Fluid Nature

by Jonathan Griffin

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Los Angeles is a city that prefers to be pictured than encountered face to face. Its streets are a ceaseless Babel of disagreeing voices and signs, but, seen from any of the hills that overlook the expansive valley basin, its disparate neighbourhoods knit together into an intricate blanket, still and quiet. Particularly at night, this panorama confirms diverse L.A. archetypes: the technological Sublime, the suburban sprawl, or the majestic, multi-ethnic metropolis. Even the ocean, which laps the city’s southwest edge, is itself a picture – a dry backdrop that, with the aid of a setting sun and some silhouetted palm trees, instantly flattens into a postcard or a t-shirt. Few ever venture onto the water in order to look back at the land.

At ground level, buildings are designed to be seen only from main roads. Behind them run narrow, overlooked streets that allow for the uglier necessities of dense urban living: access for supplies, utilities, underground parking, and low-waged immigrant labour. Up above, vast images are pasted onto billboards, themselves seemingly miraculous feats of engineering which tower on steel pillars and frameworks. The most iconic advertisement of all, the Hollywood sign, is a word made into an object made into millions of images. Like the ocean, nobody (except Ed Ruscha, once) seems particularly interested in seeing what it looks like from the other side.

I’ve been living in the city for two months now, and each day involves the redrawing of my own picture of the city, which is composed largely of clichés and preconceptions. Some of these are disconcertingly accurate; most, however, just misunderstand the city’s sophisticated paradoxes. Not far from where I live is a wedge-shaped hotel so thin that, viewed from the side, it looks like a façade. At the Universal Studios ‘Backlot Tour’, you can see the famous ‘Falls Lake’ backdrop: a massive screen which can be painted in any number of styles and which is the discrete star of countless Universal movies. Back in my own neighbourhood, there is a building that looks, from a distance, as if entirely covered with Astroturf. Up close, the green matting reveals itself to be a real vine, tightly clipped but growing abundantly over the walls. A small sign announces that the building is occupied by a company specialising in the production of backdrops for film and television.

A little further down the street, David Kordansky Gallery is currently showing an exhibition of new work by the L.A.-based artist Aaron Curry titled ‘Two Sheets Thick’. Sculptures and collages are installed against grainy black and white wallpaper that covers the walls with what looks like a close-up photograph of droplets of water. In fact, it transpires, this intricate pattern is not a photograph at all but a painstakingly rendered drawing, sketched by hand with a digital stylus, and then grubbily screen-printed onto sheets of cardboard. Curry had performed a reversal that seemed peculiarly apt for Los Angeles: what at first seemed flat, cheap, repetitive and quickly made was in fact the product of careful study and technique. The normal hierarchy of value between the background and the subject in front was dispatched, and then wittily disguised again.

It struck me that the work of a number of Curry’s contemporaries also gleamed in a new light when held against the peculiarities of Los Angeles’ urban fabric. These (mostly male) artists – including Matthew Monahan, Patrick Hill, Thomas Houseago, Sterling Ruby – might primarily be regarded as object-makers despite their active engagement with the world of images, which they often apply to the surfaces of sculptural forms. While they all have their own intellectual concerns, and none could be said to make work about Los Angeles per se, they share certain formal allegiances that frequently seem to lead us back to the city in which they’re currently working. Monahan shares Curry’s attraction to trompe l’oeil, a technique that both artists use in order to conjure an impression of space that flickers between two and three dimensions. Houseago, Curry and Hill all make standing objects that are built chiefly from flat planes slotted together; all have, in various ways, applied skins to these planes, whether through printed imagery, fabric, drawn marks, spray paint or veneers.

An art historian might trace these preoccupations to the enduring influence of the Californian artists first referred to in the 1960s as ‘Finish Fetish’ Minimalists; Ruby admits that John McCracken’s gleaming, flawless monoliths are a particularly important touchstone for his horizontal, dusty and scarred geometric forms. The absolute conflation of surface and substrate that McCracken, Craig Kauffman, Ken Price and others achieved in their sculpture is also acknowledged, and rejected, by both Monahan and Hill who create active, malleable skins that appear to slip away from their solid supports.

Would it not be equally logical, however, to understand such an unstable relationship between the surface and the object as a reflection of Los Angeles itself? While the Finish Fetish artists were famously entranced by surfboards and hot rods, these contemporary artists may be responding instead to the ground that such vehicles move over: the urban landscape itself. Los Angeles’ frequent seismic activity makes itself felt not only by the occasional tremor, but, more dramatically, in sudden inclines on streets that have, through some historic quake, been wrinkled like sheets on a bed. The city’s skin seems vulnerable to being ripped up, cracked or peeled off at any time.

