Right Hand Man and The Whistling Chicken 2020 acrylic on canvas 40×30 ins
Almost exactly ten years ago, one of my favorite (and certainly most improbable) curatorial projects was unleashed upon the world: Renee Fox, who was overseeing the development of the Beacon Arts Building in Inglewood (at least its cultural aspect) invited me to do something for their Critics-as-Curators series. I’d been wanting to do something to demonstrate that a museum-scale-and-quality show could be realized without 1) spending millions of dollars 2) 5 years of planning, and 3) a massive top-heavy bureaucracy. (After which the fake-ass house-of-cards Art World would collapse under the weight of its hubris, ushering in a shining new era of anarcho-syndicalist communalism. Still waiting on that one!)
The Beacon — designed to be a complex of private artist studios — was almost empty at this stage, and Renee negotiated for me to use most of the entire 4-story warehouse space instead of just the dedicated exhibition area on the main floor. I specifically wanted to put together a one-person show, so I needed an artist who was enormously prolific, underexposed, and whose work I honestly admired. Thus was born ARATALAND! A Mid-Career Survey of Artworks by Michael Arata, a theme-park inspired installation exploring the artist’s sprawling, inventive, playful oeuvre. (The text from the rarely-seen ARATALAND! catalog essay — which has one of my favorite titles of all time RIP Ferlinhetti — + a link to purchase same on lulu are reprinted below.)
In the decade since, Arata’s kept up the pace, producing enough new work to fill another museum space. But until LACMA or MOCA screw their heads on right and choose to serve their actual local community, we’ll have to take things on the installment plan – currently, Arata has a solo show entitled FRANTIC up at LSH CoLab, artist Laura Howe’s gallery on Virgil a couple blocks east of LA city college. The show is up through May 2 and the gallery hours are 1 – 6 daily, appointments preferred. LSH CoLab, 778 N Virgil Avenue Los Angeles, Ca 90029. https://www.lshcolab.com/ 323-665-4513
Argument 2020 acrylic on canvas 40×30 ins
Our operative met with Michael Arata in his Malibu penthouse over adrenochrome cocktails to interrogate his praxis.
LESS ART: I think your pictures are neat! Where do you get your ideas?
Michael Arata: Well lets see- I did 12 pictures of the Mona Lisa with a narrative dialog from the models perspective. Since I had to deal with scheduling models for life drawing it was a natural segue to the notion. My Narrative includes her and her sisters substituting as models posing for Leonardo.
The titles of the pictures include some of their takes on how he regarded them and their attitude about working for him. Some pictures are simply personal and reflect the a day or thought. The pictures with the titles become gossipy tidbits of entertainment for pleasure. After the basics – food, shelter, clothing – it’s all entertainment! I decided it took 12 sessions to make the Mona Lisa painting because donuts and bagels come in a dozen. 12 inches in your foot, 12 months in a year, 12 apostles, 12 animals in the Chinese calendar cycle and so on.
Mona Lisa Tenth Sitting: Leo paints the accusatory finger-pointing shrub after Lisa and Leo have words.2020 acrylic on canvas 40×30 ins
LESS ART: You need to publish a calendar! What are the other paintings, and how do they connect with Mona & Her Sister?
Pegasus 2020 Spraypaint and acrylic on canvas 40×30 ins
Michael Arata: The other 12 or so pictures are variants on life basics — mythology and magic as stories or parables for teaching and entertainment. After the acquisition of basics — food ,shelter, and clothing — entertainment, politics, religion, emotion, and drama take the stage. Maybe things get boring when you know all the answers and satisfy basic needs.
I don’t think Pegasus and Mona know each other, they’re from different times. Their connection is that they’re from history – but different times. Pegasus probably knew Icarus until he had a melt down. Mona probably knew who modeled for the Venus who knew about the apple in the garden and Eve.
Venus with the Flighty Fruit 2020 Spraypaint and acrylic on canvas 40×30 ins
The myths/stories may have originally been meant as educational and equally entertaining. Many had been reevaluated and re-written a thousand years later, and I am engaging in rewriting and repurposing them another thousand years later. Changing the context to suit the need and time — reworked historical allegory/myth/religion collaged with LA local, national and global genre.
