July 10, 2010

A Less Shadowed Place

Dodie Bellamy and I had only a few hours to see what seemed beforehand to be an impossible number of shows in Los Angeles. First off we drove to the far side of Culver City to LAXART on La Cienega, where our San Francisco friend Colter Jacobsen was having his first solo show in Los Angeles (Searchin’ Vs Buildin’, through June 26). The show draws from different bodies of Colter’s work, stretching way back to the very first drawings of his I remember seeing, the “Woods in the Watchers” pictures he showed on one wall of his bedroom at Guerrero and 23rd Street in the Mission District of SF. The “Woods” pieces were conceptually skewed, timed drawings that he would stop after working on each after giving them each one hour of his time. The subjects are men who’d placed personal ads in old, pre-internet sex contact magazines, and even though they’d stripped off for the camera each one had left his watch on. Does leaving on one’s watch render one more or less helpless to the viewer’s gaze? Who was it said that if you take everything off, you’re nude, but if you leave one thing on, you’re naked? Why so often is it a watch? Is a watch so valuable you don’t dare abandon it even for sexual purposes? Colter’s pictures were revelatory to me way back when, and they still carry a lot of power… some of it stems from the degenerated materials he used to produce them, torn, trampled and dirty scraps of paper, on which the most meticulous drawings are laid out so exquisitely–contrast between content and venue.

These were the drawings Dodie showcased on an old issue of the internet site Suspect Thoughts she had been asked to guest edit, and if I remember right, Colter’s family saw them and got sort of upset with their X-ratedness. Some of the newer source material he has collected into his first book, FACELESS BOOK, guys (and some women) whose faces are obscured by the saturated flash of the I-phone camera, or by the subjects just scratching out their own faces before offering their jpegs on Craigslist or the like. Searchin’ Vs. Buildin’—what sort of title was that? Well, the “Searchin’” was a tribute to Colter’s favorite Bas Jan Ader, and in general the juxtaposition with “Buildin’” came from an interview Felix Gonzales Torres once gave, when asked about Althusser. “The theory in the book is to make you live better and that’s what, I think, all theory should do,” Felix remarked.  “It’s about trying to show you certain ways of constructing reality. I’m not even saying finding (I’m using my words very carefully), but there are certain ways of constructing reality that help you to live better […] Theory is not the end point of work, it is work along the way to the work. To read it actively is just a process that will hopefully bring us to a less shadowed place.”

Skylar Haskard, Tapestry # 1, 2010, mixed medium, 108 x 48”

From LAXART we went to Beverly Hills to the Garboushian Gallery (not the Gagosian Gallery!), a newish space on Camden Drive now hosting a double show that pairs two talented LA-based sculptors, Michael Rashkow and Skylar Haskard. I’ve met Skylar socially from time to time over the past few years. He is a friend of our friend Erlea Maneros, and until not too long ago he was Raymond Pettibon’s studio assistant—but we’d never seen any of his own work. We got a great parking spot and, buoyed by karma, approached the gallery with a careless jouissance—only to be jolted by the sign that says the space is open only from Monday till Friday. Confronted with such a sign, who doesn’t give the door a little push anyway? And surprise, it opened to our touch like something from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

Skylar Haskard, Liberty, 2010, mixed medium, 76 1/2 x 23”

Inside we met the proprietor, collector turned dealer Herair Garboushian, who showed us around with great equanimity, after we gave our story of being in LA only 24 hours and dying to see Skylar’s show. Which by the way, we loved. One sculptural work jolts to life each time you pass by its side and trigger its mechanism. It is called “Liberty,” and reduces femininity to the work of a machine in a cunning and hilarious way. Over its crotch a yellow ribbed dome would begin to rotate, like the sun, a sun marked “Feed Me.” Along another wall stood a life-size “Dog” made up of a few clever gestures, in the way of Calder or Saul Steinberg, wire suggesting its general shape and size, an ashtray dangling from hindquarters like a scrotum.

