• Los Angeles Plays Itself as Itself

    Everyone in Los Angeles has a fetish for Los Angeles.

    I mean, particularly for this old Hollywood haunt vibe (anywhere circa 1920s to 60s), and I’m talking particularly of the art(s) crowd, whatever that means today. The romantics vie for Musso’s, the kinky ones frequent Taix and pronounce it without the x (the freaky ones with the x), the masochists prefer Dan Tana’s, and all of these and the rest still go to the Chateau, with some stragglers taking notes on the sites Eve Babitz writes of that remain in business. I could go on, with the group divisions between Lucy’s, Pacific Dining Car, The Apple Pan, the Los Angeles Breakfast Club (do you know the handshake? — maybe there’s an age maximum for this one), and those that swim between the Los Angeles Athletic Club (I only go for the drinks) and the Langham. Eight times out of ten when I cross the street from my car to an opening I hear a truck drive by blasting Little Julian Herrera!

    I’m embarrassed to say that I am in no way an innocent bystander in this, waiting for my Norma Desmond non-moment moment as I write this across from the spinning 1936 Crossroads of the World sign situated within a deluge of nautical and cottage-themed bungalows. And in no way was the past week’s art fair madness not complicit in it either, with three major art fairs in Hollywood premised on or precisely located at these histories.

    At a Frieze week kickoff lunch for the official launch of Barbara Kruger’s WHO BUYS THE CON mural on the facade of NeueHouse Hollywood, I was seated next to someone who works for the city on the preservation of historical landmarks. He’s the one you go to when you want to produce a mural — even if you’re Barbara Kruger — on a Los Angeles historical landmark that was the original 1938 CBS studios. I was so ecstatic to be next to him, prying him for new old places to check out, but all he offered me was what was being turned into housing. It seemed he had a very liberal take on preservation.

    He left before dessert came out and before I could ask him how Frieze managed to be at the Paramount studios, Art Los Angeles Contemporary at the Hollywood Athletic Club (now defunct as a club and only hired out for big Hollywood studio parties), and Felix at the Roosevelt. It’s a downright orgy and I don’t mean it in the sense of lovers, past, current and in between, caressing others’ faces (meaning not mine) or handing me flowers at the ancient castles or Japanese hilltop-restaurants of Los Angeles; or crushes rubbing faces and lips with others (such as a Real Housewife, of the show, that is, as a friend found out the next day) outside of the bar in the fair’s after-hours. It’s an orgy in the sense of this perverse fixation on “old” and “Hollywood” and the both together.

    So what is it with this historical-that’s-not-actually-historical representation of Los Angeles? My friend Ted told me the other day that if he were in charge of an art fair it would be at the Slauson Swap Meet, something more true to LA. But then I remembered the first time we hung out we went to Colombo’s — his idea. The Australian-British gentlemen next to me at Kruger’s lunch also noted that we in Los Angeles are so attached to this history because we don’t have much history around us. Having just come back from four months in Paris, I can attest to this. No one in Paris chooses to go to “old haunts”… there’s nothing else there. And as someone with a particular investment in alternative historical narratives given she has had little and little access to archives of belonging and family, I am both disgusted and relieved by my participation in this fixation. This is all to say that rather than being focused on the facade of art at these fairs, I was much more hooked on and turned on by the literal facades — and that the facade perhaps is the truest testament to Los Angeles. (I think of the Dodger stadium facade, which precisely resurrects the ghost of Chavez Ravine.)

    Vincent Ramos’s Frieze Project Room in the backlot consisted of the facades of the archive. Wolf Songs for the Dead (2020) specifically reflects on the Paramount Pictures archives and the gaps and stereotypes of Chicanx and Mexican representation within them. Sayre Gomez’s works, on the other hand, demonstrate an interest in facades of a different kind: the poetics inscribed on the various urban surfaces of Los Angeles in his solo exhibition at the Ghebaly booth and the facade of nature in Palm Tree Cell Tower (2020) — the namesake making quite obvious the simulation.

