Sense and in­sen­si­bil­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Woody Allen — or more ex­actly his al­ter ego in An­nie Hall — ex­plained the tidi­ness of the streets of Los An­ge­les by the fact “they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into tele­vi­sion shows”. Some­how this barb seems to epit­o­mise the cul­ture of Los An­ge­les in the 1970s as sur­veyed in this cu­ri­ously eclec­tic ex­hi­bi­tion, which cov­ers every­thing from Ed Ruscha’s co­pi­ous and bland semi-con­cep­tual art to soft­core porn of gay beef­cake mag­a­zines.

In­con­gru­ous as such a con­junc­tion may seem at first sight, it is per­haps less so when we con­sider these os­ten­si­bly very dif­fer­ent im­ages side by side.

Ruscha is the log­i­cal place to start, and if one had not al­ready come to the con­clu­sion that he was over­rated and ul­ti­mately rather vac­u­ous, this ex­hi­bi­tion will help to make this clear. Some of his early work stems from pop, con­cep­tu­al­ism and min­i­mal­ism, but the con­cep­tual con­tent is never very strong or con­sis­tent and, as this ex­hi­bi­tion shows, he soon sub­sided into pro­duc­ing cool quasi-con­cep­tual dec­o­ra­tor pieces for the Los An­ge­les mon­eyed class.

Cool, in­deed, as the ti­tle of the ex­hi­bi­tion sug­gests, is the defin­ing qual­ity of the sen­si­bil­ity that un­der­lies these works, or one might in­deed say in­sen­si­bil­ity, for cool is ul­ti­mately an at­ti­tude of dis­en­gage­ment and in­dif­fer­ence. More ex­actly, it is a su­per­fi­cial aes­thetic re­sponse to nov­elty of de­sign with­out con­tent, be­lief or con­vic­tion. As I have ob­served be­fore, this is still one of the most com­mon re­sponses of vis­i­tors to ex­hi­bi­tions such as the Bi­en­nale: they will glance for a mo­ment at some com­plex in­stal­la­tion, ac­knowl­edge it with the word “cool”, then move on to an­other su­per­fi­cial ex­pe­ri­ence.

And what else can one say be­fore the de­signs of Larry Bell or Ron­ald Davis and some oth­ers? Per­haps in the af­ter­math of hard-edge ab­strac­tion these pat­terns seemed in­ter­est­ing. To­day they look slight and me­chan­i­cal. But what about a more com­plex im­age such as Ruscha’s Sweets, Meats, Sheets (1975)? It’s bright, it’s de­lib­er­ately loud, it grat­ingly jux­ta­poses colour sat­u­ra­tion and the sug­ges­tion of glam­our with the ba­nal­ity of con­sumer prod­ucts and most con­spic­u­ously steaks on sty­ro­foam trays and wrapped in taut plas­tic from a su­per­mar­ket shelf.

This is, how­ever, a much more com­plex im­age than those of Bell, for it re­calls in colour and com­po­si­tion Tom Kel­ley’s fa­mous nude of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe against a red satin back­ground (1949), so we can read it as a de­con­struc­tion of the star into the at­trac­tion of sweet­ness (Her­shey’s choco­late Kisses), the re­al­ity of flesh and the metonym of sheets for sex. But this facile and re­duc­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Mar­i­lyn is less in­sight­ful and es­pe­cially less hu­mane than the orig­i­nal glam­our shot, which at least ac­knowl­edged the dream of beauty.

Cyn­i­cism is not the same as crit­i­cal think­ing; it is, as we saw in the post­mod­ern pe­riod that en­sued, all too of­ten a lazy and in­dul­gent stance, es­pe­cially when it be­comes an alibi for in­ac­tion and in­dif­fer­ence, and when, as in this case, the end prod­uct is in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tion with a know­ing sneer.

Sex was, os­ten­si­bly at least, easy in Los An­ge­les in the 70s. It was in the mid­dle of the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion that had be­gun the decade be­fore with the in­ven­tion of the pill and would con­tinue un­til it was brought to an end by the AIDS epi­demic of the early 80s. In the mean­time, it seemed that there were few bound­aries: for bet­ter or for worse, this pe­riod rep­re­sented the op­po­site ex­treme of the pen­du­lum swing that has brought about to­day’s sur­pris­ingly pu­ri­tan­i­cal at­ti­tude to sex­u­al­ity, rid­den with guilt, anx­i­ety and re­sent­ment not seen since the later 19th cen­tury.

