The sprawling two-part exhibition of MOCA's permanent collection on view at both MOCA Grand Avenue and The Geffen Contemporary is notable for the diversity of work it incorporates into one show—everything from a Mondrian to a paint turd left by Paul McCarthy. Of course, there are also plenty of omissions, but they don’t take away from the sheer breadth of the material on display. Whether such curatorial broad-mindedness can be sustained or whether it will narrow into mere Broad-mindedness now that Eli Broad’s millions are the only ladder out of the financial hole the institution dug for itself was a topic much speculated upon over the past year. It is not a discussion I want to add to. More interesting is how the pieces on display relate to others and how they function as cultural symptoms.
To be sure, the collection has gaps, omissions, and redundancies that reveal a combination of curatorial and regional biases and the limitations of the collectors who’ve donated to the collection. Everybody I know has a list of these things. Some of what’s missing pops in your head when you think about the historical lineage of what’s on display. If you’re looking at Zoe Leonard’s crotch shots from the early ‘90s displayed alongside a couple of Martin Kippenberger’s portraits in a bad boy/bad girl pairing, you might wonder where the “cunt art” produced by Judy Chicago and other feminist art pioneers here in California disappeared to. And following that line of thought, you might also wonder why Mary Kelly (“cunt art’s” conceptual nemesis) is not in the show. Both Chicago and Kelly, incidentally, were in MOCA’s 2007 “WACK” feminist exposition, but that show did not depend exclusively on museum holdings. Consider that, and you begin to appreciate why an art museum cannot simply rotate its collection. It is essential that they have the financial and curatorial wherewithal to collaborate with other institutions and collectors to stage thematic and historical exhibitions whose scope exceeds the limitations of any one institution.
As far as omissions go, it’s important to keep in mind that even this “largest-ever installation of MOCA’s permanent collection,” at about 500 selections, displays only a fraction of what the museum owns. Still, anyone with a reasonable acquaintance with what’s been going on in Los Angeles in the last couple of decades will notice one or several omissions. Off the top of my head, I can name several who are not exactly unknowns in this city: Manuel Ocampo, Liz Craft, John Knight, Kim Jones, Meg Cranston, Tom Lawson, Tony Oursler, Skip Arnold, Monica Prieto, Lita Albuquerque. . . .
But let’s consider what’s there.
One of the nicer moments going through the Grand Avenue installation is catching a whiff of chocolate as you approach what you discover to be a re-creation of Ed Ruscha’s “Chocolate Room” (1970). The work debuted in the summer of 1970 at the 35th Venice Biennale in Italy, and originally consisted of 360 sheets of paper silk-screened with chocolate and applied to the interior walls of the gallery space. The story goes that the work attracted anti–Vietnam war protesters who etched anti-war slogans into the chocolate-covered surfaces of the prints so that the installation became a spontaneous anti-war monument. It turns out that MOCA’s ownership of the piece means that it reprints the paper panels lining the room every time the piece is exhibited. In theory, this means that the public could be encouraged or at least allowed to reenact the public intervention that with the artist’s blessing transformed the Biennale installation into collaboration between him and his audience. However, when I visited, which was the same week that President Obama was giving his war is peace Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, the room was pristine and there were security guards keeping a sharp eye on visitors. In 1970, I suspect that the presence of the guards would not have prevented a less docile public from leaving a comment or two linking Afghanistan with Vietnam. As it is, the room might as well be a chamber in a Pharaonic tomb: the price of preservation within a museum has been the work’s mummification. Its function has been reduced to a purely art historical one, grandfathering Kelly Walker’s use of silkscreened chocolate in his work.
Contextualization sometimes works backwards. For example, Richard Prince’s “Untitled (White Car Hood)” (1992), displayed at the Geffen gestures toward the car-culture machismo that informed the material practices of the “Ferus Studs” who defined the Finish Fetish evident in the work of Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, and John McCracken. Because of the chronological arrangement of the artworks on display, Irwin, Kauffman and McCracken are all at the Grand Street building. You have to make the connection in your head. Prince’s “Marlboro Man” in the meantime has come to seem prescient of the cowboy posturing that replaced American statesmanship after 9/11.
Against the backdrop of events since and specifically the invasion and occupation of two distant countries by a rampaging American military, Paul McCarthy’s performances now seem like attempts to alert an indifferent world to the savagery that hides under the Disneyfied façade of American culture. The “Tokyo Santa” (1999) featured in the Geffen building installation is a cross between Pere Ubu and Freddy Krueger. The association of this figure with that of the hyperphallicized expressive artist gifting the world with his effusions suggests that artist bad boys invert rather than dismantle the authority of their fascist fathers. I don’t think McCarthy ever gets beyond that bind. And in a sense the art world has been complicit in making sure he doesn’t get beyond it, since McCarthy’s productivity as an artist is of a piece with his compulsion to repeat.
This imperative to ceaselessly produce stuff and fill the large empty spaces of institutions like MOCA is for me one of the most oppressive features of contemporary art. Jim Shaw, who is himself one of its victims (and who has a number of his drawings included in the show), once referred to it in an installation by the clinical phrase Horror Vacui, a fear of empty spaces.
I cannot help but think that this horror that drives artists to incessant production is the apprehension that the time of art is over. Duchamp announced as much with his ready-mades but we’ve pretended that those were just provocations. We’ve read Walter Benjamin on the death of the aura and technology’s reduction of art to distraction. But the aura of the artwork, which was its connection to the sacred, couldn’t be allowed to evaporate because, strangely enough, art cannot be commodified without some remnant of the sacred remaining associated with it. The paradox is that we need art to have something like a “soul” in order to trade it at a price above what mere goods fetch.
The last purchase that art had on something resembling spirituality was through the much-abused notion of criticality. That too is now used up thanks to the postmodernist conflation of critique and complicity. And despite attempts to reinvent the idea of community through subcultural affiliation (see Catherine Opie’s “Self Portrait” ), community would seem to require a foundation that exceeds the atomizing power of capital, which ceaselessly uproots and disperses people.
The signs are that MOCA’s financial difficulties can eventually be overcome. The larger question of what art’s purpose might be beyond amusing jaded rich people or contributing a veneer of sophistication to a city that has long billed itself as the entertainment capital of the world will remain. Bill Viola’s installation “Room for St. John of the Cross” (1983) at least has the temerity to suggest that in Bob Dylan’s words, even art has “gotta serve somebody.”
Published courtesy of ArtScene ©2009