Shop Art

The third and final exhibit at LAX Gallery, May I Help You?, by artist John Williams, can be viewed as a thumbnail sketch of one of the art world's stronger currents, too new even to have been tagged with a name that sticks. Glutted with colored plastic, toys and trinkets, and with one component actually made inside a store, "May I Help You?" is a portrait of the artist as a young shopper.

Though it includes three discrete works, in the small space afforded by LAX, "May I Help You?" reads as one installation. (The gallery is a summer-only project by artist Mark Allen, who is on furlough from graduate school at the California Institute for the Arts.) With a variety of repetitive sounds, the show produces the dizzy dysphoria of the low-grade shopping mall, in which objects cannot be apprehended or read in a linear fashion. If shoppers were intended to be methodical, all black skirts would be in one part of the store, and all pearl earrings on one rack. Instead, merchandise is arranged in seductive anecdotes, exercising its right to assemble freely in a world with plenty of mirrors, Muzak and mood lighting. In theory, no one who can successfully navigate a Kmart should feel confused in Williams's clanging, hiccupping world, where giant crepe-paper pineapples dangle from yellow particleboard, advertising themselves like the week's Best Buy.

The centerpiece of Williams's show is an amazing contraption fashioned from customized crates, a discombobulated home entertainment center complete with TV (positioned at floor level), VCR, slide projector and turntable. The title, Traveling Monkey, refers to a video of one of those boxing monkey puppets punching a glass cup to make a rhythmic and incessant "ting ting." For the turntable, there are four possible records to play. In an inversion of what we might normally think of as the relationship between sight and sound, each record is actually the pedestal for a glittery, translucent sculpture, which, when placed on the turntable, rotates in front of the slide projector's light, which throws the sculpture's silhouette onto the wall. When I entered the gallery the first time, the record featured a colored martini glass containing a James Bond cocktail: a magnifying glass and a toy gun with a stream of jism fashioned from twist-ties arcing out of its muzzle. Around and around whirled this morning-after contraption, while the record needle skipped awkwardly along, constantly rebuffed by the plastic obstacles and some clear tape stuck to the record's surface.

Other record/sculptures include an artful arrangement of children's plastic sunglasses, a Mylar pinwheel and a set of Christmas trees cut from plastic gel on a field of white cotton. What with the spinning, the reflective materials and the warped snatches of The Art of Noise or a piano concerto, the effect approximates a miniature disco party -- this is art that makes all the grand gestures of entertainment, albeit in unworkable proportions. The sound is too small, the monkey too aggressive too early in the evening, the materials too cheap and flimsy: All this complexity coaxes us into the role of viewers, not revelers.

Williams has clearly inherited a recent lineage of art that is deeply connected to consumerism. Choosing a starting point for that lineage is an arbitrary endeavor -- it could go further back than Pop art, after all -- but Los Angeles sculptor Nancy Rubins and New York sculptor/painter Jessica Stockholder will do for now. Rubins orchestrated a towering arrangement of hot-water heaters and trailers in the landmark 1992 show "Helter Skelter" at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. She maintains a tenacious, macho formalism despite the poetic eloquence of her discarded materials. At the same time, many people have read her works as an indictment of planned obsolescence in a nation of buyers -- shoppers at one mall complained loudly when Rubins was invited to install a piece made from old appliances.

Stockholder, even more influential an artist than Rubins, creates painterly arrangements of three-dimensional materials such as plastic storage bins, oranges, butane burners, bricks and metal chains. Neither Rubins nor Stockholder relies on the innate beauty or meaning of the things they choose, as a typical artist working with "found" objects might. Rather, they give new, entirely subjective forms to their chosen materials. But despite Rubins's visual extravagance, the resonance of the used goods she traffics in -- particularly old mattresses and obsolete airplane parts -- cannot be separated from the work. Stockholder, on the other hand, uses new materials without stories to tell, straight from the clean and organized shelves of a local Home Depot. Stockholder's art, like Williams's, is not so much about consumer culture -- to younger artists, especially, there is no other kind -- as it is a natural outgrowth of it.  

