Los Angeles artists enjoy the unique yet dubious privilege of living in the lap of mass culture. But if they feel proprietary toward the mythmaking machine of movies and television, their closeness has also encouraged a psychological remove from it. Though they often allude to frenzies on the screen, their central concern is with pop dramas of the mind. As a vehicle for our collective fantasies that give a less than social pleasure, the movie is to them as inevitable a theme as nature is to "landscapists."
Such an overview is offered by "Sunshine & Noir," a deliberately potluck exhibition of Los Angeles art, 1960-97, curated by Lars Nittve and Helle Crenzien, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen. But the show's value as a historical record or critical proposal is diluted by odd emphases, equally strange exclusions (among them even some males), and the presence of lesser works by significant artists. Louisiana's display is crowded with art by white men who frequently behave like bad boys. From what is shown, for instance, no one would guess that Los Angeles had been a hotbed of feminist art in the '70s. Robert Heinecken, the central figure of LA Conceptual photography, is omitted. Absent too are the witty images of artists such as Erika Rothenberg, Betye Saar, and Carole Caroompas. But the imbalances of this survey of more than fifty artists and close to two hundred works did not prevent it from being provocative. All around me, surprising continuities revealed themselves. I roamed through it, alert to chance accents in which native Los Angeles content - once flavorsome, now savvy - is picked up in widespread idioms.
By the '80s, the media theme had become such a topical spectacle to far-flung publics that LA artists ceased being self-conscious about their base in Los Angeles - ceased to think of themselves as local. None of their often obscure movie references could take anything away from the unsavory magnitude of their vision. Yet how much more cryptic and denatured, even in its fondness, is their treatment of visual entertainment when compared to the entertainment itself. In particular, Los Angeles artists of the last thirty-seven years led the way to a view of our media, and the implications behind them, as netherworld phenomena. The British architectural critic Reyner Banham once remarked that, as certain scholars learned "Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned how to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original." Insofar as any of this applies to the City of Angels, the key word here is "Dante."
In a car, stunned by glare, even wearing shades, one is channeled by sulfurous freeways, over long distances, through unpeopled spaces that lack any texture. The mobile solitude of it all, daily repeated, may have done wonders to impair any idea of community in the art of this sun-shocked, sprawling city. As depictions of urban nothings on a strip, Edward Ruscha's photos of gas stations and John Baldessari's windshield views of National City, California, are deadpan classics.
The absence of human street life may tell us something about the tactile extremes of Los Angeles art, which typically veers between hypergloss, to which not even a mote could cling, and soiled rag you wouldn't touch. In the uninviting "skin" of their work, artists enacted metaphors of impossible perfections and uncontrollable disorders. It's tempting to regard these polarities as markers for the disquiet of bodies alienated from the material world. Los Angeles freeways have, in fact, been known as breeding grounds for unspeakable rancors that eat away one's reason. Such was the import of a 1993 film, Falling Down, in which a frustrated, white-collar motorist, played by Michael Douglas, blows his cool in a killing spree.
This "pressure cooker" atmosphere had been prefigured in the late '50s and early '60s, the Fetus Gallery days of Los Angeles art. The hardened "syrup" of John McCracken's planks and the spray-lacquered, chevron paintings of Billy Al Bengston have their polar opposite in the sweaty, glutinous lumpy surfaces of Edward Kienholz's The Beanery, 1965, his squalid mockup of an artists' bar. …