LA Talks /

Shearing away the Railings / Erika Vogt

In his memoir Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz recalls the despair and bliss of his dying — his thick, material immersion in the shimmering of the world. To call it beautiful would be belittling.

Under the ticking of the disease, his imminent departure had the effect of transforming a previously violent world into an Other World in which whatever had been imposed on the self — processes of subjectification, rigid modes of perception, social conventions, historical violence — dissolved as he stepped through an open door beyond which there were no railings. Time was compressed, he said, and so he urged: “Cut straight to the heart of the senses and map it out as clearly as tools and growth allow.”

For our own compressed present, Erika Vogt provides tools — an array of knives and shields — for the fostering of desire on what she calls “Eros Island.” Eros, because what we need now is drive and power, and Eros provides the inkling of the unknown that drives our hunger for knowledge. Island, because we are on Turtle Island, and any utopian dream must consider how we are tied both to history and to all of our relations, be they things, people, animals.

As we are living in the tragedy of democracy, amid the violent resurgence of racism, sexism and xenophobia, as a massive influx of refugees from Syria clamber for shelter (on Lesbos, among other places) and Hollywood spectacle is overwhelmed by global warming’s four-year-long thirst, Vogt’s tools offer to sheer our senses from their subjection to the dead present, the dead past, and the future that looms ahead — equally dead if we maintain our entrenched habits. She shows us that we need to keep the knives close. One way is to blow them up in size, make them palpable, visible, arresting. If our bodies are knives, our senses knives, they can cut to the shimmering reality of the changing world.

Vogt has been refining her cast of actants for a number of years, articulating new plastic and collective forms for subjectivity in objects, installations, videos and artist’s theater productions. She considers the latter a work of community building, the layering of a variety of media together and the composing of different artists’ works and bodies. Her trajectory began with experimental film, but she came to refuse what she felt was the single-mindedness of filmmaking, the specificity of the meanings that were attributed to images. If images and things can be treated as humans, we can do away with the rigidity of attributions and definitions, and this goes for ideas of identity. Perhaps this is simply a metaphor, but it might be a metaphor for good politics.

For her recent exhibition “Eros Island: Knives Please Rise” at Overduin & Co, Vogt compiled a book of research, an artist’s book, which was laid out on a table in the gallery. It provided a history and context for the objects displayed. Perhaps compiled via random searches on the Internet, by the stuff accumulated from life, the book presented an iconography of the knives and a timeline extending forward or backward from prehistory to today. There were knives used in sacrifices from the Peruvian Moche culture, ceremonial knives from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, and from Late Minoan Crete. Some had been knife-shaped money in the Han Dynasty. There were butcher’s knives ; from the early twentieth century and contemporary surgical knives from the West. There were also objects called knives that were perhaps armor, dresses, pleat forms, and even an image of a woman dancing holding a knife. Not attempting historical comprehensiveness, the examples spoke to the effects of globalization, the confusion of expanded possibilities for knowledge, the production of subjectivity, and the threat of homogenization, exploitation and disaster. But also transcendence and sharpened resistance. The book reproduced a series of newspapers from 2013–16, highlighting the farce of the US election, the war in Syria, the so-called war against terror, the refugee crisis, domestic social unrest, pollution in China; there was also a series of images of stabbings, historical paintings, photographs and screenshots. Clearly, the production of culture is not a sphere apart.

The book opened with a play, Eros Island. Its four scenes comprise: (one) a distribution of knives to the audience; (two) what is called a “cascade” or live layering of players holding knives, who then enact (three); a litany of deaths, some repeated, some known, some willed: “Now is dead. The free market is dead. God is dead. The union is dead. Bill Gates is dead. Privacy is dead. Sex is dead. Now is dead.” In the final scene, the island players are on a couch, listing the day’s events, as well as past and future events. They better not be dead; otherwise, all we’ll see are the railings.

by Noura Wedell

read more
LA Talks /

Depths Plumbed / Julien Nguyen

Julien Nguyen makes paintings that are at once referential and intensely personal, employing subject matter that ranges from Renaissance architecture to artificial intelligence to the films of Kathryn Bigelow. Nguyen’s work is of a kind of archeology that is fully cognizant of art history but also driven to disrupt assumed notions of its discourses. Accepting painting’s theatricality as a given, he uses knowledge to create fantasy, pitting familiar forms against one another.

