LECTURE ON IVAN WONG: CHROMIUM US 101 BY MICHAEL FALLON, ART CRITIC AND AUTHOR OF CREATING THE FUTURE: ART AND LOS ANGELES IN THE 1970S

PALOS VERDES ART CENTER
AUGUST 13, 2016

 

"Good evening. I am very happy to be here tonight at the Palos Verdes Art Center to speak to you about Ivan Wong’s work on the occasion of the opening of “Chromium US 101.”

Before I begin, I should tell you just a bit about me. As was mentioned, my name is Michael Fallon. I grew up in the Los Angeles area, in the east part of the county, in the 1970s and 80s, and I am the author of the recent Counterpoint Press book, CREATING THE FUTURE: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s. It’s a book about a generation of artists, many of whom were my personal art heroes, or the heroes of my art teachers, whose accomplishments had long been overlooked. Before I wrote this book, for more than 15 years I wrote freelance on art for local and national publications such as the Minneapolis City Pages, Pittsburgh City PaperOrange County WeeklyArt in America, Public Art Review, and American Craft.

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To understand the work of Ivan Wong in “Chromium US 101,” it might be helpful to go back to the beginning, to the early years of the 20th century, well before Los Angeles became the great international city that it now is. Originally, back when Los Angeles first broke into the list of top 10 American cities by population [hitting number 10 in 1920 with its then-population of 576,673], the city seemed to baffle and annoy the rest of the country. Or so we can surmise from the various nicknames they gave the place, such as:

  • “Iowa-by-the Sea,” in recognition of the fact that between 1890-1930 about one-third of all newcomers to the state came from the American Midwest.
  • “Double Dubuque,” which was most likely coined in the 1930s by a Paramount Pictures publicist named Rufus Blair, who also once called the city “Two-Thirds of a Coconut Tree.”

  • “Forty Suburbs in Search of a City,” which was coined in the 1930s by an unknown person, though Dorothy Parker adapted it to “72 Suburbs in Search of a City” some years later after the city had grown even larger.
  • “Nowhereland,” a similar cheap shot flung by an unknown person at an unknown date.
  • “Dottyville on the Pacific,” coined in 1930 or '31 by the British author P.G. Wodehouse. 
  • “The City of Dreadful Joy,” which was Aldous Huxley’s assessment in 1926. 

  • “Cuckooland,” by Will Rogers in 1927. 

  • “Moronia,” 1939, H.L. Mencken.

To Southern Californians today, these names might seem downright insulting, but they are also very instructive. For one, we can see that a Left Coast-Right Coast dynamic was in existence from the very emergence of Los Angeles as a major American city. Also, we can see in these nicknames the discomfort that people from older, more established U.S. cities, and apparently certain Europeans, felt about the particular way that Los Angeles developed. To them, the city seemed to lack a center or any particular character. It was merely a sunny vacation place settled by bumpkins who seemed unconcerned about building a metropolis. Indeed, the Easterners who came to Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s were clearly confused by the city’s provincial culture, by the strange conglomeration of small Midwestern-style towns that made up the landscape, and by the railway system that connected one town to another while leaving emptiness in between.

If we fast-forward a few years, by the 1960s and 70s Los Angeles had grown from its provincial Midwestern roots into something very different from what settlers originally had built. The city was hard to describe, and even harder to understand as a concept. The filmmaker Thom Andersen recently said as much in his documentary survey of film depictions of the city called Los Angeles Plays Itself. “Los Angeles,” Andersen said, “is hard to get right…. It’s elusive, just beyond the reach of an image.” This characterization most likely emerged out of its very particular pattern of development. But it may also have been intentional, as if developers and the citizens were eager to thumb their noses at early detractors of their city and their way of living.

Los Angeles was in fact, by the 1960s, something completely new in the history of urban development, and subject to study by numerous observers, scholars, and critics, such as the English architecture critic Reyner Banham, who in 1971 wrote a book called Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, the English journalist Michael Davie, who wrote California: The Vanishing Dream in 1972, and critic Peter Plagens, who published Sunshine Muse in 1974. Fueled by the forces of mid-century America — rising family wealth, the easy availability of car and roads, and an increasing desire by individuals to live the mid-century “good life” — Los Angeles grew rapidly outward as a decentered, sprawling, car and road-dependent, and increasingly wealthy metropolis with a feel and look and inner dream-life that was all its own.

