Poetic Vision and Abundant Culture
As we embarked on the 2006 California Biennial, we observed how tired clichés about California barely came into play. Long characterized as culturally isolated, young artists working in California are no more or less disconnected from one another than they are from either the rest of the country or the rest of the world. Many come here from other states or countries to attend one of California's outstanding art schools or universities and stay after graduation because of abundant opportunities in this burgeoning climate of art galleries, museums and nonprofit organizations.
While initially steering clear of an overarching curatorial premise, in the end, we identified six prominent themes: fantasy verité, historical and archival consciousness, social interaction, urban ecologies, adaptive identities and extreme object-making. Necessarily broad and fluid, these categories reflect what we consider to be the most significant tendencies in contemporary art made in California.
When artists blur the boundaries between fantastic narrative conventions and quasi-scientific ways of ordering knowledge, their work becomes fantasy verité. A mix of political rage and flights of fantasy permeates the work of the collective My Barbarian as Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade freely sample the history of performance art, 20th century music and agitprop to create what they call "showcore," combining mainstream show tunes and the more hardcore demonic energy in rock and punk. Nicolau Vergueiro invests materials with magical qualities while excavating images and icons from US and Brazilian popular culture. Equally interested in conflating extremes, Pearl C. Hsiung's paintings and sculptures reflect the instability of California's psychic and physical landscapes with gurgling, erupting geological forms. And Scoli Acosta's installations and drawings combine dreamscapes with historically resonant landscapes, from Parisian monuments to the Badlands of South Dakota.
Expanding narrative cinematic codes within a gallery space, Marie Jager overlays literary and cinematic references onto real locations. Guided by a similar interest in materializing fictive worlds Andy Alexander has reworked minimalist objects into science fiction props, conveying his interests in the themed environments and scripted spaces of daily life. Brian Fahlstrom's recent paintings are fantastic, dramatic and surreal, exuding an internal energy propelled by swirling gestures, intense colors and sinuous lines. Shana Lutker's projects use archival methodologies and objects to represent her dreams. While tracking the unconscious, her diary-like narrations comment on the blurring of fact and fiction in the media, on the Internet and at the highest levels of government.
Several 2006 California Biennial artists exhibit a historical and archival consciousness, as they adapt images and text from past and contemporary events. The Speculative Archive—artists Julia Meltzer and David Thorne—work with declassified materials, including a recent collaboration with actors and artists in Syria, culminating in a video installation about the political stakes of speech at this pivotal moment in Syrian history. Binh Danh engages with the history of photography and looks at the photo-object's role as retainer of memory—as souvenir and amulet. Danh works with a photosynthetic process to print photographs onto leaves and has recuperated images from the Vietnam War and the current military engagement in Iraq. While Danh plays with the erosion of historical images, Hank Willis Thomas appropriates the most blatant and ubiquitous images of American material culture to comment on the commoditization of race and culture. In his photographs Thomas co-opts commercial advertisements, sometimes using logos as wounds directly on the body, quite literally representing the concept of targeted ads. Walead Beshty has also delved into the recent history of dispossessed archival images focusing on the abandoned Iraqi diplomatic mission in the former East Germany.
Rather than mining the archive or deconstructing histories, other Biennial artists produce work that encourages social interaction and direct engagement with audiences. In Kianga Ford's Urban Revival, museum visitors can sit on inviting red couches and listen to an ambient sound track sampled and remixed from various cultural spaces in Los Angeles, ranging from yoga studios and karaoke bars to gospel church services. Following extensive research in Orange County, Mario Ybarra created three paintings that simulate actual sign paintings from homegrown businesses in the region. These paintings continue Ybarra's interest in the "sign language" made by immigrant communities in this increasingly multi-ethnic region. Like Ybarra, Kate Pocrass chose to delve deep into Orange County to create her Mundane Journeys; a series of site-specific itineraries that encourage museum-goers to experience easily overlooked public spaces throughout Orange County. Using her hand-drawn maps or a telephone hotline, visitors can track down uncanny, unnoticed locales.
