Dropping In on the Dropouts
MacArthur Park in the Westlake area of Los Angeles is only about 3 or 4 miles away from the University of Southern California. Driving around the streets of this dense neighborhood, the exclusive academic world of the Trojans seems very, very far away. Los Angeles is not known for being a walking city, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at modern Westlake. The sidewalks during most days are teeming with people, and vendors line the streets in front of frenetic backdrops of small-business signage and big-business advertising. Westlake had the second highest density of any LA neighborhood according to the 2000 census, over 70 percent of it Latino, making a median income of a little over $26,000 a year. Park View gallery is tucked a few blocks away from the concentration of activity around MacArthur Park, in an apartment in an older 2-story residential building. The former 2016 class of USC’s Roski School of Art, referred to as the USC7, have mounted an exhibition of their works in this apartment-gallery entitled Recesses, and it is within the political context of their circumstances that this exhibition takes place. Park View, according to a report by the LA Times’s Carolina Miranda in 2014, is the creation and apartment of Paul Soto, formerly of the staff of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Park View is one of many idiosyncratic alternative and/or artist-run initiatives in the Los Angeles area, and it is easy to guess what the appeal of the venue might be for the USC7. – Jason Ramos, Los Angeles Contributor
All photos courtesy of Park View.
Occasional moments of nonchalance contrast with the otherwise considered installation, but when taken overall those moments begin to feel like splitting hairs. Julie Beaufils’s loose cartoonish erotica begins to spark an illustrative charm and lightness juxtaposed with one of Lauren Davis Fisher’s leaky pipe sculptures. These dual pieces, one titled TBD, are stopped far short of filling the entire space with the frozen, pale grey matter spewing forth. An apt metaphor, as the flow of art has just begun from these artists, who no doubt have presented us here with the tip of the iceberg of their individual production. One of the more visible artists of the group, Edie Fake (known to this writer and many others as the author of the Gaylord Phoenix comics), gives a taste of recent architecture inspired articulations of queer space with a piece bearing a satisfying aesthetic family resemblance to the apartment’s furnace and air conditioning unit. Commanding a presence through contrast on the floor beneath these fixtures, Ellen Schafer’s New Flesh, Inherent Anxiety channels feelings about the countdown to birth with a cast-aluminum and ultrasound gel sculpture that brings to mind some sort of prehistoric obstetric device.
Across the way, Lee Relvas’s skeletal abstraction completes a sub-theme with Beufils's and Schafer’s of sex, birth, and death. Sid M. Dueñas’s Laura Owens-y painting seems the most comfortable in the immaculate domestic surroundings, and manages to make a case for itself as a sincere phrasing of some recently established signs and references in contemporary painting. Within the closet space of Park View, a key unit of the entire installation plays out between works by Dueñas and Schafer. Pale, folded, fleshy, and covered in silicone, a shimmering white mass on the floor appears to be submitting to the higher power of the small, dark, rough hewn three-dimensional composition on the wall above.
Between moments like these, and George Egerton-Warburton’s bedroom installation, which creates another discreet, disorientating consideration of its immediate environment, every step of this exhibition seems very considered, careful, and focused - from the site, to the work, to the installation - an amazing feat considering the noise, attention and scrutiny of this group’s very public and very anticipated actions. One can’t help but wonder if Fake’s past experience with the controversy surrounding his ticket design for last winter’s LA Art Book Fair helped influence the thorough, slow, thoughtful approach to the group’s every move. It’s not hard to see how they could have screwed it up: having the exhibition at a more conventional commercial gallery and they could have come off as hypocritical; have it as a pop-up in an out of the way place and they could be viewed as too exclusive, too insider, or worse, carpetbagging initiators of gentrification. Park View gallery’s concept and pedigree is in the center of a small bullseye for the USC7 to get the fairest shake at presenting what it is they would otherwise be doing under the guidance of the Roski School. If anything, the assured nature and approach to Recesses proves that these seven artists have indeed learned a lot about what they can do, and perhaps have even more to teach us.
If, as critic Christopher Knight bemoans, increasing commercialization and corporate funding continue to replace public and government funding of the arts, we can probably expect to see more resistance to it from the people it affects the most – the artists. Luckily, when it comes to options for artists, they have the advantage of creativity. If a gallery can be an apartment, then an art school can be something else too. Many artists are already exploring art school alternatives , and the undoing of the Roski School at USC, the dean now faced with the possibility of forced resignation, seems to portend the coming need for something to fill the void. This growing void may join the many voids growing in the world of contemporary art – the voids formerly filled by mid-sized galleries, small to mid-budget institutions, stable and livable academic opportunities, grant money for individual artists, the list goes on and on. In Ben Davis's book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, theses 8.6 and 9.1 state:
8.6 Contemporary art suffers from a narrow audience. Access to art education is largely (and increasingly) determined by income level and privilege; art education should be defended and made universal, (this point itself involves a critique of the notion that art is a luxury)
9.1 Activating the reform objectives of thesis 8, therefore, entails that the sphere of the visual arts transcend itself and purely “art-world” concerns; such reforms will be best achieved by linking up with struggles outside of the sphere of the visual arts (for instance, linking the fight for art to the fight for education [8.6])
The USC7's Recesses exhibition at Park View increasingly seems like a signpost for what could be the beginnings of an art world reformation. It provides a first step in identifying the forms such a transition may take, and the stances that need to be taken. The issues before the USC7 are not unconnected to the kinds of issues affecting the throngs of people in nearby MacArthur park. So far, the former class of Roski 2016 are acutely aware of their empowered position to speak to those issues, wisely sticking to the terms of how it affects them personally – the woes of those privileged enough to be involved in art are comparatively small, tucked away in the recesses of a much bigger problem affecting a much larger audience.
Jason Ramos is an artist, curator, and writer based in Los Angeles. He earned an MFA in painting from Cal State Fullerton in 2007. He is the current director of Eastside International and former assistant curator of the Torrance Art Museum. His art work has been included in numerous exhibitions in Los Angeles and beyond.