On the occasion of his West Coast solo debut, Flash Art sat down with the artist in his Los Angeles studio.

Your work has a rich, fantastical quality that has recently incorporated Renaissance painting and architectural motifs. What compelled you to employ these elements, particularly the use of perspective? 

I think this is largely motivated by a desire to move past the crisis of the nineteenth-century photographic image, which continues to occupy a lot of the discourse around representation, and which for me is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. I work with a lot of early modern idioms that coincide with the establishment of sovereignty and sovereign power, perspective being foremost among them. Perspective is a relatively unencumbered organizing tool for the construction of imaginary worlds: a subject can array a hierarchical system (of its own device!) of recognition and creation. It is also something that does not require an excessive amount of labor specialization.

This said, perspective is also a tool for establishing borders, another early-modern innovation. I think this speaks further to the idea that the development of humanism lay not in the invention of inwardness per se (which can be seen as far back as Augustine’s Confessions), but in the realization that this same inwardness afforded a means of dissimulation that in turn offered leverage against the world as given.

Humanism as subterfuge allows one to bypass the question of the subject as organizing myth of bourgeois ideology and instead trace a direct line to it as a contemporary vehicle for both encoding and navigating systems in general. The real question becomes how Bronzino established himself in Cosimo I’s household despite the purgation of homosexuals from the ducal court.

The figures in your work often have elongated features and mannered poses that seem to be a fusion of disparate approaches toward figuration — ranging from antiquity to contemporary pop culture. 

I would hope that this is not understood as style, which would be an essentially formalist reading. The difference between Velazquez and Uccello isn’t so much their particular visions of the world, but instead how they successfully interpolated themselves into their respective governing structures. That is to say, that if ideology as “imaginary representation” operates on the level of the unconscious, these distortions are not expressions of my “view of the world” but are resultant from my emergence within it: reenacting the nanosecond in which a camera captures Hillary Clinton’s light-sucking eye to reveal a reptilian underneath the human membrane.

Filmic references often appear in your paintings, though the titles seem to be the only overt reference to these films — as if they are ciphers and the role-play between title and composition enables a specific kind of dialogue.

Yes. Pictorial composition, in its analytic or constructive capacity, is to my mind analogous to the durational character of film. In other words, the difference between photography or photo-relative art and my work is the same as the difference between making an ugly face and having one.

What affect has moving back to LA had on your painting, if any?

The idea of the sublime in art is often misremembered as a totalitarian phenomenon. Longinus (a Greek from the first century) instead proposes that only democracy can be the “careful nurse” of sublime comprehension, and cites Sapphic poetry as a primary example. Los Angeles (to my mind) is a Bermuda Triangle between the sublime, the picturesque and the uncanny: a place where metropolitan civilization, having strayed so far from home, touches a void. I also don’t drive, and I enjoy being a passenger here.

by Thomas Duncan

read more
LA Talks /

Going to Berlin / Casey Jane Ellison

She’s wickedly funny, often at the expense of the art world. Los Angeles–based artist Casey Jane Ellison’s performances, videos and animations have been seen at MOCA Los Angeles, MoMA PS1 and in the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, curated by Ryan Trecartin and Lauren Cornell.

Maxwell Williams met the artist at the Yellow Tea House in Koreatown for matcha shakes.

What are you working on now?

I’m going to the Berlin Biennial and hosting the Google Roast. Daniel Keller, Simon Denny, Leilah Weinraub and Hito Steyerl¹ are also roasting.

Why?

Just the general fear of the companies that control the Internet and monetize it. They filter and make you feel warm and fuzzy, but then there’s all this metadata that’s being collected. If you let go of privacy five years ago, you’ll be fine.

I always have these fever daydreams about a time when Google is the only country and is our overlord.

It would be a relief. But what’s depressing about that is all the same arguments and problems would still exist — the same racism and classism and everything.

Is Hito Steyerl funny enough to do a roast?

That’s what’s weird about roasts — they’re very dark. We’re all internalizing this loathing of everything, and it’s important to get it out. I can’t imagine people won’t relate.

