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

Andrea Zittel, Installation view, Regen Projects II, Los Angeles, September 16 - October 29, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. Photo by Brian Forrest.

Junior year of college, I made a plaster carrying case for my favorite coffee mug. The mug wasn’t mine. At least not legitimately. I’d borrowed it from a guy who ran a Vegan co-op, and loved it too much to give back. It was extra-tall, square-shaped—who has a mug with four corners?—and a mauve color that receded into a sandy beige near the top. I used it every morning and often carried it, with coffee in it, around campus. The case, which would have to be heavy, was my attempt at functional-conceptual artmaking. Carrying it around would make life more awkward and difficult while making it emphatically clear that I was living, sort of like Alexander McQueen’s Armadillo shoes or Anna Sew Hoy’s portable womblike mirrors. Then I broke the mug while casting it and, for me, that was the end of functional-conceptual.

The first time I saw artist-designer Andrea Zittel’s work, most of it a honed, polished take on functional objects, it reminded me of my cup. Seasonal outfits designed for Zittel’s frame, a portable living unit or a trailer that she refurbished to take a trip in, all these were insular projects that, if they broke, would mostly matter to her. It took me a while to realize Zittel’s appeal is that her things don’t break. They’re not outrageous—no Leigh Bowery-style headpieces, no Frank Gehry flourishes. She uses earth tones and minimal designs more conventional than Donald Judd’s, and her objects are solid, made by and for someone who wants things in order and under control.

You don’t expect solid and under control to be breathtaking, which is why Lay of my Land, Zittel’s current project at Regen Projects II, surprises. It consists of multiple steel-framed land-parcels covered with white hydrocal topography. The parcels have been pushed together to replicate Zittel’s 35-acre desert complex in Joshua Tree. On the walls around My Land hang brownish Wallsprawl wallpaper, made out of repeated photographs of places where wide-open desert meets urban sprawl. As usual, it’s all very orderly. Even if it’s meant to depict westward expansion, you wouldn’t even have to know the wallpaper strings together concentric landscapes to appreciate the gridded, calculated symmetry it imposes on the gallery. It makes the topography in the middle seem more like an earthy piece of avant-garde  furniture than a whole swath of desert land.

Eva Hesse in her studio

Two years ago, a sculptor I know taught a grad school seminar on material and its consequences. He spent one session on Eva Hesse, killed by cancer at 34 probably in part due to the latex and plastics she worked with, then assigned his students to decide what they’d die for. When they came back a week later, no one said they’d die for art. Dying and living for art is something people talk about—“He lived to paint and painted until the day he died,” said Lucian Freud’s dealer recently—but I don’t know if anyone really means it. It seems more reasonable, and more humane, to do it the other way: make art to live.

Poet Ariana Reines avoided other artists, artwork, readings and art events when writing her second book. “I . . . have had a bizarre reluctance to assimilate too much new art for fear it would make me forget my life,” she said, and so she lived in almost-isolation. Zittel lives far away, though not in isolation–she has a son and a team of assistants to keep her company–but each artwork seems like a reminder that living is the main project.

Andrea Zittel, Installation view, Regen Projects I, Los Angeles, September 16 - October 29, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. Photo by Brian Forrest.

In Regen’s gallery I, rows of mannequins wear outfits made particularly for Zittel, uniforms for daily life that, again, veer toward stability, not spectacle. These may not be as all-encompassing an experience as the Lay of my Land and Wallsprawl installation, but there’s something compellingly strange about the fact that they exist, and exist in so many permutations. Hand-made in understated felts and fabrics with explicitly comfort-driven, sometimes even boring cuts, they turn being well-adjusted and orderly into an over-the-top obsession, and suggest making art to live isn’t much more moderate than living for art.