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Dreaming of Dreaming of Los Angeles

 

A text by Andrew Berardini

 

Otherworldly sunsets glimpsed between the silhouettes of palm trees seen from a freeway traffic jam. Maybe a long beach, bronzed surfers boarding over the splash and churn of the Pacific ocean disappearing into a distant horizon. Perhaps the flash of paparazzi cameras over red carpets as the glamorous step into movie premiers with chilly artifice like expensive make-up and crisp tuxedos over febrile scandals. 

All of these are totally cliches of course, but like most cliches, they’re also sort of true. Los Angeles is all these things, sort of. Like a glossy advertisement, that movie montage establishing place through the invocation of the most obvious signifiers. Cue the Hollywood sign here. 

However obvious, these are still some of our shared myths. When we dream of LA, we dream of these things too. Even the most hardened native pauses to peek a sunset, every smog-smothered local is swept clean with bracing ocean breeze, wet with salt spit when we make it to the beach. Despite the regular inconvenience of movie crews for locals like me, I like having them around, the give the city a frisson of cinematic possibility, especially as I don’t particularly depend on them at all for survival. 

As a writer living in Los Angeles without any professional interest/connection to the entertainment industry, LA feels free, like I can do whatever I want here, like I can try something new. There’s a false dichotomy with New York but it being the biggest city in the US, it’s hard to ignore. New York has the nuclear power of publishing and commercial galleries, with all its arcane pretensions, palace intrigues, and social dominance. All of which end up closing things down for me, instead of opening them up. Los Angeles for all its flaws feels open. 

A bit dreamy, perhaps, but that’s why we live here. We all came here or stay here because of some dream. You can say the same about America in general perhaps, but dreams of Los Angeles have a specific space to them. And the artists who came here, though most of them are hardly so literal in their workings, you can see these dreams still shimmer in their work. Whatever Los Angeles is, and it is so many things both good and bad, there is still space here and that space is full of possibility. 

Wyoming has space too, lots of it, but LA space is of course different, and even in LA there are lots of different kinds of space. Wyoming space’s defined by a beautiful/cruel landscape and

the people who live there mostly making their money from that specific natural landscape (farming, mining, ranching, etc). Los Angeles used to be defined by its landscape, then by its weather, and now even less of that, more and more by its neighborhoods and their multifarious histories, layers of accumulated demography. While New York is all cityscape, Los Angeles is in the state of becoming a place wholly defined by itself as a city, and in this becoming, crisscrossed with freeways, a polyglot of instant architecture, pimpled with yards (front and back) and sidewalks (however unused they might sometimes be, they’re still there, making up space), there’s a kind of space that remains permanently undefined. Not “light and space,” this isn’t metaphysical or phenomenological space exactly, at least not anymore. It’s something different. Even a poetical space that has nothing to do with any actual space and thus entirely more difficult to define. 

Space is what we have in Los Angeles, but not in the way that you might think.

For artists, there’s the space of the studio, whether it be in the garage, or at the kitchen table, a warehouse in Skid Row or Vernon, a studio complex in Chinatown, a spare room in Highland Park, where ever. It’s a space, so is the one in your car, so is the one in your house, the wide, multitudinous net of the social is very understated, though exchange between individuals is still important, we still need to meet in physical spaces and exchange.

Space has it charms, it leaves us open to move and think without the usual hindrances of social neuroses, the emotional heavy-lifting required of being in a city where you might be constantly required to interact with other people. Though space does of course have downsides: loneliness, depression, alienation, the erosion of empathy, hyper-individualism, self-centeredness, greed, megalomania, and you see these often enough in people, in artists, to know that the downsides are real sticky. 

That said, to make anything happen however, you need to break your space a little bit, connect to someone else’s, move it around. You invite someone over to your studio, you go to openings, you meet at museums to see the shows, you meet somewhere for coffee, perhaps a diner. 

