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>> Interview: John Baldessari
>> 2004 California Biennial
>> Art of the West Coast
>> Art and Film

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Wild Wild West:
Young Art at the 2004 California Biennial

Young artists are undermining Hollywood’s myths, the American middle class, and the commercialization of private life: starting in Mid-October, the Orange County Museum of Art is presenting the “2004 California Biennial” with the support of Deutsche Bank – an ambitious art event that shows how exciting and multi-faceted the American West Coast scene really is.

Mungo Thompson: The American Desert (for Chuck Jones), 2002
Video (installation view)
Collection of the Orange County Museum of Art; Museum purchase with funds provided through prior gift of Lois Outerbridge

Everyone knows the “Roadrunner” from the Bugs Bunny cartoons who zips around the desert with a loud “ meep meep,” again and again outwitting his incensed enemy, Wile E. Coyote. In Mungo Thomson’s video work from 2002 titled The American Desert (for Chuck Jones), however, the odd bird has vanished without a trace. In chronological order, the Californian artist has taken the roadrunner classic the legendary cartoonist Chuck Jones produced between 1949 and 1964 and has painstakingly extracted characters and evidence of plot from the film strips. When the viewer enters Thomson’s video room at this year’s California Biennial, he or she is confronted by a fat-free version of the Wild West legend – more than thirty minutes of desolate and colorful comic deserts from Warner Brothers Studios, in shifting crops and perspectives. As a tribute to Chuck Jones, the meditative landscapes from The American Desert also focus attention on the production and iconography of mass media images, how they influence our everyday perceptions, and how they’ve become an indispensable part of Western cultural history.

Brian Calvin: Noon, 2002
Collection of Ruth and Jacob Bloom, Marina del Rey, California
Simon Evans:
Right and Wrong, 2003
Collection of Bill Banyai, San Francisco

With 28 artists and over 120 works, the newly renovated Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) in Newport Beach is showing a comprehensive view of current West Coast art, to this day unique in California: installations, sculptures, painting, works on paper, video, and photography. The museum has been putting on the biennial since 1984, which has gone on to become internationally renowned. For two years, curators Elizabeth Armstrong and Irene Hofmann paid countless visits to studios, galleries, and institutions in order to give this year’s exhibition its unmistakable profile. Like Mungo Thomson, each participant in the 2004 California Biennial was born between 1960 and 1970. All belong to a generation that was just as influenced by the debates over globalization, gender roles, and new technologies as it was by movies, music, computer games, TV, Grunge and skateboard culture. This fits in well with the curators’ concept, which seeks to focus on the subversive energy the young Californian scene of the multi-cultural melting pot brings to bear in sending out its impulses to the international art world.

Brian Calvin: Nowhere Boogie, 2000
Courtesy of the artist and Marc Foxx Gallery, Los Angeles

“It smells like Teen Spirit”: the pale, androgynous figures on Brian Calvin’s melancholic paintings could have been inspired by Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain. They smoke cigarettes and pot, drink, meet their friends, play music, stare into space, and wait for something that never happens. Calvin not only portrays the existence of the “Twenty-somethings” as being pretty desolate, but also the act of painting itself. The doll-like boy staring out of the window in Nowhere Boogie (2000) seems like a caricature of contemporary figurative painting. While he gazes in trepidation, the boy in the foreground strumming on a guitar has long since given up. Dressed in a T-shirt printed with a satanic motif and his eyes bloodshot, he sits in resigned composure. Brian Calvin’s flat, two-dimensional-looking paintings are painted skillfully – and are disillusioning in every respect. They resemble narratives without plots, while the “flat” figures look stuck on to the background of the canvas, as though they were glued to a wall. The musician might immerse himself in his song in order to tune out, but there’s no escape from reality.

Mark Bradford: Untitled (Shoe), 2003
Courtesy of Brent Sikkema, New York

With an attitude that is occasionally ironic and that never succumbs to pathos, the art of the California Biennial constitutes a thematic and conceptual contrast to the current painting boom in Europe. While the collector Charles Saatchi solemnly celebrates The Triumph of Painting in a large exhibition in London and the German newspapers have diagnosed a young painting generation’s return to the beautiful, fantastic, and uncanny, the artists at OCMA are almost all oriented towards everyday reality, cool media images, and the commercialization of urban space. This is expressed in their usage of entirely divergent media – including painting. Thus, Mark Bradford appropriates the aesthetic of modernist abstraction and combines it in his assemblages with found objects from the area surrounding southern Los Angeles, where he lives and continues to work as a hairdresser despite a successful art career. Bradford uses hair dye, cellophane, and newspaper clippings for his paintings, or, for his 2003 collage Untitled (Shoe), packaging material and bits of paper. Simon Evans, who was born in London in 1972 and who came to L.A. as a skateboard pro, creates cartographies and diagrams of everyday life, assemblages made of graph paper, notes in ballpoint pen, and tape, such as the list Right and Wrong (2003), which reflects a futile longing for order in urban chaos.

Kota Ezawa: Who's Afraid of Black, White, and Grey, 2003
Two-channel digital animation
Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

At the OCMA, the trend clearly seems to be shifting from canvas to installation and video: for the video loop Who’s Afraid of Black, White and Grey (2003), the Japanese artist Kota Ezawa, who grew up in Germany and studied at the Dusseldorf Art Academy, turned film excerpts from the marriage drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) into black and white cartoons. The references to painting are obvious here, not least through the title, which recalls Barnett Newman’s famous painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue. In their stark contrasts and clear contours, the digital images are reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s cutouts or the paintings by the pop artist Alex Katz.

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