An opening at China Art Objects in L.A.’s Chinatown, April 2010. Photo Neil Fitzpatrick.

What was beauty

unless you intended to use

it, like a hammer or a key?

It was something for other people

to use and admire, or envy,

desire. To nail their dreams onto

like a picture hanger on a blank wall

And so many girls saying, use me . . .

dream me . . .

—Janet Fitch

(Found artwork, quoting Fitch’s 1999 novel White Oleander, handwritten in black marker on the beige wall of a girl’s bedroom in a vacant foreclosed duplex in El Segundo, April 2011.)

The plethora of midcentury Los Angeles art movements and enterprises sampled in the Getty Museum’s magnificently comprehensive “Pacific Standard Time” initiative reveals the perennial dilemma, or potential, faced by artists working slightly outside the center. In the case of Los Angeles, where even then artists and curators moved freely back and forth between New York and the West Coast, the situation was bittersweet; the exile was only partial. In fact, many key “movements”—from Finish Fetish to Cool School—were well-intentioned marketing ploys: efforts to gather up and name what was happening so that local production could join and eventually reshape the context of the mainstream international art world. “The agenda,” La Cienega gallerist Nicholas Wilder recalled of L.A.’s early 1960s class, “was to make an art scene, to be important.”1 As artist Tony Berlant observed in The Beat and the Buzz, Richard Hertz’s fascinating 2009 case study of the Los Angeles art world, “The scene in L.A. has always been more dispersed and hard to pin down. . . . When I think of the art scene, I think of a small group of friends, people who came up together and still hang out in each other’s studios. It’s made up of people who have intertwined lives.”

The “Pacific Standard Time” exhibitions raise the question of whether such truisms can still apply today, under conditions, as critic and artist John Kelsey has argued, “that keep us so busy that we hardly even notice the extent to which we’ve lost access to our own gestures[.] If we can still call this an art ‘world,’ it is one from which the artist’s world-making gestures have largely been banished—and what is a world that can no longer be made or changed?”2

On July 3, 2010, China Art Objects—the first commercial art gallery to open in L.A.’s Chinatown, in 1999, and the last to depart after the recent financial crash—closed its gates for the final time, decamping to Culver City. The exodus of Chinatown venues to Culver City and Mid-Wilshire, areas closer to L.A.’s collector-rich west side, left behind a semi-abandoned, semi-gentrified zone of shuttered galleries interspersed with decades-old Chinese restaurants and souvenir shops that remained in business throughout the bubble, largely unchanged. Yet Chinatown, located in northeast L.A., is close to the neighborhoods where artists still live. And unlike other art-world gentrified centers—New York’s SoHo and Chelsea, Berlin’s Mitte, Paris’s Marais—Chinatown never saw gentrification’s next wave of fashion boutiques and flagship stores. The neighborhood remains semi-vacant. Within it, numerous once-again-local ventures—entertainments produced by artists for artists—have emerged, filling the commercial void. But these local enterprises are by no means provincial, a paradox that is one of L.A.’s most enduring, seductive anomalies.

Last spring, the writer Veronica Gonzalez produced an impromptu and unforgettable reading in Chinatown by poets Rae Armantrout and Fanny Howe as part of her ongoing publication series. Gonzalez’s Rocky Point Press produces collaborative posters and postcards by writers and artists, and presents occasional readings at floating venues. Attended by more than 100 people, the evening was arranged in just two days, when Gonzalez learned the two friends and former colleagues would be in town at the same time.

After losing their space on Bernard Street in central Chinatown, the artists’ consortium Human Resources Los Angeles (HRLA) moved a few blocks further east to the former Cottage Home Gallery and began an ambitious roster of self-funded programs. There, this summer, independent curators Kathryn Garcia and Sarvia Jasso presented “Queering Sex,” a timely, provocative exhibition featuring performance and video works by Jack Smith, Marnie Weber, Bruce LaBruce, Orlan, Dawn Kasper and more than 35 others. The show posed the question: how have artists across cultures and generations revealed the relationship between performance and identity? In one performance, provocatively titled This Is How I Fuck My Environment, Kasper descended a rope from the towering projection booth, while a live band played heavy metal music.

At Hop Louie, an old-school Chinese bar and restaurant, Tif Sigfrids—an independent curator who would never describe herself as such—produces an occasional series of readings, band performances, and screenings of old lesbian zombie B-movies and art videos. Sigfrids, 29, ran away from a Christian evangelical home when she was 16. Living for a time on the streets, she met artists who encouraged her to attend UCLA. Upon graduation, she began working as an assistant to relatively established artists, formed the band Estrogin and began making videos.

Her 27-minute video Dumping Boyfriend (2010), made in collaboration with
the Peruvian-born artist-photographer George Porcari, was recently screened at Hop Louie. Part personal document, part Situationist psychogeography, Dumping Boyfriend follows Sigfrids around East L.A. on a hot afternoon. Trying to leave L.A. for Copenhagen, she tearfully texts her Danish soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend while driving east on Alameda Boulevard in search of a junkyard that will buy her Toyota Corolla. In line at a McDonald’s drive-through, she weeps and frantically texts while the Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes For You plays on the soundtrack. The scene lifts, and Sigfrids’s simultaneously operatic and goofy despair feels something like that of Bas Jan Ader in I’m Too Sad To Tell You (1971) or In Search of the Miraculous (1975). But she’s also every girl in her 20s who’s ever wondered for how long her life will be this unresolved. Eventually, she pulls in to the nondescript yard of Vernon Japanese Auto Dismantlers. The Iranian proprietor agrees to buy the Corolla and recalls the years he spent in Denmark after receiving asylum during the Iran-Iraq war. The two exchange views on cultural differences. Already cheered up, cash in hand, Sigfrids walks out onto a wide street strewn with smashed watermelons.

In this, a quarterly column on Los Angeles, I hope to shine light on the city’s most striking and gorgeous anomalies.

1 Nicholas Wilder, interviewed by Ruth Bowman in 1988, Archives of American Art website, Oral History Interviews, www.aaa.si.edu.

2 “Pedestrian Information,” Spike 28, 2011, p. 7.

Chris Kraus is a writer and art critic based in L.A.