by Keith J. Varadi
The District of Columbia during a Donald Trump Presidency
Autumn in Los Angeles can feel like summer in many other cities. But even though the sun continues to wallop the backs of our necks and trash litters most streets instead of leaves, folks around town surely know what time of year it is; at least this year they do—the Rams are dealing with hard knocks on the West Coast again, and every week, there has been a new controversy surrounding the Group Formerly Known as the Grand Old Party’s embarrassing panophobic presidential candidate, Biff Tannen. However, those of us in this city who have had the heavy desire for a badass woman to show up and shove unhinged bros into a sullen sewer don’t need to tune in to a circus-like debate. We have had the pleasurable good fortune of three exquisite exhibitions assembled by three fiercely and uniquely eminent women.
To start, Barbara T. Smith’s fourth exhibition at The Box comprehensively chronicles one woman’s lifetime spent predominantly in one location: Los Angeles. One of the first works on view, Petroglyph: Solitude, Perception, Communication, Incorporation (undated), depicts man, then man and fish, then man fishing, and then man at table eating fish. It is a schmeared storyboarded update of an art-historical cave painting. Yet, here and elsewhere throughout the space, the often direct titles point the viewer in one direction: hers. Whether this particular picture is interpreted as a metaphor for the struggles within an artist’s studio or simply one’s daily means of survival, the relationship between visual and textual language is a first glimpse into Smith’s innately pragmatic empathy.
The Cloistered Study (1976) showcases scrapbooked shots of a tennis court clustered with balls, desperately radical bikers, and a c-section scar, spread across red felt. Nearby, Smith’s four-part collection of collages, entitled Awww! (1967), features cutouts of Elvis Presley and handmade drawings. In one, the phrase “Unfortunately—If I didn’t feel what would I draw?” is scrawled in the center of the composition. Presley, and Smith, want(ed) to perform for others and make their audience feel in the process, while synchronously seeking their own individual enlightenment and enrichment. Humility is essential to performing; by seizing this larger-than-life icon, and with him, the cultural remnants of his political persona, Smith affords herself the ability to humbly cast her own brand of personal politics.
Barbara T. Smith, The Cloistered Study, Performance artifact, mixed media, dimensions variable, 1979
In the wiped out Shell (1963), Smith paints a yellow seashell on top of a red ground with the word ‘SHELL’ dragged in red over it. On one hand, this is just an illustrative imitation of a shell in the era of Pop Art. On the other, it is symbolic of both the advertising and gas industries’ suffocation of the American landscape during that time, especially in cities such as Smith’s hometown of L.A. This text field is perhaps the most synergistic moment of the show, where branding and broad strokes drip to the real point. As we choke on smog between sips of overpriced juice during our highway pit stops, it’s jarring to realize how little has actually changed since the days of JFK, LBJ, and Tricky Dick.
Just around the corner at the still freshly minted commercial mini-museum, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, Maria Lassnig wows and confounds viewers with a stunning survey dating back to 1950. The earliest canvas, Balken (Beams), from that year, first appears to fall in line with many abstract exercises of the era, but proves to be filled with much more tension than typically demonstrated by many of the men dominating the field during that time. Not quite as immediate as Kline and not quite as intellectual as Klein, this painting along with the adjacent Violette Form (Purple Form) (1950), reveal a young woman under the influence, but ready to soon come into her own.
A few oil-on-cardboard geometric compositions of these early years have miraculously aged well, especially on the surface. Two works located in the main corridor, Taschimus 4 (Taschism 4) (1958) and Ohne Titel (Untitled) (1960), tip toe towards a solid strut. But it’s not until figuration enters the picture that we as viewers are collectively able to witness the true freak that is Maria Lassnig. In a selection of paintings from 1961 to 1965, Lassnig improvises scenes of anthropomorphic figures drooping, racing, and balancing. One room over and one decade later, she tightens things up slightly, painting toned-down and mellowed-out women in the nude—smoking, drinking, and staring. In one oddball B-Side jam, Der Indianer in Berlin (The Native American in Berlin) (1979), a smooth-skinned man climbs a tree like he’s “walking the plank” and stares off into a skewed perspective sky. The Cold War was blistering for many, but this subdued psychedelic slant suggests the endless frigid nature of humanity.