Shout 2020 acrylic on canvas 40×30 ins
LESS ART: They seem to share a common stylistic approach – fast, somewhat cartoonish sketches that are sometimes, but not always, fleshed out with more intricately painterly passages.
Michael Arata: I am happy with the painting technique, using the simple drawn color outline. The imperfections of the line add a fresh, difficult-to-repeat quality that make it direct, immediate and sure. I told the gallery to use the phrase “Sgraffito Tango“ in describing the line work for their press release. Filling them in with solid flat color works fine. Blended filled color sometimes works to create illusionistic form and depth, the make a nice contrast when combined.
Frantic 2020 acrylic on canvas 40×30 ins
The backgrounds are treated like the fill parts, sometimes painted before and sometimes after or over the subject. In some pictures I started with a black background and used lighter colors for drawing figures and filling the shapes. The visual effect and process reminds me of “Elvis” paintings on black velvet from the 70’s, 80’s.
Vanilla – Chocolate Cake 2019 6.5 x18 x9 ins Wood, Styrofoam, Nova Paste, Acrylic gel and paint
LESS ART: What’s with those cakes?
Michael Arata: The group also includes sculpture, 2 half-cakes, one yellow and one chocolate. I only like chocolate or vanilla cake and chocolate or vanilla frosting. No fruit- especially if it looks like jam or jelly. Although bananas seem to work with the yellow on white. Chocolate swirly is OK if it has the cream cheese filling like the stuff on carrot cake. I guess strawberries are tolerable.
When I first painted the Half Cakes I did solely for the pleasing color and simple high contrast value, a visual choice. Then I recognized they were divided (by color), so politics of the day likely planted the thought. Come to think of it spice cake is good too.
Dats and Cogs 2013-2021 variable dimensions Wood, Styrofoam, Nova Paste, Acrylic gel and paint
LESS ART: And these other sculptural entities?
Michael Arata: The other 3D works are “Dats” and “Cogs” — chimeras. The pack/pride Started in 2013. A nod to the divisive positions held socially then and now… which have only escalated. Have/have-nots and so on.
LESS ART: Not to mention race and gender! What are the materials for these pieces?
Michael Arata: The Dats and Cogs begin with wooden armatures, then they are fleshed out with carved Styrofoam, . Shaped with masking tape, then coated several times with NovaFlex, Then a couple coats of NovaResin. Then I paint them with acrylic paint. The population is still fighting like cats and dogs. The pandemic didn’t help that at all.
LESS ART: How has your personal pandemic been?
Michael Arata: The pandemic has affected my practice by giving me more time to work, so not a deficit but a benefit.
LESS ART: I like cake. Thank you for your service!
(More images coming soon!)
A Coney Island of the Butt
Artists, it is often said, each live in a world of their own. The nature of these worlds can be as disparate as the tortured misanthropy of Francis Bacon, the cerebral monotony of Daniel Buren, or the canny but lighthearted psychedelia of Sigmar Polke. The important constant is the will to remake the world in one’s own image. And while this could be argued to be the underlying modus operandi of all creative activity, it is particularly evident in the Modern and allegedly Post-Modern eras of western contemporary culture, where the solipsistic narcissism of the Romantics collided with exponentially expanding technological capabilities to endow virtually any individual with god-like Creationist powers.
Think of Adolf Hitler’s attempt to reconfigure Western Civilization along what were essentially aesthetic lines. Or think of Walt Disney, who was less nakedly ambitious but ultimately more successful in imposing his idiosyncratic symbolic taste on our species’ collective consciousness. I would contend that Ground Zero of Operation Disneyfication lies just 30 miles due south of downtown Los Angeles – in Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth, where Uncle Walt’s monomaniacal pursuit of The Cute blossomed from the introspective media of cinema and children’s doll games into a 3-dimensional kinesthetic transactional environment; a relational virtual reality: a theme park.
One could trace the lineage of the theme park as artist’s medium all the way back to the caves at Lascaux, or the Sistine Chapel, or Jacques-Louis David’s Revolutionary fêtes, but the last century has brought the value (both creatively and economically) of an idiosyncratic vision to the forefront, while mobilizing an unprecedented range of resources towards fabricating such visions. Disneyland was only the beginning.
