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Amy's Column 04 - Interior designing the gallery: light and shadow, wall texture, and chandeliers in Los Angeles

Theatre Objects
The joy of the much talked about and repeatedly reviewed William Leavitt retrospective Theatre Objects, which recently ended at MOCA – was a brazen simplicity coupled with a deep sense of strangeness. Leavitt’s work investigates the alien in the everyday by contemplating the objects, narratives and images that are endlessly rearranged in order to construct the idea of ‘everyday’.

The specific everyday which has been the subject of Leavitt’s consideration, over a career spanning from the late 1960s to the present is Los Angeles. Los Angeles inside and out – his works depict scenes set in the domestic spaces of the city as well as its vast exterior spaces and the fantasy architecture that punctuates the sprawl. Examples of living rooms and private social settings are seen next to depictions of wacky monumental landmarks such as the UFO inspired restaurant at LAX.

Leavitt is most expert when dealing with the zones that border these two sets of spaces. The patios on which private lives open out to fresh air, or views of the facades of modernist houses, with the drama inside hidden by glare as the sun reflects off large picture windows. A further category of spaces explored by Leavitt are those that might be taken as domestic given their content – chairs, curtains, lamps, veneered surfaces – yet have had any real privateness deleted from them through the catalogue-esqe manner in which they are rendered. The settings become ‘types’ rather than individualised places. The private realm of the mid-century Californian living room is show to be deeply impersonal, a space constructed in the commercial realm through the promotion of certain stylistic trends over others.

This retrospective exhibition presents work in a broad range of media, charcoal and pastel drawings, photographic montages with text panels, paintings and sculptural set-like installations. Many of the installations have paintings enveloped within them such as Planetarium Projector 1987, a work which epitomizes Leavitt’s approach  –combining set-like elements around an image he has produced himself.

The painting in Planetarium Projector depicts the projector, a complicated piece of equipment with a mass of metal parts transplanted from the planetarium and layered, collage-like, in front of a scrubby desert scene where dusk is descending and streaking layers of red cloud give way to a sky pierced with stars. This setting is the type of place one might imagine the real night sky residing, while viewing a simulation of such a sky from inside a planetarum. In the painting, the desert landscape can only be seen by actively looking past the projector. The purpose of this mechanism is to illustrate a mapped version of a natural phenomenon.  The logic required to view the painting therefore mirrors the logic of viewing in a planetarium where the mechanics that are used to produce the viewing content must be actively overlooked, despite their prominence in order for the representation to be successful.

This painting hangs on a wall which is painted sandy beige. The colour defines the area of the installation with the edges ending in expressionistic rolls. Also within this space sits a fake tree, a section of protruding wall on which a narrow curtain hangs, a small silver lamp sitting on the floor casting shadows on to the painted portion of wall, and a small pile of sand which is positioned as though it could have trickled out of the painted desert and onto the gallery floor.

The logic of the installation – a tracing of the construction of theatrics followed by an enjoyment in engaging with a theatrical space – is seen again in the edges of the Planetarium Projector installation. The domestic realm is differentiated from the rest of the gallery’s white walls through a subtle colour zoning. It is at the paint’s rolled edges where the illusion of a separate space dissipates, and it is here that a further layering occurs. Due to the light projected from the small silver lamp, the shadows of a fake tree fall on a fake domestic wall. The objects are fake, but the shadows are real. Leavitt invites the viewer to enter into the narrative of the space and to fully imagine scenarios of what might occur there, while continuing to understand that the space is an illusion.

In the Night Gallery
Most things look good in the Night Gallery. Whether I like the work or not, each iteration of what is shown there, by virtue of being pulled out from the space’s black textured walls by bright spot lighting,  seems purposeful and precise. This look, coupled with the initial conceit behind the space – a gallery that is open from 10pm until 2am, and situated next to a late night taco stand – continues, a few dozen shows down the track, to be an engaging alternative to other white cube art spaces. The Night Gallery’s walls are textured with plastered stucco or maybe sprayed concrete, always painted black. The interior brings to mind other sites that art inhabits beyond the white cube – the repurposed industrial space or shop front, the screening room or the cinema.  

