Growing up in Los Angeles, as I did, could at times be an exercise in collective self-pity. ‘LA is a teardown city,’ my architect mother used to say with sarcasm – a place where minimum construction spends would result in blandly functional temporary structures, easily replaceable when their occupants could no longer turn a profit. Outside critics have long bemoaned the ‘inauthentic’ nature of the city, characterizing key architectural movements like Spanish Revivalism as little more than an Epcot model of imported pastiche. Most locally produced art, however good, stayed local, limiting LA’s international profile to a place for blockbuster films and aerospace technology – a perceived provincialism in fine art terms that has made it difficult for the city’s missionaries (like myself) to sell its charms further afield.
2015 was LA’s year of positive self-realization. It was the year the city’s artistic community woke from a long siesta of self-doubt, prodded awake by a surge of new residents and a fetishistic media frenzy. The New York Times, which has served Southern California snark for a century, ran repeated editorials this spring labelling LA a ‘bohemian paradise’ and a ‘Paris Amid the Palms.’ (Though these were accompanied by sensationalistic coverage of the record California drought and resulting wildfire season, suggesting the traitors fleeing Manhattan for Manhattan Beach were kindling on a parched pyre.) Major events packed the LA cultural calendar, bringing in more than the usual international art crowd. A blockbuster contemporary art museum (The Broad) opened its doors, and another one (MOCA) won back local support with major institutional reforms. A major blue chip gallery (Maccarone) christened their new downtown LA branch, while two others (Sprüth Magers and Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel) prepared theirs for early 2016. Dior director Raf Simons joined his Saint Laurent colleague Hedi Slimane as a part-time LA resident, and German designer Bernard Willhelm relocated his Paris studio to Beechwood Canyon, at the foot of the Hollywood sign. Furious, unprecedented debate raged over the released renderings for Peter Zumthor’s demolition and redesign of LACMA’s campus, which prominently featured a building bridging Wilshire Boulevard – what critics dubbed ‘the freeway overpass.’ For better or worse, it became clear that LA’s rise as the international contemporary art world’s destination city could not be stopped.
At the Getty Center, ‘Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World’ featured dozens of stunning, rarely exhibited ancient Greek and Roman bronzes, most fished from the bed of the Mediterranean and painstakingly restored. The well-researched show provided visitors with extensive information about Hellenistic bronze-casting techniques as well as the sculptures’ presumed origin, appearance, and function. The Getty exhibition title could have described Ode to Santos Dumont (2015), the last work Chris Burden completed before his passing on 10 May. Exhibited at LACMA after preliminary test flights, the semi-translucent dirigible turned circles around the museum’s vast Resnick Pavilion, its hull catching flashes of sunlight in a soaring testament to Burden’s creativity.
Eli Broad and Michelle Maccarone shared top billing in September, when the former’s jewel box museum and the latter’s warehouse gallery opened within days of each other. At Maccarone, towering translucent resin paintings by Alex Hubbard inaugurated the pristine space, catching generous sun from skylights in acknowledgement of Southern California’s greatest natural asset. Elizabeth Diller’s design for The Broad similarly embraced the sun with a vast open gallery floor topped by angular skylights. But the museum’s ostentatious opening (firework displays, a star-studded red carpet, press buffets and multi-day street closures), and the sanitizing decadism of its curation (pairing David Wojnarowicz and Julian Schnabel, for example) distracted from this architectural accomplishment. Across the street, in contrast, MOCA’s new Chief Curator, Helen Molesworth, rehung a selection of the museum’s permanent collection to feature scores of non-white and non-male artists in inspiring arrangements both clever and subversively queer.
MOCA also lent its institutional backing to the fledgling The Underground Museum, a storefront art space founded by artist Noah Davis – who passed away in 2015 – in the working class neighbourhood of Arlington Heights. Davis’s exhibition there last year, ‘Imitation of Wealth,’ showcased famous contemporary master works that the artist had replicated. Like the Sturtevant retrospective that travelled to MOCA that season, ‘Imitation of Wealth’ critiqued the art world’s racial and economic exclusivity. The knockout William Kentridge show that followed brought the ‘real thing’ to audiences that might not often make it to MOCA’s hallowed halls. Similarly Art + Practice, a pet project of artist Mark Bradford, transformed a Leimert Park storefront into an exhibition space, bookstore, and centre for foster youth. With support from the Hammer Museum, Art + Practice inaugurated its space with work by Bradford and Charles Gaines, followed by stunning shows of works by Njideka Akunyili Crosby and John Outterbridge. Both projects demonstrate that ‘giving back to the community’ is not a trite philanthropic sentiment but an important and attainable goal for art institutions. That charge is being lead in South Los Angeles.
