London Art Pitch is a monthly column by Jamie Sterns, a New York curator and writer attending school in the British capital.
Recently returning to London from a short jaunt to New York and Los Angeles gave me an update on what is happening in these three respective cities. Everyone’s favorite pastime, of comparing and contrasting these major art hubs to each other, is facile in the big scheme of things, but it does serve the purpose of teasing out some isolated regional developments. With this in mind, I will do a quick survey of the trends in each locale to give a taste of what is happening now and what may be in the air for the coming months.
It may be a basic starting point, but I think weather truly has an impact on what is being made in these three cities since it affects mood, attitude, palate, and how one moves and negotiates the body and thus objects in space.
London, at the moment, has a cool, slightly sharp look, mixed with its ever-present touch of dreary, while New York is crisp and harsh with a generous amount of grime, and L.A. is, per usual, a perennial saturation of color and tenuous vagueness. These climes aren’t necessarily negatives or positives, but they do reflect an overall feeling that is unmistakable and consistent. Now let’s look at some exhibitions that reflect this.
In London the acceptance of sloppiness seems to be a form of radicalism, and the city loves politics in its art, whether in ironic or blatant forms. Sean Steadman’s recent exhibition at Project Native Informant was a good example of this. It showcased collaged paintings and drawings of coiling abstractions that are reminiscent of arteries, pipes, and tires from both organic and mechanical life forms. They are messy and some are utterly unattractive, but they have a push-away, anti-authority, anti-form that makes them feel interesting, albeit not fun to look at. This sense of a middle finger being given to the expected through the production of works, and an exhibition space knowing this yet still not caring, is the type of attitude that London artists and spaces do with aplomb, confidence, and a lack of irony, and that I have yet to see in other places.
What London can do sans irony New York also has been dipping into recently, but in NYC the reference to politics is bulldozed down and in its place is a new generation of grime mixed with re-acculturated punk. What do I mean by that? I mean that things are getting aesthetically grimier and fleshy, but at the same time there is a self-awareness and a strict rigor of contextualization that career-driven artists in this city not only want to do but need to do for the sake of survival. Two shows caught my eye and did this very thing even in the madness that was opening week. First was Jason Benson’s exhibition at Bodega and the other was Eli Ping’s show at Ramiken Crucible.
To start with Benson, the show was called “Crawlers,” and it was a collection of creatures, boxes, and assemblages that each possess a light, which feels like a life source, and an oculus that lets you look inside to see scrawled drawings and makeshift sculptures. The boxes seem to be exoskeletons for relics, message encoders, or prehistoric time bombs. It reminds one of the work of a hermit in the woods, a tinkerer, some sort of outsider wizard who still believes in alchemy, but it also has such a calculated and knowing use of material, construction, and form that you know that what you are looking at is made from someone extremely aware of their intentions and how they register.
The mix of precision and messy could also be seen in Eli Ping’s exhibition at Ramiken Crucible’s other, harder-to-find space on the edges of the Lower East Side. It is off the beaten path relative to the dense pack of galleries in the neighborhood, an unmarked door followed by some stairs through who knows where which finally leads into a deep, dark, slightly dank concrete basement space that has only been subtly renovated to feel like an art space. The art-space feel was really only accomplished by the bright spots shining onto Ping’s bronze wall slabs that were demurely and spaciously hung. They are all the same size and practically similar in content. Each has an indentation in the central, lower-mid part, with slash-like lines running through it top and bottom. To be reductive, it resembled a stomach and belly button with a surgical scar. To be more complex, they radiate a lot of discomfort and hidden but implicit unnerving psychological material. The setting of these very well produced and precise, yet vaguely creepy works, embody the mixture of griminess and pristineness that New York seems to have embraced of late. It seems to be becoming an even bigger trend and it will be interesting to see how long it lasts, and how far it travels.
Lastly, L.A. To get to the heart of it, L.A. was full of more pink, body parts (especially penises), and transparent paintings than I could have ever imagined. The abundance of these three things was so overwhelming that it was annoying at times, but alas, when thinking it over, one can understand why this might be the case. With so much blasting sun, it is hard not to think of the body and the oozing of sex that is produced from the exposure and maintenance of body parts. Two solo shows that embody this trend (in a fun/not annoying way) were Alex Chaves at Night Gallery, which just closed, and Elad Lassry at David Kordansky, which runs through November 5.
Chaves is a painterly sort and he gamely mixes styles, tapping van Gogh, Gauguin, and puffy paint to make images, textures, and color choices that are both garish and quirky. He paints interiors, still lifes, and male nudes spread eagle, but in all of them there is a sweetness and a sort of private effort that makes them sentimental, but not in a pathetic way. Rather, they feel like postcards from the heart and memory prisms to spread feelings through light and color.
The body is displayed in another tenor in the work of Elad Lassry, who is a well-known commodity and whose current show at Kordansky’s very large-and-in-charge new space has both successes and question marks. The successes resides in the photo works on the wall, which are certifiably Lassry in style, combining archival-style images with squiggles and primary colored forms in plexi. They are tightly constructed with seductive emphasis on the body in actual representation and stand ins, which felt precise and sexy even in their apparent remove. Large wooden baskets with indented forms of fruit and vegetables are in the center of the gallery. I truly do not know why these are there, and so, for the sake of preserving my positive opinion of the show, I have chosen to pretend they weren’t there. With this mental block, I can still think fondly of the works on the wall, which have such grace and appeal. The precision of these photos also provides a way of looking at all the other bodies seen throughout L.A. and gives all those limbs, torsos and private parts some edge even in a city that shines so brightly.