Play it as it Lays Press Release
The London Institute Gallery – Millbank
14 March – 13 April 2002

Alice Könitz, Amy Sarkisian, Andrew Hahn, Christiana Glidden, Dennis Hollingsworth, Eddie Ruscha, Eric Wesley, Francesca Gabbiani, Jacques deBeaufort, John Williams, Liz Craft, Mark Grotjahn, Michele O’Marah, Pentti Monkkonen, Philip Wagner, Tyler Vlahovich

Declan Clarke and Paul McDevitt are London based artists who also work together on projects with other artists.

Clarke&McDevitt recently went to Los Angeles to research what the artists based in the city found important in contemporary art. Los Angeles was selected because over the last couple of years it has been the focus of media coverage and several exhibitions that portrayed the city as a hotbed of artistic activity. The selection of artists that make it into shows in the UK is predominately governed through certain filters. As artists Clarke&McDevitt are aware these selections rarely represent the dialogue that takes place between artists in a particular city.

Clarke&McDevitt made the choice to go to Los Angeles without any contacts or recommendation as to who or what to see. The (self-imposed) restricted time limit of seven days was meant to affix a structure on what could otherwise be an endless and increasingly complex task. Unfamiliar surroundings and the pressure of time ensured that the organisers were constantly on their toes. The risk inherent in this approach meant that there was a good chance that little, or no work would be encountered. Neither Clarke nor McDevitt had visited LA before.

Clarke&McDevitt began by going to see what work was featured in the galleries and media in Los Angeles. Chance meetings led to Clarke&McDevitt making studio visits to artists in the Echo Park and Chinatown areas by the second day. Each artist they spoke with told them whom they thought were interesting and so a system fell into place whereby other artists would suggest who would next be contacted. After seven days they had made some headway into piecing together some form of representation of what artists we engaged with in LA.

The second phase of this endeavour was to se how the work, the environment it came from, and the manner in which the organisers came across it could be relayed in terms of a London context. The hanging of the show, both aesthetically and intellectually, is an attempt to convey some of the (shared or opposed) concerns of the artists.

“Play it as it Lays” at London Institute Gallery
JJ Charlesworth, Artext #77 Summer 2002, p.82 - 83

Not having been to L.A. is a common trait in London, except for those few who, as curators, dealers, or their artists, get to make the leap to connect with centers of activity far away. Transnationalism in culture is a relatively recent phenomenon, and defines the emergence of curators-as-brokers, and their increasingly important function within more fluid regional circuits of culture, exchanging contact between local scenes of activity and the entry points for “international” artists in other countries.

Such questions obsess the organizers of “Play it as it Lays” (March 14 – April 13, 2002), Declan Clarke and Paul McDevitt, who gave themselves seven days in L.A. to “research what the artists in the city found important in contemporary art.” Clarke and McDevitt observe that the selection of artists that make it into U.K. shows is controlled by “certain filters”, which is certainly true, and their filter-busting visit is proposed as a worthy attempt to relocate the “authentic” L.A. Yet it seems obvious to this critic that to criticize the process of filtering, whilst setting yourself up as an alternative “disinterested” conduit, is at best naïve, at worst disingenuous.

The trouble with this sort of self-conscious critical curating is that leaves the real questions of artistic exchange well alone – namely, whether something is any good, or how we understand any work’s quality to be subject to the conditions of its local context, and how it may transcend this. This is a pity, because there is some fantastic work here, and some rubbish, but to a London critic who imagines America for never having been there, there’s both international commensurability and local idiosyncrasy to be grasped.

And the impression that “Play it as it Lays” offers is that L.A. artists are interested in much the same things we are here. They’re interested in homey revivals of modernist formalism, with a craft aesthetic; in the gloopy oil-paint fantasies of Dennis Hollingsworth, and the romantic, kitschy lyricism of Christina Glidden’s half-abstract oils and watercolours. There’s an interest in a kind of amnesiac’s archaeology of the twentieth-century culture in Francesca Gabbiani’s paper-cutout interiors of deserted hotels, in Amy Sarkisian’s darkly humorous take on the mortality of celebrity in the iconography of Queen, or Michele O’Marah’s handmade remake of a TV interview with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. There’s the same fascination with a kind of hybrid Pop-formalist sculpture, mute and evocative, austere and pathological, in the objects of John Williams, Liz Craft, and Alice Könitz. And haunting everything is the triumph of cultural reproducibility over historical and geographic location, and the desire to carve an authentic culture from the surface signs of contemporary manufactured anonymity: Pentti Monkkonen’s ceremonial installation of an observation tower between two urban fly-overs and Eddie Ruscha’s melancholic self-playing acoustic guitar, evoke a landscape where the proximity of the authentic is tenuous, yet quixotically fought for.