In Creating the Future, I attempted to give a sense of the look and feel and deeper conceptual reality of Los Angeles and its landscape in the 1970s. “As a visual concept,” I wrote…

'…L.A. had wide appeal. Iconically speaking, the city was associated with money, palm trees, glamorous movie stars, clear blue skies, and, above all else, sunshine. Its colors—molten gold, linen white, deep azure blue, and sparkling candy-apple red—were dazzling. Los Angeles evoked chrome and bright plastic and neon signs and freshly laid asphalt gleaming in the midday sun; it was the sleek ellipse of a surfboard hewn from space-age polyurethane. It was the racy “streamline,” in the parlance of Tom Wolfe, of a ’57 Chevy Bel Air, or it was the sweeping modernist arches over soon-to-be ubiquitous fast-food hamburger joints (or over the H.G. Wellsian Theme Building at LAX, as the city’s vast international airport was known). The lingering image one had after leaving L.A. was of an endless river of steel and rubber churning and snaking through the city’s wide valley passes and out across a vast and endlessly productive land basin.'

I stand by this assessment, but there are many other ways to characterize Los Angeles of the 1960s and 70s. In recent years, the contemporary architect Neil Denari described what was happening here in the 1970s as a meeting between “the hippie and the architect.” Meaning, the messy idealism and activism of the 1960s meshed somehow with the technology and science of the aerospace industry, which was represented locally by concerns such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Hughes Aircraft, the California Institute of Technology, Northrop, and McConnell-Douglas.

Another, more nuanced view of the visual and conceptual landscape of Los Angeles was put forward by Reyner Banham. In his book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Banham celebrated the city’s idiosyncrasies and defied critics who wrote off Los Angeles as a cultureless city without a history. In particular, Banham attempted to explain Los Angeles’ virtues by categorizing the urban experience of the city through the lens of ecology. That is, Banham argued that Los Angeles possessed four distinct ecological zones, each distinguished by their own particular physical characteristics, architecture and aesthetics, culture, and ecosystems. The first two ecologies named by Banham, which, in the interest of time we won’t consider today, were: the Foothills (or the particular way of life that developed in the hillsides that surround the Los Angeles basin), and what he calls the “Plains of Id” (or the vast, suburbanized, subdivided flatlands of the L.A. basin). Banham’s other two ecological zones, which I will discuss in relation to Ivan Wong’s work, were: Autotopia (or the Southern Californian freeway system, which Banham considered its very own living eco-system), and Surfurbia (or the beach life that developed along the Southern Californian coast, characterized by shoreline, beaches, boardwalks, and surfing).

In the first of these last two “ecologies,” Autotopia, Banham invented a way of understanding a part of Los Angeles that was, when it first emerged, completely new. At the same time, however, there were in 1971 plenty of people who had embraced the unique street culture of Los Angeles. I devoted an entire chapter in Creating the Future to describing the art and culture of the streets of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s, and how this art and cultureevolved out of a long and continuous fermentation spurred by local cultural forces. As far back as the early 1930s, for instance, young male members of the exploding ranks of local car owners began creating car clubs — with names like the Tornadoes of Santa Ana, the Road Runners of Huntington Beach, the Sidewinders of Glendale, and so on — in which, by learning and sharing information about designing, refurbishing, and driving their custom cars, they invented a new culture of the car. Out of these clubs, developed, by the 1950s, the so-called Kustom Kulture of hot-rod designers and builders who influenced a generation of young people, mostly male, to imagine and realize their own car-inspired visions. I’ll come back to this hot-rod Kustom Kulture in a few moments.

The new type of city that Los Angeles became in the 1960s and 70s was exciting and alluring. It was also a self-perpetuating loop. People came to Los Angeles in those years because the place was pure thrill and excitement and the place that people wanted to be. And Los Angeles was thrilling and exciting primarily because of all the new people that kept coming here. Motion and arrival and speed and accessibility, then, were the primary features of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s. And the people who called Los Angeles home were people who valued exactly those features of the place: the speed, the motion, the sense of having arrived, the sunshine, the money, the proximity to fame, the endless possibility, and so on.

Many of the first generation of visual artists who gained fame in Los Angeles — back in the 1960s at a time when many across the country still associated the place with the notions and nicknames that had been current back in the 1920s and 30s — were chasers of the California dream. That is, this generation of local artists were spurred their Go-West-Young-Man sense of adventure, excitement, and can-do-ism to move to California from places like Staten Island [Wallace Berman], Washington state [Ed Kienholz], Chicago [Larry Bell], Kansas City [Billy Al Bengston], and Omaha [Ed Ruscha]. Note that, ironically enough, that many of these soon-to-be-renowned artists came from the very Midwest roots that people ridiculed back in the 1920s and 1930.