I was thinking in my head on my way over here: What if we made this fucked-up interview where I pretended to be an asshole and was like, “What do you even do?”

I love that. Let’s do that.

But I’m worried my editor might be like, “We can’t use this.” Sarcasm is hard in a serious format.

What is serious anymore? What do people want to read? People want to read sullenness? Where is there not humor in anything? But that’s also the criticism of the Internet — that funny replaces authenticity or correctness or journalistic integrity.

That’s the thing about art, too. Art is so self-serious that it’s hard for people to laugh at themselves, which is part of what you do. You make art, but you also laugh at yourself. Is that because people don’t laugh at themselves in art?

Laughing has always been very important to me. It’s the most important thing in my life, as an exercise and as a way to see the world. Also, comedy is really about chaos. How can you ever be sure about anything? Whenever I feel like I’m serious, I’m like, “Ugh, did I overstep?” I get nervous when I’m serious. When the assumption is that I should be serious, I immediately have to be funny to avoid that.

I think a lot of people know you through “Touching the Art,” in which you really rip into the self-seriousness of the art world.

Entering the art world, nothing really seems that honest, so comedy kind of mimics that in the form of entertainment. And with the art world, there’s just so much opaqueness — nothing makes any sense — and I just felt, at the time we were making that show, that everyone was losing their minds. I feel everyone is still losing their minds. And then to pretend I have a talk show, where we’re actually dissecting these abstract things that are literally turning to ash as we begin to talk about them — it was so funny to me. There are no answers.

You do comedy nights at Night Gallery, and you are usually the only person at those that is an artist that works with comedy. The rest of them are comedians, but they’re in an art gallery, which oftentimes makes it awkward, because they’re trying to do their straightforward stand-up.

Right. They’re just trying to use that form, which needs a very specific venue, a very specific dynamic with the audience. It’s a challenge. But I’ve done it a few times in art spaces, and you can acknowledge the space, respect the space, and also be a comedian the way you should be and capture the room.

You have a video called “Casey Is Your Cult.” It used to be that artists were the only people that had a cult of personality, and now it’s a mainstream concept: Kim Kardashian, the Hadids, this idea that anybody could cultivate a cult of personality given the right place, the right time and the right amount of money.

At this point in time, I feel that it’s negative, because people are looking at themselves. That’s fine. I do it. Too much. The ultimate goal in the ’60s was to love your brother and your sister or your neighbor. It’s going against that. But maybe we’re just in the middle of the process. Maybe we’ll get tired of refreshing our own stats. But Kim Kardashian — I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said about her — she’s the best. She did it. And it’s perfect. She and Kanye are the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I love seeing them together. It’s so cute. They’re the perfect couple. And that’s all it’s about — someone being, like, “They’re the perfect couple,” and watching them.

You use language a lot in your art. I was watching an older animation of yours, and you were using wordplay, but in a way that’s nonchalant. One instance that I was thinking of was when you called a smartphone a “smarf.” You do these contractions and faux-neologisms a lot.

I’ve never thought about it. The smartphone example—the abbreviations—I think it’s because what I’m talking about is so boring. It trivializes the word, and it makes it clear that it is one of these things that doesn’t matter. I don’t want to say “Genius Bar,” because that concept is so boring, so if I need to say something, the language has to change. I think it is the language of avoiding pure wastefulness. Don’t say “Genius Bar.” It’s like a bad word. It’s the anxiety surrounding monotony, and maybe the evilness of the word, too. To talk about my smartphone is a little evil.

by Maxwell Williams

¹ Steyerl’s involvement in the Roast is unconfirmed at this time.
read more
LA Talks /

Après-ski in Beverly Hills

Karma International was founded in Zurich by Karolina Dankow and Marina Olsen.
Last February they opened a temporary project space in Mid-City, Los Angeles. Flash Art associate editor Eli Diner talked to Karolina Dankow about Karma International’s new permanent location in a historic Art Deco-style building from the 1920s in Beverly Hills, which is scheduled to open January 16, 2016, with the group show “Après Ski.”

It’s been almost a year since Karma International first opened a Los Angeles outpost. How’s it going? What observations do you have about the local art scene? Or life in Los Angeles?

