Category Archives: California

DESERT SHINDIG: Shenanigans at Shangrila, Artillery Magazine, November 2013

Like its Himalayan literary counterpart, Joshua Tree’s Shangrila is a utopian vision; part dream, part tourist destination. Concretely, it’s a one-bedroom residence on Shangrila Lane, overlooking a seemingly endless expanse of undeveloped, government-owned desert. It’s remote enough to seem completely isolated, yet close enough to civilization that you can feel the earthquake-like blasts from simulated bombing raids at the U.S. military fake Iraqi training village in neighboring Twentynine Palms. Originally a homesteader cabin built in 1947, the Shangrila lot was decrepit when artist and curator Drew Dunlap purchased it in 2005 while enrolled in Otis College’s MFA program. In addition to envisioning his future home as a vacation rental, Dunlap also wanted to establish a sporadic artists’ residency where one could create works inspired by epic surroundings. Today Shangrila resembles a mid-century modernist spec house with a swing set and three conspicuous shipping containers in the back yard.

In 2008 Dunlap executed his plan, inviting a few dozen artists for a weekend of experimentation and imaginative planning. They planted the seeds for what would become “Shangrila”: the art event, which debuted in June of 2010. For this first weekend event, Dunlap curated art and performances investigating questions of utopia. I participated in this show as an artist, and again the next year (which, in the spirit of full disclosure, probably dulls my critical edge a little). While there were many fine works on display in that 2010 show, Rob Faucette’s intervention stood out as particularly poignant. Faucette invented Girlfriend Beer, a fictional company that “sponsored” the event. The artist stuck DIY labels on cheap beer cans, posted roadside ads, and distributed free branded koozies to visitors. I couldn’t help but take his work as a preemptive inoculation by satire against corporate sponsorship.

As the perennial art happening matured, Dunlap shifted his role, co-curating “Shangrila: New Moon” with artist Michelle Chong in June of 2010. During the day, Veronica Duarte’s iconographic self-guided tour relayed meandering information about Joshua Tree and its history, while at night Taylor Tschider’s galaxy in a cardboard box beautifully echoed the Milky Way above. In early fall of 2011, Dunlap turned the event over to the collective Durden and Ray, who put on “Shangrila: Oasis.” I missed out on this iteration, but stories of naked BBQ cooks, stalagmite campaign signs by Elizabeth Gahan, and Brian Thomas Jones’ glowing super-phallic inflatable tube confirm that I should have been there.

Unlike other desert art events like tech-yuppie Burning Man, or the more elite High Desert Test Sites, Shangrila remains emphatically emergent and wonderfully unpredictable. Somewhere in between the blazing Friday sunshine and the hungover Sunday drive home (after a transcendental visit to the Integratron sound bath a few miles away), Shangrila morphs from nervous art opening into a temporary autonomous zone where people transform in strange ways. I’ve witnessed buttoned-up academics get shit-faced and near-naked with people navigating in and around in-situ artworks pursuing nocturnal trysts.

This year, the curatorial team of Steven Bankhead and Jesse Benson organized “Shangrila: Burrito Deluxe,” which included 50-plus artists. To manage the expansive undertaking, they enlisted other curators. As Bankhead notes, “Jesse and I both distinguish ourselves more as organizers… We weren’t so interested in curating specific types of art but rather organizing a group of artists that are doing interesting things.” On Friday, Calvin Phelps hosted “Supper,” a performance/gourmet meal inspired by the desert. The collective Elephant created an impressive temporary stage resembling their LA outdoor space. And with the help of Michelle Chong, Elephant scheduled a series of performances throughout the night, many of them by members of the LA sound art organization, SASSAS.

One of the greatest things about Shangrila is the ability to encounter work in the surprising desert landscape. As Benson puts it, “While some works were immediately recognizable in the environment, others were more difficult to ‘discover.’ Stumbling through the desert at night with a flashlight and encountering a work is of course different than seeing a work in a gallery.”

This experience is a welcome invitation to create site-specific installations, exemplified this year by Fatima Hoang’s small inflatable sun, which kept rising and falling throughout the night, commenting on the promise of new beginnings while comically punctuating Joshua Tree’s picturesque vista.