Maria Lassnig, Fernsehkind (TV Child), Oil on canvas, 78.75 x 93.25 inches, 1987
It’s been well-established that the ’80s were dominated by the Wolves of Wall Street, trickle-down douchebaggery, and failed attempts at eyeing spies. Images like Lassnig’s Fernsehkind (TV Child) (1987) prove that she was indeed fazed by the Trumped-up madness of that decade, but that she also had a keen ability to pack it all into a rectangle, like the screens that project back at us. In this particular painting, a pig-nosed babe stares out at the viewer, surrounded by putrid static, gangsters, and heathens.
By the time painting had died again in the ’90s, Lassnig had hit her stride and never looked back. Sprachgitter (Language Mesh) (1999) describes an alienated individual connecting dots and rolling out thoughts. Selbstporträt mit Sprechblase (Self-Portrait with speech bubble) (2006) is a lucid dream of a bugged-out artist in a bubble gum field. This, here and otherwise, is an artist who has remained completely cogent in her wacked-out world. Moreover, her mystifying constellations of ideas and images provide a reality check for the often market-driven medium she’s spent a career wading through.
Across town and across from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Hanne Darboven gives viewers a workout at the local Sprüth Magers outpost—ironic, given that the quintessential LA Fitness is located next door. The first floor is an immersive installation—Geography I, II, III (1986)—comprised of 723 framed collages made with photo copies and photographs and felt pen and pencil on paper, along with 10 classroom displays on custom tripods. Immediately, the entirety of the project feels overwhelmingly inscrutable. This sulking sensation draws one in to the displays: “This feels familiar; this feels fine.”
There is an illustrated airport, a carnival, a farm, etc. Got it! Access granted! Moving on…moving on to the walls, it is implied that one ought to scan floor to ceiling, but that is of course physically impossible. So look straight ahead, then left and right and below—studio shots, diagrams, indexical lists everywhere:
Pictures document a perspective of reality. Words describe a perception of reality. Darboven weaves in and out of text and image, and the language created by this intersection is as complex as it is concise. She reflects and refracts, prophesying the convoluted clutter of hyped-up mass media in an overarching archive. It seems repetitive, but everything does after a while.
Upstairs, the viewer is confronted with a grouping no less consuming: Life, living 1997-1998 (1998). In this room, there are 2,782 sheets of paper marked in typewriter ink, ballpoint pen, and felt pen, plus 32 photographs and two doll houses. If down below seems culturally cryptic, up top signals a shielded attempt at opening up. The continued indices are still somewhat buttoned-up; but the doll houses are split open, showing their insides, revealing something, even if these models feel like red herrings more than anything. This “mystery move” as a device is refreshing in the realm of conceptual art. Was Hitchcock not a conceptual artist?
Hanne Darboven, Life, living 1997-1998, mixed media installation, dimensions variable, 1998
This woman’s life’s body of work is beyond intimidating for many, and this exemplary exhibition is no exception. And yes, it requires time, effort, and patience to fully dive in; but certain clues do allow those who are willing to find fulfillment in the process of merely wetting their feet. Upon exiting, sloshing back past the classroom displays, a lesson is learned: acceptance and deflection can co-exist.
These three exhibitions are in sharp contrast to the egregious misstep at Maccarone, back east, not far from The Box, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, and the rest of the controversially booming area known as…any number of names, depending on which real estate agent is trying to sell it. Aging Downtown Manhattan Bad Boy, Nate Lowman, fills his esteemed dealer’s warehouse space with some shallow paintings and vapid sculptures. He goes further and pairs these problems with a self-important press release that begins with vague attempts at poetics and flaccid allusions to Magritte and Nauman, concluding with the sentiment: “And even if it’s not everything, something is not nothing.”
The problem here is that this show is obviously not everything, it most definitely is something, but it still amounts to nothing. Seriously, what is the point? There is no point. Although, there is an oversized wedged map of The United States of Random Stains on the main wall; and there are a bunch of text paintings starting with a blasé reference to Los Angeles literary hero, John Fante; oh, and there are also some sculptures resting on quirky plinths and hanging on another wall, all of which collectively looks like MFA “dude art” with a budget.
