BY CAROL CHEH | APRIL 29, 2011
The aptly named “Arataland!” is an enormous, sprawling exhibition of sculptures, wall hangings, and installations populating various galleries on three separate floors of Inglewood’s Beacon Arts Building. While it is prosaically labeled a “mid-career survey” of the work of Los Angeles artist Michael Arata — with works ranging from the late 1980s to the present — it might be more descriptive to call it a wholesale evocation of the artist’s mind, heart, and practice. Nimbly curated by writer (and sometimes ARTINFO L.A. correspondent) Doug Harvey to inhabit the expansive and irregular spaces of this large former warehouse, this show is a delightful opportunity to immerse oneself in the production of this under-recognized “artist’s artist,” and experience the whole of his celebratory, perverse, meditative, and playful oeuvre.
A three-page map is needed to navigate through this wonderland. Each floor has a name; the first is labeled “Negativespaceland.” Here one finds a comprehensive gathering of Arata’s “Pet Space” works, which revolve around the humorous, lyrical, and sometimes socio-politically charged domestication of negative spaces. In one well-known series, the spaces between the limbs of lingerie models are first filled in with paint on torn-out catalogue pages, then given three-dimensional shape via Arata’s trademark sculptural technique of newspaper, masking tape, and resin, then finally re-photographed with Arata himself recreating the poses, using the solid “pet spaces” to shape himself. It is a funny and whimsical series that also reflects on minimalism’s legacy and feminism’s commentary on popular media.
Moving to the second level, one encounters “Innocenceland,” where the formalism that dominated the first level is deepened by meditations on childhood, family, and religion. Arata was raised Catholic and the evidence of his upbringing is pervasive. The most striking room is the Chapel of Mary’s Parents, a recreation of a space that Arata made for himself in the basement of his home. The walls are lined with the artist’s version of stained glass windows — custom iron security bars filled in with more of his colorful “pet spaces,” some featuring plastic eyes. Beneath each window is a “soul,” reminiscent of a Mexican milagro, forged out of a crushed can or scrap metal. At the far end of the chapel is an altar featuring a large photograph of Arata, his wife, and his young daughter, with solid pet “halos” adorning their heads. The fake candles that line the altar are constructed out of tampon sheaths.
Fatherly anxieties, the charm and comfort of church rituals, and art historical references to Mondrian and the Pattern and Decoration movement are deftly conflated in this room; Arata has said (jokingly or not) that the installation is a monument to his daughter Mary’s (now departed) virginity, preparing her for an immaculate conception. Right next door to the chapel is a different sort of commentary on the Catholic legacy: a room called “T Rex” — entirely empty save for a small model dinosaur, less than two feet tall — suggests the religious far right’s denial of evolution. Another room is devoted to articulating Arata’s ideas on souls and angels; these works are rooted in Catholic ideas but take off on flights of his own fancy. Still another room offers Venus as a Fertility Figure, “Activity” — a nylon Venus figure hangs from a basketball hoop, inviting viewers to fertilize her by throwing in potato-shaped “seeds.”
A climb up to the fourth floor rewards the visitor with “It’scomplicatedland,” a large open space bathed in generous natural light. The absence of dividing walls on this floor allows numerous works both large and small to spread out and interact with one another as well as with visitors. Immediately catching the eye are Monet’s “Haystacks,” a minimalist reworking of an iconic Impressionist work, and “Flock,” a dream-like grouping of sheep with gold-leaf anuses. Also present are works critiquing American wars in the Middle East, and a very creepy corner in which Arata pays tribute, via hair pieces, to the victims of kidnappers, serial killers, and cartel hits. Two large interactive works — “Obstacle Course Activity” and “Rollers Activity” — allow visitors to play games with sculptural pieces, tossing them into targets in the first instance, and rolling them around in an enclosed arena in the second. These activities immediately give rise to merriment and play, as well as providing booming ambient noises that recall Thunderdome or the Highland Games.
The sense of opening up that one gets upon ascending to the fourth floor mirrors the overall feeling one has while traveling through this exhibition. Arata’s ideas truly bloom in these spaces, which are clean and neutral yet casual, lacking the stiff formality of a museum space. His individual works bloom as well, whether being showcased in the broad light of the fourth floor, or peeking out from unexpected corners between galleries on the second; they seem to simply live and breathe everywhere. Arata says that his artmaking process begins with a massive junk pile of ideas and material, which he stores in his mental warehouse; the ideas that are good enough to work on are then moved into his mental library. It is fitting that his finished work now finds an apt showcase in a warehouse of another kind.