Too Many Mountains

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

Joel Kyak, "Pine Woods Municipal Band Tryouts," Corner diptych, 2011. Courtesy Francois Ghebaly Gallery

As a kid, I lived in a Seattle suburb for a year. We could see Mt. Baker out the living room window – the whole, majestic mountain was right there, nearly always in plain view. Before that, my family had lived in Chicago and Minneapolis, where there are hills and “bluffs” but no real mountains. When I told the other kids this, that I’d come from a place without mountains, most thought I was pulling one over. I remember, when the dad of one disbelieving six-year-old got transferred to  Minnesota, thinking, “now he’ll see.”

Probably, I’d seen mountains in picture books before I had Mt. Baker constantly in my line of site, but even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have doubted the existence mountains. But I guess  it’s easier to believe in what you haven’t seen than to believe that, somewhere else, what you have seen doesn’t exist.

Joel Kyak, 2011. Courtesy Francois Ghebaly Gallery.

Joel Kyack, 2011. Courtesy Francois Ghebaly Gallery

You don’t have to believe in mountains to appreciate Joel Kyack’s new show at Francois Ghebaly Gallery; you just have to believe that other people do.  The show riffs on the metaphorical weightiness we ascribe to time—time is regeneration, the source of change, the source of continuity, finite and yet seemingly never-ending, fast-moving and yet slow enough to have lasted forever—and it’s the idea of the big, tall mountain that stands in for that weightiness. This all sounds serious, but it’s actually not. Mostly, Escape to Shit Mountain, which has the irreverence of a Mike Kelley installation without any of the self-deprecation, is farcical, colorful and fun.

Five big, diorama-like tableaux on panels lean against the gallery walls. Two sets of these are diptychs including Pine Woods Municipal Band Tryouts, which you’ll notice first because it’s making a tooting noise. On the left panel in the diptych, you’ll see the stump of a tree sticking out of a terrain of cartoon rocks and plants, some painted flat onto the wood some protruding, sculpted out of what I assume to be foam. The tree trunk has arms—very poorly defined ones—and it’s playing a trumpet. Drips of brown paint slide down the panel, which has also been spattered with spots of painted snow.The panel beside it has a similar terrain, and the figure of a man in plaid is seen planting a tree. His skinny sculpted knees rest on a bit of scaffolding and he has a trumpet coming out of his butt. So the emblems of age and regeneration are both blowing their own horns.

Joel Kyak, "Good Things Come (To Those Who Wait?)," corner diptych, 2011, wood, hardware cloth, newspaper, acrylic paint, spray paint, sand, artificial plants, astroturf, foam, tin cans, fake crow, cardboard tube, zip ties, rocks, artificial limbs, 6 feet x 5 feet x 4 feet each. Courtesy Francois Ghebaly Gallery

Then there’s Snowblind, the snowy mountainside tableau with a kitchen sink (nothing but) that streams continually black water growing up out of it, and Good Things Come (To Those Who Wait?), another leaning diptych in which the grave stones of two people laid to rest on a mini golf course communicate via tin-can telephone. The stones—they have arms, of course—exude contentedness. Being dead in a golf course must not be so bad. A kiddie pool fountain with fake primates standing over it and a few pop bottle hourglasses filled with Pacific Ocean sand drive home the point that time is finite and that it’s not. In other words, they don’t drive home much of a point at all. Which is why I liked Kyack’s show the night I first saw it, during a mess of Culver City and Santa Monica openings, many of which focused on history more directly, by actually  showing historical work.

Pacific Standard Time (PST), L.A. art’s Getty-backed six-month celebration of it’s own 1945-1980 history and something I’ve probably mentioned in this column too many times already, means an unprecedented number of institutions and galleries are making a plug for the city’s historical provenance. There’s a mountain of “historical art” to see, and to shrug off it’s important, would be to shrug off L.A.’s claim to fame. Apparently, Kyack’s Shit Mountain is officially part of PST (though galleries didn’t receive funding), and that’s part of the fun, because the show, completely made up of new work, seems to be saying, “History? It’s everywhere; in fact, it’s as widespread as B.S.”  And work with a sense of humor is fun to look at, whether it’s from 1949, 1971, or today.