Second Nature: The Valentine-Adelson Collection at the Hammer brings together for the first time a selection from Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson’s generous gift to the Hammer Museum’s Contemporary Collection of fifty sculptures by twenty-nine Los Angeles artists. Produced from 1995 to the present, these works capture a significant moment in Los Angeles art making, when artists began to take a renewed interest in the production of three-dimensional objects using a wide variety of media, including the handmade and the readymade, sound, video, and cast materials. The works range from small, discrete sculptures to room-size installations. Many have not been shown since their initial presentation, and no single exhibition or publication has previously focused on and documented this core group of works. The importance of this collection is twofold. On the one hand, it reflects a very personal collecting vision. On the other hand, when seen as a whole, the collection provides a portrait of a specific creative legacy of the Los Angeles contemporary art scene, in this case a notable expansion of the field of possibilities for sculptural practice. In 2005 the Hammer launched a new initiative to build a collection of contemporary art. The Hammer Contemporary Collection includes work by an international roster of artists, with a particular focus on those working in Southern California. For this reason, the Hammer Museum takes special pride in the works included in Second Nature, as they form a three-dimensional nucleus of the burgeoning Hammer Contemporary Collection.
Curated by Douglas Fogle and Ali Subotnick.
By Michael Ned Holte
Remember Y2K—that fin de siècle false alarm that had us imagining nothing less than the total collapse of Western civilization because some programmer years ago was simply too lazy to account for half the digits that make up a calendar year? Well, as you already know, the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000, and . . . nothing collapsed. The “funny” thing is that anxiety about Y2K seems so quaint now. Something epochal was indeed shifting on the horizon, but we didn’t really know what exactly until it belatedly turned into the proverbial pumpkin.
Some of these shifts were indeed technological—think of game-changers like digital editing, Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Second Life—while others, following the destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001, were the stuff of Hollywood disaster films (or Orwellian allegory): orange alerts, anthrax, the global war on terror, Abu Ghraib, the free fall of the markets, and so on. (The impending doom of global warming was already on the horizon, but we can postpone that conversation for another day, right?)
Of course such apocalyptic overtones have frequently defined art made in Los Angeles in the wake of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s influential 1993 exhibition Helter Skelter (if not before). But the epochal shifts in Los Angeles art at the turn of the century hinge less upon doom and gloom and more on the acknowledgment of new technological interfaces (from software to drugs) between us and the world, leading to wholesale reorientations in space and time. In Southern California, somewhere between the near-eternal glare of sunlight and the shadow of Hollywood’s imaginary, this confrontation with the slippery nature of reality and artifice was manifested in a radical reconsideration of the art object.
“Why,” asked critic Bruce Hainley, surveying an emerging crop of Los Angeles artists for a Y2K article in Artforum, “would anyone want to make a sculpture?” He continued: “There are certainly more immediate (and less bulky) ways to represent the world these days. Still, at a moment when ambitious creative types might be expected to turn to, say, Web design or software development, and in a place like Los Angeles, whose history, economy, and culture are dependent on and structured by the business of virtuality (Hollywood, Disneyland), there is a surprisingly strong interest among young artists in making, well, objects.”1
Objects—sculptural ones—have been a big deal in Southern California for more than four decades. In 1967 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted American Sculpture of the Sixties, a major exhibition in which minimalism bumped up against expressive abstraction, which rubbed shoulders with pop and funk. One could locate the brackets surrounding the expansive possibilities of the sculptural medium (still continuing today) in the works of two of the show’s influential L.A.-based artists: the slick and otherworldly monochromatic forms of John McCracken and the existentially loaded junk assemblages of Ed Kienholz.
But the notion of “L.A. sculpture” per se didn’t fully arrive—or gain its geographical brand identity—until the end of the century. Writer Dennis Cooper probably broke the seal with “Too Cool for School,” his article for Spin magazine on the high jinks of the MFA students at UCLA, including sculptors Liz Craft, Evan Holloway, and Jason Meadows. Indeed, an overwhelming number of the artists in Second Nature are students of UCLA sculpture professor Charles Ray (an alumnus of Helter Skelter), who set a high bar for freaky facture with his own work and described the work of his progeny, poetically, as “re-enchanting the world.”2 Scene-defining group shows such as Malibu Sex Party at the ephemeral L.A. gallery Purple in 1997, Cooper’s Brighten the Corners at New York’s Marianne Boesky Gallery a year later, and the survey show Mise-en-Scène: New L.A. Sculpture, co-curated by Hainley and Carole Ann Klonarides at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2000, all provided further material evidence of this reenchantment.
The turn-of-the-century L.A. scene was defined by writer-slash-curators like Cooper and Hainley; by prescient galleries, including Marc Foxx, ACME (initially Food House), Richard Telles Fine Art, Regen Projects, China Art Objects, and Black Dragon Society; and, needless to say, by the artists themselves. But few figures loom larger in this narrative than Dean Valentine, a Los Angeles–based media executive who emerged as a witness to the scene and, along with his partner Amy Adelson, preserved much of it by actually stepping up to the plate and buying the stuff—that is, the objects that are now gathered in the exhibition Second Nature: The Valentine-Adelson Collection at the Hammer.
