Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 9, 2000
Mark Johnstone Contemporary Art in Southern California Newark, N.J.: G + B Arts International, 1999. 208 pp.; many color ills.; many b/w ills. (9057033216)

Mark Johnstone’s book follows in the tradition of earlier California surveys such as Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1977) and 50 West Coast Artists: A Critical Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in California (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1981) by Henry Hopkins. Focusing on Los Angeles, Contemporary Art in Southern California includes an introduction and individual entries on forty-three artists, each accompanied by several reproductions. The design of the entries and illustrations is somewhat repetitive, which means that the book is best consulted sporadically rather than read straight through. Many of the illustrated works are installations that, especially in the case of the most arcane or conceptual, would benefit from an explanatory text. Essentially a handsome picture book, bound for the coffee table, Contemporary Art in Southern California will appeal to the novice gallery-goer or young collector desiring an overview of established artists in Los Angeles today.

Johnstone writes in a clear, straightforward style. His brief introduction, consisting of fourteen pages, sketches the context in which his subject developed. As a synopsis of the clichés that have dogged LA for years, it unquestionably suggests that these very stereotypes, especially the sovereignty of the automobile, supply a true picture of the city. To reinforce the chaos and fragmentation of LA, Johnstone conjures up earthquakes, fires, and riots and notes that 156 languages are spoken by the residents of LA. He relishes numbers, citing the 14 million people who live within the 4,083 square miles of the city, crisscrossed by 400 miles of freeways. Illustrating the severe economic downturn of the early 1990s, he notes that 22 percent of downtown office space was empty and mentions the bankruptcy of Orange County in 1995. All is not bleak: LA boasts nine professional sports teams and a healthy and wealthy public art program. In fact, public art consumes a great deal of Johnstone’s attention in the introduction as well as in several entries and biographies, a result, no doubt, of his position as Administrator of the Public Art Program for the Cultural Affairs Department in the City of Los Angeles. Where many recent articles in publications ranging from Artforum to the New York Times and Spin Magazine have chronicled the domination of the LA art scene by the art schools (especially UCLA, CalArts, and Art Center College of Design), Johnstone devotes only one paragraph to the phenomenon, attributing the schools’ importance to “the lack of any major museum presence during these years [the 1960s and 1970s]” (13). The author’s rare opinions are refreshing. In a section on museums, the contemporary exhibition program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is described as “overly broad and devoid of any clear support of local working artists since the late1980s” (14). Although I don’t share his view, he is not the only one who finds the LA-based magazine Art issues (the second word mistakenly capitalized throughout the book) “esoteric.”

Johnstone knew his selection of artists would be controversial, despite its very catholic breadth. In the introduction, he lays out his criteria: the artist must be living and he or she must have “produced work of national or international significance in the past ten years, 1988 to 1998” (18). Intending to represent a wide range of media, the selection includes an abundance of photographers (Johnstone has a background in photography himself). While the author’s nominees certainly fulfill his criteria, it is equally unlikely that any artist, critic, or curator associated with art in Los Angeles would agree on precisely these forty-three artists—such are the pitfalls of surveys. From my perspective, the significant tradition of abstract painting practiced by artists such as John M. Miller and James Hayward appears to be intentionally overlooked. Others who were not included, but should have been, are Christopher Williams, Kim Dingle, San Diego-based Eleanor Antin, and, to represent the younger generation, an artist like Martin Kersels, although Johnstone’s criterion of ten years of significance might preclude those without a long exhibition history. None of these even made Johnstone’s footnote apology listing another ninety-two artists worthy of inclusion. Many of those profiled in the book are predictable yet good choices of historically significant and influential LA artists: John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Charles Garabedian, Mike Kelley, Lari Pittman, Ed Ruscha, and Alexis Smith, for example. Among the few riskier selections are 1993 Whitney Biennial standout Daniel J. Martinez and Tim Miller of the “NEA Four.” Tim Hawkinson, whose ambitious sculptures and installations include breathy Rube Goldberg contraptions and idiosyncratic figures often based on his own body, is another good choice.