Art that responds to the natural and built environment—urban ecologies—including urban, suburban and entropic landscapes, has taken on renewed urgency and is evident in the work of several Biennial artists. Leslie Show's large-scale collage paintings, where representation dissolves into abstraction, play with the idea of geological and cerebral decomposition. Despite their fantastic appearance, her apocalyptic landscapes, composed of hundreds of tiny scraps of paper collaged onto their surfaces, are based on real photographs of man-made and natural ruins. Amir Zaki has employed photography to explore a similar interest in illusionism and the landscape, sometimes using post-production effects of digital photography to transform modernist hilltop homes into hallucinatory sci-fi-like structures floating precariously overhead.
In his spare, surreal paintings on wood panels and in room-size installations, Christopher Ballantyne focuses on sites one might see amid the endless sprawl of development between the city and the country—swimming pools, parking lots and marshes and other vestiges of the natural environment—transforming these anonymous structures and empty spaces into inadvertent monuments. Bull.Miletic, the collaborative team of Synne Bull and Dragan Miletic, also focuses on inadvertent monuments, revealing the poetic but ominous sense of place that one finds at landmarks such as the infamous prison of Alcatraz. Shannon Ebner's landmarks are homemade, temporary "meta-monuments" created from flimsy, six-foot high cardboard letters that she erected and photographed on location in and around Los Angeles. Taking her cue from the famous Hollywood sign, words are spelled out in each panoramic photograph—such as nausea and landscape incarceration—reflecting the current state of fragility bordering on toxicity of our environmental and political climate.
Several Biennial artists appropriate new identities or adapt narratives to their own desires. Harking back to performance artists of the 60s and 70s, artists Arturo Ernesto Romo and Goody-B Wiseman utilize different personae or alter egos, creating performances or installations based on fictive narratives that they write and perform. Artists Tim Sullivan and Ala Ebtekar also appropriate from popular culture, making ironic juxtapositions in their work. Sullivan photographs himself in improbable positions and kitschy 70s interiors and has a persona that is part Warhol, part Chaplin. Ebtekar, in contrast, synthesizes his own generation's hip hop culture with his family's Iranian traditions, overlaying Persian decorative motifs onto American consumer goods.
Despite the increasingly specialized knowledge and nature of contemporary artistic practice, there continues to be a formalist ethos at the core of art making today. Joel Morrison's work exquisitely synthesizes references from the history of art from fragmented classical Greek sculptures to the works of Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and Claes Oldenburg. Morrison's use of pedestals and precious materials ensures that these sculptures are fine art, but their content is at play with their presentation as he bridges high and low, anthropomorphic and techno-morphic, repulsive and beautiful. Jane Callister turns walls and canvases into seductive objects, calling up the legacy of abstract expressionism with her rigorously controlled handling of paint as she combines smooth, glossy surfaces and a dazzling Technicolor palette. Christian Maychack shares this attention to fabrication and finish in site-specific sculptural installations fusing objects and architecture that appear to mutate out of the foundation. His extended forms reference the digital and the organic, alluding to the visual effects of genetic engineering and the structure of 3D computer animation. Equally extreme and compelling objects appear in Sterling Ruby's interdisciplinary installations, which combine different media to achieve the maximum effect. His formal acuity and technical facility are visible in densely layered collages, heavily worked prints and urethane and ceramic sculptures that sprout stalactite growths and ooze with dripping glazes.
Reflecting the sense of chaos and anomie in contemporary life and the absence of visual representation of current events, the Biennial artists bring a palpable and poetic vision to the ecstasy and exuberance, fear and terror that live in our collective imagination and it is no coincidence that the artists in the 2006 California Biennial produce bold, intense, thoughtful, visually compelling works that respond to the ambiguity and anxiety of our times.