To See or Not to See, Blue-Chip Edition: The Quiet Luxury of Boring Art

Welcome to “To See or Not to See,” a recurring column covering a handful of exceptional Los Angeles gallery and museum exhibitions—the good, the bad, and the criminally overrated—in easily digestible, bite-size pieces.

In a recent article in The Cut, fashion critic Cathy Horyn lamented the market safety of tasteful and expensive-looking products as the “creeping paralysis” seizing creative risk. Lately, she wrote, prestige houses aim for nothing beyond “the look of unostentatious wealth,” a prevailing trend called quiet luxury.

The art world equivalent would be something like Pedro Reyes’s show at Lisson’s Los Angeles outpost over the summer—a suite of beautiful miniature monuments carved from marble, jade, brick-like tezontle, and volcanic rock. The press release did the heavy lifting, citing allusions to both Mesoamerican sculpture and Henry Moore, as well as “the artist’s thirst for knowledge.” The works themselves were perfectly inert and almost offensively safe, expressly designed for quick and uncritical viewing. For the unadventurous collector, this is exactly the kind of stuff you’d want for your home or garden. Art without formal or conceptual tension is high-end decoration; it never bothers anyone, and it’s more likely to match the furniture.

This fall, normally prime time on the art world calendar, the star-studded lineup among LA’s blue-chip galleries offers more of the same. If the emerging tier of the art market is full of fast fashion—work that’s poorly made, disposable, and not worth writing about—the high end offers its own version of quiet luxury. The vibe is formal and intellectual simplicity with expensive-looking materials, and it feels very phoned-in.

Where Horyn cites quiet luxury’s over-reliance on staid leather and cashmere, here we see an abundance of marble and decidedly more garish precious metals. For Hauser & Wirth, Jenny Holzer turned redacted Trump-era documents into paintings covered in gold and palladium leaf. In Hollywood, Marian Goodman’s highly anticipated 13,000-square-foot location recalls the minimal offerings of a designer boutique. The space opened with just two works by Steve McQueen, including Moonlit (2016), two shiny hunks of silver-leafed marble sitting in the spotlight of an otherwise empty room. At Sprüth Magers and Tanya Bonakdar, Analia Saban presents a two-part exhibition that includes white marble sculptures of an enlarged computer fan. Reaching for some conceptual gravitas, the press release asks you to consider the irony and “cyclical futility” of a device that cools the machines that heat the planet. My friends, let’s be honest: neither marble nor metaphor are giving this piece weight. These works reverse-engineered the artistic process to fit the tastes of hypothetical patrons, whose goal in the gallery isn’t to look or to think, but to shop.

I’m not sure if this is a problem unique to Los Angeles, a wider consequence of market uncertainty, or ludicrously capacious galleries expanding faster than artists can meaningfully develop work. Bad market trends will come and go, but at least the emerging and mid-career artists in LA are doing much more interesting things. The latest edition of the Hammer Biennial Made in L.A. is full of incredible works. Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade recently staged an intergalactic opera in a mountaintop observatory. Hauser & Wirth does have one good show organized by LA-based curator Jay Ezra with the Mike Kelley Foundation. I’m also still processing my first Vanessa Beecroft performance, a recent presentation at Deitch of topless women wearing merkins and Skims pantyhose. They shifted between various states of boredom and mild humiliation. I cannot say that it was good, but at the very least it was memorable.

Below, a look at the quiet luxury pervading LA’s blue-chip galleries. 

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