Portrait of L.A. as a Young Thing

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Let's be honest; we all like to check ourselves out in the mirror. Whether or not we are pleased with what we see there is another matter. In the last ten years, we Angelinos have had several chances to look in the mirror that friendly outsiders propped up in front of us to generate debate. You might remember the ambitious exhibition, "Sunshine & Noir," devoted to art produced in L.A. between 1960 and 1997. Originating in Denmark, it traveled through Europe before coming to L.A., where it was met with less than universal approval. It was intriguing to see how Europeans perceived our art development through these years, and I appreciated their understanding of the offbeat sensibilities of art made in L.A. -- a place equally unique for its geography and its mindset. Sure, there were some omissions and inclusions that could be argued, but that was perfectly all right. After all, an exhibition curator, like an artist painting a portrait, has an undeniable right to his own vision and idea of how to portray his subject.

Last year, when the Pompidou Center in Paris mounted the huge and exhaustive exhibition of Los Angeles art, zeroing in on the thirty-year period between 1955 and 1985, we found ourselves staring in yet another mirror. And again, we liked some of what we found there and questioned a few choices. I thought that this survey was thoroughly researched, but the final result tilted too much toward encyclopedic bookkeeping, leaving one wanting for a more imaginative - even poetic - presentation, attempting to capture the soul of L.A., not just its body.

And now, with the new exhibition Eden's Edge at the Hammer Museum, we have another chance to peer into the mirror. Fifteen L.A. artists and their works done in the last ten years are the focus of this exhibition organized by Gary Garrels, a relative newcomer to L.A. Coming here a year and a half ago from New York, where he distinguished himself as a curator at MOMA, he understandably wanted to immerse himself in the local art scene, and the resulting exhibition is a testament to his enthusiasm and sharp eye.

The works of two critically and commercially acclaimed artists, sculptor Ken Price and painter Lari Pittman, serve as a comfortable, if slightly predictable, introduction to the show. Both artists are virtuosos in handling their media, and their respective works, exuding sensuality, refuse easy interpretation.

I wish I could mention each artist included in the show. Some I know and admire; others are new to me. Their art shares certain sensibilities, emphasizing the surreal quality of L.A.'s sprawling geography, its blinding light and its dominance as media center of the world.

Liz Craft's life-size bronze sculpture of a skeleton on a souped-up motorcycle is a tour-de-force evocation of the devil-may-care spirit of the iconic Hollywood movie, Easy Rider.

Monica Majoli, in her either very small or very large watercolors, manages the nearly impossible, depicting provocative, sexually explicit scenes of bondage in a dreamy, strangely innocent way.

Sharon Ellis, in her hallucinatory landscapes, and Mark Bradford, in his abstract paintings/collages have at first seemingly nothing in common, but actually they share a love for complex, supersaturated compositions, with an emphasis on the jewel-like glow of their paintings.

This welcome exhibition is the latest, but certainly not definitive, portrait of Los Angeles, and neither is it meant to be.

Eden's Edge: Fifteen LA Artists
Hammer Museum
On view at through September 2

Banner image: Lari Pittman, Untitled, 2000; Alkyd and aerosol on mahogany panel
Goetz Collection, Munich, Germany; Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles, California