Too Cool for the Cool School

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

Craig Kauffman, "Untitled," 2009. Drape-formed plastic with acrylic lacquer & glitter.

Craig Kauffman has a shoe fetish. He’s had it since he was a child. “My mom wore high heels,” Kauffman explained in a 2008 interview, the same interview in which he talked about the affect campy lingerie ads from Frederick’s of Hollywood had on his adolescent mind. (“Blow up bras, stuffed padded bras, rear ends,” Kauffman recalled. “[Frederick] was a genius.”) The work that stems directly from Kauffman’s fetish—dumb-fisted, transparent paintings that L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight recently referred to as “rather tepid”—is far from compelling. But the fact that the artist known for sleek, vacuum formed abstractions lusts after stilettos and patent leather pumps? That is compelling, especially since freshly lacquered custom car parts are more often assumed to be Kauffman’s main muse.

New Work, Kauffman’s soon-to-close exhibition at Frank Lloyd Gallery, features two paintings of shoes, but these hang on an unobtrusive side wall. The central attraction, a series of delicate, drape-formed plastic shells that look like glitter-filled candy dishes, hang in the main gallery. The glitter is real and, like the acrylic wall reliefs Kauffman began making back in the 1960s, each shell has a perfectly smooth surface. The hot pink, aqua, Astroturf green, and lavender that color these sculptures have the manicured gloss suited to a Prada showroom.

Liz Craft, "Candy Colored Clown," 2010. Metal, bronze and yarn.

Similar colors characterize Liz Craft’s current exhibition Death of a Clown, on view four doors down from Kauffman’s in Patrick Painter Inc. Caft’s show includes imposing metal screens on which clown faces have been created out of bronze vases, ceramic dishes and thick colored yarn; two clowns, one laughing and one crying, impressionistically sculpted with Giacometti-like license; a tiered table; a witch face; and an orange-haired girl who looks like Milais’s Ophelia might have had she died a hippie on a grandmotherly pink couch. Bruce Hainley once wrote, “Craft is never not crafty in her deployment of materials,” the double negative mimicking the way Craft’s aggressive material choices negate her domestic, decorative subjects. Loopy and comedic though her subjects are, Craft’s perversion of bronze, steel and fiberglass is dead serious and it’s also part of the reason Death of a Clown speaks to Kauffman’s New Work.

While Kauffman’s sculptures are ethereal, Craft’s are industrial and opaque; while Kauffman’s are abstract, Craft’s are representational. While Kauffman belonged to The Cool School, the group of ‘60s artists who equated artmaking with machismo and made Los Angeles a scene, Liz Craft was Too Cool for School, according to a catchy Spin Magazine article Dennis Cooper wrote about her and her UCLA cohorts. Yet both sculptors fixate on material objects, both have a notoriously Californian obsession with commercial material and fetish-finishes, and both work in the realm of warped whimsy (though I’m not sure if Kauffman means to be as warped as Craft does).

Craig Kauffman, "Untitled," 2009. Drape-formed plastic with acrylic lacquer & glitter.

When I imagine Kauffman and Craft’s exhibitions merging–and I often do, even though I know the two wouldn’t and probably shouldn’t ever come together–it’s a deliciously disjointing opus in which Kauffman’s dishes protrude from Craft’s clown faces, or sit on top of her fiberglass furniture. The work of Kauffman, once associated with machismo, plays the stereotypically delicate, feminine role. The work of Craft, always prodding the domestic, plays the more heavy-handed stereotypically masculine role. This inversion is satisfying.