As contemporary art seems to be increasingly the province of the 1%, with continual record-breaking auctions, it may be difficult to appreciate the revolutionary origins of modernism. Early 20th-century art movements like Constructivism, Futurism, and Dada sought an aesthetic, social, and political break with the past, often with utopian goals for the future. A trio of solo shows at Commonwealth & Council aim to reinvigorate contemporary art with this revolutionary zeal.
With her Phoenix Rising series, Jennifer Moon explores the revolutionary potential of love, with ample doses of candor and humor. One particularly memorable image from Phoenix Rising, Part 2 features Moon seated in a “Black Panther”-style wicker chair, with her Pomeranian at her feet, both of them wearing matching red berets. For Moon, the personal is indeed political. A far cry from Kazimir Malevich’s severe, stark black square, Moon’s work is idiosyncratic and playful, though her aims are no less radical. Phoenix Rising, Part 3: Laub, Me, and The Revolution (The Theory of Everything) resembles a junior-high-school science fair exhibit that provides a blueprint for revolution on both a macro and micro scale. The centerpiece is JLS (Jennifer Laub Smasher) (2015), a model made of Popsicle sticks and construction toys that snakes through the gallery. It resembles a DIY version of the Large Hadron Collider, only instead of smashing protons together, it will send Moon and her partner Laub hurtling toward one another at the speed of light. Instead of the Higgs boson particle, they are searching for a new form of love free from “hierarchies, binaries, and capital,” as an explanatory panel states. 3D-printed figures of the pair stand at the entry point, ready to embark on their experiment. It is a charming and whimsical riff on quantum theory.
The two have also produced a video, 3CE: A Relational Love Odyssey (2015), modeled on the reboot of the popular science series Cosmos. Adopting the wide-eyed wonder of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Moon and Laub appear in front of the green-screened cosmos, or idyllic nature scenes, as they narrate our journey toward a new society. The work has a lighthearted tone, but there is no irony as they implore us to “surf the empathic waves of relational love.” The sincerity of their welcoming and expansive revolutionary vision is compelling.
Moon turns from the abstract concept of love to the very concrete trillions of microbes that make up our gut biome with GFT (Gut Fairies Transplant) (2015). It resembles a mad scientist’s lab, with curiously shaped glass vessels—hand-blown by Laub—flanking a fridge full of corked jars of, well, shit, discreetly labeled with “LAUB” or “JENNIFER.” The piece sets the stage for a symbiotic fecal transplant merging their “second brains,” as the gut biome is often referred to. What kind of empathy would be engendered if we were united not by beliefs, but by the trillions of microscopic organisms that literally make us up? Moon’s revolution is not characterized by a joyless severity often associated with radicals. On the contrary, she makes the complete overthrow of society seem fun and altogether possible.
In her exhibition Conjuring Radical Openness, Jemima Wyman looks back to the historical use of design in service of revolution. Influenced by Soviet propaganda textiles of the ’20s and ’30s, Wyman’s fabric swaths feature hypnotic patterns that incorporate the masked faces of various contemporary protesters. She throws together disparate groups of the disgruntled, with little concern for shared geography or ideology. Michael Brown, Scientology, Free Gaza, anti-war, and pro-LGBTIQ all blend together in flowing fabrics of outrage. The ideas driving them are not Wyman’s; it is their methods she is interested in. From anonymity comes power and freedom. At the center of the hanging bolts of fabric, Wyman has placed a bronze bust made from a T-shirt wrapped around a head. There is only an empty void where the eyes should be, a monument to the communal protester that takes on a sinister tone. Contrasted with the breezy, cheerful prints, we are reminded of the divide between the hope of progress and the too-often disappointing post-revolution reality.
Robby Herbst’s work also reflects a disconnect between idealism and how it is manifested. His series of colored pencil and gouache drawings depict scenes from the New Games movement of the early ’70s. Conceived as a non-competitive, community-based alternative to traditional sports, the first New Games Tournament was held in 1973 in Marin, California, ground zero for post-hippie New Age humanism. Herbst has rendered activities, like Hug Tag or Parachute Games, in luminous cyan, red, and yellow, with an illustration style reminiscent of progressive books of the time, such as The Joy of Sex. The colors don’t line up, giving the impression of an off-register printing press. The sensation of something being amiss is echoed by the intrusion of technological symbols in these bucolic images of teamwork. Some are a bit heavy-handed, like an iPhone hovering over a shaggy-haired group engaged in an amoeba race. In other pieces, Herbst nails the manner in which the inclusive, nontraditional culture of the Bay Area gave rise to an entrepreneurial tech industry that has co-opted the very values that made it possible. (How else to explain a company whose motto “Don’t Be Evil” seems sharply at odds with its decision to support the NSA’s far-reaching surveillance plan?) Across an image of people bodysurfing, Herbst has overlaid a corporate graphic that charts various stewards of the new economy, such as Airbnb and Uber, against an axis labeled “Increased Rate of Disruption.” Ironically, the chart bears some similarity to Moon’s explanatory panels, though containing vastly different notions of disruption.
Jennifer Moon: Phoenix Rising, Part 3: Laub, Me, and the Revolution (The Theory of Everything); Jemima Wyman: Conjuring Radical Openness; and Robby Herbst: New Games are on view at Commonwealth & Council in Los Angeles through December 19, 2015.