Los Angeles

What’s Polished and What’s Not

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

Hunter S Thompson and George McGovern during the 1972 Presidential Campaign. Photo: CSU Archive.

Writer David Shields tells a story about being a kid and liking Hunter S. Thompson’s obnoxious gonzo journalism way better than Steinbeck and other more classic fiction writers. With Thompson, you were never sure how fictional a story was going to get and it was always possible the craziest stuff was real. The young Shields believed, I think, that Thompson was telling the truth about having had a conversation with the Richard Nixon while at an adjoining urinal, but Shields’ sister thought the story was bull. The siblings wrote to Thompson, who responded, saying the sister was right and Shields was “a pencil-necked geek.”

Mercedes emblem hanging outside MOCA's Geffen Contemporary during Transmission L.A.

“But still,” write Shields, “it was liberating to read a work open-ended enough that the thought could occur to you that some of this stuff had to be made up or, even better, you couldn’t quite tell.”

When, at MOCA’s 19-day Transmisision L.A.: AV Club festival, curated by Beastie Boy Mike D., I pulled back a black curtain and accidentally walked into a storage closet, I felt similarly liberated. I had just been in the flashy gallery where Mercedes Benz, which backed and co-organized the festival, had its new luxury coupe on display under flashing lights, and so the closet, which I thought for a moment was an art installation, felt refreshing. It didn’t matter that “exposing-the-hidden-infrastructure art” had been done before. It just mattered that the flashiness of the Mercedes was being contrasted by something more “real,” with ladders, and boxes, and little to no lighting. Then I saw the security guard shaking his head and walking toward me, and I knew what I had entered was not part of the art at all.

Daido Moriyama, "Untitled," 2011. Courtesy LACMA. © Daido Moriyama.

There’s a photograph at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art right now, on the third floor of the Japanese Pavilion. The image shows a sleek photograph of a white woman’s perfectly made-up, fashion-ad ready face hanging on a red rack outside concrete buildings near an overgrown alley. It’s not of a closet, but I imagine photographer Daido Moriyama felt the way I did when he stumbled upon the scene in Tokyo last year: captivated by the co-mingling of what’s posed and polished –what’s clearly “art”– and what’s not.