Welcome to “To See or Not to See,” a new recurring column covering exceptional Los Angeles exhibitions in easily digestible, bite-size pieces. This inaugural edition offers notes on L.A.’s Henry Taylor era, AI hallucinations, plus two shows that resurrect the vibes of ’90s indie-sleaze. There are also more questions than answers, such as: Does the use of commercial media inherently make “crassly” commercial art? And for a cliche to be considered parody, who needs to be in on the joke?
“Anne Imhof: EMO” at Sprüth Magers
Fashion, as a discipline, excels at distilling subculture into an aesthetic, then turning that aesthetic into a commodity. Balenciaga, for example, can metabolize rock-and-roll into a thousand-dollar hoodie. And in many ways, Anne Imhof’s often riveting practice is a performance of fashion—its aesthetic codes and preoccupation with youth. In “Emo,” the artist’s largest U.S. solo show to date, the titular melancholic genre has been sublimated into emo paintings of atomic clouds and bong smoke, rendered hard-to-see in a maze-like installation of industrial water tanks and 3D lighting. In the absence of live performance, audio recordings attempt to keep the Angst alive: a maudlin piano ballad (sung beautifully by her partner, model and artist Eliza Douglas) alternates with a machine-like heartbeat and forced autotuned laughter.
As a fan of Imhof’s since 2017’s Faust, I only now think to ask, Is she doing satire? Travis Diehl says he detected sarcasm amid the melodrama. To me, the show’s inclusion of a gift shop—including $10 “Emo” posters and a $350 “Emo” bomber jacket—is potentially a knowing joke about commodifying performance into salable merchandise. So is Youth (2022), a video in which horses frolic in slow-motion to an operatic score, a role traditionally played by models in ’90s fragrance campaigns. The video AI Winter (2022) follows Douglas, shirtless in a pair of jeans, down runways carved into deep Moscow snow. With every glance over her shoulder, she casts a robotic glare, perhaps a chilling subversion of the male gaze. Or an approximation of Blue Steel. Or both. In any case, there’s much more humor in Imhof’s work than she’s given credit for.
Through May 6, 5900 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036
“Cruel Youth Diary: Chinese Photography and Video from the Haudenschild Collection” at Hammer Museum
Yang Fudong’s photographic triptych The First Intellectual (2000) reads as a trio of large-scale movie posters about a businessman standing in the center of an urban road. Forehead bloodied, he’s poised to throw a brick, but he’s unsure of which direction; his assailant is the dull pain of disillusionment, and he can’t see where it’s coming from. Curated by Nicholas Barlow with Aram Moshayedi, the Hammer’s “Cruel Youth Diary” falls into the criminally underrated category, where work by 16 Chinese artists—including Yang alongside Cao Fei, Weng Fen, and Chen Shaoxiong—from the mid-’90s to early 2000s poignantly captures a period of tumultuous cultural realignment. The rapid onset of capitalism at the turn of the century coincided with mainland China’s eased restrictions on foreign and domestic media, flooding the country with consumerist imagery—both a source of alienation and a new visual language to exploit. Like Imhof, the artists appropriate commercial media, but with a greater clarity of purpose: the transgressive absurdity and seductive nature of these works represent an intellectual counterculture in a crisis of identity. In Beautiful Dog Brows (2002), for example, Cao Fei appears on the cover of a fashion magazine, Ellf, made up like a dog dressed in Burberry. In Weng Fen’s photographs of schoolchildren gazing into the distance, newly built skyscrapers portend the bulldozing, relentless tide of globalization. The mood is also justifiably emo, weighted by the anxiety of irreversible change.
Through May 14, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90024
“Refik Anadol: Living Paintings” at Jeffrey Deitch
In a recent review, New Yorker critic Andrea K. Scott defended Refik Anadol’s AI-generated work from the “gatekeeping condescension” often levied against machine-assisted art. “Consider,” she wrote, “that color photography was dismissed as crassly commercial until 1976.” It’s a valid argument, although respectfully, that’s not what’s happening here. Anadaol’s process involves feeding datasets (in this case, local L.A. windspeeds, temperatures, and other environmental readings) into an artificial intelligence model that churns them into various types of imagery, most famously a heaving rainbow foam that sloshes around a digital white box. He refers to these animations as the machine’s “dreams” or “hallucinations,” presumably to assign meaning to perfectly generic, literally mindless abstraction. I see it more akin to grinding digital meat into sausage. Plenty of excellent art relies on machine assistance (say, Hito Steryl’s digital movie-making) and random generative processes (Sol LeWitt’s permutations, Jackson Pollock’s splashing paint onto a canvas). But it takes an artist’s touch—the recognition of depth, proportion, beauty, rhythm—to sift a compelling work of art out of a pile of goofy slush.
Through April 29, 925 North Orange Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90038
“Pedro Pedro: Table, Fruits, Flowers and Cakes” at The Hole
In photographs, the intensity of the artist’s Day-Glo colors and cartoonish style evoke easy comparisons to Kenny Scharf or Peter Saul, but in person, you see a much gentler approach. Pedro Pedro’s handling of the brush is soothingly delicate and precise, allowing the texture of unprimed linen to show through sheer applications of textile paint. Each juicy little element is electrified by chiseled neon edges and softly blended shadows, and rendered with a deliberate flatness. It’s a distinct stylistic choice that merges features of collage with trompe-l’oeil; the lemon slices and grapefruit halves present the illusion of cut-outs assembled into a floating composition. The straightforward title reflects a refreshing conceptual simplicity. Without allegory, metaphor, or political message, all that’s left is the joy of painting.
Though April 29, 844 North La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90038
“Henry Taylor: B Side” at the Museum of Contemporary Art
In Los Angeles, there is no living painter more celebrated or imitated than Taylor, with perhaps the singular exception of David Hockney. In the 1960s, the Englishman’s focused palette of pink houses, turquoise pools, and white skin crystallized the quintessential L.A. of popular imagination. In its Henry Taylor era, however, L.A. iconography includes the omissions of the previous version: concrete and power lines, imperfect edges, the textures and minutiae of quotidian Black life. Taylor’s three-decade survey of more than 150 works charts his ascent as the city’s chronicler, beginning with his ’90s sketches of patients at Camarillo State Mental Hospital to more recent portraits of the city’s luminaries—artists, writers, and loved ones—and residents of Skid Row. In lieu of Hockney’s veneer of polished restraint (and I love Hockney, for the record), Taylor presents his subjects without filter. The celebrated looseness of his brushstrokes instills his presence in the surface of the painting—his voracious pace, dynamic gestures, and candid engagement with his subject. The dress, ain’t me (2011), a painting of a young girl standing barefoot in a brown-carpeted living room, is a quiet highlight of the show. You can see a tenderness where the brush kissed the highlights of her forehead, or where the faint touches of peaches and blues in the A-line of her white dress infuse life into an ostensibly colorless fabric. This is the pleasure of looking at Taylor’s paintings: they feel alive.
Through April 29, 250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012