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JOHN O'BRIEN

BREAKING RANKS


As one matures and progresses in their chosen or given field, it becomes increasingly evident how the earliest memories and experiences of growing up inform how we frame our experience of the world. Having been an army brat, which is to say being someone who grew up in a military family, with the relative isolation and privileges of that modern day caste system, informs my worldview. Omnipresent acronyms, formal regimentation and informal but highly articulated protocols gave structure to my existence from the start. This now informs my understanding of the world. Even that of the art world. I have written elsewhere that the pseudo caste system of artists is similar to the pseudo caste system of the military, sharing their relative isolation from the rest of society, their ranking systems, their community-centered mindset and their strategic group gambits. Maybe this is true of every world where small groups of people intersect in patterns governed by similar mechanisms of control and hierarchy. Anyway, my terms of understanding correspond to the names given to them by the military, and I have imported them into the art world.

The reason I bring this up is because currently I am organizing the capstone exhibition for "At The Brewery Project" (ATBP), a ten year independent project, and the M*Y*T*H* series, a one year project dedicated to the memory of Mark Niblock-Smith. As I went back over the rosters of artist's names and the correspondence, I began asking myself why these events took place and what was the sense that they had. ATBP was a donated space at the Brewery in downtown Los Angeles where artists were given an opportunity to self organize (occasionally with the help of independent curators) exhibitions of what they perceived to be "their" art world. Because it was driven by more than one personality and hosted more than one artistic persuasion, ATBP exhibited a fairly wide bandwidth of art works and attitudes. Most importantly, in my opinion, ATBP was an experiment in breaking ranks.

Artists used the projects to break ranks and that is something I have been thinking a lot about lately. Both in the sense of breaking ranks within a formation (when the formation or order becomes too tight or constrictive), and of breaking ranks after the formation has been dismissed (sometimes referred to as a cluster-fuck, that is, when everyone's running into each other, in a mad dash to clear out). Breaking ranks can shake up the established order in favor of an uncertain or as yet unstable new ranking, or simply be the same ranks reassembling elsewhere. What are the ranks, who draws them up and inducts new members is what interests me. I am convinced that the momentary affluence of the current art market hasn't got the necessary fuel or gumption for generating innovation and fostering significance in the visual arts today. In this purposely rambling essay, I want to consider examples of this Breaking Ranks: a kind of vital re-definition, re-alignment and broadening of the field, coming from unexpected (or better yet, unpredictable) directions.


"A Simple Complex Redux," installation
view, At the Brewery Project, 2007.









Joseph Santarromana, "Gongyo,"  
2005, multi monitor video installation.









Wendy Adest, "Two Parts per
Billion," 2006, mixed media.

At the end of last year, I was in San Diego to visit relatives (San Diego is a very large military retirement community) and I visited the Robert Irwin exhibition at San Diego MoCA’s Downtown facility [See Judith Christensen’s review elsewhere in this issue—Ed.]. Irwin has always been an artist who blissfully ignores the rigidity of art historical formulations and art critical categories. Even more than the wonderful site-responsive or site-specific installations in “Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries,” I was drawn to the small room of preparatory drawings for his unrealized public art projects, particularly the public art and garden projects. The exquisite drawings, photo-collages and miniature towers created as studies for public projects at airports, parks and other sites in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas were entrancing. Shifting his attention from the end result of a purely visual by-product (painting in his case), Irwin was able to imagine his contribution to art as something that went beyond the traditions of the decorative arts. Entering into the programmatic planning of environments, his proposals paved the way for artists and architects and engineers and various landscape/interior/exterior designers to enter into conversation about what constitutes the realm for the visual arts in the public world. It is not that I view the decorative arts paradigm negatively. Decoration doesn't have to simply be embellishment, and is often quite a successful approach to working with architecture (it is also one, by the way, in which I was trained in Rome, Italy).

What interested me in looking at these early and unrealized proposals of Irwin's was how they conceived of a role in making the invisible visible. For the Miami Airport proposal, where he was invited to participate as a collaborating artist in designs for its renovation and improvement, he delimitated zones through which the visitor would transit. Rather than concentrating on separate artworks, he worked on areas with nomenclatures such as arrival or wait and he gave them, for lack of a better word, overall perceptual atmospheres. The project was an attempt to create an articulated and sequential structure for channeling the usually chaotic and hectic experience of the airport. Given the politics of the airport's construction and engineering complexities, it was never implemented, but the drawings on view at SDMoCA give an idea of how Irwin took on that challenge and broke ranks with those before him. He demonstrates that an artist can use their training and sense of aesthetic ordering as a means of creating an alternative to that which has been the traditional usage and in-significance of ordinary transitional spaces. Using light--both ambient and natural--flora, seating arrangements and visitor flow patterns, Irwin imagined the artist's role of environment/ambient compass orienteer for a traveler's liminal and subliminal perception of the airport.