Los An­ge­les was the cap­i­tal of what has been called in hind­sight the golden age of porno-chic be­cause, in the wake of a se­ries of im­por­tant le­gal cases from 1957 on­wards, the le­gal con­cept of ob­scen­ity had been sig­nif­i­cantly lim­ited: this made of cut-up pho­to­graphs of naked girls taken from the erotic mag­a­zines that also flour­ished in this pe­riod, well be­fore the age of the in­ter­net made such me­dia ob­so­lete. The cut­ting up and re­com­bi­na­tion in Hei­necken’s work in­hibits a straight­for­ward re­sponse to the im­ages as erot­ica, invit­ing a more com­plex and dream­like read­ing of the ex­pe­ri­ence of sex­u­al­ity.

The same sort of ma­te­rial is dealt with more sub­tly in the pho­to­graphs of Chris­tine God­den, who fo­cuses on glimpses and sug­ges­tions rather than th phys­i­cally or psy­cho­log­i­cally ex­plicit im­agery. God­den’s shot of a young woman’s legs, ggf fa fall­ing open as she drives her car, is thus more sub­tly su provoca­tive, be­cause of the way that it im­pli­cates im the viewer, than some of Hei­necken’s e rel­a­tively ex­plicit im­agery.

Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was also part of the lib­er­ated world of Los An­ge­les, and the ex­hi­bi­tion in­wwc c cludes a col­lec­tion of im­ages of body­builders and a other young men, all coyly equipped with G-strings, in a va­ri­ety of mock-ath­letic poses. GGT These im­ages were pro­duced by an am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher p who pub­lished them in cheap mag­a­zines that could (af­ter the Supreme Court mmo over­turned a post of­fice ban) be mailed to sub­scribers. sc

The sex­ual free­dom, in­clud­ing Hol­ly­wood’s tacit ta tol­er­ance of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, was one of the things th that most ap­pealed to the young David Hock­ney, who ar­rived in Los An­ge­les in 1964. HHH He also liked the weather. The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes c a cou­ple of pic­tures of a naked young man in the bath­room, one stand­ing in the showmme e er and the other at the hand basin while Hock­ney him­self, with his cam­era, is re­flected in the nnb b bath­room mir­ror.

Wa­ter, as a sym­bol of the ubiq­uity and flu­id­ity id of sex­u­al­ity, al­ready ap­pears in one of God­den’s pic­tures, in which the naked pelvis and leg of a girl are set be­side shim­mer­ing sunlit wa­ter.

But it was Hock­ney who saw in the swim­ming pools of Los An­ge­les an im­age the erotic state into which one can plunge and lose all sense of bound­aries and iden­tity. Hence his im­ages of fig­ures div­ing into a pool or swim­ming un­der­wa­ter, some­times watched by oth­ers stand­ing on the edge, still out­side and in the world of nor­mal so­cial con­ven­tions. A paint­ing of this sub­ject, in­deed, was sold a few weeks ago for al­most $124 mil­lion, a record for a liv­ing artist.

These themes may be fol­lowed in a group of video works from the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion that can be seen a lit­tle fur­ther on in the modern gal­leries — and in­deed can also be looked up on YouTube. One of these is Carolee Sch­nee­mann’s Meat Joy (1964), an in­co­her­ent but spon­ta­neous Dionysiac orgy of nu­dity, blood Throw­ing three balls in the air to get a straight line (Best of thir­tysix at­tempts) Betsy’s hands, by the pool EVEN DUR­ING THE 70S THERE WERE PLENTY OF PEO­PLE WHO WERE NOT HAV­ING A VERY GOOD REV­O­LU­TION was a time when full full-length length adult fea­tures were pro­duced with some at­tempt at nar­ra­tive co­her­ence, were shown in main­stream cin­e­mas, and helped bring back au­di­ences who had aban­doned movies for tele­vi­sion.

The most no­table Amer­i­can pro­duc­tions of the time in­cluded Be­hind the Green Door (1972), The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), The Open­ing of Misty Beethoven (1976), Caligula (1979), orig­i­nally based on a screen­play by Gore Vi­dal, and, one of the ear­li­est but most no­to­ri­ous, Deep throat (1972), which was a mas­sive hit but whose star, Linda Lovelace, later be­came a born-again Chris­tian and claimed that she had been forced into the role. It is a rather pa­thetic tale, deeply Amer­i­can in its al­ter­na­tion of dere­lic­tion and re­pen­tance, but it re­minds us that all was not en­tirely cool af­ter all in the pornog­ra­phy busi­ness.

This is the cul­ture that in­forms many of the pho­to­graphic works in the ex­hi­bi­tion, most ob­vi­ously Robert Hei­necken’s col­laged im­ages

John Baldessari’s (1973), main; Chris­tine (1973),

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