This work makes one cheer with excitement–his ingenuity and throwaway skill are noteworthy. I mean, teaching at an art school one sees a lot of artists trying to produce good work with bad materials, but few pull it off with any success. The gallery owner told us that many people had been by, curious, ever since LA patriarch John Baldessari had recommended Haskard (a former student of his at UCLA) at some recent public event. Garboushian wasn’t even supposed to be open on a Saturday, so I’m glad he was in for us.

Gallerist Herair Garboushian

From there we hit the Miracle Mile, at least one end of it, to run across the street and pull open the big doors of Marc Selwyn Fine Art. Nobody there took any notice of us one way or another, almost as if we were invisible. Maybe that fit the mood of Scott Treleaven’s “Cimitero Drawings.” I don’t know Scott Treleaven (except on Facebook) but we have copies of some of his spooky and ambitious books on our shelves, —and he is my friend on Facebook, a sort of lineage in this streamlined age.  Those kinds of things add up to a mystic brotherhood that doesn’t need secret handshakes nor sex magick to stay afloat.

Cimitero Drawing 1, 2010 Wax pastel, Flashe and collage on paper, 29 x 21.3 inches

From what I gathered going in, Scott had first photographed the statuary in a Milan cemetery, and then used some of the resulting photos as collage elements in these drawings, augmenting the grainy blacks, whites, silvers and grays with what look like wax crayons or acrylic or chalk (the labels say, “Flashe,” but I don’t know what that is). Selwyn’s press release suggests that Treleaven is performing an alchemical process of bringing the dead to life by adding both color and abstraction. Sometimes the statues remained visible even under the Flashe effects, sometimes they seemed to dim in the contrast, the way the moon seems to disappear when the sun rises behind it.

Each picture rustles with its own dynamic, like leaves turning in the wind. Treleaven spent some critical part of his youth in San Francisco during the mid-1990s homocore years. A piece in his collection The Salivation Army tells the story of meeting the dealer and artist Rick Jacobsen at a crucial moment in his own development…. one of those critical encounters in an artist’s development, like Gide meeting Oscar Wilde, or Nathalie Sarraute visiting Virginia Woolf, in which one’s destiny lies revealed and almost ordained.

I am drawn to Treleaven’s work at least in part for its eerie resemblance to the work of the midcentury San Francisco artists who clustered around poets Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser, quiet extremists like Harry Jacobus, Jess, Paul Alexander, Fran Herndon, Tom Field. “I would like the moon in my poems,” wrote Spicer, in After Lorca, “to be a real moon, one which could suddenly be covered with a cloud that has nothing to do with the poem—a moon utterly independent of images. The imagination pictures the real. I would like to point to the real, disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.”

Speaking of destiny, and speaking of the real, this was the weekend in LA in which John Baldessari’s huge retrospective was to open at LACMA, but that was on a Sunday. Few blocks from Marc Selwyn we stared up at Chris Burden’s giant installation of restored streetlamps and calculated that if we missed our plane on purpose, we could see Pure Beauty. But then we recalled that the print shop Gemini G.E.L. was having a little opening just down the street, on Melrose, in honor of a newly published catalogue raisonnée of Baldessari’s multiples and prints. And it was free and open to the public. (The party, not the book.) (Though the book was surprisingly reasonable for weighing twelve or 13 pounds.) So off we went. If ever you’re in LA looking for this Gemini G.E.L. just look around for the Alexander McQueen store on the corner, now suitably garbed in mourning black, and there is a Vivienne Westwood store “coming soon!” across the street. Christine Wertheim was there when we arrived, she is an artist and poet and teacher who lives in Highland Park and works at Cal Arts.

Later Dodie looked at the Baldessari book and said, “It can’t weigh twelve pounds.”  So we put it on the baby scale we use to weigh our cats on, and it came in at 7 lbs, 5 and a half ounces.  Still pretty hefty!