The Hawkinson entry is typically succinct and insightful. Comparing the artist to Mr. Wizard, Johnstone explains that “he uses his body like that of an animal in an experimental test laboratory” (96). Also right to the point are the synopses of Fred Fehlau’s rigorously conceptual painting and Uta Barth’s blurry photographs that “have consistently interrogated the act of seeing, and along with it the evocative poetics of perception” (36). The entry on Betye Saar thoughtfully illuminates her powerful assemblages, which deal with much more than racial issues. They are motivated, Johnstone explains, by “the consistent, almost dogged, exploration of how symbolic objects/images are drawn from everyday experience. Saar has always evidenced an attraction to the metaphysical, that which is spiritual or intuitive and exists beyond natural or technological (material) worlds” (156). I beg to differ, on the other hand, with Johnstone’s assessment that Nancy Rubins “makes big, ugly art” (148). Finally, with regards to the individual entries, one wishes for more than equal time when it comes to coverage of LA’s key players such as Baldessari, Burden, and Kelley.

Burden and Kelley, along with Pittman, Rubins, and Charles Ray, were also included in Paul Schimmel’s momentous exhibition and catalogue, Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992). Although from a decidedly more noir perspective, that catalogue’s essays detail some of the same myths as Johnstone’s introduction. In the case of Helter Skelter the art convincingly participates in these myths, whereas the artists in Contemporary Art in Southern California—with the exceptions of Burden’s L.A.P.D. Uniform (1993) and Kim Abeles’s smog pieces—appear to be unaffected by earthquakes, fires, riots, and freeways.

Frequently the inspiration for LA artists, Hollywood is the pervasive myth of the region. Although Johnstone dismisses the industry for “churning out the most simplistic self-involved ideas” (6), he acknowledges the Hollywood sources of Ruscha and Alexis Smith. Michael C. McMillen’s assemblages and illusionistic tableaux often resemble Hollywood sets, which, we are told in his biography at the back of the book, he visited as a child with his father, a scenic designer.

Indeed, the artists’ biographies comprise the most entertaining section of the book. Along with more mundane information on exhibitions and grants, here are insights into lives and loves, teaching positions and travels. Bill Viola, for example, has visited the Solomon Islands, Java, Australia, the Sahara Desert, Japan, the Himalayas, Fiji, and the American Southwest. In Japan, Abeles was introduced by a Buddhist priest “to traditional Japanese arts such as calligraphy, ceramics, kimono-making, and woodcut printing” (192), all of which inform her work. As a child, Lita Albuquerque boarded in a Catholic convent in Carthage, Tunisia, and John Divola “has lived his entire life in Los Angeles” (195). Garabedian spent “most of his free time and earnings at the track” before he became an artist (197). Of ex-hippie Charles Ray, the author humorously observes, “His activities between 1975 and 1979 are somewhat unclear” (203).

Another insight into Saar’s work results from knowledge that she witnessed the construction of the Watts Towers, one of the world’s greatest assemblages. Judy Fiskin, well known for her small black and white photographs of “dingbat” architecture, edited Richard Neutra’s journals in the late 1960s. For those who have wondered about the derivation of the name of Gronk (Glugio Gronk Nicandro), “Legend is that his mother chose his middle name, which soon became his sole appellation, from a National Geographic article she was reading during labor in an east-LA hospital room: it is a Brazilian Indian word meaning to fly’” (198). Such delightful tidbits make this section required reading for anyone interested in contemporary artists from any locale. To its credit, the book as a whole does not attempt to present a cohesive regionalism. It is one author’s survey of some of the most important artists to emerge from this vibrant and dynamic center of art in the 1990s.

Frances Colpitt
Professor and Deedie Rose Chair of Art History, Texas Christian University