Another End to Irony: DS Archives

Originally published on September 3rd, 2009

Second Nature, currently on view at the UCLA Hammer Museum, provides a freshly intelligent glimpse into Los Angeles’ past decade, depicting a world in which art can insouciantly assert itself without resorting to contrivance.

1. “‘There’s going to be a seismic change,” said Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter after 9/11. “I think it’s the end of the age of irony. Things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear.” But, of course, Carter kept right on publishing his sleek, ad-filled nucleus of frivolity and irony kept thriving.

Rubi Neri The Lioness.jpg
Ruby Neri. Untitled (Lioness), 1998-1999. 102 x 63 x 44 1/2 inches. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Gift of Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson. Image courtesy of the artist, and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

The Age of Irony seemingly began at the same time Seinfeld did, slipping into living rooms and intoxicating Americans with its self-consciously cynical pose just as the 1980s edged toward their close. Irony then wound through the ’90s and into the 21st Century with relative ease, making ‘post’–postmodern, post-postmodern, post-feminist, post-colonial–and ‘meta’ catch phrases for anyone who wanted to sound coolly intellectual (though, to be fair, the desire to flaunt jaded braininess has haunted humans for centuries).

Comically, the age rotates around an endlessly misused word. Irony, which technically refers to the gap between what people say and what they mean, has come to reference a giddy inability to take one’s self seriously. It makes sincerity passe and fawns over contrivance.

Art has enjoyed an ironic era of its own, one in which Jeff Koons, with his over-produced kitsch, and Damien Hirst, with his lavishly self-referential artifacts, still serve as godfathers to the younger artists who rehash their cultural parodies. Anselm Reyle, with his organically obtuse composites of bronze and chrome, or Shinique Smith, with her bales of discarded clothing, abandon the mass-produced professionalism of Koons and Hirst but maintain a wry distance from the consumption they mimic.

Graydon Carter spoke too soon, as did a host of other post 9/11 commentators who thought that tragedy would be met with a rush of earnestness. But perhaps he also spoke too decisively. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wry distance or self-conscious irony; they’re part of life. But getting close and vulnerable and taking things seriously should be part of life too.

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Martin Kersels. MacArthur Park, 1996. 62 x 32 x 24 in. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Gift of Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson. Image courtesy of the artist and ACME., Los Angeles.

2. The Los Angeles art scene has longed to be taken seriously since its infancy. But the strange thing about LA, a self-fashioned meritocracy with limited cultural history and little respect for East Coast hierarchies, is that its aversion to history and structure led to an aversion to change.

Irving Blum, co-owner of Ferrus–the LA gallery that first showed Andy Warhol–, observed in LA “a general hostility to anything new.” Said Blum, “In the one place where that hostility had no right to exist, one encountered that kind of hostility.” Lack of legacy nullified the excitement that usually accompanies breaks from the past and West Coast artists who wanted to innovate succeeded only if they built up East Coast or European support.

The climate has certainly changed since Blum’s 1960s hey-day; the city has produced Ed Ruscha, Chris Burden, John Baldessari, Bruce Nauman, and Charles Ray and few on the outside question its legitimacy. Yet the LA art scene still seems more fixated on how the outside world views it than how it views itself.

3. Collector Eli Broad, who opened the Broad Contemporary on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum last year, said “people don’t remember cities and civilization for their lawyers and their accountants; they’re remembered for their artists and their architecture.” He emphasized, in speeches and interviews surrounding his art center’s inauguration, the value of memory and reputation, of building LA up so the rest of world could appreciate its glory.

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Nathan Mabry. A Touching Moment (Tooting My Own Horn), 2005. 60 x 42 x 30 inches. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Gift of Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson. Image courtesy of the artist, and Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles.

Broad’s eagerness to promote reflected badly on the city he loves. Desperately wanting to be taken seriously suggests that you don’t know how take yourself seriously.