Nate Lowman, Ask the Dust, Oil, alkyd, and impasto medium on linen, 63 x 90 x 1.5 inches, 2016
This room as a whole reeks of bullshit, the bullshit of a straight white man who does whatever he wants because he fully believes he can. And the sad thing is that this self-promoted scenario has been reinforced time and time again. Women don’t need to be reminded of this scenario, nor do people of color or members of the LGBT community. This is a reality they face every day that straight white men like me cannot possibly understand. But some of us do choose to try.
Like Lowman, I have been afforded great privilege myself, if for no other reason than because I am a straight white man. And like Lowman, I often don’t ask permission to do something I want to do. Yet, I acknowledge that this can be a troublesome issue. But I do not believe others should be made to feel like they always need to ask, either. Instead, we should all, regardless of appearance, background, or preference routinely consider: should this decision be permissible?
When setting out to write about the work of each of these three female artists, I wanted to focus solely on the extraordinary facets of their own distinguished practices. I didn’t want to write about Nate Lowman; I didn’t even want to think about Nate Lowman. And I, most of all, did not want to have his buffoonery contaminate the independent impressiveness of Smith, Lassnig, or Darboven. But the memory of Low-Bro’s shit show kept nagging at me. Furthermore, it kept reminding me of all the other loud men online and in the real world, still trying to drown out the very necessary voices such as those of these women.
Recently, a non-white female friend told me that she thinks all straight white men should “shut the fuck up.” Personally, I don’t concur that any broad group should simply shut the fuck up. And I don’t think anyone from any specific group ought to be viewed as a representative of the broader group they get lumped into during exit polls and the like. I think it’s possible for various members of various groups to be able to find a common ground, in which those whose perspectives are not heard or respected nearly enough are given their space and place to disclose, expound, and reflect. Despite the harsh vibes coming from my kind-hearted friend, and maybe especially as a result of this sharp and sudden contrast in tone and attitude, her point was taken.
Straight White Man
A few days later, I realized she was earnestly attempting to communicate something I myself agree with and believe in, but from the place of someone who has actually experienced oppression, as opposed to someone who empathizes with those who have. More straight white men, like myself, don’t necessarily need to shut the fuck up, but it would behoove us and everyone else on this planet if we took more pauses and authentically listened more often. I recognize the irony of this statement as I continue to type away at this lengthy essay, but this is an essay—the beginning of a conversation, not the entirety of one.
The conversation I want to participate in is the one that started eight years ago with the election of our nation’s first black president. His record has not been perfect, but his achievements are beyond astonishing, given the odds that have consistently been stacked against him. He genuinely hoped for us, and continued to provide hope for many more. Everything for which he is heralded and equally criticized—his charisma, diplomacy, humor, intellectualism, reason—are qualities that ought to be admired in him, but are also characteristics that evoke jealousy and rage among particular types of people. I am honored to have been able to vote for and be served by him for not one, but two terms. But the resentment among tea-sipping bigots and stubborn radical progressives alike has been building for almost a decade now.
This is the quagmire within his history of leadership: it is nearly impossible to reason with the unreasonable. And this is the root of the current potential debacle in the United States: reason has been completely discarded by large portions of the populace. Taking Europe’s lead on flirting with fascism, it appears that approximately half of Americans are willing to try their odds with a megalomaniacal misogynist with serious coke drip over a strong-willed woman with a proven track record and a commendable willingness to compromise.
Conservatives, and even members of her own party, have been providing Hillary Clinton with a sliding scale of side-eyes to shit-flings for years, accusing her of being a shrewd and strategic flip-flopper who will do anything to benefit herself. If phrased by anyone other than failed jocks with names like Newt, one could just analyze Clinton as being smart and sympathetic, who changes with the times like any rational person should. The primary issue sexist sleazeballs have repeatedly raised? She had a private e-mail server. Hey paranoid knuckleheads, maybe she just doesn’t trust the cloud either…
“Lock her up!”
The right wing has not been right for at least as long as I’ve been alive, but the Alt-right is not alright in any way, shape, or form. Regardless of whether the members are truly fueled by hate or just fueled by sick senses of humor, they are creating difficult to tame garbage fires. This international community is a cynical, sadistic circle jerk, brainwashing people who would rather not read, which makes an often verbose writer like myself feel mildly safe. But this crass behavior does not only take place on white nationalist message boards, it regularly occurs on social media feeds, as well.