    Sayre Gomez, Tocayo 2020, 2020. High-density polyethylene, aluminum, high density carbon steel, EPS foam, enamel, acrylic, stainless steel, nylon.
    19 x 8 x 8 feet (579 x 244 x 244 cm). Installation view from Frieze Los Angeles 2020 Projects, curated Rita Gonzalez and Pilar Tompkins Rivas. Courtesy of the Artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

    While contextually the art fairs seem to be — simultaneously both semi-intentionally and indulging in the Kool-Aid, I would presume — predicated on Baudrillard’s treatise Simulacra and Simulation in relation to Los Angeles particularly, I think this goes beyond the real/non-real binaries and the portrait of the city as simply and reducibly veneer. The veneer is so painfully thin here that it becomes translucent, making obvious the destruction it has hidden. I’m thinking about this in the sense of applying Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text to the Fairs’ version of Los Angeles: “Neither culture nor its destruction is erotic; it is the seam between them, the fault, the flaw, which becomes so.” We can see these erotics at play precisely in this seam/fault/flaw configuration, which can even be extended to a gap — a facade of a seam. Given LA’s apocalyptic nature (people think utopian dreams are actually nightmares), it is the methods and means that bring this sort of destruction and these violent overlooked histories merged with culture, art, and society that invites the erotic — instituting a forgetting, or a lame excuse. In other words, look no further than the napkins at Jack Nicholoson-approved haunt El Cholo, which read: “‘Virginia, you’ll wonder that I haven’t been home for dinner lately- your opposition is not a blonde, it’s the El Cholo, 1121 S. Western, C.K.’ ~ the Los Angeles Times personal ad, March 21, 1935.”

    Alex Olson, Today, 2020, oil and modeling paste on canvas, 71 × 50 inches (180.34 × 127.00 cm)
    Courtesy of the artist; Park View/Paul Soto, Los Angeles; and Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco; photo credit: Jeff Mclane

    But of course, there are honorable mentions of new works I saw at Frieze like Alake Shilling’s vibrant, multi-textured tableaux at the Jeffrey Deitch booth, Alex Olson’s hypnotizing oil and modeling-paste paintings at Park View/Paul Soto, and the fantastical and utterly immoral vanity mirror sculptures series Your Fantasy My Tyranny (2020) by Miriam Laura Leonardi at Bel Ami. Also, a kudos to Jenny’s for their The Dollhouse Bar, a makeshift bar featuring painted works by Pentti Monkkonen. Various friends mentioned to me that the bar was up and running until their next-door brunch favorite pop-up complained of cigarette ash discards tainting their something akin to Chaga-infused atmosphere. Fungi and ash don’t mix. I, unfortunately, did not see the bar fully functioning, but was able to enjoy the sights of Monkkonen’s works. Otherwise, the white walls and fair culture, unsurprisingly, diluted the essence of Marlene Dietrich having had walked across the same ground and so I looked instead for J.Lo and Justin Bieber, who were apparently concurrently walking the fairgrounds. Realistically, who wants to look at art at an art fair in a Hollywood movie studio? I have $6 lattes to buy and people (J.Lo and Justin Bieber) to see. Although I did try: I spent six hours at Frieze attempting to leave the backlot to get into the inside of the fair, but was distracted by small talk, apparent gift cards in the hundred dollar range at the Matches booth, and, quite frankly, sunshine coupled with an excessively obnoxious headache from the night prior.

    Installation shot of The Dollhouse Bar. Courtesy of the artist and Jenny’s, Los Angeles.

    Felix was no different. You run into people, but not in the rooms that house each art space or gallery. You run into people at the pool and it’s the type of fair you do want to run into people and you do want to just be poolside the majority of the time. They still haven’t figured out the elevator situation, so I don’t see why anyone would bother standing in line to get to the upper floor rooms. I did enjoy the Jill Soloway-curated Judy Chicago works lining up the wait to the elevator, but the anxiety of missing poolside time was far too much. Modeled after the alternative Gramercy International Art Fair at the Chateau Marmont, Felix felt most like Eve’s Hollywood. That could be because the Roosevelt, where Felix is held, is right across from Babitz’s alma mater Hollywood High. But I would like to think that I could see Eve walking through the cabana rooms on her way to the pool to order a drink. It does feel glamorous in a risqué sort of way (the best way), seeing gallery directors’ toothbrushes next to pricey canvases. Otherwise, all I can remember of Felix is all the cat art and the more interventionist and exciting room of Sweetwater, Berlin where the decorative wall bases of the hotel room were torn off and re-attached to install Constantin Thun’s 2020 work. The work is composed of the text which functions as the title of the work: You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else. I thought of this text especially when I went to the Coffee Bean nearby the Roosevelt and saw two women dressed in full on latex-cat-drip sipping their coffees by the windows. More cat art. Absolutely sublime.

