Touchy Feely on a Hot Day

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

Miles Huston, "Willy in the Wonka factory," 2010, colored pencil on rag paper

Every art space I visited last weekend was particularly hot. The Museum of Public Fiction was muggy. So was Monte Vista Projects, and Human Resources L.A.’s Cottage Home space was definitely hotter inside than out. Because the Human Resources space is so big and its current show, Touchy Feely, sort of feels like an overthought, partly irreverent nature museum that’s still under construction, the heat seemed appropriate; it was like you’d pulled off the road in a state park and gone in to a visitor’s-center/museum to discover not only that the air conditioning unit was broken but that plastic bags were now considered fair game in the exhibits.

The activity in the gallery contributed to this feeling. A man I assumed to be artist Mile Huston, since it’s his sculpture Nature Machine that was under construction, was rushing to set up a tower of industrial-sized ice cubes inside a trough-like contraption, wet from sweat and melting ice. A group of baby boomers who seemed more like proud relatives than art gallery regulars were wandering around commenting on what they saw. I overheard one man say to another, “So they’re manipulating materials over there, and they’re manipulating materials over here. The question is, what does it all mean?”

Installation view of "Touchy Feely." Photo by Tryharder.

Said by a recent art school grad, it might have sounded pompous, but said by a guy who resembled a curious dad? It sounded more or less right, especially for a show like Touchy Feely, which really does knowingly include an awful lot of material manipulation. Everything from fish tanks to tennis balls, plastic bags, collected dandruff, and found artifacts in vitrines stew together in the downstairs gallery.

Curated by artist Peter Harkawik and prompted by architect and critic Kenneth Frampton’s concept of “critical regionalism,” an idea he developed in the 1980s, the show explores whether artist-made objects  can interrupt the proliferation of “placeless” modern space, acting as bridges between globalism and the specifics of local culture.

Jørn Utzon, Bagsvaerd Church, 1973–6, Denmark; an example of "critical regionalism" in architecture.

The best works in Touchy Feely are those that are immediately idiosyncratic but explicitly well-organized, like Lisa Lapinski’s untitled C-print of flashes of arresting color painted on green cinder blocks and Erik Frydenborg’s typological diptych made up of polyurethane mountains and crevices arranged on canvas. They’re material manipulations that compensate for lack of understanding—Lapinski or Frydenborg probably don’t know “what it all means,” though they certainly know what material they’re interested in manipulating—with compositional clarity. As a result, their work is conventionally attractive as well as weirdly specific.

I don’t know if I would have liked Touchy Feely as much if it hadn’t been hot and if there hadn’t been great eavesdropping opportunities, but, as it were, the show was an experience, a particularly local experience, and thus a success.