in the few years before his death in 2016 did he start getting the historical treatment.

Lacey’s obscurity is due in large part to his multimedia diversification, though his prickly satirical edge, radical politics and often grotesque whimsy played their part. As did his success as a minor pop culture figure — always a suspicious proposition in The Art World, Andy Warhol notwithstanding.

His own early aesthetic vocabulary — as well as that of the comedic performance group The Alberts with whom he was closely associated — exemplified an international wave of subversive post-war “nostalgia” that used the ostensibly “innocent” trappings and conventions of the Victorian and Edwardian eras (as well as – to a lesser extent – the Roaring 20s and Depression) to smuggle entire buttloads of queer, druggie, and anarchist ideas into the mainstream culture. Think of Tiny Tim, the Bonzo Dog Band, or the faux old time radio of The Firesign Theatre. Someone oughta write a book about it!

Dig this 1962 single by The Alberts, five years before the Bonzos took Music Hall Surrealism to the Toppermost of the Poppermost:

While most of this incipient postmodernism percolated on the periphery of Beat and Hippie culture, Lacey actually achieved an early and significant degree of mass media infiltration (as these clips attest). He could have easily (like colleagues Spike Milligan and Ivor Cutler) parlayed his showbiz connections into a comfortable BBC career — he collaborated with the Goons, appeared in Richard Lester’s The Knack and his 2nd Beatles film Help — as well as George Melly & Desmond Davis’s Swinging London romp Smashing Time (cued up to his happening-gone-wrong scene below). He made records with George Martin and Fairport Convention, and directly inspired the Bonzos and Monty Python.

Instead, the 70s and 80s found him touring England deploying his neo-dadasms in increasingly performative contexts, sidestepping The Art World almost entirely in favor of a network of rural post-hippie paganistic fairs and festivals. With his wife and fellow “elemental coordinator” Jill Bruce, he developed a sort of ramshackle occult vaudeville, staging outrageous, deliberately amateur pantomimes, creating avant-garde theme-park and funhouse environments for village children, and enacting earth magic rituals at neolithic monuments. No wonder he was swept under the carpet until the 00s!

Here in its entirety is Nick Abrahams and Turner-prize-winner Jeremy Deller’s film about Lacey, made with his cooperation in the later years of his life. It has clips from several of his early films as well as documentation of his earth magic performances, and a segment from The Lacey Rituals, his 1973 film which recorded the quotidian praxis of his family’s home life (a strategy he had inverted the year before by installing the whole tribe in a room attached to the Serpentine Gallery for a piece called The Laceys at Home).

I’ve cued up this 1974 BBC docu by Irish comic Dave Allen to the segment featuring Lacey (which segues cunningly into a profile of fellow traveller Ivor Cutler), but there’s also a nice bit with him at the very beginning, plus sequences on several lesser-known visionaries, including the “Tiny House” pioneer pictured below. So watch the whole shebang if you have the time.

One of the interesting parts of the Dave Allen profile is that it shows Lacey fiddling about with some analogue synths, talking about becoming a pop star. That never quite worked out, but in 2014 Trunk Records collected various experimental soundtracks and synth improvisations onto the double vinyl/CD collection The Spacey Bruce Lacey.

The LP and CD versions are still available from TRUNK.

And if your curiosity is merely piqued by all of the above, there’s a phenomenal 314-page interview with Lacey here on the British Library’s oral history collection site!