Los Angeles

Extreme Friendship

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

Michel Auder, Cat Stranglers, 2009. Courtesy Kayne Griffin Corcoran.

I had a lazy Monday afternoon two weeks ago. A friend defended her dissertation and then we all migrated from the Inland Empire to my place, where I tried to show video art to one friend while another, the dissertation defender, slept. The internet connection was slow, and so we never finished watching any one work, but the sleeping friend woke and wandered into the living room while Kenneth Tam’s I no longer worry about shoes being worn inside the house was faltering along. “We’re watching two men do invented yoga-like moves,” I said. “But they didn’t know each other — they met on Craig’s List.”

“If they knew each other, it wouldn’t be video art,” she said. “It would be friends doing Yoga.” This was a joke, but one I thought about, because, off the cuff, I couldn’t name any art I’d seen and liked recently that dealt comfortably and explicitly with the familiar. In most new art that compels me, artist hurl themselves into the unfamiliar.

There’s Leigh Ledare and Michel Auder, whose recent, respective exhibitions at The Box L.A. and Kayne Griffin Corcoran mined the eccentricities of their own biographies. But those exhibitions confront you with an idea of intimacy that’s unsettling because of how confessional it is, and how near it veers toward psychological fiction. In some of Auder’s films, he uses hired actors; for some of Ledare’s photographs, he asked women he found through personal ads to pose and dress him so that he embodies their desires.

Robert Smithson, Ithaca Mirror Trail, 1969.

Robert Smithson, Ithaca Mirror Trail, 1969.

Then there’s Elizabeth Peyton exhibition at Regen Projects, which is delightful and refreshing, as her work always is, because it’s not at all high concept. Peyton’s portraits, of friends and pop culture icons, are just of people she likes. In her work at Regen, she depicts painter Alex Katz sitting with crossed arms on a couch, and a watery-eyed David Bowie staring  from a 14-inch tall panel. You leave thinking about people’s interior lives, of Peyton’s perception of herself and of others. Does Alex Katz really look as stoic and controlled as figures in his own paintings, or has the artist projected a bit? This question isn’t uninteresting, but it’s not an ambitious one either.

James Lee Byars, The Angel, 1989, 125 glass spheres. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery.

James Lee Byars, The Angel, 1989, 125 glass spheres. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery.

Could art about the familiar ever be really daring?

I came across a description of a work James Lee Byars did in tribute to Robert Smithson recently. The two artists, contemporaries in the New York of the 1960s, would have crossed paths and, I imagine, liked each other, but I don’t know how well they personally knew each other. In 1978, five years after Smithson tragic death in a Texas plane crash, James Lee Byars added up the dimensions of all the mirror Robert Smithson used during his career — Smithson used mirrors a lot, lining them up in the landscape to “displace” the earth perceptually or using them in gallery installation. The sum of all Smithson’s mirrors measure 1000 feet by 1360 feet. Byars then took the giant mirror to Smithson’s gravestone, and took a picture of the stone seen through the mirror. This would be “a mirror displacement of Robert Smithson’s soul.” Then Byars purportedly transported the mirror to the Utah desert — I do not know how, or whether any documents exist to prove this actually happened — and used a crane to shatter it across the desert floor. He collected the shards of mirror, packed them in a box embellished with gold leaf, and sent the box to Nancy Holt, who had been Smithson’s wife, as a token of his sympathy. Perhaps this is the ultimate example of the familiar taken to an extreme. Everything about Byars’ tribute speaks to how well he knew and loved Smithson’s art, yet the project is gapingly ambitious.