Welcome to “To See or Not to See,” a recurring column covering a handful of exceptional Los Angeles gallery and museum exhibitions—the good, the bad, and the criminally overrated—in easily digestible, bite-size pieces.
In a recent article in The Cut, fashion critic Cathy Horyn lamented the market safety of tasteful and expensive-looking products as the “creeping paralysis” seizing creative risk. Lately, she wrote, prestige houses aim for nothing beyond “the look of unostentatious wealth,” a prevailing trend called quiet luxury.
The art world equivalent would be something like Pedro Reyes’s show at Lisson’s Los Angeles outpost over the summer—a suite of beautiful miniature monuments carved from marble, jade, brick-like tezontle, and volcanic rock. The press release did the heavy lifting, citing allusions to both Mesoamerican sculpture and Henry Moore, as well as “the artist’s thirst for knowledge.” The works themselves were perfectly inert and almost offensively safe, expressly designed for quick and uncritical viewing. For the unadventurous collector, this is exactly the kind of stuff you’d want for your home or garden. Art without formal or conceptual tension is high-end decoration; it never bothers anyone, and it’s more likely to match the furniture.
This fall, normally prime time on the art world calendar, the star-studded lineup among LA’s blue-chip galleries offers more of the same. If the emerging tier of the art market is full of fast fashion—work that’s poorly made, disposable, and not worth writing about—the high end offers its own version of quiet luxury. The vibe is formal and intellectual simplicity with expensive-looking materials, and it feels very phoned-in.
Where Horyn cites quiet luxury’s over-reliance on staid leather and cashmere, here we see an abundance of marble and decidedly more garish precious metals. For Hauser & Wirth, Jenny Holzer turned redacted Trump-era documents into paintings covered in gold and palladium leaf. In Hollywood, Marian Goodman’s highly anticipated 13,000-square-foot location recalls the minimal offerings of a designer boutique. The space opened with just two works by Steve McQueen, including Moonlit (2016), two shiny hunks of silver-leafed marble sitting in the spotlight of an otherwise empty room. At Sprüth Magers and Tanya Bonakdar, Analia Saban presents a two-part exhibition that includes white marble sculptures of an enlarged computer fan. Reaching for some conceptual gravitas, the press release asks you to consider the irony and “cyclical futility” of a device that cools the machines that heat the planet. My friends, let’s be honest: neither marble nor metaphor are giving this piece weight. These works reverse-engineered the artistic process to fit the tastes of hypothetical patrons, whose goal in the gallery isn’t to look or to think, but to shop.
I’m not sure if this is a problem unique to Los Angeles, a wider consequence of market uncertainty, or ludicrously capacious galleries expanding faster than artists can meaningfully develop work. Bad market trends will come and go, but at least the emerging and mid-career artists in LA are doing much more interesting things. The latest edition of the Hammer Biennial Made in L.A. is full of incredible works. Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade recently staged an intergalactic opera in a mountaintop observatory. Hauser & Wirth does have one good show organized by LA-based curator Jay Ezra with the Mike Kelley Foundation. I’m also still processing my first Vanessa Beecroft performance, a recent presentation at Deitch of topless women wearing merkins and Skims pantyhose. They shifted between various states of boredom and mild humiliation. I cannot say that it was good, but at the very least it was memorable.
Below, a look at the quiet luxury pervading LA’s blue-chip galleries.
“Ready For You When You Are: Jenny Holzer” at Hauser & Wirth West Hollywood
At any point in the last few decades, Jenny Holzer could have traded her LED bars for more advanced displays, but her ongoing ability to develop new sculptures amid low-tech constraints merits so much applause. Vertically suspended from the gallery ceiling and programmed to twirl in a rudimentary choreography of flashing colors, Good and Bad (both 2023) present an absurdly seductive and dystopic spectacle of extremes. They scroll with the most effusively maudlin poetry and disturbingly paranoid rants, respectively, that the artist could coax out of ChatGPT. Her process essentially entailed feeding artificial intelligence excerpts from “good” utopian literature or “bad” alt-right message boards and asking it to expand. “THERE IS A SINISTER CABAL IN THE HALLS OF POWER THAT SEEKS TO…” Bad reads in part, while Good scrolls with effusively obtuse optimism. During the slow reveal of their wildly unpredictable run-on sentences, you might find yourself eagerly anticipating every next word. As it turns out, hyperbolic rhetoric is stupidly hypnotic, and you’re not immune.
In many ways Good and Bad embody the reductive, brain-warping effects of polarized media. What’s funny here is how much Holzer’s other new works indulge liberal media sensationalism, revisiting Trump-era clickbait without apparent irony or criticism. His tweets, whose coverage regularly eclipsed that of actual events, are stamped into sheets of distressed metal littering the gallery floor like industrial detritus. They also scroll across WTF (2022), an LED bar that intermittently swings through the gallery like a battering ram—a more thoughtful piece still based on especially low-hanging fruit. To a liberal audience, there is no softer or safer target than Donald Trump. Focusing on his viral headlines of the past seems like a pointed refusal to admit conditions are urgently worsening in the present. If we’re being honest, the function of politically themed blue-chip art is not so much speaking truth to power as it is reaffirming collectors’ pre-existing convictions, ideally in the uncomplicated binaries of “bad” and “good.”
