© 2004; Dani Tull

Under The Influence

Young artists celebrate L.A.'s contrived culture
By Alice Thorson - The Kansas City Star
Date: 10/21/00

Recapture the spirit of youth at Kansas City Art Institute's H&R Block Artspace, where a lively exhibit of uninhibited works -- from a vomit video to hippie-jewelry-style wall hangings -- conveys the high spirits and complicated feelings of 19 young artists from Los Angeles. "Under the Influence: New Art From L.A." is hands-down the most invigorating show of the season's fall openers in Kansas City. In its deft probing of a particular contemporary art Zeitgeist, the exhibit adds to a rousing roster of recent group shows imported from other cities, including curator Bill Arning's 1999 "Neither/Nor" exhibit of new art from New York at Grand Arts. If many of the individual pieces here are not particularly heavyweight, they nonetheless add up to an exhibit of substance. In his choices of artists and choices of works, guest curator Chris Acuna-Hansen, a former associate dean at the Art Institute who now runs the ah gallery in Los Angeles and teaches at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, Calif., really captures an attitude and conveys a sense of place.

The show provides a disarming mix of youthful high jinks and earnestness in works that take their primary inspiration from the L.A. environment in which these artists live and work. It's no secret that this is a contrived and mediated, highly artificial environment -- not least for its proximity to the Hollywood fantasy machine. Perhaps no two images better represent the L.A. artists' skewed take on pop-celebrity than Brad Spence's weirder-than-Warhol portraits of Christopher Reeve and Stephen Hawking. Disembodied, each of the men's heads floats against a field of blue like the surreal media masks they've become.

Unlike their postmodernist predecessors in New York, who defined the 1980s with works toughly critical of mass media and advertising, the young artists here approach the manipulations and vulgarities of our media and consumer culture as a vast aesthetic playground offering multiple opportunities for creative spoof. Michael Arata excels at the latter. If the poses he assumes in his photographic self-portraits seem vaguely familiar, it's because he deliberately imitates models from Victoria's Secret and International Male catalogs. Further highlighting the farce of it all is Arata's accompanying series of pillowlike sculptural "pets." Mostly triangular in conformation and sporting bobbly or painted-on eyes, the pets take their shapes from the negative spaces created by the artist's limbs as he poses. Advertising loves soft porn, especially quick shots of crotches and cleavage. Megan McManus counters the titillating glimpse and highlights a body beautiful "problem area" with small, meticulously executed oil paintings of her own thighs. In its dealings with issues, this exhibit is noticeably free of the kind of confrontational public grandstanding typical of much 1980s New York art. Holly Topping, for instance, practices a kind of quiet negation of environmental despoilation by taking color photographs of her immediate surroundings and then painting out all the manmade additions. The strange scapes that result offer a kind of metaphor for environmental restoration and the workings of the human hand that this too entails. Dani Tull strikes at the heart of the city's sunny tourist image with his "Hangman Sunset," a small acrylic on paper painting in which a gallows with hanging figure counterpoints the stereotypical travel poster palm tree. His subversions continue in works such as his hilarious painting "Dead dwarf, mystery sack and two horses," which suggests a dysfunctional Disney cartoon. "Brat" tactics -- behaviors and attitudes designed to produce a titter of disruption, rather like the kid who distracts the class with naughty drawings -- are a favorite strategy of Chris Finley, who is represented by pair of vulgar illustrations inspired by children's books. Certainly there is an element of gross-out to Micol Hebron's "Fountains" video, in which the artist appears in a series of fashionable outfits and succumbs to color-coordinated bouts of vomiting. Offsetting Hebron's steely rejoinder to the body and beauty cult of Los Angeles are the many pieces that express the more whimsical side of the city's disposition. Martin Kersels photographs himself throwing his friends in the air, while Stephen Shackleford brings a light touch to his little sculptural tableaux takeoffs on products including Irish Spring soap and Starbucks coffee. Shackleford's "Untitled (nitelights)," a tidy assemblage of multiple individual nightlights, typifies L.A. art's participation in the broad national trend of using familiar objects and materials as fodder for art.

In keeping with the region's reputation for fetish finish, however, the L.A. brand is generally marked by neatness, craftsmanship and newness. These same aesthetic ideals prevail in the pristine vacuum-formed plastic wall pieces of Loren Sandvik and in Charles La Belle's gridded photographs composed from multiple tiny images of the tacky furnishings and architectural details of two L.A. motels. Love of craft and love of ornamentation combine in Maura Bendett's enchanting jewelrylike wall-hangings. The renegade here is Martin Durazo, who drew on the clutter of his studio for his found object sculptural work, "Busty likes to ride the rails." The piece encompasses fans, lights, kitsch figurines and a series of black-edged aquariums filled with colored water and set on sawhorses -- as well as tatty 1970s Playboy magazines and silicon breast implants, some in boxes, some out. Content-wise, the work oscillates between the cultural ironies represented by the magazines and implants, and the allusions to the modernist grid established by the rectangles of black molding that edge the aquariums. Durazo just doesn't get all het up. Still, judging from his work and others in "New Art From L.A.," maybe that laid-back California attitude is really a manifestation of realism: Art may not be able to change the society it inhabits, but it doesn't have to go along gracefully.