For artists (and other professionals) working in the Fine Arts tradition, this expansive paradigm has been a two-edged sword; increasing the possibilities of interactive and installation strategies while radically amplifying expectations of entertainment value. Certain artists fare better than others – a retrospective of some one like Robert Rauschenberg might include motion activated stainglass sliding-doors, a bubbling mudbath, a sonar-activated windmill painting, and relics of his 60s performances and 80s global collaboration tours. Jean Tinguely and Niki Saint-Phalle were both consciously flirting with Ride Theory, while many Light-and-Space environments and Land Art sites are phenomenological rollercoasters for the sloooowed-waaaay-dooowwwn set.
In fact, this characteristic could be used as a defining criterion for a distinct strain of contemporary art – work that is humorous, theatrical, audience-aware (if not always so friendly), open to popular modes of symbolic communication and unbounded by traditional material or genre constrictions. Work that, taken individually suggests restless inventiveness if not outright multiple personality disorder, but en masse generates a layered, immersive, synergistic narrative environment that rewards attentive viewers on multiple sensory and intellectual levels. Interestingly, the bulk of artists that spring to mind are from the West Coast. Bruce Nauman. Chris Burden. Mowry Baden. Eleanor Antin. Paul McCarthy. Mike Kelley. The Museum of Jurassic Technology. Tim Hawkinson.
And Michael Arata. Arata, whose artistic vision was forged in the same unholy furnace as Hawkinson’s (San Jose State University – “Powering Silicon Valley!”) shares all of the aforementioned criteria for Theme-parkism with his more famous Spartan alum – though their respective oeuvres couldn’t be more different, apart from that. What is central to their similarity – as with many other TPists – is the human body as the inescapable fundamental bottom line of Art – subject, object, and the playground upon which the difference is duked out.
Are we not, each of us, a haunted mansion? OK, got that out of the way. Let’s look at the negative spaces between the posed limbs of Victoria’s Secret models. OK! Now, let’s fill those negative spaces with primary colors. OK. OK, Now let’s reconfigure those colorful negative spaces as 3-dimensional sculptures made of newspaper and masking tape and acrylic paint, attach google eyes to them, then pose for photographs with the Victoria’s Secret models’ negative spaces placed in the negative spaces of our own limbs. Uh… Geeez I don’t… OK! The threads of Michael Arata’s associative conceptualism are not always easy to follow, but they inevitably lead to profoundly intelligent, keenly felt, formally virtuosic, and endlessly entertaining artworks.
Arata came of artistic age when sculpture had yet to experience the same rejuvenation that had returned painting to the forefront of contemporary commerce (and discourse) in the early 80s. His earliest major works – the Monet Haystack and Marco Polo installations – combined formal and autobiographical elements (Arata had worked as an engineering draughtsman, and the 3D cross-section structure of the urns, ships, and haystacks derive directly) with art historical and historical historical references, and a prescient concern with globalism, issues of sustainability, and relational aesthetics – the latter at this point limited to an awareness of the physicality of sculptural installations. But soon to blossom and mutate in extraordinary directions.
The first of Arata’s crackpot interactive schemes was his Secret Messages via Pine Cone kiosk [See feature 1A on Arataland! map], where a still little-known woodsy cryptographic technique — allegedly used by George Washington at Valley Forge to secure a shipment of shoes from Ben Franklin – was demonstrated. Audience members were invited to inscribe their own messages on the underside of the individual scales of a dry cone, which was then exposed to moisture — causing the cone to close up, its epistolary nature concealed until dried out again. The layers of audience engagement in this work are numerous and complex, beginning with the sheer absurdity of the activity, leading to the participants’ complicity in this Jurassic Technology styled fiction; the possibility of actually using the system to communicate with (or confess to) the artist, future viewers, or persons unknown; and finally the recruitment of the public in the creation of artifacts that resemble nothing so much as early 70s system-based conceptualism – series of more-or-less arbitrary texts arrayed across alternating Fibonacci spirals.