"Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981": THE GEFFEN CONTEMPORARY AT MOCA, LOS ANGELES

Article excerpt

IN CONTRAST TO THE SPIRIT of celebratory commemoration and even boosterism that underlies so many "Pacific Standard Time" exhibitions thus far, Paul Schimmel's latest curatorial effort, "Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974--1 981," has a critical and historical argument to make. His premise is that a "plethora of individual art practices"--what he dubs "California pluralism"-- "flourished within (the era's] dystopian atmosphere." To put it more bluntly: "Bad times" make for 'good art," or at least the kind of art Schimmel favors, which tends toward a negativity bordering on the apocalyptic.

"Under the Big Black Sun" is named after an album by the Los Angeles punk band X that was released in 1982 with a very noir cover by Alfred Harris. "Heiter Skelter," Schimmel's groundbreaking 1992 survey of contemporary LA art (at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), likewise took its title from popular music--not coincidentally, Charles Manson's favorite Beatles song--and came to be known internationally as an exploration of the sick psyche of "Bad America." In many ways, this latest show can be seen as a kind of prequel to that previous one, and accordingly it seeks to provide its audience with a story of origins, explaining just how those "bad times" got started and why they are not likely to end anytime soon. Highlighting the proximity of Schimmel's present thesis to that of the earlier survey, a number of artists reappear, among them Llyri Foulkes, Richard Jackson, Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden, Nancy Rubins, and Mike Kelley, albeit with works from different periods in their careers.

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Immediately on entering the museum, standing in the middle of the Geffen Contemporary's raised landing, viewers are caught between South America Triangle, 1981, a hanging sculpture by Bruce Nauman dealing with political torture, and a selection from Chauncey Hare's series "This Was Corporate America," 1 976-77, black-and-white photographs of slack-faced, lower-management drones working for the likes of Standard Oil. One lesson that could be derived from this arrangement is that when society is run by corporate decree, government is reduced to the role of a bullying ally in order to ensure this agenda's enforcement. The point is clinched in a vitrine bearing President Nixon's 1974 resignation speech, centrally placed just before the steps leading down to the main galleries. And from there, one can already see its rejoinder, another vitrine bearing President Ford's pardon of his predecessor. Over and above any innovation in art, these two events mark the start time of "Under the Big Black Sun": the revelation of cover-up followed by further cover-up.

The end time is marked in a no less "newsworthy" manner by Robert Heinecken's Inaugural Excerpt Videograms, 1981. Stills derived from the moving image of Ronald Reagan during his inauguration speech, these prints were made by placing photographic paper directly on a television screen. …