Issue #175
Mystic Truths & Offbeat Revelations September 30, 2011

Sara VanDerBeek
Sonya Flores
2011
Digital C- print
16 1/4 x 12 1/2 inches
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

View Gallery

Sara VanDerBeek

The Hammer, Los Angeles

Through January 8, 2012
by Catherine Wagley

Sara VanDerBeek’s Feathers consists of a painted white steel stand and eight symmetrically arranged macaw feathers, each vertically protruding from the top of the metal apparatus. From the front, the feathers are purple but golden just around the edges. From the back, they’re yellow. The tallest two are in the middle with the shortest on either end. The whole thing, perched on top of a white pedestal, is unnatural—feathers don’t belong on top of steel stands—but it’s inarguably ephemeral. Unnaturally ephemeral: that could describe VanDerBeek’s whole installation on view now on the second floor of UCLA’s Hammer Museum.

VanDerBeek built a white-walled room, reminiscent in size and design of architect Rudolf Schindler’s idiosyncratic Kings Road House, inside the museum’s compact, and also a white-walled upstairs project space. The room has been carefully populated with small, barely colored sculptures and photographic prints of sequins, beads or the moon. It’s the first time the New York based artist, who has an interest in architecture, and recently spent time photographing Detroit, has exhibited a project inspired by a city in that very city. In its carefulness, the installation gets at something particular to L.A. art’s post-war legacy.

In Sunshine Muse, Peter Plagens’ early 1974 history of SoCal art, Plagens pointed to a “tingle of doubt surrounding practically every art object produced in Southern California—as if every piece had to justify its slimmest mass in terms of material economy and psychological effect.” Mary Corse, with her white on white canvases, was an example of this, so was Charles Arnoldi, who arranged and rearranged compositions of twigs. Perhaps this was a result of the sunshine. Intense light made it harder to overlook waste. Or maybe it resulted from industry, both the movies and the plastics, which made artists want to produce precisely and only what was necessary to effect perception.

VanDerBeek is definitely aware of mass and its effects. Upon entering, you look to the left and see a black and white photograph of Sonya Flores, a Native American dancer the artist met when visiting a powwow, who is unsmiling and in profile with a feather sticking out of her hair. Then there’s a steel column inspired both by Native American totems and modern architecture, a photograph of delicate beads sewn onto fabric, the feathers, mirrored pedestals, and a plaster cast of a face, all arranged with plenty of space between them, despite the small size of the room.

Everything feels fragile and important but also kind of hip; mid-century modern minimal is in, as is cultural mish mashing. Think of sculptor Carol Bove’s sleek arrangements of artifacts and pop culture, or painter Mari Eastman’s compositions that reference the primitive even as they evidence extreme artistic control. But it’s this hipness, married with an L.A.-specific breed of ephemerality that makes VanDerBeek’s installation feel right. She said she wanted it to be a synthesis of her experience of this city, and she’s portrayed a place where the natural and unnatural coexist with illogical ease and ephemerality and minimalism, in design and art, have become comfortable for a certain class of young-to-middle aged creatives. Among those who live in Silver Lake, eat at restaurants with names like Local and Forage, and buy Eames chairs off Craigslist, that sort of fragile minimalism and carefully curated naturalness definitely defines the desired experience, which means VanDerBeek’s Hammer Project just may be a 21st Century neo-Bohemian, West Coast ideal. It plays right into the midcentury model of California sophistication that we’ve bought hook-line-and-sinker, and this makes it both difficult to dislike and difficult to like. It’s right about culture, but I’m just not sure what it’s saying about that strain of culture it’s pegged so well.

Catherine Wagley regularly contributes to the LA Weekly and is a columnist for the Art21 Blog and Dailyserving.com.

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