The swing of day/night – black/white is extended in the recent group show Los Angeles – Switzerland, in which the various works together suggest a sense that the entire galley has had its axis slightly tilted. Tire marks, which are usually only spotted beneath the feet, appear on wall-hung canvases, while a floor slab curves up the wall, rough grey concrete leaning on a rough black.

Leavitt’s concerns with what a stage set might mean in a city full of sound stages and studios seems relevant, especially to the show’s title work, a video piece by Walter Benjamin Smith in which Hollywood celebrity and general Friend of the Arts James Franco stands in front of a blank backdrop reciting a monologue. Franco delivers the part theoretical, part whimsical text in a zonked out manner, oscillating between relaxing and overacting with the flickering eyes of a villain. He frequently nods forward wearing an ‘I’m about to kill you’ grin.

Franco’s delivery, while seeming to withhold any straightforward understanding of the text, conjures up a general feel of captivating theatrics as he asserts that “Recuperation is not to be confused with sustainability”, or when he speaks of the “absorption of a rich variety of trauma” while the viewer stares at his cheek slashed with a fake scar rendered in what looks like lipstick.

In a scene I find strangely memorable from the original Wall Street film (1987), the blonde love interest, a budding interior designer, introduces a layer of ‘hipness’ to a stock broker’s sterile apartment by hanging ‘brick’ wall paper with fake texture in order to bring loft living taste to Downtown. From such an episode it is possible to note that redefining the texture of walls has long been a tactic by which to signal how the parameters of a space can assert to a broader culture how the inhabitants of that space wish to act, or the manner in which they wish their artistic gestures to be read.

Batman: Digital Justice
, 2011, Tobias Madison, installation view, The Vanity, Los Angeles

Vanity Box
Walls are also at the centre of the gallery’s character in the new space The Vanity - a space so small that once the door has closed behind you, those with a claustrophobic tendency will feel the walls are closing in. The real life version of the theatrical stage set is the domestic space which has been highly choreographed through interior design, and Tobias Madison’s Batman Digital Justice is a show that blends the hyperbolic tone of the superhero with interior design touches.

Batman Digital Justice is concerned with what was once a new breed of super hero style, the first Batman comic to be computer generated in 1990. Hanging in the center of the room, and taking up almost all of the small space is a home-made chandelier constructed out of different colored bulbs, candy striped twine, planes of plastic, and collaged panels from the Batman comic. The slap dash aesthetic of the construction recalls a style of decoration seen in a child’s tree hut. The space has a general sense of a juvenile wonderland, perhaps the type of place an eight year old might sneak into in order to be able to read their Batman Digital Justice comic over and over again.

As well as the chandelier and posters for Batman Digital Justice which have been plastered directly on to the wall, the small space is filled by thick Swiss accents coming from an audio soundtrack on which the text of the comic is read out in its entirety by a cast of the artist’s friends. The release of Batman Digital Justice marked a cultural turning point where comic books were increasingly passed over for video games with their heightened interactive quality. Seeing the printed-out comic panels while listening to the amateur audio captures the clunky beginnings of this trajectory.

William Leavitt’s strategy of repurposing the melodrama of Hollywood to represent isolated examples of celebritised domestic space in set pieces that can be installed inside the institution can be seen as an interesting precursor to the current trend in Los Angeles exhibition staging –where places of late night gatherings and domestic settings, traditional sites for narrative drama, have become the starting points for exhibition spaces. The walls of The Night Gallery and The Vanity are more charters than props.

Amy Howden-Chapman is an artist and writer born in 1984 in Wellington, New Zealand. She has exhibited widely in Australasia, Europe and the United Stated, and her writing has appeared in publications including, Landfall, Sport, and Natural Selection.  In 2011 she graduated from California Institute of the Arts with a Master in Fine Arts. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles, California.


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