It’s no wonder then that, from its very origins as a national phenomenon, the art of Los Angeles has been associated with Angeleno values like speed, movement, sleek design, refraction and reflection, energy and power, and a crisp, shiny, faultless finish that hearkened back to the great hot rod designers of the Kustom Kulture movement. Let’s consider one of these artists for just a moment. Robert Irwin, who was born in Long Beach in 1928 and grew up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s, is a quintessential member of the first generation of local art heroes. Because of the way Irwin’s disk series from the late 1960s often seem to float away from the wall, people like to talk about them in terms of light, space, and their seeming ethereal qualities. This view of the work, I think, tends to neglect the fact that these are, by design, very highly refined, carefully fashioned, and carefully painted sculptural objects meant at least in part to evoke a particularly all-consuming aspect of the local ecology. Here, for instance, is what Irwin once said of Los Angeles’s fascination with the automobile: “The car was the key, the pivotal item in the whole ballgame. Everything was wrapped around the car. The car was your home away from home. And you put months and months into getting it just right. Everything was thought out in terms of who you were, how you saw yourself, what your identity was.”

Cars, service stations, highways, drag races, car customizing, drive thrus, drive-ins — everything associated with California’s car culture enveloped the lives of anyone who came in contact with it. Irwin and many of his fellow artists were enthusiastic citizens of Autotopia. In fact, according to the critic Edward Allington a number of these artists credited their “experiences with customizing cars or motorcycles as being more important than any formal art training they later received.” In high school, Irwin was deeply immersed in customizing his car, cruising in it down the local boulevards, and hanging out at drive-in theaters and car hops. He once told the story of his purchase of a ’39 Ford, which through hard toil became his prized possession. “I finally got that car finished,” he said. “I had twenty coats of ruby-red maroon on the dash, and I had this great finish outside. The car was absolutely hunky-dory. Twenty coats of ruby-red, let me tell you, to paint the dash: that means taking everything out, all the instruments and everything, painting it, building up these coats very slowly, spraying the lacquer. It was just a very exaggerated thing . . . but I finally got it into that condition.”

It’s just a small step, of course, from this absolute immersion and aesthetic focus on a car, which was borne out by the culture and ecology of Autotopia, to the so-called “Finish Fetish” of the 1960s heyday of California art. It is almost as if these artists had no choice. They had internalized the automobile, its muscularity of form, the polish and sparkling finish of its paint, the way local sunlight was reflected of its surface. And so they sought, in much of their art, to use smooth and carefully modulated materials that removed the artist’s hand from the work and created perfect surfaces for light to play upon. The care that these artists took with the finish of their sculptures was about the interaction of light and modern high-tech materials such as plastic, polyester resin, acrylic, polymer paints, fiberglass, stainless steel, and coated glass — all of which were easily accessible in a city of airplanes, rockets, custom cars, and custom paint jobs. But their careful attention to finish was also, in a very real way, about Ryner Banham’s ecology of Autotopia.

I’ve spent a lot of time now talking about art that is now more than 40 or 50 years old, but this was by design, as I wanted to take some care to situate the impulses of a certain strain of local art amid the ecology and culture of Southern California. Even without the obvious signpost of this exhibition’s title, “Chromium US 101,” it’s obvious that some of Ivan Wong’s sensibilities and interests come from the same sources of much local art since the 1960s. For example, his use of chromium paint in his paintings evoke not only the Finish Fetish’s concerns about reflection and refraction, about the sun-flooded California landscape, and about the slick finishes of California’s custom car culture and its aeronautics industry, but it continues an investigation in cutting-edge and unusual, exacting materials that was at the forefront of artistic investigations among the local artists of the 1960s.

Working on blank canvases that have been prepared with gesso and mica, Ivan starts by pouring out an amount of clear satin urethane — an essential material used by both the California car and surfing culture — to which he adds raw flake chromium pigment. By hand, Wong spreads the slurry of urethane and pigment around the canvas to create an unusual surface of silvery tones and metallic strokes and smoky color washes. The resulting surface is rich and dimensional, filled with subtle hints of motion and action. It catches light unevenly and idiosyncratically, like a projected hologram or a fleeting afterimage from looking at something bright too long.

Their atmospheric qualities hearkens back to the swirling, roiling sea- and skyscapes of Romantic artists like J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich, which is appropriate because Los Angeles viewed itself with a great deal of “Romanticism” in its 1960s heyday and well into the 1970s. And in the midst of this California Romanticism there was always a hint of menace and fear, or what the Romantic artists called the “Sublime,” tucked behind the beauty of the Southern Californian landscape. There was always, for instance, the possibility of flash floods, brush fires, mud slides, or earthquakes behind the bright, sun-drenched surface of the place.

Ivan Wong’s painting also evokes both the Finish Fetish and updates it for our more complex contemporary times — bringing a sense of depth and uncertainty to the finish, a glimpse of the artist and the touch of his hand on the surface, and a hint of the aesthetics of graffiti and tattoos and other street sensibilities that emerged out of the ecology of Autotopia sometime after the heyday of the Finish Fetish.

