Palm trees, gyms and urban sprawl; Botox-bolstered Hollywood starlets arranged around clear blue swimming pools: Arguably, Californian culture has lent its very own flair to the West Coast art scene. Since the sixties, superstars like John Baldessari, Paul McCarthy, or Mike Kelley have generated international waves. Nevertheless, California has not been known as an exciting place for a biennial. The art scene has preferred to fly to Teheran, Dubai, or Moscow. It comes as a surprise then that the relatively young California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art succeeds where other biennials and art fairs fail: in developing its own inimitable style. The reason: The OCMA blends the globalized language of international art with regional themes. This year’s guest curator Lauri Firstenberg grew up in Los Angeles, studied at Harvard, and worked in the New York art scene. She became known for founding the influential art space LAXART in Los Angeles. Her planning the biennial hovered around questions such as how local artists and viewers can be reached in a climate of globalization; or how regional issues can be addressed in a way that is also relevant for an international scene. "We wanted to essentially reassess how exhibits have functioned in the past and look at their future potential in serving an expanded audience base," the 34-year-old curator explains. And she is quite serious about the broad effect she is after: the works of the 55 artists are not only shown in the building of the OCMA, but in all of California. From October 26 through March 15, videos, performances and installations of the biennial will also be on view on beaches and highways, everywhere from the Mexican border and up to San Francisco.
Many of the works in this year’s biennial address California’s hybrid culture, the American idea of "anything goes", the early-day pioneer spirit of the European immigrants, or the influence of Latin American culture. The billboard of the Cuban-American artist Felipe Dulzaides over the entrance of the museum illustrates this perfectly. Instead of hailing a consumer product, it confronts visitors with the colorful style of Cold War Cuban propaganda posters of the ’60s and ’70s. Dulzaides’ seductive amalgamation of American advertising culture and Communist agit-prop seems typical for the collision of divergent cultures in Californian everyday life. For Firstenberg, it was obvious that this cultural mingling has been making a most important mark on generations of West Coast artists. For this reason, she juxtaposes the works of art world stars such as Yvonne Rainer, Sam Durant, and Raymond Pettibon with the art of a younger generation. This instigation of intergenerational dialogue reveals the artistic languages and strategies of the "California gang".
It’s hard not to see how confrontationally the biennial approaches social conflicts, and how strongly it deals with the political zeitgeist. It is an election year, after all, with all Americans alike having to face a tough economic and social crisis. "It’s something you can’t ignore," says Firstenberg. "There’s an election urgency and a drive toward socio-political expression, so I would say these are the types of pieces and projects that touch me." One of these pieces is the video work of Los Angeles-based artist Andrea Bowers, who became known for her legendary AIDS Memorial Quilt (1987). In An Act of Radical Hospitality (2008) Bowers continues her investigation of peaceful forms of protest, civil disobedience, and feminism. The video is based on interviews with the immigration activist Elvira Arellano, who tried to stave off her impending deportation by seeking shelter in the Adalbert United Methodist Church in Chicago. Tony Labat’s video installation Day Labor: Mapping the Outside (Fat Chance, Bruce Nauman) (2006) investigates the same issue. For his four-channel film, Labat secretly filmed illegal Hispanic workers for three months from his studio window as they assembled below to wait for potential employment. The conceptual artist from San Francisco not only explores the current obsession with surveillance cameras, but he also pays poetical homage to the daily rhythms of the poorly paid immigrants, whose labor is nothing less than essential to California’s economy.
San Francisco-based artist Julio Cesar Morales harks back to a widely repressed chapter of American history. His film Passage (2008) painstakingly portrays the United States’ coerced annexation of the Mexican territory of California. The narration is distilled into an intimate play: on a hot afternoon in the year 1846, the Mexican general Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo receives American rebels in his Casa Grande in Sonoma, who are intent on arresting him in order to proclaim an independent republic. As a last official act, the cultivated Vallejo has a stag slaughtered for the filthy men and a lavish menu prepared. Morales’ film was shot on the original site; he depicts the meal as a metaphor for the birth of modern California and the struggle over cultural supremacy while concentrating on sensuous details such as the serving of the meal, the astonished looks among the invaders, the hunger, and the greed.
It is well known that the idea of California has given birth to a stupendous fantasy exported to all corners of the world—a fantasy of self-invention, eternal youth, personal freedom, Hollywood glamour, and beach culture. Naturally, the exploration of immigration issues provides an antipode to this mythology. But for anyone who has ever withered away for two hours in the rush hour traffic of Los Angeles it should be clear that this myth does not apply to the Californian middle class either. It is this audience that the billboard installations of Karl Haendel and Raymond Pettibon address. Firstenberg has installed their works in the additional biennial site of Los Angeles. At first glance, these monumental billboards seem like ordinary ads, a familiar element of the urban landscape of any major American city. From their car windows, however, people driving along La Cienega Boulvard are reading a piercing question, which Haendel uses to cut right through the everyday routine: "A year from now, what will I wish I had done today?" Raymond Pettibon’s work dominates the view on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. The subtitle of his gigantic billboard seems also appropriate for this biennial: "I thought California would be different."