And beneath that skin, it seems, is liquid: not water, but oil. Adjacent to my local park is a field of old fashioned oil derricks, still balefully pumping away. There is even one – admittedly disguised by flower-patterned tiles – on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. On Wilshire Avenue, the distinctive smell of the La Brea Tar Pits is detectable from a considerable distance; fissures created by the 6th Street Fault have been allowing oil to seep to the surface here for tens of thousands of years. Currently a fibreglass mammoth is frozen mid-struggle at the side of the lake, a monument to the many animals that perished – and were subsequently preserved – in its black depths.

All this adds up to a unique atmosphere of impermanence and fluidity at the core of the city. It makes sense that glass occurs frequently in the work of Los Angeles artists. After all, this fragile substance is – according to the fact we are often told but can never quite comprehend – actually a liquid at room temperature. Hill and Monahan both exploit this precariousness to create situations of barely contained tension, in sculptures that – in Hill’s case – seem to rest improbably heavy objects on sheets of glass or – in Monahan’s – bind it to blocks of foam with straps and metal ratchets.

Wetness is in even more explicit evidence in the work of Curry, Hill and Ruby but in each instance, though in markedly different ways, it is illusory and ultimately points to its opposite: dryness. Ruby is well known for his sculptures such as Monument Stalagmite/Tried & Trode! (2009) that jut up from the floor in drippy spikes. These overt demonstrations of gestural liquidity are, of course, made from hardened resin; even the glossy final coating of wet-look lacquer dries hard and smooth. Hill often uses unevenly dyed fabrics within his sculptures as stable carriers of once seeping colour; other wall-mounted works such as Container (2009) contrast dusty swipes of concrete with now dry puddles of ink. Curry’s drawings of water droplets, which cover the walls of the exhibition ‘Two Sheets Thick’, are simply the most recent manifestations of a motif he has used in collages and sculptures for some years. The wallpaper, as we have seen, was created using digital pens and software (surely the most water-averse tools available!); in previous works, such as the diptych Dust and Armor and Armor and Dust (2007), he described the glossy droplets in gouache, a paint that, he says, appealed to him paradoxically because of its ability to render smooth, matt flatness.

Curry models his water droplets on the images of condensation that one sees in advertisements covering soft drinks cans. In that instance, it is a graphic signifier both of the object’s coldness and of the humidity of the atmosphere it stands in (– the context expressing itself once again). On the skin of swimsuit or pornographic models (another reference for Curry), beads of moisture signify not so much sweat as a cleanliness and unblemished quality that simultaneously tempts the touch of the viewer while underscoring that impossibility. Los Angeles is not only a meltingly hot city, surrounded by desert and nourished by artificial water supplies, but also a city in which little appears to be pristine or untouched. Ruby insists that the cabinet-makers who construct his laminated sculptures do not erase the gluey scars and finger marks of the construction process; he completes the work by rubbing in more dust and stains, and sometimes by inscribing them with marks that approximate graffiti. The virgin ground that Curry’s water droplets alluringly refer to exists only in pictures, from a distance.

Water also courses through Los Angeles metaphorically as automotive traffic. Mike Davis has described the city’s roads as ‘traffic sewers’1; Jean Baudrillard wrote breathlessly of the ‘fluidity’ of American cars’ automatic transmission systems.2 It is the ubiquitous traffic that contributes to the grimy layer of dust that covers every surface, but it is also traffic that is a major catalyst of the pictorialisation of the city. Seen flowing past the windows of a car or receding in its rear-view mirrors, it is no surprise that Los Angeles collapses into a medley of signs and icons. Nearly four decades ago, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour remarked on the city’s lack of piazzas, and its consequent preference for symbol over space as its defining architectural form.3

There develops a sense, therefore, when looking at the work of these artists that what they ultimately share is a concern with finding ways to pause their environment’s incessant motion. Ruby’s frozen drips, Houseago’s statues caught mid-stride or Hill’s splashed colour caught on fabric and glass all find their own ways of introducing stillness where we would expect to find movement. A desire to stop time – and thereby cheat death – has, of course, arguably been at the root of the ‘plastic arts’ since time immemorial. It is strange, however, to consider that the antithesis of stasis – the fluid nature of Los Angeles, which makes the city seem so dynamic and alive – might actually be an effect of it hurtling, uncontrollably, towards oblivion.

  1. Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990), Verso, London, p.226
  2. Jean Baudrilliard, Amérique (1986) Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, Paris, p.108
  3. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (1972/7), MIT Press, Cambridge, p.6–7

Originally published Mousse 25, September 2010

All photographs: Jonathan Griffin