So that’s what could be said of the differences and similarities between L.A. and London art now. But exoticizing the faraway, even as you claim the virtue of bringing it closer, only mystifies the otherness, whilst the act of “filtering” remains unquestioned and unseen.

“Play it as it Lays” at London Institute Gallery
Richard Blandford, Frieze issue 69, September 2002, p.112

The Los Angeles brand of cool is a breed apart: Arthur Lee could never have joined the Velvet Underground any more than Lou Reed could have joined the Byrds. Similarly the work of John Baldessari is cool in a way Joseph Kosuth could never be, not only because Baldessari was funnier, but also because he was funny in LA, as opposed to New York. If something as necessarily elusive as cool can be defined at all, the LA variety could be said to manifest itself in a refusal to be consistently rational or intellectual, preferring to let an instinctive attitude towards style and aesthetics permeate the work.

The London air was touched with cool at “Play it as it Lays”, an exhibition of 17 artists from LA. As with previous group shows of LA artists held in the capital, such as ‘Drive-By’ at the South London Gallery in 1999. And the strong LA contingent in last year’s ‘Young Americans’ at the Barbican Art Centre, this show allowed the British gallery-goer the opportunity to see art that possesses such an aura of calm self-confidence that it made much contemporary British art appear consumed by manic desire to be liked. Here abstraction and figuration, painting and assemblage, photography and video shared the space like a social experiment in communality. That these various approaches to art production – their dissimilarities once so ideologically charged and now apparently defused of their explosive potential – can peaceably co-exist is very much an indication of the current stylistic flexibility within art.

“Play it as it Lays” was so laid back it appeared to be less of an exhibition than a wander around a shared studio space, an intentional effect that reflected the environment where British artist/curators Declan Clarke and Paul McDevitt found the work. The pair visited LA, a city neither of them knew, and after making initial contact with artists in the Chinatown district, took their advice on other artists’ work to look at. The recommended artists would then give recommendations of their own and so on.

This year the in-crowd could be recognized by their tendency to make popular culture their own through a DIY construction process. Take, for example, Francesca Gabbiani’s paper cut-out recreations of the interior shots of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining (1980). High-tech Hollywood filmmaking, with all the expertise it requires, is mimicked via the paper-and-scissors technique of the schoolroom. Michele O’Marah’s two videos comprised a re-enactment of a television interview with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and a low-budget reconstruction of a scene form a Vietnam War film. Although the immediate impression these works created was of watching TV in a state of slacker apathy, something more subtle was going on, in the way the artists declared their source material as part of their cultural baggage. And the very process of re-creating it challenged the passivity that source material demands and for which it is commonly enjoyed.

By way of contrast, Eddie Ruscha (no, not that Ed Ruscha) is an artist and musician, and his work Contact (2002) neatly reflects this duality. In a darkened room the strings of a 12-string guitar were struck by a rod attached to a revolving disco light that dimly projected patterns on to the walls. The guitar was open-tuned so that it played softly in the background. It was a strange type of live performance with no performer, an amalgam of the automatic playback of recorded sound experienced in the privacy of the home and the event of the concert.

Analysing my reaction to another work, however, gave me pause for thought. In John Williams’ Pizza Everywhere (1998) a Dan Flavin-style neon light arrangement has its purity defiled by a slice of fabricated pizza, complete with a bite taken out of it, and an item of drug paraphernalia resting on top. How can this work be understood? Perhaps as a commentary on the unquestioning consumption of art doctrine, a warning against getting the theoretical munchies, or perhaps it is just saying that Minimalism only makes sense when stoned. It is here that the hidden danger of LA cool reveals itself, a reminder that an intrinsic element of hip is a level of exclusivity and a code of behaviour that can resist one’s actions and neutralizes dissent.

