Crap As Art?!

Peter and Eileen Norton—who apparently are as rich as Methuselah!—consistently make ArtNews' list of the world's Top 200 Collectors. When the Richard/Bennett Gallery had its “Store Show” in 1991, featuring 72 artists working in multiples (art as assembly-line product, after Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine in the '60s and '70s), the Nortons purchased one edition of each work. One of each! They recently gifted seemingly every art center in our glorious nation with bits and baubles from their collection, but it was to our own Laguna Art Museum they gave 124 works by contemporary Southern California artists. And thus was born “ReCharge: LA Art in the Early '90s (The Gift of Peter and Eileen Norton).”

If there's one thing that fills me with cloud-floating joy, it's a show of LA artists from the early '90s. Painting was still dead . . . and good riddance! Art institutes of good renown were giving diplomas to kids with really good hair and very chic glasses who couldn't depict their ass if they sat on a Xerox machine. And hooray for that! Who needs paintings of “pictures” when we can see things around us all the time with our very own eyes? Much more thrilling it is, say I, when artists instead show us the “hidden” world—the world of “ideas”!

Unfortunately, in the early '90s, the bottom fell out of the LA art market, leaving sassy young art types with no one to whom they might sell their attitude-heavy “works.” That made them sad, and—unable to support their smack and sushi habits—many of them packed up their glue guns and flew to greener city blocks on the East Coast. This was sad. Sad for you, sad for me, and sad for our fair, extended metropolis.

But some of them stayed. And those some all seem to have gotten their scrubbed faces into “ReCharge.” This is thrilling for many reasons, chief among them an exciting new genre called “Readymades.” In this fresh and vibrant mode, everyday objects are elevated to the status of “art” merely at the insistence of the artists! They seem to be saying, “I, as artist, determine what is art and what is not. It is the sanctity of the gallery walls that confers value.” Those wacky artists could probably take even something as naughty and shocking as a urinal and turn it into art with one wave of the pen! And the Southland is at the forefront of this marvelous paradigmatic shift!

Here the new “Readymades” are everywhere—simply everywhere! They are especially prominent in the museum's re-creation of “Store Show,” with shelves and jumbles of boxes showing “objets” that patrons could “buy.” Like at a store! There is Bennett Roberts' Untitled, which to the uninitiated eye is merely a can of Ajax cleanser but which was created in an edition of 20, which very clearly makes it art. It is sad that such illiterati don't realize what a profound change is making itself felt in the grand old question, “What is Art?”!

There are other exciting “Readymades” as well. There is an insouciant “Do Not Disturb” sign—just like one you might find hanging outside a hotel door! And Noel O'Malley gives us the extraordinary Five Pounds Pigment, which is a big, ungainly lump of ocher pigment, very clearly addressing the needs of artists to have “materials” with which to work—not just physical materials, like pigments, or rusty, scabbed sheet iron, but philosophical and intellectual materials as well! And there is a baseball bat inscribed with Gertrude Stein's signature. Which leads us to the question: How did artist Perry Vasquez get the famed authoress and lesbian to sign more than one? Did he just hand her a stack of baseball bats and say, “Please, Ms. Stein, could you sign a whole bunch of these for me so that I may sell them in multiple editions as examples of my artistry?” Wouldn't she have thought him rude? And why a baseball bat? She wasn't a famous baseball player, was she? Did he have a whole bunch of baseball bats in the trunk of his Peugeot and then run into her one day in Paris (where she was known to “rendezvous” with very famous artists, like Pablo Picasso, who was very famous indeed, although I certainly don't mean “rendezvous” in the illicit sense; remember, she was a lesbian!)? We probably shall never know!

The second wonderful thing about the exhibit is a new tendency among young artists to reference the works of older (or in some cases, dead!) artists. It's almost as though these young artists are praising the skills of the old or dead artists and paying them homage! Manuel Ocampo, for instance, paints a demon with legs sticking out of his mouth la Goya. Jeff Gambill's Andromeda portrays legs, buttocks and a breast all rather “grotesque” and “decaying” like Dali's The Spectre of Sex Appeal. I propose that we group these two young artists together and give their school a new name, one that reflects that by looking to the past, they are beyond “modern.” How about if we call them “Postmodern”? Catchy, don't you think?

“ReCharge: LA Art in the Early '90s (The Gift of Peter and Eileen Norton)” at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-6531. Through Sunday. $5; seniors/students/children 12 and over, $4; children under 12/members, free.

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