Los Angeles

Slacker Art

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

Still from the opening sequence of Linklater's Slackers (1991)

Did you ever read Jack Bankowsky’s 1991 Artforum essay on slacker art? It’s a pretty good one, called “Slackers” after Richard Linklater’s very slack, brilliantly drawn-out film, also called Slackers and out in ’91. Linklater’s film begins with a monologue by a young guy (played by Linklater) with a bowl cut. He leaves a bus station in a taxi, describing a dream he had on the bus to a driver who really doesn’t care: “I was just traveling around, staring out the windows of buses . . . flipping through channels, reading. I mean how many dreams do you have when you read? Man, there was this book that I read — or, it was my dream, so I probably wrote it or something — but the premise was that every thought you have creates its own reality.” So, like, in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and the Scarecrow try to decide which way to go, every way they don’t choose becomes an alternate life path they take in an alternate dimension.

Bankowsky, who was about to be Editor-in-Chief of Artforum then, starts his essay with a description of Linklater’s film and of the slacker in general: “everyone speaks a debased or hybrid argot, worships at their own jerry-built altar, proselytizes for a private religion. . . . The slacker is the flip side of the hyperfunctional persona Madonna presents in Truth or Dare. . . . doomed to wander an affectless void unredeemed.” Linklater’s film is the perfect example of Slacker art because his “camera is just as hapless as the subject it focuses on,” but there are a number of visual artists too who, instead of being the flip side of Madonna, are antidotes to the super slick ‘80s artists of which Jeff Koons remains the best known. These artists — Karen Kilimnik, Jack Pierson, Laurie Parsons — have “a nose for the fissures in this dream of surface.”

Laurie Parsons' sculpture Troubled (1989).

The best part of Bankowsky’s essay comes about four pages in, when he briefly tricks us into thinking Laurie Parsons is the villain of the slacker trend (read the piece “Dematerial Girl” too, by the way, about the disappearance of Parsons from the art world). He has just praised Pierson for seediness and shiftlessness and fracturing, when he turns to Parsons’ 1990 installation “Stuff” of junk from her mother’s closet. He talks about how her installation “screams hippie,” then about how awful she can sound when talking about her art. “When she talks about her work/life, her language is littered with icky humanist sentences,” Bankowsky writes, and gives a few examples about how Parsons uses the word “honest” or talks about working outside the institution of art. But just as soon as he’s made her sound unaware and sappy, he reminds us that slacker art can have no villain since it doesn’t really stand for anything particular. Parsons is caught in the fissures between art and life, which isn’t a bad place for slacker artists to be, and her inability to articulate herself doesn’t matter at all when her art does its job.

So, it has been 21 years since Linklater and Bankowsky mused about the slacker. Slacker art still pops up pretty often though, sometimes so much that it stops feeling like a cracking or fracturing and starts to feel like the status quo. The most recent instantiation has been slacker minimalism, art of found or weirdly unrelated items put together with the elegance of minimal sculpture: Lara Schnitger, Caroline Thomas, etc. Self-conscious underproduction trumps over production. Is this getting old? Is it time to stop slacking?

Alice Channer, Cigarette Pants (purple) and Cigarette Pants (cream), 2012. Cast and powder-coated aluminum and oak dowels, 2-part . Courtesy Cherry and Martin and the artist.

But occasionally I see a new, kind-of-slack project that excites me with its forcefulness. This happened recently, at Cherry and Martin gallery’s current group show, curated by artist Marc Hundley and called Look Here Upon this Picture. In that show, London-based Alice Channer has these Cigarette Pants hung on dowels. Cigarette pants are usually the slim fit slacks like the ones Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Funny Face. Channer’s are cast powdered aluminum ellipses that must be the approximate circumference of a small waist and legs. They hang from the dowels like loose fabric, listless but specific and smartly made. Can you be hyperfunctional and still wandering, sniffing out fissures?

I remember seeing Channer in a video made by Art Review two or so years ago, walking through an exhibition of hers at The Approach in London.  She stopped by some big sheets of water worn paper she had hung two sheets deep. She pointed to the gap between the two papers — “This gap here is important” — then pointed to the gap between the back paper and the wall — “And this gap here is important.” She said so in a way that made you sure the dream of surfaces is still worth undermining.