Late Saturday night, a long line of easily more than a thousand eager customers snaked through the old warehouses and elegant new structures of Little Tokyo, waiting patiently to be admitted to the "It" place on this particular night. Clouds of confetti were periodically shot from a canon mounted on the roof, while inside the music was blasting, the lights were strobing and the happy crowds were fighting for every square inch of space. People were seen disappearing into dark rooms with flickering lights or diving into white voids filled with gentle fog illuminated with colored lights, and everyone was swaying to the waves of trance-inducing music.
On that night, art aficionados flocked to MOCA's Geffen Contemporary to celebrate the opening of the much-touted and highly anticipated exhibition, conceived and organized by Paul Shimmel, the museum's chief curator. There is just one word: "Ecstasy," printed in large shining metallic letters on the white cover of the exhibition catalogue. The full title reads "Ecstasy: In and About Altered States." Organizer of the celebrated early 90's exhibition "Helter Skelter", which explored the darker impulses of art made in L.A., Paul Shimmel, with this new exhibition, clearly attempts once again to focus our attention on important undercurrents in contemporary art. The cavernous space of the Geffen Contemporary is filled with the paintings, sculptures, videos and room size installations by 30 well-known artists from around the world. According to the catalogue, they share "the utopian faith in the capacity of art to expand and alter perception and consciousness." We, the spectators, are invited to follow "the artists exploring transcendent states through art and through drug culture."
For me, unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried, the overall effect was of being amused and entertained but never transported into a higher realm of consciousness. For the record, I don't smoke, I've never been completely drunk, and as far as smoking dope, well, I tried it once and was bored to tears. A successful exhibition can be compared to the nonstop flow of energy, similar to a joyful ride on a highway free of traffic. Walking through "Ecstasy," with its wild variety of artworks, where even the largest pieces are dwarfed by the huge exhibition space, felt to me like moving through stop and go traffic on a congested freeway. A huge mural by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, depicting certain mushrooms, greets visitors at the entrance. I've seen much better paintings and sculptures of his than the ones chosen here. Nearby, hundreds of tiny mushrooms are growing from the cement floor, each meticulously sculpted and painted by Roxy Paine. I liked this work, but, again, remember much better ones that I saw at the Christopher Grimes Gallery here in Santa Monica. And the same goes for Fred Tomaselli, an artist who's very much in fashion right now. His early, modestly sized paintings, with pharmaceutical pills and marijuana leaves embedded into thick layers of resin, used to convey a sense of innocence, bewilderment and were, so to speak, light on their feet. His new, very large and rather laborious compositions that are presented here, come across as suffocatingly baroque.
What I was missing at "Ecstasy" was the effortless ability of so many other artists not included in this exhibition, to send me on a fantasy-inducing head-trip: Jennifer Steinkamp's recent and Bill Viola's early video installations, the calculated madness of Larry Pittman's canvasses or the violent, scary beauty of the graffiti-infested paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
As it is, "Ecstasy," in spite of the presence of many good artworks, doesn't generate enough heat to make you forget where and who you are.