I’ve really come to love Los Angeles. When I first came here, all we wanted to do was a pop-up gallery and then leave again, but now it’s all become very real, and I can’t see myself leaving anytime soon. I am excited to open the new space in Beverly Hills because it will be a new chapter. When I first got here, I did not know too much about the scene in Los Angeles, but now I feel at home.

Since I first visited Los Angeles ten years ago, the art scene has changed immensely. There are different areas that have become important for art, more international galleries have opened and lots of interesting not-for-profit projects are going on. In terms of Los Angeles’s international vibrancy, it feels like this has grown, too. People casually come to Los Angeles from Europe for events like Paramount Ranch or openings of new spaces. It seems like the world has gotten smaller, and Los Angeles has definitely become an important destination for art that can’t be missed.

You were one of the first in what they’re calling a wave from Europe and New York. Do you think it’s just the weather?

I am sure the weather is a big component in why people are drawn to Los Angeles. But it’s more than that. I really believe that something bigger is happening here right now. It is interesting to see how many artists have moved to Los Angeles from New York. That is definitely a sign of a change on a larger scale. I am attracted to Los Angeles not only for its palm trees and blue sky but also for its dark side, as described by Mike Davis in City of Quartz. Los Angeles has dystopian aspects, and it is easy to immerse oneself in these. It’s a great place for inspiration.

So, Beverly Hills? Tell me about the new space. How’d you end up choosing this location?

I went around and saw many, many locations. I looked downtown a lot and almost signed on a space but then left for Europe and gave it more thought. When I came back I knew downtown was not for me. I love what is going on there; it’s a new and vibrant scene, but for Karma it felt better to take another direction and actually provide an alternative to the trend for an even bigger and more spacious gallery.

I was interested in the idea of showing art on a more intimate scale. Almost as if visiting someone and seeing their collection. The space in Beverly Hills is divided into three rooms, and all in all it’s no more than a thousand square feet, but it feels very inspiring and allows the visitor to really interact with the art. It allows more intimacy. Since we already have a big space in Zurich, the idea was more to create a hub where people can come, see art and have a relaxed conversation with me. I felt that the best place to do that would be a place where people can feel relaxed. A lot of our collectors either live in Beverly Hills or have an office, a lawyer or a doctor here — or at least their favorite restaurant is here — and it’s maybe the only walkable area in LA. Of course, I was also very intrigued by the idea that William N. Copley had his surrealist gallery in this area. This is a really great legacy!

The inaugural show is called “Après Ski.” Tell me about it.    

Après-ski is a French term often used in Switzerland. It describes an (alcoholic) drink one takes with friends after a day of skiing. It’s a very social thing and it’s part of the skiing routine. Since this is the first show in our own space here in Los Angeles, we understand the show as a friendly gesture and want to invite everybody to come and celebrate with us and learn about our program. The show comprises works by artists from the program, such as Sergei Tcherepnin, Urban Zellweger, Judith Bernstein and K8 Hardy. But there are lots of connecting factors with Los Angeles: there will be a wall painting and a neon sign by Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury. The neon sign says Moisturizing is the Answer, which is a very LA thing.

by Eli Diner

read more
LA Talks /

Oral Exams / Bernhard Willhelm

I recently exchanged a series of e-mails with German fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm in hopes of discussing his recent studio relocation, from its longtime home in Paris to sunny Beachwood Canyon.

The conversation quickly derailed, promptly turning to an unabashed interest in sexuality, cyberspace, clubbing and collecting — all underscored by wide-ranging references, from “73 Questions with Victoria Beckham” on Vogue.com to Latino house music by Alejandro Paz.

How do you relate sex to fashion?

If you are dressed up on the top, bring it down to the bottom. Raid your boyfriend’s closet for oversized tees and undersized jackets. Tomboy looks are chic this autumn. Shop this look. You are a true entertainer. A “so-called pure raw diamond of entertainment.”

Is maximalism or excess here a form of subversion? 

Maximalism and minimalism can be fucking annoying. How many times can you say, “The cow goes moo and the pig goes oink”? It’s like talking to a supermodel. Tacky.

