The Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles, California, July 17, 2001


Art Review; A World of Pleasures; Site Santa Fe's sensual, color-drenched 'Beau Monde' exhibition is a visual knockout.

Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism is an exhibition designed to make you swoon. It works.

Fourth in a series of biennials hosted by the contemporary art space Site Santa Fe, it's more like an anti-biennial--a show that looks to Hollywood rather than European culture (and its American surrogate, New York) for its modus operandi. Like an astute movie star intent on making you do a double take, Beau Monde plays against type.

And you know the biennial type, given that more than 50 of them now crowd the global exhibition calendar, from Venice to Sao Paolo, Istanbul to Pittsburgh. Once, internationals gathered together far-flung works of art as an informational service for the pleasure and elucidation of an audience. But now that jet travel and contemporary art museums are common, they've lost that purpose. Today they're mostly unspoken competitions--refined artistic jousting matches between artists, between curators--undertaken for the benefit of the art world's professional class.

Beau Monde (Beautiful World) is not that. Certainly the show is polemical. It disputes much that is taken for granted in international art today, and it means to make its position perfectly clear. Yet, the show is not disputation conducted as insider trading, coercive reprimand or aggressive assault.

It is instead polemic as voluptuous seduction. Color is the principal instrument of its siren song, and if the show had a shape it would not be a grid but a sinuous, sensual curve.

Site Santa Fe is housed in a refurbished beer warehouse, the sort of working-class vernacular building that has long since become the industrially chic norm for contemporary art spaces all over our postindustrial society. The artists have transformed that warehouse into a luxurious pleasure palace, where the aroma of beer is replaced by the promise of cocktails.

Gajin Fujita, working with a crew of street taggers, has wrapped the exhibition's elegant logo around the northwest corner of the building. Big, undulating, silver bubble-letters are trimmed in black, while a multicolored firebird explodes inside a turquoise blossom, edged in cobalt blue. A crimson-and-emerald serpent twists through the ballooning words.

Jim Isermann has covered most of the building's facade with hundreds of panels made from vacuum-formed plastic, painted soft silver. Taller than the building and set about 5 feet in front of the wall, the creased, perforated, light-reflective facade transforms the solid shell into an open screen. It changes color throughout the day, as the sun moves across the bright Santa Fe sky, incorporating (through reflection) the ordinary world of public and commercial life around it. The facade looks less like a sober exhibition hall than a resplendent Palm Springs savings and loan.

The entrance is positioned across a long wooden footbridge, lined on both sides with twisting banks of artificial sunflowers in cheery rows of yellow and blue. Through this simple gesture, Graft Design, the architectural team responsible for the show's brilliant interior installation plan, has elliptically conjured a pivotal moment from cinematic history. Standing before Isermann's silver screen and Fujita's flashy marquee, you are cast as Dorothy Gale at the moment she opens the door of her tornado-relocated Kansas farmhouse at the edge of Munchkinland. The black-and-white world of ordinary experience falls away, erased by a Technicolor blaze.

Two things are worth noting here. One is that Fujita, Isermann and Graft Design are all based in Los Angeles. The other is the aforementioned emphasis on color, which permeates the show.

Beau Monde is international in outlook, with a roster of artists working in England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Venezuela, Japan and elsewhere. But there's a definite L.A. tilt (a third of the 29 artists). This biennial comes from a clear conviction that L.A.'s status as ground zero for postmodern culture means that the city's cosmopolitan milieu offers something distinctive to current artistic discourse.

Atypically for a biennial, Beau Monde does not skew overwhelmingly toward younger artists. A large contingent is over 65, and eight of those are unapologetic sensualists for whom color is critical.

Bridget Riley's complex two-panel painting of undulating waves of fuchsia, green and blue is an eye-dazzler gorgeously installed on a backlighted, free-standing wall in front of a second, curved wall, which seems to break like a surfer's perfect wave. Four tall pedestals feature four lush, erotically charged ceramic sculptures by Ken Price, painted in innumerable acrylic hues. Facing them, Ellsworth Kelly's exquisite four-panel painting made from elegant, rhomboidal color-shapes--blue, black, red, green--does something I've never seen a Kelly painting do before: It gets playfully glamorous, looking for all the world like it derives from syncopated signs on a googie-style coffee shop.