Through October 21, at 8980 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90069.
“Stefan Brüggemann. White Noise” at Hauser & Wirth Downtown Los Angeles
I am astounded, dumbfounded, beside myself, and perplexed—this work is categorically and astonishingly unskilled. There is so much in terms of red, white, and blue spray paint and large-scale neon visual puns, striking amusing similarities to Holzer’s use of text and shiny metallic surfaces across town. But then there is so little in terms of composition, poetry, quality, or handling of paint. I remember the days when this gallery would show women abstract expressionist sculpture and David Hammons, but today we get a Stefan Brüggemann exhibition for the next four months. Is that the sign of a gallery with more space than it can meaningfully program? Or does it simply no longer care about Downtown LA?
Through January 14, 2024, at 901 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles, CA 90013.
Steve McQueen at Marian Goodman Gallery
Sunshine State (2022) is a two-channel video presented in a cavernous black box, where two separately compelling components fail to coalesce. On screen, Steve McQueen cleverly erases and inverts the blackface of an early Hollywood film, and in voiceover, recalls a violent event his father had as a laborer in the orange groves of Florida, imploring footage of the surface of the burning sun: “Shine on me, shine shine shine.” Audio and video share only the slightest overlapping themes of racism, but “somehow those two things came together,” the artist said in a recent interview with Wallpaper. Cohesion, schmo-hesion.
My overall highlight was actually in one of the fully-stocked viewing rooms: Yang Fudong’s crisply ethereal photographs from the set of his 2016 black-and-white film, Moving Mountains. The gallery must have assumed that Hollywood would be susceptible to movie magic, and they weren’t wrong. It’s just that not all the work delivered.
Through November 4, at 1120 Seward St., Los Angeles, CA 90038.
“Analia Saban: Synthetic Self” at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and Sprüth Magers
As an art historical comedian, Analia Saban inverts classical materials and processes with a superb sense of irony, sewing paintings using thread she made out of paint, or turning drawing into a subtractive process by carving graphite-coated surfaces with a laser-cutter. Among her new bodies of work are laser-cutter-drawn dick pics, for which she gathered images of a common but covert social ritual—men photographing their erect penises next to a smartphone or remote control for scale—and annotated them with product specs. Sorry to be crass, but literal dick measuring is pretty funny stuff! Strangely these pieces go unmentioned in the press release and were at least initially separated into their own checklist.
In the rest of the new work, the overall setup is pretty light, the punchlines noticeably thin. Saban’s artistic process of diligently exploring material limits and bizarre conceptual proposals here feels like it’s been shaved down to a less imaginative line from point A to B. She’s taken a few technology-related motifs—computer chips, glitchy digital pictures, and the aforementioned computer fan—and digitally fabricated them into unremarkable decorative objects. You get a computer fan carved into white marble sculpture, woven into tapestry and laser-cut into sheets of wood, but very little conceptual audacity to ponder nor formal execution to behold, plus hardly any laughs.
Through October 28, at 1010 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90038 (Bonakdar) and 5900 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036 (Sprüth Magers).
“Deana Lawson: Mind’s Eye” at David Kordansky Gallery
The photograph Arethea (2023) portrays a woman with one slightly closed, unfocused eye, sitting below a funeral poster turned upside-down. Her downward gaze initially reads as grief, until a closer look at the slightest sneer gripping the corners of her mouth reveals a sign of tightly suppressed disdain. The beauty of Deana Lawson’s meticulous stage direction and world-building lies in uncertain details like these. Where shallow art reads quickly, often with readings prescribed by press release, her images may take second and third looks to unlock, or they may remain ambiguous indefinitely.
Photographing Black subjects, sometimes strangers hired off the street, Lawson opens staggering portals to the uncanny, capturing emotional registers seemingly too potent to be fiction. In her hypothetical domestic spaces, small details heighten the unglamorous and familiar to surreal levels of spectacle, strangeness, eroticization or precarity, eluding expectations of Black portraiture to serve aspirational functions. Antonette (2023) depicts a topless, barefoot woman holding an infant in a bronze snowsuit with striking nonchalance. A stylized glimpse into the Black working class’s private corners can offer both a familial intimacy and tense alienation to viewers already familiar with it; in the predominantly white space of the art world, the specter of the non-Black gaze is always there. Aerial photographs of solar farms projecting sublime and supernatural rays of light broach the metaphysical, a sensation that spills into the physical gallery with a mysterious installation of crystal elephant figurines. They come with no explanation but an implicit sense of domesticity, an allusion to some unspoken space the artist might carry in her memory.
Through October 21, at 5130 W. Edgewood Pl., Los Angeles, CA 90019.