Yet the role of decoration seems primary in your collections; money, rope and cockatoos (for example) are used as props or accessories. It reads like a daily shopping list for the sexually adventurous.

It depends what you see in it and what you project onto it. It’s about visualization.

Broccoli: I look like a tree.
Walnut: I look like a brain.
Mushroom: I look like an umbrella.
Banana: Dude! Change the topic.

What incited the move from Paris to LA? I read somewhere it had to do with a brush with death.

partly truth.
partly fiction.
partly paradox.

A bit like Kris Kross described it in their song “Jump”: “and everything is in the back with a little slack ‘cause inside-out is wiggity wiggity wiggly wack.

How does the brand of sex vary between LA and Paris? 

The French avant-garde is always a bit kitsch. In Germany, form follows function (I’m from Ulm, home of the school of Bauhaus, Albert Einstein and the highest church in the world. It’s gothic.) But then Isa Genzken said fuck the Bauhaus, and suddenly things got exciting. To embrace the ornament can be erotic and sensual. But, the pure form of Bauhaus can also… It’s somehow tactile and erected. Isa definitely has virility in her work, and she is a woman.

Holy Isa
Holy Angela

Both not botoxed. Richard Hawkins keeps it cute.

The Japanese call it kawaii. He’s of the type: “Thou shalt not look like a dick in public.” The emojistickers on his work cover up the spermspots from wanking. (In other art-related forms Dash Snow put glitter on it.)

Reflections on Californian ideals?

Moving identities virtually. Endless repetition and reflections. (That’s where fashion lives: Tolle Tage im untergrund.) The entertainment industry and Silicon Valley. (Today’s human-digital relationship forms an infinite network. Cybernetics are the new crumping.) I guess there’s a time for everything. As long as we are jumping on coaches again.

Do your collections cater to hedonism, to a pleasure-driven club aesthetic? 

It’s about creating desire. Some people want to party. Some people want the opposite. Yes, there’s vertigo; a feeling of dizziness… A swimming in the head…

The lexical describes it figuratively as a state in which all things seem to be engulfed in a whirlpool of terror. The opposite would be: Total Zen. This starts with cleaning your inside and also your environment. Like Cy Twombly in the upstairs studio of his country house: “Hard, clean, bright — the beauty of an empty canvas — and a nearly empty room, filled with inspiration that Martha Rosler never found.”

“This (Bernhard Willhelm fashion) house is so much like me that it is almost like talking to myself,” says expatriate painter-sculptor Cy Twombly.

Do you consider your garments as installations rather than collections? Objects rather than outfits?

I agree with Pierre Huyghe: Past and present are ever-present. Fiction and reality, event and encounter (interactions between cloth and person). Followed by codes, protocols, roles, elements, markers, rules, conditions and behaviors all creating desires or anti-feelings and alienation.

Or you’re like a Baroque painter. A (very) late Mannerist engaged every bit as much in iconoclasm, elaboration, reactivity. There’s a relationship to art.

In many ways I refer to Jiri Georg Dokoupil’s statement when he described his paintings: It was a joke at first, but it soon occurred to me that the dumbness, which was meant ironically, was actually the truth. (Dokoupil openly admits he is a sex addict and moved to Brazil.)

Suddenly you realize that the thing you were making jokes about the whole time is actually the thing that occupies you the most. That should also be figurative, and a metaphor for the world in which we move. But these open necessities, intuitive shameless working credos and convictions can be discussed afterwards. It’s about pure visualization.

Tell me about your last trip to Miami Basel — after all, it incited the interview between gay porn actor Cutler X and you, which then inspired this conversation to happen.

“If you don’t want gay men in the military, make the uniforms more ugly,” Joan Rivers stated.

And Miami art was full of gay men. In this sense, it was beautiful. I have the feeling that these arty fairs are there to compensate for an inner emptiness. The woman wearing shapeless gams at the fair would not do her favors. Women efficiently use the hallway of arty fairs, dressed in body-hugging, pastel-colored and botoxed Alaïa copies, as a red carpet or catwalk. In that case, the dress would need a slit to flash the leg. (“Angelina Jolie had troubles,” some soulless Berlusconi wannabe-babe told me.) Understandably people in fashion are not always interested in art. But maybe some people find true personal happiness in a difficult fragmented life like several tanned Italians I met at the fair. (I ate organic food.)