The spaces are ones of chance exchange, of opportunities defined individually, of openness and strange eccentrics able to work without too much hassle. There is a geology of accumulated ideas,

 
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constantly evolving and with few effectively top-down structures (though some might say its governed by an ecology of evil, an ecology of fear, an ecology of Autopia, etc). Los Angeles space isn’t the faux-Sylvan feel of Malibu or the copious lawns cut by armies of immigrant landscapers or the yawning freeways plugged by commuters or the flimsy dreams of wealthy developers, these things are a part of this, but the space artists have is an imaginative space, it’s contemplative space, it’s diachronic space, it’s the individual freedom and solitude of the open road everyday mixed with the constipation of traffic, one that wants to move though, disdaining direct travel and preferring circuitous routes. This is freedom that helps high-minded dryness have a little wit, that lends itself to experimental mysticism to the rearranging and wonderful madness of someone by themselves a lot, its a space that allows unexpected things to happen. 

I prefer the inefficiencies of Los Angeles, that like all people who drift towards the city and end up staying here, I want to find a space, not much larger than a table to move around objects and ideas, to interact with artists, to find a language for strange and wonderful worlds that unfold before me, and if possible, to add to them. It is these conversations, ever shifting moments in the real-time dialogue that makes this whole affair worthwhile. 

The limits of space are like the limits of the essay, defined wholly by its participants. Art in Los Angeles is more or less a perceptual act, the acquisition of a skill, a physiological system, a condition of various and difficult to define open places. The best I can hope to be here is a point of reference in a permanently undefined terrain, composed largely of strangely individual spaces, which occasionally and fruitfully overlap. 

Los Angeles went from a piecemeal boomtown on the edge of the West to one of the biggest and most sprawling cities in the world. It wasn’t until 1990 that Los Angeles finally passed Chicago as the United States’ second city in population, but it got there and surges still. Like all things that grow a little too quickly, LA grew up messy and free, rebellious and experimental, forged by adventurers and mercenaries, poets and scoundrels, developers and boosters, visionaries both dark and light who by their very nature are able to see things that are not yet there. And though Los Angeles art history exists now, no longer a blank slate, it still feels as undefined as the city itself. Still spacious and bright with room to get weird. A place through our dreams and actions we can still define for ourselves.

We can talk about the earliest attempts for art to take hold here to the wildly expansive terrain of the present: from plein air painters and imported modernism to the Watts Towers and Ferus Gallery to all the female dealers that nurtured artists from the 60s onward like Eugenia Butler, Clare Copley, and Margo Leavin to the art schools like CalArts and UCLA and Art Center that for so long gave us a necessary infrastructure, from magazines that passed through this town from High Performance to Artforum to CARLA, from the commercial galleries that began here and thrived internationally like Gagosian, Regen Projects, and Blum & Poe, from nights in Chinatown to Night Gallery, from LAICA to ICA, LA. We can talk about the rise and fall of the Pasadena Art Museum to founding of MOCA and the takeover of the Hammer Museum, the numerous open private collections that with their mighty edifices declare their owners tastes from the Broad to the Marciano Collection, to all the artist-run spaces that come and go along with those that last into the present from the forty-year-old LACE to the ten-year old Human Resources to those that opened last week and might close the following. We can talk about all these things, but these are just a jangle of nouns and not quite a spirit. But even so, each and every is (or was) a space, a few of the many that make up this city. 

It is artists, each individually moving to and through that truly define what art in Los Angeles means, helped along by an evolving community. But it has been the people (and for us more specifically, the artists) who define and continue to define this city and not the weather or the freeways or any of the other sundry cliches about LA. However cheesy or romantic, however obvious might be the cliche, there is still space here to dream.

 

Andrew Berardini lives and dreams in Los Angeles and is a writer of quasi-essayistic prose poems about art and other sensual subjects. He is a contributing editor to Mousse and Art-Agenda as well as a regular contributor to Artforum, Art Review, and Spike. Recent projects include the second Lulennial curated with Chris Sharp called "A Low-Hanging Fruit" and an upcoming book on color. He has been faculty at the Mountain School of Arts since 2008 and at the Banff Centre since 2014.