American-born, Berlin-based artist, Daniel Keller, had spent a fair amount of the season populating the essentially irrelevant network, Ello, with Nazi-themed Pepe the Frog memes until website administrators gave him the boot. The bullshit meme was previously picked up and propagated by the bullshit Alt-right movement, and Keller, being the trolling prankster he is, apparently believed it would be an entertaining e-romp of memetic mimicry. Since the website is inconsequential, one could argue, so were his ironic posts.
The danger of irony, however, is that it can quickly slide into the territory of cynicism. On Halloween of this year, countless numbers of Facebook users began “checking in” at Standing Rock, North Dakota. This was, no doubt, a positive act of virtual solidarity, but it could legitimately be challenged as an ultimately unintentionally flimsy gesture. Nonetheless, what can most people, whether in Boston or Berlin, do to actually support those needing it in the time of such an insensitive and unjust crisis? It’s not really feasible for most to literally go protest on-site. Nor can many donate much money to the crowdfunding campaigns related to the cause. In any case, mocking well-intentioned masses is probably not the most productive course of action to take. Yet, this is what Keller did, regardless, when he chose to “check in” at Mt. Rushmore that day.
“Why so serious?”
It seems obvious that this was a satirical gesture, aimed at the trend of the day, not towards the struggling and suffering members of various tribes being negatively impacted by the ignorant insistence of the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline. The intended poke-and-wink humor is not lost on anyone with somewhat of a sharp wit. But the circumstances of the moment are dire, and casual and/or cursory jabs such as this should likely be mulled over more thoroughly. Beyond being in poor taste, it’s simply misguided and difficult to defend. But no defense seems necessary when offending on the Internet, which is why, simply being a savvy smart-ass can so easily be conflated with being a propagandist prick, if the line is not properly towed.
In the case of Keller, he’s most likely just keeping himself warm with weed-induced yuks in the cold of his adopted city. And it should not be suggested that he is not entitled to that sort of bubble boi lifestyle, as political correctness is equally as slippery as irony. Censoring and filtering stifles fruitful, progressive discourse. And everybody knows that the best comedians push, and often, cross boundaries. But self-awareness is paramount, especially when one has a stage. Nobody should think it’s a bad thing that The Dice Man no longer has a career.
Contemporary Dice Clay
Trust is a tough thing to earn. It’s an even tougher thing to earn back once it’s lost. Jerry Saltz is learning this the hard way with many. For years, women (and men) have been growing increasingly skeptical of his attitude towards women. He is a strong proponent of many female artists, at times (almost excessively) gushing over some, but there is often something “off” with his vibe.
As the self-proclaimed “people’s critic,” he confusingly gravitates towards speaking from the position of a tastemaker who “knows best.” Women have been condescended to enough, and many of my female peers have expressed a disdain for his tendency to mansplain to them why they are (or are not) making important work. Again, a straight white man, should be able to have an opinion on most things, but special care and consideration should be given to the nuances of navigating any experience that is not received first-hand.
Furthermore, on a particularly timely subject, when the presidential candidate he relentlessly rails against on social media and otherwise boasts and brags about “grabbing women by the pussy,” it could be advised that Saltz let up on the constant dumping of painted and photographed pussies on Instagram and elsewhere. Like Keller, Saltz is smarter and more sensitive than he is promoting in this precarious moment. But at a certain point, if one is not careful, people can and will stop believing the defense: “I am not the problem. I am on your side.”
Jerry Saltz Grabbing Air
I guess the point is: we’re all ignorant in our own ways, and ignorance is always relative. It ebbs and flows on a surprising spectrum. Some people are never told no. Some people refuse to accept no. And some people easily shrug it all off.
I refuse to shrug. I refuse to accept the status quo. I want a woman president, and I want to listen to what she has to say.
I apologize for myself, for not listening more. I apologize for Nate Lowman. I apologize for Daniel Keller. I apologize for Jerry Saltz. I apologize for Donald Trump. I’m with her and her and her and her and you.
written by Keith J. Varadi