That is, I suggest, these paintings not only build on the work of the local art heroes of the 1960s, but they go further, shedding light on particular aspects of the culture of Los Angeles that go way back to its days of “Iowa-by-the-Sea” and “Forty Suburbs in Search of a City.” Whereas the character of Southern California in the early days confused people, the region’s unusual pattern of growth and development also led to a unique culture that emerged from its busy streets and proximity to a glorious long and uninterrupted ocean coastline, and that was unconcerned about what the rest of the country thought about it. As I described in Creating the Future, by the 1970s a number of rebellious and in-your-face aesthetic forms such as graffiti and street writing, street painting and wall mural, surf styles, skater and punk rock fashions, and so on developed here in Los Angeles. And these forms developed not by virtue of an ideology or an art critical dictate, but out of a public need for expressing itself.

The evocation of the salad days of local art in “Chromium US 101” is doubly appropriate since Ivan Wong was a participant in the era of street-based energy and foment, as an art student and as a member of the music scene of the early 1980s. But ultimately, what I love most about the work in “Chromium US 101,” is how it embodies the history and experience of Southern California over the past 100 years by making a natural connection between two of the unique ecologies of California — namely between the street-centered Autotopia and the ocean-focused Surfurbia. The very title of the show itself, after all, evokes the great and legendary Pacific Coast Highway, where the streets of Los Angeles meet the waters of the Pacific Coast. It is here where, both literally and figuratively, the sunlight of California, reflected on the hood of a hot rod, meets the ocean-taming rocket lozenge of the surfboard.

Ivan’s split view of the Southern Californian experience is also on display in the interplay between his paintings and his evocative, and elegant surfboard sculptures. Now, surfboards are common enough objects — known far and wide through the music of the Beach Boys, the movies of Frankie and Annette, even in literature, with a book about surfing, William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, having recently won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography — all of which makes us forget how unusual, empowering, and beautiful an object the surfboard is.  

But you don’t have to take my word for this. To return to Reyner Banham for a moment, he was convinced back in 1971 that the surfboard form itself was the perfect embodiment not only of the ecology of Surfurbia, but also of the visual and aesthetic spirit of the city of Los Angeles. “Leaning on the sea-wall,” Banham wrote…

“… or stuck in the sand like plastic megaliths, they [surfboards] concentrate practically the whole capacity of Los Angeles to create stylistic decorative imagery, and to fix those images with all the panoply of modern visual and material techniques — and all, remember, in the service of the preferred local form of noble savage, pitting his nearly naked muscles and skilled reactions against the full force of the ‘mighty hulking Pacific Ocean.’”

Ivan Wong’s connecting of street and surf through his art — the way he brings together the concerns of surf culture, of the Finish Fetish, of street and car aesthetics, and the print posters that evoke a once-ubiquitous silkscreen street artifact — is an act of Southern California alchemy. The surfboard sculptures are fascinating for their focus on the beauty of the form and all that it implies — the speed and the power they confer over the elements, the historical and aesthetic traditions of the ocean-based surf cultures, and the ingenuity and spirit of the Southern California’s own particular ecological zone, Surfurbia. The shape of a surfboard of course is instantly recognizable and evocative, an amalgamation of the forms of water and forms of the street. They are beautiful and captivating objects, shaped and crafted by the hands of do-it-by-yourself innovators and inventors.

Ivan’s boards capture the beauty of the ocean and its waves, as well as the slicing shape of a surfer across the dangerous and rugged surface of the ocean. They embody the spirit and collective knowledge of a region that defied national conventions and sought to define their own way of living, and their own methods for building a world-class city. They are, as Reyner Banham suggests, a kind of iconic talisman, a symbol of beauty and strength, of daring and courage, and of the innovative and independent spirit of the city of Los Angeles and its people.

In his surfboard sculptures, Ivan Wong references and evokes the collective cultural knowledge and skill that developed along the coastal zone of California’s Surfurbia, and he honors the group expertise necessary to refine and create the tools and trappings necessary to conquer the ocean as surfing does. His sculptural boards, which are made from an amalgamation of technologically and culturally significant materials — such as koa wood, foam blanks, and resins — and are designed out of the years and years of evolving surfboard shapes — from the size and geometry, to the rocker, rails, and fins — are in this way akin to the very art that developed collectively in the streets of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s.

In sum, Ivan Wong’s surfboard sculptures, positioned as they are against his evocative paintings, are a beautiful distillation of what Southern California has been about for the past 100 years. They embody the spirit of a place that rose out of its roots as “Nowhereland” and “Iowa-by-the-Sea” to become a city of its own ecologies, and of its own particular form of development. A city that is at once impossible to define, but also dazzlingly and blindingly bright. Los Angeles is, in the vision of Ivan Wong, a city of chromium and sunlight and its over defiantly unique culture. Thank you."

 

—Michael Fallon

 

 

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