Valentine locates the big-bang moment of the collection in his purchase of Jason Meadows’s Untitled (Picnic Table) (1997), a work that situates an overturned redwood table cockeyed on a simplified, planar hilltop and a dangling beehive sculpture on the adjacent wall. Valentine bought the piece from Brent Petersen—then a student at UCLA—at his short-lived gallery Room 702, near L.A.’s Koreatown.3
I bought Jason’s picnic table almost randomly, but it touched on a lot of things that preoccupied me intellectually at the time: the impact of digital or media on people’s perceptions of nature and the increasing distance between that and how we live. It was very cartoony feeling. It could have been a moment monumentalized out of a Yogi Bear cartoon, and that kind of appealed to me—this sort of idea of using nature as a supplement. It was about our distance from nature, but also the humor of that. And it had a kind of media savvy.4
Valentine’s “project” quickly emerged, alongside an energetic group of young artists, and one can clearly see the residue of his big-bang moment in the works that he has subsequently collected. They are evidence of what might be called a “second wave” of talented Los Angeles sculptors, including Xavier Cha, Aaron Curry, Patrick Jackson, Ry Rocklen, and Mateo Tannatt, who have all graduated from Southern California MFA programs in the past few years.
Works in Second Nature such as Holloway’s Black to Purple (2001), in which a painted acacia branch is rearticulated as an impossible series of right angles; Pentti Monkkonen’s Swan Cycle (1999), a bizarre hybrid of bird and motor scooter; or Hannah Greeley’s Weaver (2000), a compact painted plaster cast of a bird at rest on a bicycle helmet, do perhaps “re-enchant the world,” but they also mess with our heads and call attention to our mediated perception of nature and reality. Likewise, Won Ju Lim’s Schleimann’s Troy (2001), a sort-of updated magic lantern in which slides of industrial areas and oil refineries around Los Angeles are projected through a clustered assembly of colored Plexiglas boxes, reflects the complex intertwining of nature and culture in the sprawl of Los Angeles. Chris Finley’s Changing Table (2000)—an assemblage of found objects including a deer hide, golf tees, fishing hooks, and bobbers—unfolds like a riddle about the complicated entanglement of nature and nurture, as does Sterling Ruby’s multicolored “stalagmite” of melted plastic (2007) and Matt Johnson’s carved stone sculpture Petrified Basketball (2004).
Other works in Second Nature riff on virtual space, whether that of cinema—as with Paul Sietsema’s elaborately crafted Rococo Room (2002), a miniature “set” used in his 16mm film Empire—or of video games—as with Liz Craft’s Untitled (Lazy Daze) (1999), which sculpturally links Pac-Man back to the abacus—or of magic, as with Katie Grinnan’s Wizard (2004), which conjures such a figure with an unlikely assortment of materials, including Friendly Plastic, laminated ink-jet prints, and a beanbag.
Valentine is now expanding his interests back in time to an earlier generation of California conceptual artists (one might see them as the “grandparents” of the artists in Second Nature) and French neoclassical drawings, but his on-the-ground project of looking at, discussing, and acquiring art in galleries and visiting the studios of the artists in Second Nature unquestionably shaped his understanding of art of the past and into the future. Despite a recurring interest in sculptural notions of virtual space within this project, one of the headaches of collecting sculpture is the issue of where to keep it—in real space. As Valentine remarked: “The best moment for me will be the first time that I see them all installed before the museum is open, and I can just walk through the rooms and see these things and have a few minutes just to enjoy them. I’ve never had that; the collection has all been this virtual thing. I’ve had a virtual museum in my head of how these things look together, but I’ve never had it in reality.”5
Second Nature represents the first survey of Los Angeles sculpture from this period—and a bigger commitment to sculpture for the Hammer, following the museum’s significant 2005 exhibition Thing: New Sculpture from Los Angeles, in which several of the artists in Second Nature made an appearance.6 It also marks a sort of “snapshot,” as Valentine describes it, of a decade of exceptional, medium-intensive artistic production in Los Angeles.7
A new crop of talented Los Angeles artists emerges every year, and it is safe to assume that many of them will push the nature of the sculptural object into still-uncharted territories. Meanwhile the artists in Second Nature evolve in different ways, each expanding well beyond their point of emergence to define an idiosyncratic body of work, each continuing to engage—and yes, reenchant—the complex world around them, meeting it at least halfway with unexpected, unsettling objects.
1. Bruce Hainley, “Towards a Funner Laocoön,” Artforum 38 (Summer 2000): 167.
2. Dennis Cooper, “Too Cool for School,” Spin, July 1997, 86–94; reprinted in Cooper’s All Ears: Cultural Criticism, Essays and Obituaries (n.p.: Soft Skull Press, 1999).
3. Following on the heels of Room 702, Brent Petersen opened an eponymous gallery at 6150 Wilshire Boulevard in 1998. This gallery was also short-lived but influential. Sadly, Peterson took his own life in 2007.
4. Dean Valentine, interview with the author, May 2009.
6. The artists represented in both Thing and Second Nature are Hannah Greely, Matt Johnson, Nathan Mabry, and Kristen Morgin. See Thing: New Sculpture from Los Angeles (Los Angeles: Hammer Museum and Fellows of Contemporary Art, 2005).
7. Snapshot is, coincidentally or not, the name of a 2001 Hammer survey exhibition of work in all media by emerging L.A. artists. Five of the artists in Snapshot—Katie Grinnan, Lisa Lapinski, Won Ju Lim, Jonathan Pylypchuk, and Eric Wesley—reappear in Second Nature. See Snapshot: New Art from Los Angeles (Los Angeles: UCLA Hammer Museum, 2001).
Michael Ned Holte is a writer based in Los Angeles.