“Amboy,” Cologne-based Conceptualist Frances Scholz’s first major solo exhibition in Los Angeles consists of little more than a press release, two five-minute videos—ostensibly, the trailers for a documentary film about an artist named Amboy—and a set of five relatively small photographs of Amboy, California, an unincorporated town located in the Mojave Desert. Working with these modest fragments Scholz stages a provocative critique of contemporary art stardom as transacted in the sunlit glare of LA, the epicenter of our most potent mythologies, tall tales and shared hallucinations. In one of them, an artist named Frances Scholz visits the city in order to make a film on the (genuinely fascinating) life of Lydia van Vogt, widow of science-fiction author A. E. van Vogt. But Scholz soon abandons that project, we learn, detoured by the story of Amboy, an artist “you haven’t heard of,” (according to the press release) whose turbulent absence and mercurial afterimage are at the center of this confounding installation.
The frame narrative is pure hooey of course, the first in a cascading series of densely intertextual red herrings deployed by Scholz, not the least of which is the eponymous Amboy, a thinly veiled Hollywood stand-in for the late LA-based artist Jason Rhoades, whose volcanic talent turned the American low-cult lore of violence, cocaine, straight sex, and salvaged thrills into an obsessive, polymorphous visual language for contemporary art. An immediately recognizable Paul Giamatti plays Amboy as self-destructive art monster and redneck Trimalchio, consuming and regurgitating all in unholy communion with the image flow that surrounds him. Scholz ironically evokes and pays tribute to Amboy/Rhoades’s gargantuan, fan-boy extroversion, then compresses it into a bleak joke without a punch line, a self-reflexive knot of parallel histories, alternate geographies, and unsettling slippages between the fake reality conjured by “Amboy” and the real, fake world just outside.
Instead of machined planes packing neat hunks of rot, Max Hooper Schneider favors rigs of steel chain, meat hooks, and C-clamps—dangling everything from neon drawings in Plexiglas to a resin model of a human spine. Paul Thek it ain’t. Schneider’s grotesque displays graft found or synthesized organics to factory supports, such as Precor Crocodilian 9.1, (all works cited 2014) a faux crocodile-hide belt retrofitted to a treadmill, or Genus Watermeloncholia, a square biomelon in a vitrine, beeping bummed messages on a little screen. The exhibition serves as a junk store for failed experiments; the works, creatures penned in limbo. It’s “The Pound,” after all—a title that suggests a nominalized, tenderizing punch or British currency or the place where puppies go to die. Dark no matter how you slice it.
Take Aral Spring Trolley, for example, an aquarium in a popcorn machine that has been filled to capacity with an invasive species of freshwater snail. This spawning, cannibal swarm is beautiful mostly in a mindlessly proliferating, bio-centric sense—not, so much, on art’s ageless terms. (For that, Schnieder provides a handful of lysergic doodles in pen and enamel—cell-like, microscopically enhanced.) The artist’s humor is cut with a sense of doom: In CH59X Plasma Panderer, a pelvis lolls awkwardly against its glass tank; the greasy red embalming fluids (a mix of pig blood, human blood, human bone powder, and alcohol) really do sting the nostrils of the living. In the corner is The Conk, where a pile of broken cinderblocks and dirt grows bent rebar, waving softly, stonily, like sea grass. Goofy, pathetic, hyperbolic, and desperate—like ugly puppies—these are artworks that maybe, queasily, will haunt our dreams forever, but that only their maker could love.
Watching the recent digital restoration of Bruce Conner’s thirty-six-minute film Crossroads, 1976, which depicts 1946 footage of the first underwater atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll, is a vertiginous experience of telescoping back in time. Conner obtained this government-shot film from the U.S. National Archives and with minimal interventions (editing and, most notably, the addition of music), turned it into a resonant meditation on the apocalyptic sublime, rendering the familiar nuclear mushroom cloud strange again. The mushroom cloud is one of Conner’s signature images, appearing in A Movie, 1958, and briefly in Cosmic Ray, 1961, as well as in his collage works and drawings, some of which are also on display here.
Repetition is key to the film’s power. With the introduction of each new shot—a placid seascape dotted with ships—we wait, anticipating the explosion. The alternation between aerial views and straight-on shots provides a variety of perspectives, so that each eruption is astonishing in a different way. With his characteristically sharp eye (a found-footage pioneer, he was one of the first to appreciate the anonymous stylistics of educational and industrial films), Conner foregrounds the tension between the terror of the event and the involuntary beauty of the footage, with its organic shapes in motion and extremely subtle gradations of light and dark. The original electronic musical score by Patrick Gleeson (in the first half of the film) and Terry Riley (in the second half) provides two contrasting aural perspectives. Presented on a giant thirty-five-foot screen in a spacious dark room with four benches, this is an exemplary model of what contemporary digital moving image restoration and exhibition can achieve.
“Variations: Conversations in and around Abstract Painting” tests the limits of abstraction’s abundance by assembling a luxurious stable of paintings, as well as videos and sculptures. Works by expected names such as Amy Sillman, Mark Bradford, Gerhard Richter, Julie Mehretu, Albert Oehlen, and Christopher Wool ground this exhibition, but it is the addition of less expected practitioners and practices that makes it particularly comprehensive and surprising.