Do you collect?

There are some conceptual problems with collecting: someone has to pay for it. Sometimes an Isa Genzken costs more than a liver transplant. (And she needs one.) Sometimes such openly displayed splendor is just a gracefully extended invitation to a different kind of time.

Sexytime.

by Sabrina Tarasoff

read more
LA Talks /

Controlled Disruption / Jeremy Everett

Born in Colorado in 1979, artist Jeremy Everett lived in Paris and recently moved to Los Angeles. Darren Flook talks with him about the greatest American monuments, Land Art and construction sites.

Overturned trucks spilling milk across a highway, smoke blown onto a canvas by the wind, soil-eroded photographs of cheer leaders… There is a love of chance here, and also a feeling for American imagery, decay and impermanence. I wonder where this comes from in your practice? Can you fill me in a little on the connecting threads of your interests? What are the central motivating drives of this character called Jeremy Everett?

The greatest American monument is the highway; to wreck a truck full of milk is a very specific and important gesture that was absolutely necessary to me. While growing up in the US I was surrounded by subjects like the American cheerleader; I buried these photographs as a way of finding visual meaning, vital meaning. The paintings made with colored smoke began with chance but eventually developed into something more factual, revealing the painting structure as surface and as something to see. The painting became a photocopy of itself. All of the work is connected by a visual truth or fact, a reduction towards the absolute.

There seems to be a relationship to action. To overturn a truck — the act of finding it, filling it with milk, getting someone to flip the thing and then getting in a helicopter to film the result. The same with the smoke paintings — you build a box of canvases, let off the smoke bomb… All are actions, or at least active approaches to image making, which is a roundabout way of asking if there is a conversation with Land Art and monumental sculpture?

It’s important these images have the visual charge of an action. I want to perform this work whether it’s monumental or unmonumental and get the visual results through direct production. Michael Heizer’s Double Negative had a big influence on me early on and also a lot of Smithson’s temporary works that only exist now through photographs. Beyond using similar methods of documentation, I don’t feel my work has a connection to Land Art. I am producing works that participate inside of life, not isolated outside of it. I closed the highway so I could wreck the truck. I wanted the sculpture to temporarily stop the system.

I never thought of the closing of the highway as a part of the work. Do you think of the disruption caused by the smoke works in a similar vein? 

Initially I was imagining a disruption in the city, like a badly timed firework, leaving a cloud of red pigment in the sky. I did my first smoke piece on a rooftop in the center of Paris.  It is a very uniform, horizontal city, so you could see the color hanging just above the buildings for about ten minutes. I asked a photographer to document the duration of the piece from the roof of the Pompidou. After setting it off things turned hectic quickly. The neighbors called the cops and I ended up running through the streets to get away just in time before getting caught.

The next development of these works is using the smoke pigment to expose pieces of architecture, leaving a monochromatic photocopy of the exhibition space.  With the smoke works it’s more interesting if the disruption happens inside of a gallery.

I also used these ideas of disruption and intervention in my works in situ. One example was when I found a construction site in south of France with a front end loader completely stranded in a body of water. It is the perfect sculpture. I convinced them to stop working for the rest of the day, so I could photograph it.

I’d like to ask you about location. You now live and work in LA — a city very different from Paris and one currently very much in the art press. Do you think that move has affected your work? 

Yes, there is a freedom in LA that has changed my work — the availability of material and an opportunity to work at a larger scale that I didn’t have in New York or Paris. The foundation of the city is Hollywood, and all of the production material, printers, fabricators, etc., can be used for art making. Visually the light is unrelenting and incredible. I am always surrounded by a questionable reality. My studio is located on Broadway downtown, above Elvira’s Wedding Chapel. On one side is the building where Blade Runner was filmed, and on the other side is the shop where OJ Simpson bought the knife that was used in the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.

* * *

As I leave the conversation, I’m left with a sense of Everett as a kind of filmmaker — not in the literal sense of shooting films, but as Hitchcock said: “Film is collage.” It’s this sense of image following image, object from action and image again that stays with me. That and the fact/fiction crossover that is Los Angeles.

by Darren Flook

read more