Like any event incorporating lots of artists with multiple agendas, Shangrila always has hits and misses. While some works fall flat in their new desert context—especially those that cling to the safety of the property’s shipping containers, which mimic the white cube—others remain indelibly memorable because they reimagine our relation to the desert landscape. In the end it’s the strange weekend-long event that creates the critically important space for contemplation.


Collection: MOCA’s First 30 Years

Collection: MOCA’s First 30 Years

originally published in ARTLIES Magazine Issue 66, June 2010

By Tucker Neel

Collection: MOCA’s First 30 Years is an overwhelming and astonishing exhibition arranged according to a loose chronology, containing a treasure-trove assortment of over five hundred works by over two hundred artists,  from 1939 to the present. It’s a challenge just trying to see every work in the museum’s two cavernous Geffen and Grand Ave. buildings, but the remarkable amount of work guarantees something for everyone. It’s an amazing and commendable show. That said, this is not an exhibition without problems.

Aside from the inevitable questions of who gets included, whose work shares a gallery, and which collectors see their donations exhumed from storage, MOCA’s curators, led by Chief Curator Paul Schimmel, had to discern which work best exemplifies the institution itself. This last and most problematic question lingers heavily in the air, coloring how one sees each work as a representation of MOCA’s past, present, and future.

The last year and a half for MOCA was a perilous and controversial time, to say the least. In November of 2008, The LA Times revealed that the museum was running on fumes, its operating costs far outweighing its dwindling endowment. In response, Jeremy Strick, the museum’s Director, floated the idea of dissolving the museum, and merging its collection with LACMA just down the road. Then, all hell broke loose.

Letters were written to editors and angry crowds demanded answers. LA wouldn’t stand the idea of losing MOCA. Strick resigned, and Eli Broad, L.A.’s resident Medici, swooped in with $30-million to save the museum. Nearly a year later, the board announced that the art dealer / gallery owner Jeffery Deitch (a Broad chum) would become the museum’s next Director. The decision was met with restrained praise from the art world, though a palpable undercurrent of concern still lingers; many see the Deitch appointment as a harbinger of conflicts of interests to come. In between Broad’s cash injection and Deitch’s appointment, 30 Years opened to the public.

Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929, Stockholm; lives and works in New York) Work from The Store, 1961 Muslin soaked in plaster over wire frame, painted with enamel, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles The Panza Collection

When Pop Art asserts itself in the Grand Ave. building, in the same room as a powerful installation of Claus Oldenburg’s drippy plaster commodities from his groundbreaking 1961 installation, The Store, echoes of the museums very recent tumultuous near death experience come to the fore. Try taking a picture of Andy Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Soup Can (Clam Chowder- Manhattan Style) and a museum guard will politely ask you not to photographs the work. Why? Just look at their wall labels. Both read: “The Edyth and Eli Broad Collection, Los Angeles,” next to a crossed-out camera ideogram. Both works, and at least three more, belong to the Broads and are not even promised gifts to MOCA.

My clandestine photo of Andy Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Soup Can (Clam Chowder- Manhattan Style)

The Broad label telling me not to photograph the Warhol on loan. Notice the crossed out camera

While the Broad’s pieces fill a gaping hole in MOCA’s collection, which houses only one pivotal Warhol, his Telephone, a hand-painted work from 1961, their presence, as privately owned works on loan from the museum’s major creditor, is even more conspicuous, and compromises the exhibition’s stated goal: to show work the museum owns. If the Broad pieces are allowed into play, why not borrow more work, from other collectors, to mend another problem: the dearth of women artists, who make up about one fourth of the total artists represented?

The exhibition highlights a few undeniable touchstones. MOCA has impressive Rothko and Kline collections, and owns some of Rauschenberg’s best combine sculptures, which alone are worth the price of admission. Of the more contemporary artists represented, Paul McCarthy, Renee Green, and Mike Kelly, each stand out with large, complex, and engaging installations.