We threaded through showrooms, down hallways, past the restrooms, into a spacious and warm workspace filled with printing equipment, where we paused in front of a dour pair of Richard Serra prints and an extraordinary three-dimensional print (but how could it be?) of old fashioned ladies’ fans turned inside out and sculpted into a circular format by Ann Hamilton.

Ann Hamilton, but is it a print? Backroom, Gemini G.E.L., Melrose, West Hollywood

Eventually we diverged towards the expanse of a sunlit tent, where tables of strawberries, pretzels, dried apricots, water crackers and cheese lined one wall while John Baldessari himself handled a line of people who waited between the velvet ropes of admission. When we got there, there was no one on line, and Baldessari exchanged small talk with the publisher, who sat next to him and held open the book to its title page whenever someone came by, asking for their name or whoever they wanted the artist to sign the book to. I had my autograph book with me, but I already had a magnificent autograph from the man from a previous meeting, so this time I just decided to watch and banter with him. I will say he seemed relaxed, super relaxed, on the eve of his big moment. But maybe he had already done so much he could afford to joke around with his customary affability, he doesn’t seem to be an on-edge kind of guy.

Dodie, Christine and I stopped back at the hotel for a moment so I could change my clothes and then pressed on to see Aïda Ruilova and Raymond Pettibon at the latter’s high-ceilinged studio in Venice. The walls glistened with white space, strangely empty, since Pettibon has had two huge European shows in the past six months or so: one is up at Barbara Gladstone’s space in Brussels right now. Neither Aida nor Raymond had met Christine before, I think, though Raymond at least knew of her work with the Institute for Figuring, the large-scale knitting project which makes huge multinational knitted sculptures, on the Fibonacci scale, which then replicate some of the growth patterns of nature, like the conch shell or the coral reef. Then we tried finding a place in Venice that we could walk to without reservations—on a Saturday night, not so easy. Hal’s seemed promising, and the reservations girl said we might try sitting in the upstairs room. What was the downside? Well, some people didn’t like it because it was smaller and it was quiet. “We’ll be right down!” At dinner we talked about the first bands we had seen live. Raymond saw Mountain with Leslie West and Felix Pappalardi; Dodie interviewed Sky Saxon and the Seeds in high school; Aïda’s dad took her to see Sha Na Na when she was a child. I remember seeing Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs in high school, and Neil Diamond when he was singing acoustic type songs like “Solitary Man” and “Cherry Cherry.” Yikes! But I come from a part of the world where Billy Joel was playing in garage bands at homecoming dances. Afterwards we went back to the studio where after much persuasion, Aïda gave us a sample of her new video in the making, a horror thriller—well, sort of—called “Goner.” We could only watch it on her laptop, and one of us at a time got to plug in the ear -buds, and since much of the drama and the Grand Guignol came from the sound, we were getting gooseflesh from the suspense of what was going to happen next, sound-wise. I can only imagine what terror this film is going to inspire at its premiere in La Conservera Center for Contemporary Art in Murcia (Spain) this week. Goner takes place in a highly constructed studio set, with a lavish white heart-shaped bed for its star, an unknown actress who looks strangely familiar, and who undergoes savage maltreatment from an unseen enemy. Ruilova’s slow pans around the room reassure us that everything will be all right, and then wham! An invisible knife flies through the air and slashes the star in a welter of blood. The alternating silence and heavy breathing are heart-stopping. One after another of us had on those headphones and you could see them shake and react uncontrollably. It is not for the faint-hearted. Ruilova knows more about horror films than anyone I know, and she has beautifully combined elements of Psycho, Repulsion, Halloween, Cat People, The Shining, et al, while interrogating the whole narrative apparatus of fear and desire.
Oh, and the first band Christine saw was, of all things, Led Zeppelin—in Australia (February 1972).

Christine Wertheim, Kevin Killian, Raymond Pettibon, Aida Ruilova, Hal’s Place, upstairs, quiet, small, Venice California

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