Analia Saban’s banal and elegant marble countertop on linen, Kohler 5931 Kitchen Sink #2, 2014, Anthony Pearson’s framed pigmented Hydrocal Untitled (Plaster Positive), 2013, and Dianna Molzan’s wrapped and painted stretcher bars, Untitled, 2012, excavate painting’s sculptural repressions. Even the influence of critics and curators is made present by printing their words rather literally onto the gallery walls. By including media other than paint and canvas, “Variations” outlines a kind of expanded field for painting that continues out to evocative interlocutions in sculpture and video. A. K. Burns’s Touch Parade, 2011, a video of various banal fetish gestures, Rachel Lachowicz’s Cell: Interlocking Construction, 2010, a Lucite sculpture filled with blue cosmetic powders, or Diana Thater’s video of a hooded, perched Female Peregrine Falcon (Brook), 2012, expand the exhibition to implicate the tactile, aural, visceral, and erotic. Assembled largely from works already in or slated to join LACMA’s permanent collection, “Variations” offers a less than temporary endorsement of these objects as well as of the practices to which they metonymically link.
California is facing one of the most severe droughts in its history. While Los Angeles appeals for conscientious sprinkler use and reduced car washing, Howard Fried’s Sociopath quietly waters the sidewalk outside of the gallery in which it is installed. First shown in 1983, the work consists of a two-tiered sink that dispenses tap water from its perched faucet to the trough of a precarious plywood platform and a series of irrigation pipes that traverse the gallery floor and walls. Embodying a kind of empty functionality, the pipelines run seamlessly with the industrial framework of the gallery. This integration of extant architecture might recall earlier modes of institutional critique, but here, vectorial vents, rafters, and plumbing create something like a diagrammatic drawing—in three dimensions. If one finds this use of water objectionable, perhaps its sociopathic temerity is a challenge to the authenticity of eco-consciousness and other fashionable modes of activism that often take place in the virtual communities of social media. What is the role of political provocation in our current social landscape—both online and off?
Fried imbricates virtual community with personal memory in The Decomposition of My Mother’s Wardrobe, 2104—an extended performance-based work, temporarily manifested in four garment-filled clothing racks installed in a back room. After completing a questionnaire surveying color and pattern preferences, participants are given a unique combination of garments based on a computer algorithm that has processed their responses. These are not gifts. All recipients must agree to partake in a set of activities while wearing the clothing: taking photographs of predetermined spaces (e.g., the window next to where the clothing is kept) and attending a “celebratory event” in an undetermined time and place in the future. Here, the object of art engages a mode of speculation counter to commodity exchange and financial markets, entering instead into a discursive and even playful form of the social contract.
Andy Warhol remained cryptic about the two abstract forms—the “peak” and the “cap”—that recur throughout his Shadows, 1978–79, a sprawling installation of 102 large handpainted and silk-screened canvases, seen here in its entirety for the first time on the West coast. Their possible sources run a delightfully Warholian gamut, ranging from cardboard maquettes to the Empire State Building to erect penises. Warhol attributed the title to a photo of a shadow in his office, which he said the shapes were based on: “It’s a silkscreen that I mop over with paint,” he wrote.
The objects behind the eponymous shadows remain mysterious, but Warhol’s source of funding for the project was never in doubt. Shadows was sold to the Dia Art Foundation in 1979 for a reported $1.6 million, the same year it was first exhibited at Dia cofounder Heiner Friedrich’s gallery. And it is easy to see what attracted Friedrich: Warhol’s laconic abstraction, the subtle shifts in surface textures and images, together with the immersive quality of the installation as a whole, seems to align the canvases with the spiritually charged aesthetic associated with other grand projects of Dia’s first decade, epitomized by Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, completed in 1977.
But the spirit behind the series is more downtown than desert. Shadows’s filmstrip repetition of black silk screens against hot monochrome acrylic splits the difference between the dark, drone-based Minimalism of La Monte Young and the louche glamour, stroboscopic flash, and thump of Studio 54, an association Warhol encouraged, calling the installation “disco décor.” “This show will be like all the others,” the artist wrote a week or so after the opening of his 1976 show at Friedrich's gallery in New York magazine. “The reviews will be bad—my reviews always are. But the reviews of the party will be terrific.”
In a dark and cushioned gallery, Yuri Ancarani’s trilogy of short films La malattia del ferro (The Disease of Iron), 2010–12, plays on a seamless loop. Each lush 35-mm segment focuses on an “unseen” form of labor, reveling in the dexterity of machine-amplified human bodies: the micro movements of a da Vinci surgical machine inside the abdomen of a patient; the macro movements of two excavators with enough force to break a mountain into slabs, directed by the flicks and waves of a quarry chief; and the human movements of submarine sailors systematically manipulating the ergonomic suits and bulkheads and diving bells that house them at deadly depths.
Throughout, Ancarani’s camera marvels at technologized, ultra-human extensions of labor. What is shown is no mean “work” but is in fact highly specialized, not to mention dangerous. Lurking under the smooth cinematography is the sense that the slightest error could be catastrophic: death by crushing for the sub crew or il capo, peritonitis for the patient under the da Vinci. This thrill—that such precision can be accomplished with an alien-looking apparatus—is paralleled in the apparent mastery of the filmmaker over his own, lensed extension. As his subjects go beyond their normal abilities, the artist sees as never before.
At the same time, Ancarani’s films indulge in a technohumanist vein—in shots of the quarry chief’s dense, glossy chest hair, or in a sequence where the robosurgeon’s servos cycle through their range of articulation. Never mind that the doctor-operator almost certainly makes more than the quarry foreman—the value placed, seemingly, on mechanical sophistication over bodily risk. Surplus value be damned. Labor here obeys a “beautiful choreography.” Il capo stabs a stub-fingered hand into the air, stopping the excavator’s claw. A sci-fi sound track sucks and groans as the da Vinci plunges into the abdomen, into the frame.