Sunday, February 6, 2011

Amidst All This Nothing

by Stephen Cummings

Paul Sietsema, 2009, Anticultural Positions

So word is that the staff at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles is all aflutter because a hummingbird built its nest in their courtyard. And while that in itself might have elicited a certain amount of excitement on any normal day, this little construction project happened to coincide with the installation of the Hammer's latest show, and in that show there is a piece which, in a one hour video, on a little Toshiba flat-screen, features — are you ready? — a hummingbird, asleep on a twig.

It's pretty magical.

All Of This And Nothing, which opened last week and runs through April 24th, features works by fourteen contemporary artists from LA and without. According to the museum, "these artists conceptually and emotionally invest simple [...] materials with a newfound poetic meaning while offering a thoughtful meditation on the fragility of our lives and the objects that make up the world around us." It's kind of a nebulous notion that, thought about from different angles, could describe a huge swath of the artwork from now or the past. But the show hangs together pretty well, though it does rely heavily on the assumption that certain things just are amazing.

For example, do you think it would be amazing to watch a hummingbird sleep? Well then you probably are going to find Fernando Ortega's video to be pretty amazing. (Though now of course you can watch in real life just outside the galleries. Undercut?) What about the idea of a spider weaving a web in place of a harp's strings? Then get ready for three dull photographs of just that, none more interesting than the next, and possibly less interesting as a series. With curatorial complicity, Ortega is absolutely the worst offender in this, staking his work almost entirely on our wholesale acceptance of his profundity. But it's not just him; from room to room too much is being made of things all over the place.

Evan Holloway took some real bad photos, but there they are on prominent display. Paul Sietsema's drawings are not bad by any objective test, but being told about the "obsessive" process of their making does not catapult these papers into the hyperbolic realm the curators see them occupying. Frances Stark makes good work, but the collages in this show are rather clunky. Yet it seems we are asked to regard them more highly simply because they depict the artist at work in her studio. And then there's Charles Gaines' Manifestos, in which he used historical texts as the basis for musical compositions through an arbitrarily applied system of assigning notes to letters. As Gaines himself admits, "I could do any text in the world [...] apply it to the system, and it would sound the same." So why this grand treatment? Is it necessary that these huge drawings of the specific texts and corresponding scores accompany the music? And four thirty-some inch flat screens perched oddly on hardboard podiums? Really? And why hardboard? I guess the artists is at fault here too though, having made those silly drawings in the first place. It's all just so . . . overblown. Perhaps one of the docents put it best when she said of the Ian Kiaer installation that opens the show, "You're supposed to kind of go back to when you were five in this room. I don't know why, but."

That said though, this show is very worth seeing. Gaines' piece is worth hearing, Sietsema's drawings are kind of interesting, and Ortega has a kinetic sculpture/installation on the ground level that makes you go, Huh. But more than that, amongst the smattering of glorified whatnot, a handful of pieces stand out as whole, and not overdone, and you are encouraged not to miss them.

In the third gallery sits the show's most commanding piece, a high, broad section of wall and doorway from the studio of Gedi Sibony. The Cutters exists in that tradition of assemblage begun by Robert Rauschenberg, but is a much more minimal, quiet, solitary thing, something akin to Agnes Martin or the drawings of Georges Seurat. Revealing little more than drywall, metal framing, primer, and some hanging canvas, the economy of language in this piece is striking. [1] Passing around and through it gives such a clear sense of its completeness that it's no wonder Sibony felt the need to physically cut it out of his work space. However he managed that, it was worth it; with a couple of other pieces offering an even greater economy of materials and arrangement, Sibony's presence in the museum has a singular authority.

Midway through the exhibition, Sergej Jensen offers up one of those minimal compositions that strikes an iconic position in your mind almost before you've become aware of it. One of his three contributions to the show, this particular untitled arrangement of various sewn fabrics reposes in a muted palette of grays. It's a constructed fitting together of rectangles that you almost feel like you've seen before. But this familiarity, while it may allow you to pass by without too much consideration at first, keeps the piece with you, and you may find a nagging urge to keep returning to it, if for nothing else than to figure out what you must have missed.

Toward the end of the show you will find Paul Sietsema's Anticultural Positions, a gorgeous black and white film featuring close-up stills of the surfaces of the artist's work tables intercut with text modified from a 1951 lecture of the same title by Jean Dubuffet. The pairing has the sort of arbitrariness that went into collaborations between John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and it has that sort of success too. These two inputs compliment one another. An exceedingly close examination that can be likened in some ways to Chuck Close is kept from being tedious by the addition of Dubuffet's words, and those words in turn seem to make an effort relate to the changing images that precede and follow. Despite the separation of half a century, these two languages hold together quite well.

And before you escape the circuit of galleries you will encounter at last the great white expanse of Karla Black's Once Cut, a broad field of plaster powder sprinkled evenly across the gallery floor and interrupted by the addition of a few colorful bath soaps and liquids. It's a thing that makes you stop and wonder about it, whether you're new to art and questioning whether any of this is art at all, or if you're more experienced and trying to decide whether this composition and its materials hold together the way you expect. In either case, one thing is sure, you won't be able to see it at all if you don't make it out to this show.

  1. The museum gets a little carried away again, stating, "Sibony conjures the magical from the mundane." But hasn't that been the nature of art since, you know, forever? Paint being essentially mud and all that. Silly museum.
  2. The original version of this post featured a paragraph about the work of Jorge Macchi. It has been removed after further viewing caused me to rethink such high praise.

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