Robert Irwin, "Two Architectural Towers,"
proposed 1989 (unrealized), 1989,
oil and acrylic on linen, 44 x 36".





Robert Irwin, "Marfa Plan," 2004, color pencil
on mylar sheet, 29 x 36". Photo: Pablo Mason





Robert Irwin, "Marfa Plan, Black and White,"
2005-06, graphite and color pencil on mylar
sheet, 34 3/4 x 57". Photo: Pablo Mason
Lauren Bon is another artist I have been following recently. She appears to have broken with several ranks and through that found new, unprecedented and fruitful relationships to the roles she plays in the art world. I first came into contact with the name of Lauren Bon in conjunction with her “Not a Cornfield” project near my studio in the northern end of downtown Los Angeles. I had heard about an artist who had received a very large grant from the Annenberg Foundation to set up a public art project. She had set up a kind of ephemeral park/open air gallery/landing strip for the visual arts in an area adjacent to Chinatown. The information first fascinated me because I had never heard of that large an individual grant coming from the Annenberg Foundation before. It also interested me because I wanted to see what an artist might do with the millions of dollars at her disposition. It later circulated to a wider audience (including me) that the singularity of the Annenberg grant was because Bon is in fact herself an Annenberg and a trustee of the foundation. More important to my mind was that someone from this type of foundational structure would step forward in such a proactive way to leverage foundation resources for the arts. This was audacious and a provocation to the usual order. I followed the project thereafter and watched how it mutated into different entities as it went. I am both referring to how the structure morphed, and how the perception (my own and that of other artists with whom I spoke regularly about it) of the project took on different appearances from without.

Bon's “Not a Cornfield” came and it went through a number of physical and symbolic stages. It went from the grey of unattended and potentially toxic industrial waste laden earth to the first phase: the Gold Phase. Some 30 acres of field were cleaned and 1,500 loads of clean earth was trucked in and irrigated to prepare the terrain for the planting of some million seeds of golden corn. Coincidentally, this corn was a variety that was never meant to be eaten, but rather to leach pollutants from the soil. The Blue Phase superceded the Gold. A variety of activities took place in the open-air 'galleries' that were carved out of the field of corn as the crop was harvested. Functioning as cultural spaces, each gallery hosted different communities and their events. These ranged from performances, to film screenings, to bonfire discussion groups. They embraced everything from craft making, to installations and impromptu get-togethers. During the Blue Phase the harvested corn was recycled and the field was tilled and sown with a mixed ground cover crop to further recuperate the soil. Finally, a set of blue light beacon towers were set up in accordance with the position of the winter constellations as they were over the cornfield during the winter solstice.  When the Blue Phase ended, the final Clear Phase started with a farming combine cutting through the stalks of the “Not A Cornfield” crop and leaving much of the residue from the sorting, separating and husking on the ground to regenerate. The cycle was complete and as Bon herself wrote, "Not A Cornfield is a living sculpture in the form of a field of corn."

Now on that site a Los Angeles State Historic Park will be built. In a way that could be seen as having been anticipated by Joseph Beuys (to whom “Not A Cornfield” owes an aesthetic debt in any case) the premise for an interactive, inter-disciplinary playful fount of ecological and esthetic intersections and proposals remain within the seeds Lauren Bon planted. The offshoots of this work lives on within Farmlab, an offshoot of the “Not A Cornfield” project situated in a building across from the former Woman's Building and under the Spring Street bridge. Even more importantly it continues in the various web sites related to all the corollary projects joined at the shoulder by “Not A Cornfield.” Bon remains a primary benefactor of Farmlab, and in the meantime, has begun to exhibit with Ace Gallery in Los Angeles. The usual order of things is that you cannot be in two ranks simultaneously. Either you are the benefactor or you can enjoy the largess of a benefactor; not both. You can be a famous celebrity in one world, not two. Joni Mitchell has exhibited her figurative paintings for years, to limited notice. Most of the art world has not seen the artwork of the renowned architects Santiago Calatrava and Lorcan O'Herlihy. Can these ranks not mix?

Bon's current exhibition,"Bees and Meat" [Ace Gallery recently extended it through February—Ed.] comprises a number of different kinds of artworks that the artist has created over the last fifteen years, with most connected to her “Not A Cornfield” project. Reflecting the re-generative philosophy of her work overall, images and objects range from residues taken from “Not A Cornfield” to travel- and photo-based ephemeral projects. The idea of a symbolic resuscitation of discarded matter is specifically echoed by the exhibition title and the mental image of honeybees emerging nourished from the rotten carcass of a dead animal. As could be expected, the works themselves vary in visual strength and conceptual autonomy.


