Needs More Human

Riverbed by F. Scott Hess, 2004
oil on canvas, 48″ x 60″HermosaBeachinthe'70swasthekindofgrubby, unseemly place where Charles Bukowski would get kicked out of the Strand bookstore for surreptitiously signing his own books. In the '90s, when I lived there, it updated, paving over the end of Pier Avenue to create a nightspot destination for all LA's great washed mortgage brokers. The Strand went out of business, but Sharkeez racked up blondes holding their arms over their heads and whooping like it was Spring Break in Daytona. And then, a couple of years ago, two guys from the ad world spent a million overhauling the historic Bijou theater and creating Gallery C—a golden space of blond wood and high walls that's been getting all kinds of buzz. What's such a great gallery—a gallery where all our up-and-coming and midcareer friends were actually getting shows—doing in Hermosa's cultural armpit?

More important, after seeing “California's New Old Masters,” does Hermosa's bleach-toothed blandness suck the smart out of everything?

In 2002, Donald Kuspit ranked as the 33rd most influential art theoretician in history, according to Columbia University. I belong to his reactionary school, inveighing against Conceptual crap from atrociously arrogant kids who never learned drafting but think they deserve to reap the rewards of the artist's life: pussy, poontang and really slick sunglasses. You know: just for being them.

Now Kuspit has curated “California's New Old Masters” at Gallery C. It's a show that's nicely varied in its figurative styles, from some outstanding Chinese ink forests to some trompe l'oeil still lifes lacking only anything interesting to be Magrittes. There's a lot of PoMo appropriation going on from OC's Ron Pastucha and the LBC's Sandow Birk. And F. Scott Hess' hyper-realist, sinister canvases are always appalling and fine.

There are three huge rooms of this stuff, with one room's paintings piled four deep.

One goes from one room to the next, cooing small coos of appreciation for most (while lifting one's eyebrow with that singularly satisfying hauteur at others). And then, as soon as one is outside, there's a sense that all the fine works one just saw are completely useless.

The work isn't fine enough to explain Kuspit's or my insistence on art that tells stories; there may be humans in most of the paintings, but there's no humanism or even any explication of the things that make us less than human. They've as little to say as the Conceptualist paupers or less.

I except only Hess and Robert Schwartz in this. Hess, as always, paints appalling, ugly people doing greedy, ugly things. He's got several paintings here, including one with a holstered cop painting “God” across a young man's forehead and another with a nude woman fondling a donkey. Each vein in her thick heel is visible, each thickened toenail—as are the flush of her plump ass and the donkey's big, humanoid dick. The scene is horrifying, as are all Hess' humans, and it says something: namely, that humans are horrifying and pockmarked and have big pores and dead eyes and cheap, greasy desires. I can get behind that.

Schwartz, meanwhile, paints tiny fairy tales. Fluencyis a forest with two strong-jawed stepsisters in Jellies and a half-naked man on a green-silk chaise longue. On his thumb-sized head, you can see his five-o'clock shadow, and in the delicate, detailed background are a wealth of tiny buildings and cars in what should be once-upon-a-time.

A lot of the other works are very enjoyable: Peter Zokosky paints portraits of goofy-eyed monkeys and bulldogs that are hilariously kitschy in the best found-art style, and Timothy Cummings has a particularly nice twosome, Untitled(NathanandBrad),that features one of the boys in a dress and the other with a ruff and a tail and urine arcing out of his little pee-pee. Both are in commedia dell'arte clown makeup under a blue silk-screen sky. Enjeong Noh gives us Wet,with two beautiful, genetically blessed Aryans lying on green concrete while their nipples shine through their cotton shirts. It's very like Jorg Dubin's works, without the particularly sexy loucheness of the slutty and self-aware. And really, really ridiculously good-looking male model Roni Stretch offers a trio of color fields that, when one has stepped back 15 feet, offer ghostly faces that my son had to point out to me. The technique is impressive, but is it any more than a parlor trick?

They're all nice, but not one seems important, and some I haven't mentioned are off-puttingly slick. But our hometown peeps Pastucha and Birk offer less than nice. Pastucha's takeoff of Michelangelo's CrucifixionofSt.Peteris singularly ill-painted, while Birk, with a non-pastoral urban scene from his “Prisonation” series, shows only a cartoony building crowded into a rococo frame. Birk, for some reason, gives us an underloved painting that forsakes the actual mastery that went into the rest of the series, until you were looking at romantic vistas so finely painted they were practically Hudson River School.

Are these works the best Donald Kuspit could find? Does he just not know this hood? Or is it finally time to join the kids at Cal Arts in bitch-slapping the neo-classical and painting some neon stripes for that future so bright and their very cool shades?


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