Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions
Last semester at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, I was standing in the hall when Amy Adler walked up. I'd always wanted to meet her. She introduced herself simply as Amy. 'I can't believe it', she said in a mild state of ecstasy, 'I met Joni Mitchell this morning.'
Fast forward and Adler has curated an exhibition of paintings by her heroine, Joni Mitchell. The gesture fits neatly into what Adler has been doing for quite a while, dealing with the idea of celebrity via a fascination with Hollywood actors (River Phoenix, Jodie Foster and others). Adler is also known for putting herself centre stage, performing for the camera, photographing, drawing and re-photographing herself (the 'mirror phase' in high gear), transforming pictures into animation film cells and treating photography like one-of-a-kind illustration. If Hollywood is an enclosed narcissistic world what does that make the contemporary art scene? Try auto-erotic hell.
Instead of making art that references Mitchell, Adler (who could pass as her younger sister) curated a show of her paintings. The connection is like sponsorship: Adler's arm around Joni, shining a spotlight on her paintings (a dream come true). For the viewer there's an invisible request: please view Mitchell's paintings through Adler's aesthetic, or as an Adler project. It's a keen post-Modern package that tripped out Adler's fans and made a lot of non-art Mitchell lovers giddy with joy (all things to all people, a minor miracle!). The visitors' book was filled with impassioned letters to Joni. Middle-aged fans sat on the floor of the gallery, pen in hand, and poured their hearts out.
According to Adler, this is simply an exhibition of Joni Mitchell paintings. Nothing more, and she would appreciate it if it was not viewed through the Adler screen. But the gallery advertised the exhibition as a collaboration between Amy & Joni, and insisted that Adler's name be in the show's title. This seemingly small issue is not so puny; the show would not exist if Adler didn't agree to have her name leading the charge. But curating a show is not, and will never be, a collaboration. Nonetheless, LACE is craving to keep its proverbial cake and devouring it like a very pleased gorilla, capitalising on both Mitchell's and Adler's rather disparate attractions - pulling in a big populous, non-art crowd, while simultaneously scoring all-important street cred with the contemporary art scene. In other words, killing two birds with one rock star.
Celebrity art shows are tricky. If the work is weak you feel a little ashamed to shoot the gentle fish swimming so happily in the barrel. But to be perfectly honest, many of Mitchell's paintings are painfully naive. Of the 16 in the show, only five keep you from groaning. The majority have a stiff, paint-by-numbers quality to them. Intended to be an intimate look into Joni's private world, the paintings are intensely generic. They are as charming as hell on a certain level, but also cornball city. Take, for example, the one of Jimi Hendrix in heaven, with wings, sitting on a cloud, stoking a fire with a long firestarter. And what do you think he is burning in the fire? Well, take a guess. His guitar. There are also some very comatose still lives, several atrocious landscapes that look very thrift store, and a kitty painting. Most of the paintings are framed in elegant (garish?) gold frames.
Mitchell's face appears regularly in her pictures (a good thing). It is a face that belongs on a US postage stamp, noble and full of wisdom, and if you were to climb aboard you could get a solid foothold on her remarkable lips. They are spectacular. One painting features Mitchell at a bar, her head wreathed in the smoke of a cigarette she is holding. A heart-shaped fold in the sleeve of her green blouse tells the viewer that this artist enjoys a good cliché as much as the next person. Decent painting number two is Mitchell in a boat on a lake, holding an oar across her body, staring straight ahead, fir trees in the background, lots of blue everywhere. It would be fair to say that Van Gogh must be one of Joni's favourite painters. Perfectly acceptable painting number three features the side of Mitchell's face next to the profile of a young buck (a male deer), their noses almost touching. The background includes tiny stick figures in a park. Again, charmsville. Favourite painting number four: a male hand on Mitchell's knee, in curious perspective (looking down at their mutual laps), the ground rushing up with lots of beautifully detailed leaves, painted in earthy tones. And then the darling of the bunch, a painting of Mitchell and the same guy who appears in several other paintings licking each other's tongues.
In her music, Mitchell is willing to explore the complexities of being alive. Not so in her paintings, where she seems more interested in paying tribute to the stuff she loves: solitude, male companionship, the beauty of the outdoors, boating, animals, and herself. The overall tone of this work is sincerity overdrive, a mini-autobiography without a shred of darkness; the kind of mementoes you find stuck to refrigerators - sentimental images that keep you cheerful and glad to be on the planet.