Artists’ Project – Seven Days in LA
Art Review, April 2002, p.50 - 51

The big idea: spend a week in Los Angeles and come back to London with a group show of art by young Californians. The method: direct contact with artists in order to avoid the controlling eye of the curator and any Anglocentric taste judgements. The logistics: word-of-mouth, a map of LA, a hire car and a motel room with a telephone. The result: “Play it as it Lays”, 17 LA artists at the London Institute Gallery. Here is how artists Declan Clarke and Paul McDevitt did it:

Wednesday 14/11/01

Facing the reality of being in a hugh city unfamiliar to both of us and trying to locate artists. Both woke with nervous tension and also some doubt as to the legitimacy of the endeavour. The best solution seemed to be to familiarize ourselves with some of the galleries and the work they were showing.

To Gagosian in Beverly Hills to take a look at the Tim Noble and Sue Webster show. On our way to find some of the other galleries in that area but got lost. Tried to get to LACMA, thinking it was MOCA, which was closed Wednesdays anyway. Come out to get the car and find a ticket on the windscreen. $60 fine.

Thursday 15/11/01

Got up and made a couple of calls to artists who’d been suggested yesterday. Got through to Mark Grotjahn and Paul Sietsema. Mark showed us his geometric abstract paintings, some huge flower works, some sign-swapping art, and writing on books of matches from his smoking and gambling days.

Mark gave us a few more numbers, including Michele O’Marah and showed us a film by Pentti Monkkonen. After that we drove east toward Chinatown. Walked into Diannepruess where we met an artist who said he would take us round some studios of friends of his in the area. First was Jacques de Beaufort. Jacques had keys for some of his friends’ studios next door. Dennis Hollingsworth was very accommodating and gave us a catalogue of his work.

Up the road to the studio of a painter called Philip Wagner. Big canvases clogging up his flat.

To the bar, Hop Louie’s, with Phil, Joel, Dennis and Jacques, as well as a lot of artists and gallerists from Chinatown.

Friday 16/11/01

To Paul Sietsema’s studio for 10am. Chatted about novels and movies more than art. Next to see the studios of Liz Craft and Pentti Monkkonen in the back of their new house. Liz’s giant Charlie Manson gnome in the front garden. Both were busy with ambitious sculptures. Asked us to come down to a reggae blub that their mate, Eric Wesley, was launching with a few friends on Saturday.

Following this we visited Francesca Gabbiani. Looked at the paper cut-outs she was currently working on. Told us we should see her friend Eddie Ruscha who makes music and is now going on to work on sound installations.

Saturday 17/11/01

Walked up to the Chung King Road and saw some of the galleries and then headed over to Hop Louie’s bar. We had some beers and were joined by Joel Mesler and Phil Wagner and some of their friends including artist Dave Deaney. Everyone was talking about the meteor storm due in the middle of the night and it was decided that we all drive out to the desert to get a better look. In Dave’s car and out to the hills. The meteors were coming down every few seconds and we craned our necks until four in the morning.

Sunday 18/11/01

Heading over to Silver Lake for more studio visits. First was Michele O’Marah. Watched her reconstruction of the movie Valley Girls and an older video with friends of hers acting out a 1970 interview with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton alongside a reconstruction of Full Metal Jacket.

Then over to Eddie Ruscha’s place. We went down to his studio and listened to some tracks made for a compilation of 45-second scores. He gave us a couple of CDs of his own music, recorded under the name of Dada Munchamonkey.

Drove a couple of streets to Christiana Glidden’s apartment. Getting kind of tired of reiterating our spiel but we soon warm up. Saw her watercolours and catalogue from a residency in Berlin. She is just about to return to Germany.

Tuesday 20/11/01

Over to see Alice Könitz. She was putting the finishing touches to a sculpture to show us when we called round.

The studio next door belongs to John Williams who showed us some of his work and a polystyrene fairy-light piece that he is putting into the gospel church next door. We came back onto the street to pick up the car, by which time people had returned home from work and several rusty vehicles had been parked around our shiny hire car. A group of teenagers were hanging out near the car while we negotiated our huge behemoth directly into the car behind. After an initially pleasant response one truculent youth demanded we get out of our car and give him $200. Seeing that America is a country were teenagers often carry guns and sometimes use them, we made a hasty retreat and criss-crossed the back streets until we were confident no one was following.

Wednesday 21/11/01

Having officially finished our week we made one last studio visit, this time with Andrew Hahn. The traffic was at a standstill because everyone was trying to get out of town for Thanksgiving.