    Judy Chicago at Felix, photo: Adam Davis/BFA.com.

    Eventually, I had to pull myself away from all the feline frenzy and head over to Art Los Angeles Contemporary (ALAC) at the old athletic club, formerly frequented by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Given that the Hollywood Athletic Club only opens now for exclusive Hollywood industry parties, it was pretty thrilling to be able to walk the space running into the club’s original frescoes and tall, gilded mirrors with hand-painted sculptures of Rudolph Valentino. On the whole, however, the most compelling works were outside of the fairs: Lauren Halsey’s mesmerizing show at Kordansky, Gelare Khoshgozaran’s LIKELY MINE at Visitor Welcome Center on the materiality and semantics of both exposure and surveillance, the ICA Los Angeles’s double feature of the fantastical Ree Morton and Ann Greene Kelly, the innovative shows, Boybrain at Real Pain Fine Arts and Polly at Insect, and the Alison Gingeras-curated restaging and expansion of Peter Selz’s 1959 MoMA exhibition New Images of Man exhibition at Blum & Poe. The Gingeras-curated show focuses on both defining and undefining humanism viathe demarcations and subsequent disparate valuing of such — something to think about in this particular political and heighted anthropogenic /biometric-state/interspecies-solidarity moment. Most compelling is the intellectual, cathartic call for solidarity in such alienating times through works by Deanna Lawson, Lee Lozano, Ahmed Morsi, and Misleidys Castillo Pedroso, among others.

    More cats near Felix.

    In his The Stars down to Earth: The Stars down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, Theodor Adorno equates astrology to authoritarianism exceptionally through alienation. He argues this through the pseudo-rational, ready-made, alienated (from experience and relations) sensibilities of astrology or the commercialized occult particularly through Los Angeles Times daily column “Astrological Forecasts” by astrologist-to-the-movie-stars Carroll Righter between 1952 and 1953. The tie to Los Angeles is, of course, uncanny. I’m not the first to admit that I have made some pretty big life decisions off of astrology app Costar (the real ones go for The Pattern). In his argument Adorno states:

    Indulgence in astrology may provide those who fall for it with a substitute for sexual pleasure of a passive nature. It means primarily submission to unbridled strength of the absolute power. However, this strength and power ultimately derived from the father image has become completely depersonalized in astrology. Communion with the stars is an almost unrecognizable and therefore tolerable substitute of the forbidden relation with an omnipotent father figure. People are allowed to enjoy communion with absolute strength in as much as it is considered no longer human. It seems likely that the fantasies about world destruction and ultimate doom appearing in more extremist astrological publications than the Los Angeles Times column are connected with this ultimately sexual content in as much as they are the last vestige of the individual expression of guilt feelings grown as unrecognizable as their libidinal source. Apart from this zone, the stars mean sex without threat.

    While Adorno goes into stars of a different kind, it’s not that far from what I’ve been talking about. Commercialized astrology, according to Adorno, indulges us in all our fantasies and promises them to us without actualization given we conform to what is dished out to us. We hand over our thinking capacities and autonomy over for intellectual shortcuts and fast, non-sustaining libidinal rewards. It’s not unlike how we all talk about having to completely delete Instagram: “it’s so toxic.” It’s as if merely saying it banishes away any toxicity, we do know better and demonstrate by verbiage rather than actualizing. The actual faux pas is making the social media call out that you are going to be off the grid and suddenly two days later, @user is posting again. Self-destruction at an apocalyptic all-time high.

    RM22, Weeds of the Northeast #4, 1974
    Watercolor, crayon, pencil, and colored pencil with glitter on printed paper, 18 ¾ × 24 ¾ in. (47.6 × 62.9 cm)
    © The Estate of Ree Morton; courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York. Collection of Kathleen and Douglas Landy.

    It’s both tantalizing to play spectator to this and cringe as the voyeur to total destruction that we can see mirrored onto ourselves. Witness to this, we cannot deny that we become further detached from material and each other. In short, total submission, sex, and apocalyptic destruction, yet still within a safe distance. And, contemporarily, this is through the combination of social media and Adorno’s commercial astrology. I’m not quite sure that encompasses Los Angeles, but a side of it for sure. It’s how I feel every time I walk into HMS Bounty. And the art fairs seem to certainly sustain this status quo.