It was also refreshing, in 2015, to see a new crop of projects in unusual and nimbler spaces. The gallery Arturo Bandini – named after the dejected LA writer in John Fante’s novel Ask the Dust (1939) – held its inaugural show in a temporary shed on the roof of a parking structure. Another ‘shed show,’ a group exhibition curated by Bolivian collective Grupo Anan called ‘Joe’s Cantina’, brought me to the dusty multi-acre hilltop plot of Cudayh, a new outdoor art and performance space overlooking downtown. Climbing the cactus-strewn road up to the titular cantina, its cracked asphalt too dangerous for cars, I felt as though I could be somewhere else entirely; though it was clear I was nowhere but Los Angeles. I drank mezcal at the bar, a corrugated aluminium hut, and watched dry ice smoke rise from the inside of a white wooden cube, upon which the show’s works had been hung. The quirky (and clearly illegal) ‘art bar’ reprised an earlier effort, by four Austrian artists-in-residence at the MAK Center, to turn one of the carports in Rudolph Schindler’s modernist, Mid-City apartment building into an approximate replica of Vienna’s Adolf Loos-designed American Bar. ‘Los Bar’ was, for the month or so it was open, my favourite place to drink in Los Angeles. Cramped quarters encouraged conversation between strangers squeezed up against the plywood bar and its blue pool noodle bumper. (There was blessedly no cell reception, and thus freedom from digital distraction.) Meanwhile, the Schindler-designed Bethlehem Baptist Church in Compton hosted a spare and serene solo show by Robert Barry. Clear vinyl letters covered the white walls, spelling words only legible from an angle in the chapel’s ample daylight.
Though far from small, the strangest exhibition space of all was 9800 Sepulveda Boulevard, which gave its name to the jam-packed November exhibition ‘9800.’ Organized by J. Shyan Rahimi in collaboration with seven fellow independent curators – Ana Iwataki, Courtney Malick, Pierre-Alexandre Mateos, Mara McKevitt, Mebrak Tareke, Charles Teyssou, and Marion Vasseur Raluy – the show occupied seven floors of a disused modernist high-rise office building on LAX airport property (built in the 1950s to house Ford Motors’ West Coast headquarters). Art found eerie company installed on dull blue-gray carpets under flickering fluorescent ceiling lights – used after its closure for police drills, the building’s walls are riddled with bullet holes. In the teller booths of a wood-panelled lobby bank, writer Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal cheekily installed text on glass panels and small video monitors detailing a lengthy investigation of the online psychic business, Oranum.com. The building’s creepy and cavernous basement featured dozens of works, including artist collective Encyclopedia Inc.’s revelatory installation dissecting Colin Powell’s false UN testimony prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Illuminated by a dim spotlight, in a windowless room with walls yellowed by age, the installation’s hanging banners and static audio vividly recalled the later horrors of Abu Ghraib.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favourite shows outside of Los Angeles. The Guggenheim’s elegant On Kawara retrospective coiled the artist’s quotidian practice and the museum’s architecture together in a spatio-temporal Möbius strip. Camille Henrot’s wacky, working phones at Metro Pictures (cue reference to Drake’s hit 2015 single, Hotline Bling) made my eyes well with tears of laughter on not one, but two visits. Dr. Seussian wall-mounted cord phones offered users creepily soothing advice on how to deal with frustrated, techno-illiterate fathers; disobedient dogs; philosophical and existential crises; and unfaithful lovers. Jim Shaw’s dizzying New Museum retrospective surprised, shocked, and amused in equal turns; it was unclear whether the contiguity between Shaw’s own work and his vast collection of Seventh Day Adventist memorabilia, also on display, was due to Massimiliano Gioni’s curatorial decisions or the artist’s aesthetic obsession for cultish arcana.
The past year was, for me, a tale of two cities as I moved from Los Angeles to New York toward the end of the year. 2015 certainly had its Dickensian highs and lows: record winter storms struck the East Coast while a record drought hit the West. Two venerable art schools – Cooper Union and the University of Southern California Roski School – were embroiled in controversies that raised fears about the future of arts education. A city with half a dozen premiere MFA programmes, Los Angeles has rarely doubted the security of its schools – but when in May all but one of Roski’s MFA students dropped out in protest of unilateral changes to the curricular and funding model of their programme, the whole city snapped to attention. Part of what makes LA great is the collegiality of its arts community; more often than not, big-name artists will happily discuss their work at openings with their younger peers. The increasing professionalization of art schools and the skyrocketing cost of higher education in America threatens to commercialize Los Angeles into, not a place for making things, but a place to make it.
It could be tempting to classify gentrification as a growing pain, part of LA’s rise as a global cultural capital. But the experimentalism that attracts so many young ‘creatives’ there is the very thing threatened by their exodus. The cycle they may well bring is familiar, perhaps even inevitable: as prices rise to meet demand, people are displaced, and neighbourhoods slowly change their character. If there has been an awakening in Los Angeles, some of it has been rude. Artists have seen rent become unaffordable in, ironically, the Arts District, where developers sold the presence of studios as hip credibility to new tenants of hulking mixed-used housing developments. Developers’ intentions are not malicious (just capitalist), but the effects of their labour could be described as the re-whitening of LA’s urban core. To love LA for its ‘teardowns’, for what it already blessedly is, may be to love what is soon no longer.