Another identifiable trait of work whose creation begins with a shopping trip is sheer profligacy, or something critics have taken to calling "scatter." There are so many things to buy, after all. A perfect practitioner of scatter is Jason Rhoades, whose installations of car parts, half-built IKEA-style furniture, empty bottles or lap-top computers are crammed into the rooms they occupy with such abandon they leave the viewer no place to step. For all the ebullience of this cluttered aesthetic, it is no more personal than minimalism. In fact, "May I Help You?" is notable for what it is not: nostalgic, sentimental or even ironic. It does not beg a psychological reading.

So, is shopping just another kind of vernacular? Can we list "manufactured goods" along with "paint" and "clay" as media, and leave it at that? Most critics don't. Instead, they see the use of these "lowbrow" materials as a continued questioning of the boundaries of art, one that perhaps began with Marcel Duchamp's "Readymades," in which he proclaimed items such as a bottle rack and a bicycle wheel to be art by designation. In fact, one critic has identified a central question in Stockholder's work as "how (or why) to maintain the category 'art' within a society of ever looser cultural protocols."

But I would venture that shopping isn't simply more worrying at the limits of art. Though we know that new art should give us something new, artists are not pinned against the ropes like a pummeled boxer, bouncing at those boundaries while taking a beating. There are too many options for the mere opening of another avenue to be so significant -- unorthodox materials are not interesting in and of themselves. But in the work of Los Angeles sculptor Jennifer Pastor, perhaps the most direct antecedent to Williams, consumer kitsch is not just embraced but taken to new heights. Pastor's sculptures, which retain Rubins's organized disorganization, pitch artificial Christmas trees afloat on waves of plastic water (all created painstakingly by the artist). Pastor has made affectionate starbursts of decorator glitz and exacting, oversized versions of souvenir seashells. Her 1994 Untitled (Winter), a wall-mounted scene of pipe-cleaner pines nestled on snowy hills of cotton, is directly referenced by Williams's sloppier, cut-and-paste record/sculpture of a similar scene in Traveling Monkey.

But Pastor's intense scrutiny of kitsch, her eager desire to get it exactly right, reflects a need to please that perhaps underlies the work of all these artists. With contemporary visual art viewed as such an alien endeavor, so out of reach of most people (witness the fact that the Guggenheim expects its highest-ever attendance figures for its current show, "The Art of the Motorcycle," which the curator all but admits is not an art exhibit), Pastor's enthusiasm for the banal is a veiled attempt to prove that artists are normal. You shop. Artists shop. You buy crepe-paper pineapples. Artists buy crepe-paper pineapples. Even Williams's exhibit title is a solicitous and uncertain query. This is not critique, it's courtship.

The normalization of the artist has gone beyond strategy to bedrock -- it's accepted as cool for artists to be concerned with the everyday, even to the point of mimicking it exactly. What is the difference, for example, between a "real" custom van and the custom van New York artist Alex Bag made and parked in a gallery in San Antonio last year, except for the fact that Bag showed videos inside hers? That's where artists like Williams come in.

Williams takes the consumer-culture thing as a point of departure. Visitors climbing the stairs to LAX Gallery are greeted by a kind of a summery snowman. His head and bottom are green plastic balls (the bottom is of the giant exercise variety), and his torso is a video monitor showing footage of a man's torso taken with an in-store display camera. As we gaze at his striped T-shirt, he searches in vain for a compatible cable for his wife's new Egg Cam. The snowman is bound together by striped suspenders, and, in case the whole thing bounces apart, the monitor has an added "protection": It is tethered to the ceiling with a length of rope so insouciantly slack it looks like it would stop the monitor an inch from the floor. Nonetheless, the rope, at least, is compatible with its intended function.

Physicality -- gravity, pattern, color and especially sound -- is the point in this essentially low-tech setup. Williams is clearly a young artist, but I prefer young artists who have been taught that things should look as fresh and optimistic as a brimming shopping bag to those who have been taught that things should look old and encrusted. Art improves on nature -- or at least that's what I like my artists to believe. And Williams seems not only to believe it, but carry it off. He improves not just on nature, but on our manufactured habitat, with its flora of paper pineapples and fauna of puppet monkeys.  

"May I Help You?" is on view through August 22 at LAX Gallery, 4910 Main, (281) 221-6666. The gallery is open Thursdays from 8 to 11 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m., or by appointment.

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