Los Angeles

Don’t Crack a Smile

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

Annette Kelm, Untitled, 2012. Courtesy Marc Foxx and the artist.

We had just left Marc Foxx gallery, where Annette Kelm’s delicate C-prints look like illustrations from the most deadpan Children’s book ever, as if everything but tufts of grass had been excised from, say, Make Way For Ducklings. We were still in the little enclave of galleries off Wilshire Boulevard when a woman confronted us in something of a panic. She wore heavy, layered, unwashed clothes and a ribbed pink hat. She had lost her carpet, she said. “It’s blue and has four threads missing,” she said. “It was just here. Please help.” She sounded like someone who’s discovered the kid she’s been charged with wandered away. But everything about her suggested she was unhinged, and we couldn’t engage. “We’re sorry,” we said, in a concerned, confused way, then slipped into ACME gallery.

Lutz Braun, "Akira," acrylic on carpet and wood, 2012. Courtesy ACME.

“This would be a bad place for her to come,” said my friend, when we saw we were in a room full of carpets, some placed on thigh-high wood boxes, one hanging low enough on the wall so it trailed on the floor. Berlin-based Lutz Braun had painted on these with acrylic. The one he calls “Murdering the Season” was grayish with a fire-ravaged forest depicted on it. The one called “Bludgeon” was a white carpet with a watery landscape crossed out in the middle and an abstract triangle on the right. They were expressive in that the marks were loose in an expressionist style, and they had “visceral” iconography like skeletons and burnt trees. It’s also sort of gross to put paint, a gooey liquid until it dries, on carpet. But despite all this, Braun’s paintings managed to feel aloof and disengaged. Each shape, mark and figure — even garish, skeletal ones — seemed to have been rendered with restraint.

We left ACME and walked through the parking lot, where the woman had retreated to a little corner by the parking attendant’s booth, where some of her belongings were spread out. She came out to talk to us, her hat off, her hair somehow better kept than it had been before. “She found it,” she said to us, very seriously and eagerly. “But she really did need help. She’s not well. I helped her.” It took us a moment to realize “she” was the woman we’d talked to earlier, the same woman we were talking to now, only she seemed to have split into a different personality. We told her we were happy she’d helped and walked away — I was thinking that the blue carpet with four missing threads, something I hadn’t actually seen, would stick with me longer than anything I had seen so far that night.

Alex Israel's set for "As it Lays"

Later, we ended up at the Jim Henson Soundstage, where artist Alex Israel was debuting his series of celebrity interview videos at an event presented by MOCA. He calls the series As It Lays after Joan Didion’s iconic Play it As It Lays, a novel about Hollywood, depression and driving, and he’s talked to people like Vidal Sassoon, Jamie Lee Curtis and Larry Flynt. Israel asks deadpan, generic questions, wears sunglasses and doesn’t crack smiles. This night, he did a few live interviews. I missed his talk with surfer Laird Hamilton, but heard him with actresses Molly Ringwald and Melanie Griffith. While Ringwald played along, Griffith kept trying to crack Israel from the start. She wouldn’t answer questions sometimes (like when he asked her what she orders at Inn-and-Out and she instead told him about how she went there just the night before and why, and who she went with), and would interject, “You’re so cute, Alex,” and comments of that kind. It didn’t work — Israel didn’t crack — but it made Griffith likable, because she wanted a human interaction that wasn’t posed and restrained, that had room for slip-ups, detours and cracked smiles.