Nobody Doesnt Know Tyler Stallings

But nobody really knows him, either

His colleague at the HBAC, Randy Pesqueira, laughed when asked if it's possible to know Stallings. What does Pesqueira know? "He's probably carried a notebook in his back pocket since he was in high school, if not younger. He used to love to hear stories about crazy family stuff, and he would take notes," Pesqueira said.

And there's this, Pesqueira said: "He takes care of his grandmother, who's in a nursing home in the South. He's the only one left, so he oversees everything. And he really cares that artists are treated well, that they get a good catalog out of their show and things like that. But I guess that's it. Oh! There was the time he introduced me to his penis. . . ."

His penis?

"Yeah, it was this big spider-penis sculpture. It was hysterical."

Here is what became of HB's boy genius, of the young man who looks like an IBM exec but wears an astronaut suit in burnt orange with a man's, um, organ springing redwoodlike from its chest—here is what happened to that man after he was cut loose from the HBAC by the man whose name shall evermore be Mudd:

Bolton Colburn, the well-tanned director of the Laguna Art Museum (LAM), jumped all over that shit, hiring Stallings before Stallings could so much as sneeze. The disastrous and short-lived merger with the Orange County Museum of Art behind them, LAM was searching for someone to curate. Under Colburn, the museum had already put on one of the seminal pop-culture shows in the Southland, "Kustom Kulture," which was about hot rods and boobs. Stallings had made his name at the HBAC with "pop-culture" shows (misnamed in my mind; I say they were about our cultural identity) on everything from skateboard artists to UFO abductees.

You still can't do that kind of thing anywhere but here: it gets folks on the East Coast into a rash of shit when they try to do it at their big, fancy, stodgy institutions. The Guggenheim is still getting bashed for its "Art of the Motorcycle" show—and that was in 1998. Some said commercial gear simply isn't art; more reasonable observers figured "Art of the Motorcycle" was a cry for help as desperate as any bulimic teenager's, evidence the bluehair museum was trying to be Left Coast.

New Yorkers are always finding new and exciting ways to trash us, specifically our sun- and surf-addled art world. Even when we come up with a bona fide movement—like the 1960s' Light & Space—they can only see us as bimbos. My personal favorite slur came courtesy of Joseph Maschek, snarling in Art Forum in 1971: "[T]he prospect of hip, young dropout types hanging out in Venice, California, making fancy baubles for the rich, amuses us."

But Stallings is a quintessential—i.e., a real—Californian: a pale, kind of twerpy, definitely bookish, from-Kentucky Californian. He lets us take pleasure in our trash—both our trash culture and the scraps we throw out from the kitchen. Consider his one-man rescue of the big-eyed waifs of Margaret Keane. Schlock? Kitsch? Not in Stallings' hands. Instead, it was a respectful exploration of passion and sentiment—not sentimentality—that demanded one treat Keane not as purveyor of 1970s crap but as a misunderstood and underestimated force.

Such shows aren't forced, as they might feel in New York. But they are smart. Consider his curatorial explorations of such subcultures as traveling Deadheads, folks who believe in aliens (illegal and extraterrestrial), and (coming in 2003 with the help of a $50,000 grant from the prestigious Fellows of Contemporary Art) the meaning of whiteness.

The heaviest high-art charge levied against Stallings and others like him is that pop-culture shows are anti-intellectual. But Stallings' catalog essays are almost unreadably brilliant, and unlike similar exhibits designed with mass tastes in mind—I'm thinking of the crappy "Made in California" show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—his are intelligently put together. He doesn't justify them by being clever in his essays; he justifies them by letting their obvious merits —their inherent contemplativeness and the exquisite quality of the works—speak for themselves. For instance, one of his earliest HBAC shows, 1995's "Grind," was an exhibit of skateboarder art. It would have been easy to dismiss the boards as the work of HB boneheads who'd landed from one too many almost-360s headfirst. But the show subtly spoke about issues like sexism in the skate world (guess what: there's a lot!) and young male anger while also providing a surprising look into skaters' quick minds. It was fascinating.

Because of such shows, an LA New Times writer called Stallings "the most effective and visionary of a new breed of artists and theorists."

In Stallings' small Laguna Beach office, perched grimly over his desk are a few pieces from the museum's permanent collection. Sandow Birk's surfers look into an oncoming set as soberly as General Washington crossing the Delaware. A Raymond Pettibon is fancifully small. And John Baldessari, in a monotonal scrawl, writes again and again, "I will not make any more boring art." It's a mantra other curators would do well to steal.

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