LA —> NY Part 2: Hometown Boys and Eastside Wanderings

I always think of Brody Condon and Robby Herbst, with their progressive and quirkily experimental practices, as quintessential LA artists. The truth is, however, that Herbst grew up on the East Coast and still has professional ties there, whereas Condon, who got his MFA from UC San Diego in 2002, divides his time between New York and Berlin (although you wouldn’t know it, given the amount of production he does in LA). Both artists are currently the subject of solo exhibitions in the New York area. I went to both shows, and also did some wandering through the Lower East Side, currently the hotbed of happening art in New York.

Robby Herbst, New Pyramids for the Capitalist System, Dumbo Arts Center, Brooklyn, February 10–April 8, 2012

Back in January, I used my guest stint on the Art21 blog to organize a two-week occupation of the blog by my fellow LA–based writers and artists. Herbst was one of ten people who contributed written works that reflected on aspects of the Occupy movement in LA. His essay, Human Pyramids and the Capitalist System, briefly evoked a history of American class mobility through his grandfather’s affiliations with socialist clubs and mutual aid organizations in the early 20th century. The support systems that enabled upward mobility in those times have largely been erased by an increasingly right-wing capitalist society, and hopes for prosperity in the new generation have been erased along with them.

Herbst was inspired by old family photos of his grandfather, Martin Weiss, engaging in his favorite weekend activity—outdoor group acrobatics. Weiss, a tall and strong man, could be seen in those photos supporting three-person stacks, while other acrobats balanced in various formations around him. For Herbst, these images evoked the joyous spirit of horizontal cooperation amongst equals, or in the artist’s own words, “worker pleasure.” This model no longer seems tenable in our society, which has become grotesquely slanted toward a pyramid model in which the 1% are elevated at the expense of the 99%. In November 2011, Herbst organized a live tableau performance at LA’s City Hall in which a banker figure stood at the top of a pyramid of stooped-over workers. In contrast to the photos from Herbst’s family archives, the joy contained in the resulting image was primarily the joy of satire and critique.

Martin Weiss acrobat photo collection, courtesy Herbst Family Archives

Herbst’s show at Dumbo Arts is an expanded examination of the kernels of ideas laid out in his Art21 essay. In a small room in the back of the gallery, Herbst has installed a collection of archival family photos, documenting his grandfather, grandmother, and friends engaging in outdoor acrobatics in the Bronx and Coney Island. Small, weathered, and yellowing, these photos are an amazing glimpse back to another time and place. They radiate exuberance, the pure pleasures of physicality, and an apparently bygone investment in the values of collectivity.

The photos are accompanied by extended texts written by Herbst, his mother, and his two aunts (his grandfather’s three daughters). These texts all pay loving tribute to Weiss, a humble cobbler and caring family man who worked six days a week and then spent the seventh day at the beach, reveling in the health and spiritual benefits of acrobatics with friends. In this highly personal exhibition, Weiss seems to function as a model of someone who uses his natural physical power not to dominate others, but to support them. As Lenore Weiss writes, “I think of my father as the pivotal person who always enabled others to move into the forefront… He gave me the gift of a strong and confident body at a time when there were few women’s sports.”

Robby Herbst, Pyramid for the Capitalist System

Out in the main gallery, we return to the present time as Herbst, an activist with a multi-faceted artistic practice, explores the visual imagery of group acrobatics for contemporary contexts. Interestingly, this exploration takes the form of simple drawings and watercolors; this direct means of representation seems to be a way for the artist to bodily engage the ideas at hand.

Two larger works provide a foundation for the show. The first is a painted reproduction of a 1911 print portraying in detail the workings of the capitalist pyramid: at the very top is a large sack of money, supported by heads of state, which are then supported by the clergy. Below them are the military, then the bourgeoisie, and finally, a wide base of workers. This is the same system that Herbst recreated in his 2011 Occupy LA performance. Accompanying and echoing this image is a nearby stacked pyramid of chairs, perhaps suggesting that the various positions can be occupied by anyone at any time. Next to this installation is a double drawing of the Occupy LA pyramid; one image is right side up, the other is upside down.

Robby Herbst, Untitled (New Pyramids for the Capitalist System)

Branching out from these basic yet already precarious formations, the remaining works consider different configurations that are possible. The figures from the Occupy LA pyramid are spread out into more random and playful shapes that are sometimes reminiscent of the photographs from Herbst’s family collection. In one image, the banker is shown in the process of climbing atop the bishop’s arms, helped by members of the bourgeoisie. In all instances however, the original hierarchical structure of state-clergy-military-bourgeoisie-workers is maintained. The pictures seem to be asking, how far do we have to push the pieces of this puzzle before we can actually transform its outcome? As in real life, there aren’t any easy answers, and the system is not one that is easily broken. However, playing around with its pieces can provide, like the beach acrobatics of yore, “a trace of workers’ power and pleasure.”