Even the late James Lee Byars (1932-1997), whose stacked stone sculpture of two sleek rectangular blocks is icy white, is an artist of extreme sensuousness. The Thassos marble used for "Eros" is densely crystallized (it glistens like packed snow), while the layered, horizontal pair of elongated forms transforms Brancusi's "The Kiss" into a suggestion of full-fledged intercourse.

Western culture periodically dismisses color as superficial--a cosmetic concern for art, which ought to have deeper, more intellectual aspirations. British artist and writer David Batchelor has aptly diagnosed this dismissive tendency as "chromophobia." Color gets attacked through characterization as feminine, infantile, foreign (especially Orientalist), vulgar, queer, narcotic and diseased. Because color eludes language, color is trouble. Through Postminimal and Conceptual art, the 1970s ushered in a 30-year, language-intensive era in Western culture, when color, while not banished, was rarely heralded as powerful in its own right. For the Postminimal era, color is the fearful Other.

Beau Monde heralds the return of the repressed. Notably, its senior artists all came to their mature work before the 1970s. The mid-career artists are carefully chosen as exemplars of a Postminimal strain that is anything but chromophobic. And the younger artists follow a grandfather principle: Coming of age during the Postminimal reign, they reject its parental authority and look to an earlier moment, to concerns more in line with the show's senior artists.

That means you won't find certain things in this biennial that are prominent in others. There's a dearth of photography and video, and abundant painting and sculpture. Four exceptional installations are among the show's 42 works--all of them color-crazy.

Jessica Stockholder's large piece, assembled from furniture, scrap lumber, used electronic equipment and other salvage from nearby Los Alamos, puts these socially loaded objects to distinctly formal use. Emphasizing their blunt materiality, not their A-bomb associations, she makes an exploded "walk-in painting."

Alexis Smith's luscious, custom-woven wool carpet derives its pattern from a souvenir Southwest serape, striped in vivid yellow, orange, black and a range of reds. It's laid out on the floor like a Carl Andre-style pedestal that privileges those who walk on it. The big rug butts up against a hand-painted mural of a similarly colored sunset sky, while an aphorism printed on a sidewall smartly advises, "Heaven for weather. Hell for company."

Takashi Murakami's "Hyakki-Yagyou" is installed like a holy relic in a church apse. Cheerful wallpaper featuring cartoon flowers--homage to Andy Warhol--surrounds a helium-filled vinyl balloon held down by a lead weight and adorned with Murakami's familiar pattern of blinking eyes. The human eyeball merges with a beach ball tugging at its tether, aching to float free.

For stark contrast, Josiah McElheny has done an all-white riff on a 1908 Viennese bar designed by Adolf Loos, author of the notorious "Ornament and Crime.

A clinical sheen marks the coldly elegant white shelves of white blown-glass stemware under bright white light--the lack of color conjuring sterility and disease.

Jeff Burton is the sole photographer. His still pictures sharply focus on incidental objects--upholstery tacks, a crocheted afghan--merely glimpsed out of the corner of a professional video camera's eye during commercial pornography shoots. Burton, by relegating porn-movie sex acts to the fuzzy background, makes eroticism surprisingly atmospheric.

The lone video projection is by Jennifer Steinkamp, with an electronic score by frequent collaborator Jimmy Johnson. Installed overhead, its rhythmic, pulsing curves provide a dance-club yang to Bridget Riley's painted yin.

On offer in a cushy, sofa-lined theater at the back is a schedule of six artists' movies--not videos, please note, but movies . And there's not a dud among them. They range from classics, such as Kenneth Anger's autoerotic "Kustom Kar Kommandos" (1963), to such recent masterworks as Sarah Morris' hypnotic aerial tour of shiny Las Vegas, "AM/PM" (1999), and Stephen Prina's musical meditation on obsession, "Vinyl II" (2000). The new films link up beautifully with the old.

Just about the only thing missing from this glamorous, sophisticated show are Bobby Short and his cafe-society band.

The Coleridge who decreed the building of such a stately pleasure dome is guest curator Dave Hickey. I've made no secret of my past enthusiasm for Hickey's work as a critic, but there are big differences between being a successful writer and a convincing curator. Or so I thought. Beau Monde is one of those rare shows that joyfully smash all kinds of preconceptions. For me it will be a touchstone--not only of where we are in art right now, but also of the hopeful direction in which we're headed.

* Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism,
Site Santa Fe
1606 Paseo de Peralta
(505) 989-1199
through Jan. 6.
Closed Monday.

Type of Material: Art Review Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times. May not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission.