Jukebox Histories

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Charles Brittin, "Shirley Berman at the Ocean Park Pier," 1956.

Last night, at a bar beneath a Motel 8 on Sunset and Western, a friend and I got sucked into a great, mammoth of a Jukebox that’s quirky selection reminded us of a history short enough that our lives had overlapped with much of it, but long enough that many of the bands and artists on its sometimes hand-written leafs had receded so far back into memory we had to dig to pull them out—the Violent Femmes, for instance. Was that really the name of the band that gave Clare Danes’ precious “I’m free” moment in My So Called Life its infectious tempo?

Two Jukebox-like exhibitions are open in L.A. right now—one by a late artist who quietly lived through Venice Beach’s era of Beats, and another by an artist who’s lost himself in punk’s knotty trajectory by channeling a man whose whole life was colorful and loud, whether he meant it to be or not. Both are rich with real and fantastic historical gems, some as thrilling to [re]experience as the Violent Femmes and others a bit more ominous.

Charles Brittin (1928 – 2011) came to L.A. from Iowa at the end of the 1940s. Brittin fell in with Wallace Berman, the pensive artist who shunned the gallery world after an anonymous tip prompted police to raid his first-ever exhibition in search of pornography, and his crew of meditative, anti-establishment friends. The pictures Britton took of this group are among the best in West & South at Michael Kohn Gallery, a show that’s more encyclopedic than thematic, pairing Britton’s images of the California scene with his iconic photographs of the Civil Rights movement. The Venice pics are good because, unlike the gripping, clearly weighty photos of protests and demonstrations, they get at the quirky moments that make history seem like the pastiche of idiosyncrasies that it really is. A portrait of Wallace Berman’s wispy wife Shirley hangs right by the gallery’s front entrance and also graces the cover of the exhibition catalog. Shirley’s upturned hands glow in the Venice Beach sun, her eyes cross slightly, and she looks like an unsuspecting Joan of Arc who’s just been possessed by the spirit, her unruly hair flying up toward heaven.

Steven Bankhead, “Sex: A Monument to Malcolm McLaren,” 2011. Courtesy Emma Gray Headquarters, Los Angeles.

If unruly hair indicates inspiration, it would explain the success of Malcolm McLaren—manager to the Sex Pistols, among other sundry trades—and his complicated on-and-off partner, Vivienne Westwood. Both had short, curly locks that seemed to take on a life of their own, regardless of how carefully curated the rest of their physiques may have been. Artist Steven Bankhead has tackled the McLaren mystique in his current exhibition at Emma Gray Headquarters in Culver City. And the result is strangely subtle. Even the big, pink “SEX” sign—the gallery had to remove it from its exterior wall due to a neighborhood complaint—that echoes signage McLaren hung outside his London shop feels more adorable than aggressive. Bankhead has covered the walls of Emma Gray’s main space with large print-outs of a London cityscape that depict industrial mayhem in such a perfectly controlled, choreagraphed manner that they feel like what might have resulted if Fellini had rewritten 8 1/2 and set  it during Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

In the gallery’s office, Bankhead has installed a few balloon-ish pop paintings, much lighter in palette than the  black-and-white paper walls, but equally controlled. The paintings mimic those McLaren when still a young aspiring artist, before he’d become entwined with the Sex Pistols and early punk. They’re pink, yellow, orange and blue clouds against flat white or black backgrounds, Warholian and tenderly optimistic.

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren sitting in the Sex Shop, 1976.

Three years before McLaren died ( in 2010, a year ago almost exactly), he gave an interview to the Telegraph in which he described how he felt after becoming a teenage father in the early 70s to Westwood’s baby (she’d apparently spent the money he gave her for an abortion on a cashmere twinset). “I went into depression for a while, then decided to make myself a blue lamé suit, copying Elvis,” he explained, and he got Vivienne to help him. “That was the big change. I realised she was a gifted seamstress,” McLaren added, as if it was then, over the blue lamé meant to free him from his own version of post-partum despondency, that he discovered the fashion icon Vivienne would become.

Steven Bankhead’s light, pop paintings feel like that blue lamé, fun shapes that, if read into, tell a rich, weird story about how culture gets made.