That said, the exhibition isn’t so kind to every piece. Louise Nevelson’s impressive but poorly lit Sky Cathedral/Southern Mountain from 1959 languishes like an afterthought against a chapel-like room designed specifically to highlight Jackson Pollock’s No. 1 from 1949. In the Geffen building, Andrea Zittel’s A to Z Breeding Unit: For Averaging Eight Breeds, from 1993, is easy to miss, hidden away in darkness just left of the entrance. And most astonishing of all, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (A Corner of Baci), 1990 is entirely missing. Replacing the 42 pound pile of chocolates every day is obviously too expensive for the cash-strapped museum.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres (b. 1957, Guáimaro, Cuba; d. 1996, Miami) Untitled (A Corner of Baci), 1990 Baci chocolates individually wrapped in silver foil (endless supply) Dimensions vary with installation; ideal weight: 42 pounds The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Where Felix Gonzalez-Torres' Corner of Baci should have been.

Each piece in the exhibition is accompanied by a brief artist’s quotation, and some do sum up entire practices particularly well. Take, for example, On Kawara’s, poetic statement, which accompanies ninety of the his I Go Up At… postcards to John Baldessari from 1974-5:

We are the same, but different.

Things are the same, but different.

The days are the same, but different.

On Kawara (b. 1933, Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan; lives and works in New York) I Got Up At…, 1974–75 Ninety postcards with printed rubber stamps 3 1/2 x 4 in. each and 4 x 6 in. each The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Gift of John Baldessari and Denise Spampinato

But without proper contextualization, one is left to ask where, and when, these quotes come from. MOCA has provided a telephone number that visitors can call to get more information about select works on view. The phone-in info is quite good, but what is one without an unlimited calling plan or, GASP! no cell at all, to do?

When the show succeeds, which is does more often than not, it’s by creating unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated works that would otherwise remain anchored to well-worn art historical narratives. This happens in a room where The Americans, Robert Frank’s seminal photo series, encircles Rayvredd, a modest sculpture of crushed automotive oddments by John Chamberlain from 1962. Before this exhibition, I would have thought the two artists’ works couldn’t be farther apart, yet here they riff off each other with oscillating evocations. Moving through Frank’s America, rife with booming car culture, blinding optimism, bombastic politicians, and seething inequality, Chamberlain’s glistening conglomeration of twisted metal resonates as a physical and metaphorical reminder of the turbulence, violence, and crashes that also populate the American dream.

John Chamberlain's Rayvredd surrounded by Robert Frank's The Americans

When 30 Years closes after its nearly seven-month run, misgivings about poor budgeting decisions, questionable appointments, and overlooked artists will no doubt persist. Such critiques are vital, perhaps more than ever, and they surely will help to keep MOCA in check. But in the end, once the works return to their vaults, no one will doubt the museum’s indispensible place as a home for contemporary art, its position as an invaluable resource, housing some of the greatest works since World War II.

Tucker Neel is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles.

California Video at The Getty Museum

By Tucker Neel

Originally published in ART LIES magazine No. 58, Summer 2008, p. 98-99.

When Sony released its first portable video camera in 1967 artists on both American coasts latched onto it as a tool providing immediate visual fidelity and freedom from the hassle of celluloid film. However, the new medium was not without complications. Editing required costly machinery and no one knew if video would meet archival standards. On the West Coast, the Long Beach Museum of Art recognized video art’s growing importance and in 1976 it created a video archive and editing facility allowing for hundreds of artists to make and preserve their groundbreaking works.

The Getty Research Institute acquired the archive in 2006, providing the sometimes bawdy, oftentimes political, and always experimental videos with an oddly conservative and incongruous home. The museum’s recent California Video exhibition celebrates this new acquisition with an expansive showcase of over fifty sprawling single channel monitors and fifteen installations of modest to spectacular scale by fifty-eight artists and collectives who made these works while residing in California. More than half of the works in the exhibition are from the Long Beach archive, the rest gleaned from other sources or made specifically for the Getty. An ambitious undertaking by Getty curator Phillips, the show is daunting, a little sloppy, but ultimately inspiring, providing an opportunity to chart video’s rather nascent history and explore what exactly makes California video intrinsically Californian.

As the first video one encounters in the exhibition, John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art from 1971 acts as a sounding board for the rest of the works in the show. Displayed on a chipped wood-paneled Sony TV, the video captures the artist writing “I will not make any more boring art” on a sheet of paper for an excruciating thirty-two minutes an twenty-one seconds. In exploiting the very essence of video, its ability to capture an action and play it back in real time, Baldessari uses self-reflexive humor and an innate understanding of the viewer’s role as spectator to make a poignant joke about art and entertainment. The most resonant works that follow incorporate this kind of sensibility, freely blurring the boundaries between art and entertainment, humor and critique, boredom and engagement.