4. Second Nature, the Hammer’s current exhibition of work from the collection of Dean Valentine, addresses these questions of irony and self-image by downplaying them. The work disregards the need for outside legitimacy, engaging Los Angeles because it comes from Los Angeles and belongs to Los Angeles.

Even the title, Second Nature, connotes an inherent comfort. If something is second nature to you, you experience it unguardedly without giving cynicism a chance to take over.

5. Matt Johnson’s The Pianist, a hefty origami piano and player made out of an over-sized blue tarp, is like a joke told so well it demands respect. Something as utilitarian as a tarp has been brought to a craft as delicate as origami, and something as refined as a grand piano has been made unwieldy.

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Matt Johnson. The Pianist (after Robert J. Lang), 2005. 58 x 134 x 78 inches. Courtesy of the artist, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, and Taxter & Spengemann, New York.

Though Second Nature may slip out from under the Age of Irony’s canopy, the show is still full of witty surprises and inexplicable diversions–without these, the exhibition wouldn’t be human.

6. When Broad said cities “are remembered for their artists and their architecture,” he assigned artists a role they’ve been cagey about for a few decades now. Isn’t creating a legacy presumptuous? And isn’t working with prosperity in mind a sure way to miss the moment?

In Evan Holloway‘s Dichotic Sculpture, two asymmetrical towers–they function as speakers, though they’re screens are made of stockings–filled with buckets and cans play a haphazard version of Pachelbel‚Äôs Canon. Technology becomes crude as an aged masterpiece loses its legibility inside speakers, the very equipment invented to keep music circulating.

Imitation and repetition characterize a canon like Pachelbel’s; instruments join each other, building up the melody over time. But Holloway’s sculpture works backward, suggesting that imitation and repetition can’t always be trusted to recreate a predetermined standard of quality.

Stephen G. Rhodes installation, Recurrency, hinges on imitation too. The three channel video, projected around a strange tall lynching structure tangled in neon rope, remaps Ambrose Bierce‘s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” While the protagonist of Bierce’s 1891 story, mistaken for a spy, decisively dies by hanging (despite his imagined escape), Rhodes’ protagonist endlessly runs from death, closes in on freedom, then is pulled back to his execution. The executioners become indifferent, but executing is their job, so they keep retying the noose. Rhode’s Recurrency, perhaps like history itself, resembles a bad dream that’s only bad at first; then, as it eases out of terror and into redundancy, you get swept up in its rhythm.

7. Hannah Greely’s Molly and Johnny may provide the show’s most ironic moment, and Greely wields irony in the most precise, Webster’s appropriate way. Two Budweiser bottles, hand-made and hand-painted, are side by side. One stands while the other has shattered into a pool of beer-colored resin. Molly and Johnny are the opposite of what they mean. The two objects objectively appear unimportant, but only because, at first glance, it’s hard to understand how difficult it can be to craft something commonplace without silencing its flaws.

Unoriginal, silly, deflated, and rejected things can be handled beautifully and crafted carefully without being un-broken, which suggests that brokenness might actually be a form of wholeness.

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Katie Grinnan. Wizard, 2004. Friendly plastic, spray paint, laminated inkjet prints and beanbag. 83 x 63 x 72 in. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Gift of Dean Valetine and Amy Adelson. Image courtesy of the artist and ACME., Los Angeles.

8. The work in Second Nature doesn’t attempt to presciently survey a moment, but it’s of a moment, a moment in which artists made art that engaged life rather than parodied it.

Dean Valentine, the cultural connoisseur and media mogul who’s timely collection of contemporary Los Angeles art makes up Second Nature, has apparently left this era behind and turned his attention to neoclassical drawings and conceptualists of an earlier generation. Valentine talks about collecting in the way many artists talk about phases of their career–an idea or movement catches his attention, he dives into it fully, embraces it, explores it, and then gets caught up in a new idea, abandoning the old one with minimal regret.

This sort of transience is what makes Second Nature so compelling. It fixates only on objects and the roles they play in helping us understand right now. Who cares if everything is about to change.