Lower East Side Wandering

At On Stellar Rays, a gallery on the Lower East Side, Brody Condon is currently showing two videos: Future Gestalt and LevelFive. Both are the heavily edited, finished products of extended performance projects that the artist conducted in Los Angeles, using locally based “players.” I’m really curious about the decisions that Condon made in producing these two videos, each of which clocks in at less than 40 minutes. How do they compare or fit in with the long processes that were required to make them? Are they finely distilled essences or mere traces? Are they, as one artist friend ventured, brief windows onto what’s possible in LA, and what’s not possible in New York?

Brody Condon, Future Gestalt, performed at Machine Project

I’ll have to wait for another day to find out. The two videos were projected simultaneously on the adjacent walls of the small gallery, which made for cacophonous, unsatisfying viewing conditions. I also had the odd experience of being in the gallery at the same time as Condon and his cousin Zachary, who fronts the band Beirut. The two looked so much alike that I thought they were twins. Later, I had the pleasure of formally meeting Condon, whose work I’ve greatly admired for a couple of years now, at an art fair after-party. He graciously promised to let me have a proper viewing of the videos at a later date.

But the LES isn’t just for seeing artists that you already know. It’s home to the youngest and most progressive galleries and art spaces in New York, and wandering through it either day or night tends to yield a lot of cool discoveries.

My friend Tracy Molis, a native Angeleno who recently got her MFA at Columbia, took me to a couple of interesting openings. The first was for a group show called TEN TEN, organized by the curatorial duo Jason Alexander (Jason Lee and Alexander Shulan). Taking place in a ragged storefront space on Canal Street that was rented for the occasion, TEN TEN was a strange, elusive, and poetic show that was annoying in a good way, getting under your skin with its ugly and indecipherable gestures. Tracy introduced me to one of the artists in the show, Debo Eilers, who it turns out will be opening a show this Saturday at Various Small Fires, the new art space opened in Venice by Esther Kim Varet, who has been closely affiliated with Performa. Eilers’ assemblage work in TEN TEN was pretty nuts, and I hear his performances are as well.

Debo Eilers, Lostcom

The other opening we went to was at a space whose name (if it had a name) I no longer recall. Here I saw a couple of videos by the German–born artist Nadja Verena Marcin. One of them, incredibly, featured Marcin re-enacting Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” dance on the funky grounds of the LA Public Library. It’s early in the morning so no one is around, there is no rain, and Marcin is wearing nude-colored tights and a bra. It was fascinating to watch; as a performer, Marcin has a kind of bland comic pathos that works well for inserting herself into absurd situations. Other works viewable on her website find her performing Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” in a bar owned by a police commissioner, and falling into large stuffed animals on more than one occasion. She’s an intriguing and already fairly accomplished artist, and there’s definitely a strong Mike Kelley influence in her work.

Finally, on my daytime adventures through the LES galleries, I was probably most fond of the space called CANADA. Tucked away in an old office building, CANADA is a surprisingly charming gallery that’s laid out like a friendly beehive, with two main exhibition areas circling around an office space, a conference room, and a storage area, where, on the day I was there, an employee was busy wrapping up a work of art while visitors milled around. On view was IT, a solo exhibition of works by Michael Mahalchick, who seems to be a contemporary zen master of the assemblage genre. Every sculpture in the show, assembled from scavenged objects, expertly told a story, from the sad Basketball Wife to the stately Bachelor to the ode-to-Tom-Cruise Youthquake. Artists like Mahalchick are able to wrest not just words and images, but entire eloquent sentences from random pieces of junk.

Michael Mahalchick, Eyebrow

It turns out that Mahalchick got his MFA from Cal Arts back in the 90s (though he’s been based on the East Coast ever since), and his California influences are obvious. It’s on my wish list to catch this cheeky guy in a live performance some day. In addition to fronting a “power music duo” called Turkducken with artist Jocelyn Shipley (what’s not to love about that?), Mahalchick recently made headlines by re-enacting John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-In (1969) at the Dependent Fair, an alternative art fair that takes place in a Comfort Inn on the LES. Apparently a lot of people got into bed with him, including Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith.

Michael Mahalchick, Youthquake

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