As if on cue for the holiday season, the Valley just got the best present ever: the Las Vegas Art Museum’s LA Now.
David Pagel, the LA-based educator, art critic and curator, has organized an exhibition that is simply thrilling. It is reckless, poignant, vulnerable, whimsical, smart and wholly satisfying.
And how could it not be? In the effort to curate an exhibition that captures the zeitgeist of LA’s art scene, Pagel decided to quickly make a list of the most memorable shows he saw in LA during the 2007-2008 season—literally jotting down the first 20 names to pop into his head, without overthinking a conceptual or aesthetic theme. These artists became the exhibition that is LA Now. If Pagel, who sees more art in a year than most people see in a lifetime, can’t get something out of his head, then you can be sure you won’t either. Love it or hate it, this work sticks with you, as only the best art does.
This methodology has the potential pitfall of a cluttered experience. To the contrary, the exhibition has the feel of a Robert Altman film, filled with stellar performances by a wide range of characters engaged in a series of intimate dramas that bleed one into the other in a broken, layered narrative. To quote Pagel himself: “Great art engages great art in great ways.”
There are so many rich and subtle exchanges: a pair of three-foot-tall lumpen figures from Liz Craft’s series of hippie-like “Hairy Guys” try to be goofy and lighthearted; but cast in bronze, they are heavily rooted in place, art—historically and materially. You can almost hear them murmur “duuuude” in sympathy with Elliot Hundley’s “Untitled” sculpture hanging opposite—in direct contrast, its suspended black screens and floating rock are a dreamcatcher so weighted with collaged word and memory, yet unable to touch ground. All the while, Allison Miller’s anxiously iterative paintings nervously watch from the wall.
Engaging the pieces individually, it is almost impossible to single out the work of one or two artists—each rewards the effort. This show is packed to the gills with true artists’ artists. Steve Roden, Katie Grinnan, Liz Craft, Elliott Hundley, Wayne White and Nathan Mabry are just a few instantly recognizable names in a group that purports to be dominated by emerging stars. Grinnan’s photography-rooted sculptural collages collapse and rebuild culture, time and space right before your eyes, while the always exciting and diverse practice of Steve Roden is represented here by three paintings in which we get to see sound in a physical collision of color and shape. It makes the heart beat faster.
There is stellar work by less recognizable artists, and Olivia Booth, Lecia Dole-Recio and Brad Eberhard all deliver. Jeni Spota’s small-yet-substantial Giotto-influenced “religious” paintings are so passionately layered in paint, they become iconic objects in their own right. Miles Coolidge’s terrific photographs of quotidian furniture meditate on the power of objects to provide a sense of location and place in a skewed world, even when said objects are not physically present. And while Jared Pankin’s “Hog Wild” and “Half Knot” evoke (among many other things) botched taxidermy, they are tragic and gut-wrenching. Here are bodies torn apart and rebuilt, forced and taut, eyes crying out for release from their physical restraints—moving and heartbreaking.
Physical and urgent: two sensations that dominate the entire exhibition. What happens to physical experiences when our lives are so dominated by virtual ones? What happens as the abstract structures and ideologies that have held society in place for so long begin to fray at the seams? While much of the work here is highly facile in a formal way, these artists clearly use concern for line, texture, color, shape, etc., as a means to urgently grasp at another kind of content. Real life is messy, complicated and inexact, these artists seem to say.
But imprecision is also ripe with possibility. The best thing about the show is its optimism. This work consistently and urgently demands an acknowledgement of the necessarily imperfect immediacy of physical reality—and the hope at its essence. With any breakdown comes the possibility for renewal.
Provocative, varied and complete, this is a world-class show that is food for the soul. With this awesome collection of work at our fingertips, we owe it to ourselves, and the LVAM, to visit more than once. See you there.