Art in Review: LA to Taos: 40 Years of Friendship

After a tremendous amount of hype and hoopla, the so-billed Taos Summer of Love 2009 has begun. And the big wheel that is getting everyone’s attention is actor/director and former Taos resident Dennis Hopper. In celebration of Easy Rider, released 40 years ago — and filmed partly in Taos — the town has a group of special events that are supposed to take people back to a time of love beads, really long hair, VW vans painted in psychedelic colors and, well, other stuff that (most) parents did not condone. Part of the celebration includes two exhibitions at the Harwood Museum of Art that are directly related to Hopper: a show curated by the man and another showcasing his work.
To say that LA to Taos: 40 Years of Friendship is a great show would be misleading, because it’s not. But it’s an interesting collection of work that at times looks dated yet remarkably fresh, boring yet visually stimulating. Hopper has gathered handfuls of work by five buddies with whom he hung out in Los Angeles during the 1960s. All of the artists — Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Ronald Davis, Ken Price, and Robert Dean Stockwell — have, like Hopper, lived in Taos. So this is a reunion of sorts that offers a time capsule of work being done back then as well as a glimpse of what these folks are doing now. A few works are worth mentioning.
Stockwell’s collages are actually photomontage. As well, they owe a big debt to the politically charged photomontages of German Dadaists Hannah Höch and John Heartfield from the 1920s and 1930s. Done primarily with newspaper and magazine cutouts in black and white, Stockwell’s pictures look faded and much older than expected. His cut-and-paste technique is impeccable, as is his sense of design and compositional symmetry. The imagery, on the other hand, cannot be fully digested in a pass-by viewing. Each of the three larger works — there are six in total — demands a critical eye and time to explore what Stockwell has pieced together.
Mussolini’s Office (2004) is abundant with visual snippets that convey a message both poignant and perplexing. Attempting to describe Stockwell’s constructed image is a challenge. Envision a three-tiered composition made up of various fragmented church interiors — mainly cathedrals — with Corinthian columns, coffered vaults, and a detached dome at the top sporting an oculus. Shooting through the oculus is a missile launched from a military vehicle that is supported by a humongous eyeball held in place by a small, well-dressed guy in a tam. That’s in the upper registers. Scattered throughout the piece are groups of American soldiers carrying flag-draped coffins to unknown destinations. One such group is centrally located and posited on a lunar surface that is cradled amid two hands: presumably those of God or an Allstate agent. To the left of this vignette is a man in a pith helmet inspecting a segment of industrial pipeline; below is a bathing beauty with a red billiard-ball head racing across the picture on a Jet Ski. The bizarre imagery also includes the presence of Mussolini, but you’ll have to discover his whereabouts yourself in this adult version of Where’s Waldo.
Dos Mil (1999) by Ron Cooper is a standout piece in the less-than-stellar group of his work, although his Portrait Chair (1993) has an “aha” moment that’s fun for all ages. Dos Mil is a 6-by-6-foot construct divided into four quadrants of corrugated aluminum, with lithographed commercial symbols across it, one being the cursive Coca-Cola logo. Loosely painted in each of the four sections is a line drawing of an ancient Maya stone head: three are alike and the other is less conceived. And at the center of Cooper’s multimedia piece is a rich red and black photo-based picture of a Maya stone head that holds everything together like an official wax seal. The image itself is so bold and color-saturated and so different from any other material in Cooper’s work that it optically appears to be suspended in front of the construct; indeed, a nice touch.
One of the earliest pieces in the exhibit is also one of the most dynamic: Six-Ninths Red (1966) by Ronald Davis. At 131 inches across, this diamond-shaped painting — made of molded polyester and Fiberglas on wood support — is situated on its own wall in the upper gallery of the museum. The piece may be seen as a nondescript, one-storied architectural complex done in gray and ruby red with metallic flake. Its illusionistic dimensional component is simple enough but really fools the eye. Although it was executed more than four decades ago, Davis’ piece, both in presence and concept, feels remarkably contemporary.
A separate show featuring some of Hopper’s paintings and photographs is also located in the upper gallery. I’ve always been skeptical of Hollywood celebs presenting themselves as serious visual artists — I think of Red Skelton’s clown paintings, Diane Keaton’s photographs of hotel lobbies, or those wildly colorful still lifes by Tony Curtis.  Then again, I do appreciate Stockwell’s work (as well as Peter Falk’s sketchbook drawings).
Hopper’s work has clearly been informed by a number of artists whose portfolios have defined 20th-century American art: Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, and the photographers Aaron Siskind and Bruce Davidson. His two large-scale paintings, Elect (1965) and After the Fall (1964) — both done in grisaille and reworked in 2000 — are reminiscent of the fractured billboard imagery of Rosenquist, but not as clean and pristine as the modern master’s work. Hopper’s more expressive approach is respectable. The most recent color photographs by Hopper — digital close-up studies of peeling paint and paper from exterior walls — refer to those done by Siskind beginning in the late 1940s. I can’t quibble with Hopper’s discerning eye and sense of composition, but his decision to print these images on “enhanced matte” paper is a mistake. By doing so, he voids the absolute clarity one expects from digital technology, which would make these photographs pop, as if you’re standing before the actual walls where the photographer stood. What’s the point in photographing such stuff if not for the abstracted detail?
All in all, I was impressed with Hopper’s work; it piqued my curiosity to see more. His photograph from 1964 of Larry Bell in a double-breasted sport jacket, necktie, and striped trousers, holding his signature stogie, has been etched in my memory forever — what a hoot.