Andrea Zittel Kisses the Frog

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Have you ever tried to imagine the persona of the artist behind the work? Their look, their age. What kind of personality do they have: outgoing or shy, maybe? I have to admit that most of the time when I tried to do that, I failed. For example, LA sculptor extraordinaire Tim Hawkinson, whose current exhibition at the Getty Museum is getting rave reviews, almost shocked me when I met him for the first time. He was so quiet and unassuming, almost ordinary. With his amazingly inventive sculptures and collages defying traditional logic, I expected a mad scientist type with bulging eyes.

I've never met California native Andrea Zittel, an artist who lives in Los Angeles and the Joshua Tree desert, but her mid-career exhibition at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary wants me to imagine her as delightful company. Maybe a control freak, but with a dry sense of humor. The kind of person who doesn't take 'no' for an answer and uses magic -- when needed -- to turn a frog into a prince. Imaginatively and elegantly installed, Andrea Zittel's exhibition has on display seemingly everything plus the kitchen sink, and I mean it literally.

Zittel is a kind of domestic goddess on a budget, inhabiting a severely limited living space that would make even a dwarf feel claustrophobic. She conceptualizes and builds super compact, roughly ten-foot-square living units, containing virtually everything one needs under ordinary circumstances: a kitchen with appliances, a table with seating, sleeping compartment, even a writing desk. The trick is that if you lived there, you'd be expected not to walk into the bedroom, but to crawl there, into a space no bigger than a coffin. But trust me, there is nothing morbid about these living units. On the contrary, they look surprisingly peaceful and even playful. You'll notice hinges allowing the unit components to be ‘unfolded' into more generous arrangements or folded back into one tight module – a sort of suitcase one can pick up and travel with as needed. After satisfying your curiosity by looking into every nook and cranny of these spaces, you might want to step back and remind yourself that you're in a museum, not a convention center shopping for a smart trailer.

Andrea Zittel is an artist who "explores the psychological...and economic aspects of domestic and urban existence." But unlike most conceptual artists, she is an inventive and eloquent sculptor who manifests the most far-out ideas through a series of decidedly ordinary gestures, decisions and processes. Imagine yourself getting a job as a high-profile gallery receptionist in New York and being expected to dress smartly, wearing every day something different. With only a few bucks in the pocket, that would be an impossible task for any mere mortal, but not for this endlessly resourceful artist.

There is a small army of mannequins in the exhibition displaying hilarious yet proper outfits that Zittel concocted for herself using pieces of cheap fabric, held together sometimes with giant safety pins. She became skillful in knitting body-hugging dresses that wouldn't look out of place in an upscale Missoni boutique. Talk about necessity being the mother of invention. Some outfits have a panel of fabric meant to be folded in many different ways so the same dress can be altered day after day, always appearing anew. I hate to think what would have happened to Andrea Zittel if she had been born into money and wasn't forced to tap into her creative talents which revealed an embarrassment of riches.

Andrea Zittel: Critical Space
The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
On view through May 14

Banner image: Andrea Zittel: Critical Space, Installation View, Photo © Brian Forrest