Lauren Bon, "Not a Cornfield," 2005,
corn covering a 32-acre field in Downtown
Los Angeles over one agricultural cycle.








Lauren Bon, " Bee Box, 2007, Discarded
Display Cabinet, Bees, Beeswax, Propolis,
Honey, Pollen, Branch of an Orange Tree,
Fluorescent Light, 38” (h) x 64” (w) x 25” (d).








Lauren Bon, “21 Corn Bales,” 2007,
cornstalk, twine, 108” (h) x 60” (w) (each).

Photos courtesy Ace Gallery Los Angeles
.

A room full of corn kernels (“Corn Crypt”), ninety miles of irrigation stripping (“90 Miles of Irrigation Stripping”) ,and twenty-odd 9 foot bales of dried cornstalks (“21 Corn Bales”) taken directly from “Not A Cornfield” are most interesting in relationship to that time-based project. Her strongest suite as a visual artist, aside from the haunting twine, bone and honey chandeliers, remains that of being a superb framer of natural processes. The twin beehives in the discarded display cabinet (“Bee Box”) with plastic extension tubes that allow the bees to enter and exit are testimony to that ability. Between the incessant hum of the bees and the amazing construction of the hives by the bees themselves, Bon simply steps aside. Having launched the structure that brings our attention to the phenomena, she lets it go; nature takes its course.

There are legitimate questions of the significance and validity of breaking ranks. Calatrava and O'Herlihy are an interesting modernist sculptor and painter, respectively, however renowned they may be in another field. Not everyone breaking ranks can lay claim the same ability to move meaningfully between fields. Moreover, in a media driven, advertising based culture, distinctions need to be maintained in order to judge how the breaking of ranks actually forges new definitions, alters alignments and brings broader horizons to a given field.



Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects, Vertical House,
Venice, CA: view from Pacific Avenue.

Photo © Michael Weschler.











Issey Miyake and Tim Hawkinson,
"Pneumatic Quilt," 1999. Installation
view of Miyake's exhibition at
Ace Gallery New York.

A comparison between the  @Murakami exhibition at MOCA [Currently on view at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary—Ed.], with particular reference to the Louis Vuitton boutique/collaboration, and Tim Hawkinson’s "The Pneumatic Quilt", a collaboration with Issey Miyake, shown at Ace about ten years ago, is instructive. Marc Jacobs, the artistic director for Louis Vuitton, discusses his collaboration with Takashi Murakami at the MOCA website. He measures the value of their collaboration in terms of the merging of the two trademark signature icons. This embrace of art as nothing more than a commodity drains it of further significance.

In interviews with Miyake and Hawkinson, they discussed how they approached the quilting and pleating at the core of their collaboration, Aside from the notable difference in media usage, there is the question of how the ranks between art and design were re-designated in these two cases. One the one hand we have a fully operational Louis Vuitton boutique showcasing the artist's collaboration with the designer placed on the mezzanine level of the Geffen Contemporary. On the other hand is splayed a rolling un-pleated cloth sculpture extending through a number of rooms. As collaborations each functions quite differently. Hawkinson used the physical fabric of Miyake's design and inscribed it with prints of his quirky figure drawings. The pleated material was drawn out over a long stretch. The materials of fashion morphed into pure art. A broader understanding of design was put into play in the earlier project without making one a shadow or a figment in the service of the other.

Hawkinson didn't just embellish an existing Miyake gown, and Miyake's pleats didn't relinquish their formal elegance in favor of the artist's light-hearted epidermal flow pattern. With the Murakami/ Vuitton icon merger, far less is accomplished. The materials of art become those of design, and most clearly, of mass marketed design for the well to do. It could be argued that Murakami successfully co-opted or appropriated the Vuitton icon in a kind of post-Pop super-flat translation, but unlike historical Pop art that critically challenged the exclusion of everyday design and images from the fine arts, both Murakami and Vuitton start and finish in the same ranks where they started.

Fashion today is enthusiastically injected into an art world where both mass produced handbags and smaller scale market produced art images are joined at the hip. They maintain a mutual distance from any critical or even thoughtful articulation of what it means to use the word “icon” to describe an advertising technique. Without any criticality, or at least a trace of deconstruction within historical consciousness, the only ranks I see being broken are those of the walls separating the museum store from the museum itself. I wrote here recently [April, 2006--Ed.] that third generation museums will have to wrestle with competition from theme parks and the hyperactivity of interactive culture. I wrote then that I was heartened by the search for new modes of thinking about what it means to be making and exhibiting art. I am still interested in how we break ranks and, even if it doesn't always produce the broadening of the field that I personally seek, breaking them is necessary and inevitable.