Figures

Everyone is at LAM. Everyone

By Dan McClearyThe Laguna Art Museum (LAM) caused a bit of a dust-up recently—the kind of magnified caterwaul that can only come from an artist dissed or a university professor faced with loss of access to the copy room—with its KCRW spot jocularly proclaiming "Representing LA" to be "the antidote to Conceptual art." If you have learned nothing else from reading the Letters page in this fine paper over the years, you have learned that there is no man readier to avenge his honor than a Conceptual artist. He's looking for any reason to use the terms "literary forcing" and "ontological infinity" and for the chance to say that anyone who doesn't get his work is obviously a Philistine who shouldn't even be refuted because his or her ignorance is just so sad.

You know the old saw, or if you don't, you're about to learn it: the fights are so savage because the stakes are so low. At any rate, on hearing LAM's KCRW radio spots, people—by which we mean Conceptualists and their allies—were pissed. Conceptualism still holds sway over such places as Cal Arts—and I'll give one dollar to the first Cal Arts grad who can paint me a picture that is recognizably better than anything my kid cranks out in first grade.

But Conceptualism is everywhere in retreat. The figure painters have come out from their burrows and their hidey-holes, where they'd been forced to work in secret behind drawn curtains like the Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan teaching their daughters math. They've banded together. And when normal, everyday people—people without art degrees or the slightest concern for Greenberg's search for the surface—see these works, they likethem and want to buy them. And that makes the Conceptualists angry.

Poor Conceptualists! They must feel as though every representational painter is Thomas Kinkade.

Now that figurative works are once again at the top of the art-world heap, I should be as happy as a cat full of mouse. After all, I've been whining about the devastating arrogance and lameness of such dated concepts as Conceptualism and Abstract Expressionism for years, repeating myself until even I'm bored with me.

So here comes "Representing LA" at LAM. Is it wonderful? Devastatingly comprehensive? Overflowing with each and every one of my very favorite artists? Oh, yes. But fickle, unfaithful me. Now that realist, representational art is exercising the kind of tyranny over taste that just a few years ago was clutched in the fists of Finish Fetishists—well, let's just say the grass is looking so very green (that is supposed to be grass, isn't it?) over in the Abstract Expressionists' yard.

Cataloging the paintings in "Representing LA" would be a tiresome affair, and to pick just three or five to talk about would be impossible. There are just so goddamn many of them, broken down into nine distinct categories—"landscape," "the image of the artist," "still life," "new portraiture" and five more. Most are indeed exquisite, but how many stories can one absorb in an afternoon? Lining the walls are Peter Alexander (who was fearlessly painting sunsets when the rest of LA was busy having itself shot with guns to prove its baditude), Stephen Douglas, F. Scott Hess, Robert Williams and Don Bachardy. There are Brigette Burns, Raymond Pettibon, Jorg Dubin and Kim Dingle. Mark Ryden, Llyn Foulkes, Craig Atteberry, Jim Morphesis. Enrique Martinez Celaya (though one sculpture, The River, that is supposed to be in the exhibit is instead holding court at his retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art) and Ruprecht von Kaufmann. Thomas Stubbs, Darlene Campbell, James Doolin, Duncan Simcoe, Tanja Rector, Sandow Birk, Judith Baca and Enjeong Noh. And more, more, more. Everyone is here. Everyone.

And you should go because it is beautiful, and you will love it, unless you're Conceptual artist Chris Burden. Loyola's Gordon Fuglie, who organized the exhibit for the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, did an outstanding job. He doesn't overanalyze or use screechy artspeak like, "The dichotomy between language-based art and object-based art was also a contrast between an emphasis on impersonal theoretics and subjective commentaries on the world at large." He makes sure that the best artists in the region are representing for us to the outside world. Some are staid, some are traditional, and many are devastatingly hip without being pretentious or wearing berets.

So why does it make me kind of . . . itchy? Part of the problem may be my MTV-edit attention span in an exhibit as long as Ken Burns' Baseball. Part of it might be my lame Silver Lake-style elitism—any band that cracks the radio no longer deserves your love. But I'm done with Jim Morphesis' gorgeous bodies, headless like the Pallas Athene. I'm done with portraits of workers in their convenience-store uniforms, time-stamped the '90s but looking at us with the eyes of Manet's heroine in Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère.I'm done with the beautiful lemons on velvety black. Beautiful, potent, executed like gangbusters, with style and something to say, but nonetheless, for this week anyway, I'm done. At this point, I'd chuck them all for one big, arrogant, resinated slab of shamefully overpriced John McCracken.

"Representing LA" at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. Through March 3, 2002. Open Thurs.-Tues., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Free.
 
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