Written by Nicolas Garait-Leavenworth, Gunnar B. Kvaran and Thierry Raspail
LOS ANGELES – A FICTION
Los Angeles is often referred to through clichés related to its climate, to Hollywood and to lifestyle in general, but there is another side to Los Angeles, a darker side, which has to do with the complexity of society in terms of race and class. It is also a place where most of our global entertainment is being conceived and a city that has produced impressive universities and art schools and enjoys a vibrant art and cultural scene. Los Angeles is a city with a flourishing diversity of artists who have created their own visions and artistic languages within the same social and geographical environment, but which have taken them on different routes.
Los Angeles has always been a land of mythologies. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, real-estate developers launched a campaign to get people to move to the city. Referred to as "Arcadia", a land of sun and ocean breeze, it was offered as the answer to the perfect life. Hollywood (its famous sign an old real-estate hoarding) came later, becoming the "dream factory". Today, Los Angeles is surrounded by stories that place the city on the floating frontiers between fiction and reality.
Los Angeles – A Fiction presents a selection of these stories to create a subjective view of Los Angeles where a multitude of narratives generate a flowing synergy between the artworks. The spectator is invited to experience them visually but also intellectually and sensually, "reading" and discovering within each of the works its own specific narrative. We have chosen to look at the city of Los Angeles both through the works of visual artists and through the texts of writers and poets living and working in Los Angeles, works that give a fictional view nourished by reality. The artists in the exhibition range from those whose famous works have become synonymous with Los Angeles to younger figures who, in their own time, are representing their experiences of the city. In the form of a book, we also present a subjective selection of literature written in or about Los Angeles over the last 50 years. Excerpts from these writings are organised so that they, in turn, tell a story that acts as an amplification of the artworks. These literary texts written in or about Los Angeles emphasise the fictional nature of the exhibition.
This is not a survey of the art history of Los Angeles; nonetheless, a number of the artists in the show are artistic pioneers and icons within the Los Angeles and international art scene. In the late 1950s, filmmaker Kenneth Anger introduced into the home of Hollywood his surrealist-inspired experimental films, visually layered and charged with occultism and homoerotic narratives. He is one of the American cinematic icons who later became extremely influential for younger American filmmakers and the world of music videos. From the 1960s, which can be seen as the beginning of the "Golden age" of Californian contemporary art, the exhibition includes David Hockney, an Englishman who lived in Los Angeles at that time and, with his personal figurative language based on exceptional drawing skills, gave a certain social class in Los Angeles an image of themselves, and the rest of the world an image of Los Angeles. Billy Al Bengston adopts military signs and industrial materials and technics related to motorcycles and surfing, introducing a very West Coast look to the Pop Art. Ed Ruscha looked to the entertainment industry for inspiration, but also to everyday images of gasoline stations and city landscapes, becoming the West Coast representative of Pop. Larry Bell, one of the pioneers of Minimalism, invented, together with Robert Irwin, a new type of sculpture termed Light and Space, where they rethought the basic fundaments of the sculptural object. John Baldessari initiated a personal type of Conceptual painting, emphasising the powerful synergy and relationship between images and texts.
The complexity and the diversity of artistic expression becomes even more accentuated in the 1980s and 1990s, and the artists whom we have selected are among the most important of those researching new possibilities within photography (John Divola, Catherine Opie), paintings and sculpture (Paul McCarthy, Henry Taylor, Charles Ray, Meg Cranston, Laura Owens) and installations (William Leavitt, Alexis Smith).
The beginning of the new century has been a time of innovation, seeing a true effervescence built on the use of new media and an original way of conceptualising narratives inspired by MTV and the popular film and entertainment industry (Ryan Trecartin/Lizzie Fitch, Nicole Miller, Michele O’Marah, Martine Syms, Tala Madani). There is also an stimulating continuation of the West Coast sculpture tradition (Evan Holloway, Kaari Upson, Hannah Greely, Kelly Akashi, Samara Golden, Nancy Lupo) and a return to painting by artists who explore intuitive expression and the art of deformation related to the body (Rodney McMillian), or who revisit and reinvent figurative painting (Jonas Wood, Alex Israel, Brian Calvin, Math Bass).
In the overall narrative there are artists who suggest and define L.A. by emphasising the specific light of California, while others relate to the entertainment industry. Some use the figure to suggest the behaviour of certain groups of people or social classes, the psychology of human existence and social issues, revealing symbolic and phantasmagorical visions, while others evoke the artificiality of Hollywood and images and narratives around the L.A. mythologies. Others address aesthetics, gender and identity, illusions and personal stories of friendship. The Afro-American community appears in naïve-style paintings of family members, sports and politics, or in references to the current manifestations of racism. There are images of empty houses, vandalism and violence, of sci-fi-inspired apocalyptic visions. There are concerns with systems and controls related to our everyday life, manipulated through fashion, cars, highways and colours. There are gender issues and homoeroticism; 3D still-lives, plants and lamps, middle-class interiors; landscapes, heatwaves, snakes and the struggle for survival; bedsheets, dirty mattresses collected from the streets; body parts, pain, teenagers’ faces; doors creating limits, frontiers, private and public spaces.
All these narratives and fragments of narratives make up a story of existence in Los Angeles that will reverberate in the literature that has been chosen and curated within the frame of the exhibition. Visual and text-based narratives go hand in hand, adding to the synergy of the works and the experience of visitors. Our literary selection starts and end with texts by Joan Didion, as a sort of oblique homage. It also opens with commissioned texts from Angela Flournoy and James Frey. Flournoy, raised in Southern California and author of the enthralling Turner House (2015 National Book Award Finalist), wrote Stars on the Strip, a very moving text about her youth, hanging around Sunset Boulevard. James Frey's contribution Yesterday, Could be Today, maybe Tomorrow – very much in the same vein as his astonishing Bright Shiny Morning (2008) – tells the tale of the Château Marmont, probably the most famous hotel in L.A., and of the characters who pass through its lobby, rooms and swimming pool.
From the 1965 Watts riots (Walter Mosley) to the 1992 South Central protests (Nina Revoyr, Ryan Gattis), from O.J. Simpson (Dominick Dunne) to Sharon Tate (Vincent Bugliosi) and back again, excerpts are purposefully not in chronological or alphabetical order, their lengths differ from one extract to another, some books are quoted twice and a number or writers appear numerous times.. This selection should not be taken as an exhaustive anthology about Los Angeles – an impossible task. Rather, we have organised the chosen extracts so that they tell a story that complements the artworks, not only to give a glimpse of the great diversity of subjects prompted by Los Angeles, but also of the sheer number of communities, characters and landscapes that make up the city.
The exhibition is a collaboration between the Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, Norway and Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyon, France, and is co-curated by Gunnar B. Kvaran (AFM), Thierry Raspail (MAC Lyon) and artist Nicolas Garait-Leavenworth, assisted by an advisory board including Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Galleries, London), Ali Subotnick (Hammer Museum, Los Angeles) and artist Alex Israel.