From Baldessari’s intro, the exhibition continues along a relatively chronological path, with works loosely grouped according to formal and conceptual concerns. Late 1960’s black and white videos incorporating rudimentary psychedelic special effects by Skip Sweeney and Joanne Kyger are positioned near one another. These early experiments find their legacy in more colorful, almost formalist videos, from the 1970’s by Stephen Beck. His trippy chromophilic patterns line the same hallway as Erika Suderburg frenzied 2006 video abstractions, which are actually close ups of Linda Besemer’s paintings.

Elanor Antin’s ballet performance video, Susan Mongul’s ruminations on women’s clothes, and Martha Rosler’s layered exposé on anorexia nervosa, all groundbreaking works stemming from a commitment to feminist practices, are in close proximity to one another. While these works are well contextualized with explanatory texts, their conspicuous grouping borders on ghettoization.

Kipper Kids

Kipper Kids

And, in what can be taken as a dumb curatorial joke, some of the most interesting body art in the show is crammed together into one cramped room so that one has to literally crawl over other visitors to see amazing videos by Skip Arnold, Bruce Nauman, the Kipper Kids and Ulysses Jenkins, among others. Thankfully other larger installations throughout the show don’t suffer the same fate.

T.R. Uthco and Ant Farms The Eternal Frame

T.R. Uthco and Ant Farm's The Eternal Frame

In The Eternal Frame from 1975-76, recreated specifically for the exhibition, San Francisco Bay area artists T.R. Uthco and Ant Farm situate their video in a 1960s American living room diorama adorned with knick-knacks memorializing the Kennedy presidency. Sitting on comfy couches, visitors watch the artists’ 22-minute color and black and white video on a vintage TV. The hilarious documentary follows the artists’ hyperbolic restaging of Zapruder’s famous JFK assassination film. In one scene, actors playing John and Jackie rehearse the assassination on a rickety set, Jackie winking to the camera as she rushes to hold her co-star’s head together. By using decoration, artifice and spectacle to create meaning both in and around the TV screen, the artists explore video’s ability to entertain while manipulating events and shaping national debate. This kind of preference for a simulated environment ripe with contradictions and righteous irreverence seems to be very Californian, a reflection of a culture actively in the business of turning media-fabricated dreams into reality.

Stanya Kahn and Harry Dodge’s Whacker

Stanya Kahn and Harry Dodge’s Whacker

Projected on a wall in another gallery, Stanya Kahn and Harry Dodge’s Whacker takes a more recent view of the Hollywood dream machine. Shot with the low-tech DIY aesthetic of a Youtube video, the piece has Dodge behind the camera following Kahn as she uses a buzzing weedwacker in a Sysiphisian attempt to clear dry, golden grass from a Los Angeles hillside lot on a sunny afternoon. Chewing gum while decked out in aviator sunglasses, a flower print halter-top and heels, Kahn looks more bored than exhausted with her repetitive work. When she stops to survey her progress and gaze out at the palm trees silhouetted in the hazy sky, she is the picture-perfect embodiment of disengaged LA nonchalance. The sun never sets as the seven-minute video loops and Kahn’s work continues indefinitely. This unremitting cycle makes her contrived disinterest more and more intoxicating and comic. The video seems to exclaim that, contrary to popular belief, Angelinos do work hard, they just don’t like to show it.

A show about contemporary video art wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Youtube and in keeping with the times the Getty hosts little snippets of work from the show on their website. These excerpts act as teasers designed to bring in patrons. Perhaps more telling though is, a site actively promoted in connection with the California Video exhibition. Here users can submit their own videos and vote on which submissions will screen at a special Getty event. As a rather transparent move to bring a young, hip audience to the museum, the site reflects this demographic with videos featuring predictably cool special-effects, club music, pretty faces, fondled breasts, blog-like confessionals and shameless self promotions. While these works may never show alongside a Nauman, the ambition behind their creation admirable, a testament to enduring experimentation and a willingness to put it all out in the open which, in the end, may be the most Californian trait of all.