Q&A: John Malpede on Skid Row
For MOCA I interviewed John Malpede of Los Angeles Poverty Department about activism, performance and how the city planned Skid Row, a neighborhood of fifty blocks inhabited mostly by the homeless. Malpede has led performance workshops there for the past thirty years.
Sam Bloch: You talk about Simone Weil’s experience of quitting teaching to work in a factory. Weil had a social concern in her work, and needed firsthand exposure to what was going on. That’s not exactly what you did. But you embedded yourself in this community. You got a job helping the people you wanted to make art about. That is such an inspiring alternative to the narrative we now hear, all too often, of artists moving into low-rent neighborhoods and negatively affecting the community.
John Malpede: The reality was, I didn’t know what I was doing exactly. I didn’t know if I was falling off the end of the art world. I didn’t know if I was going to keep making art or not. I thought I might write a book about homelessness. California and Vermont are the only states where you have to go to law school in order to read the law, like Abraham Lincoln did, so I thought I might become a public interest lawyer and realize my mother’s dream. But it just sort of happened that LAPD took off. I was following my nose and holding my identity very loosely.
I wrote promotional copy for a MOCAtv video about the Los Angeles artist Sterling Ruby. One version ended up in the inboxes of MOCA members. Another was posted to Tumblr:
As a graduate student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California in the mid-’00s, Sterling Ruby was introduced to the work of French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard, a theorist who suggested a future reality comprised of copies and imitations, one in which artistic gestures were unavoidably insincere and always pre-conditioned. Ruby took this to mean that artmaking could no longer be innate: it was bound to a history that was at its best a crutch and its worst a stifling prison.
This lamentation led Ruby to create the body of work that would be known as SUPERMAX, named after the high-security federal prison system that quarantines rather than corrects its inmates. At the center of three exhibitions, including a residency at MOCA Pacific Design Center in 2008, were urethane drip sculptures that Paul Schimmel would identify as "three-dimensional Jackson Pollock… caught in the action."
Better known as stalagmites, these massive sculptures represent the gesture of abstract expressionism trapped by its historical successor in minimalism, a movement that to Ruby was a symbol of authoritarian repression. As defined by Robert Morris, minimalism demanded an unalterable shape; Ruby made his sculptures liquid-looking and malleable. If minimalism’s virtue was its “publicness,” Ruby would vandalize his faux-monuments with tags and graffiti.
Ruby continued to construct these enormous urethane works for another five years. As the body of work came to a close, MOCAtv visited him in his Vernon, California studio complex for an exclusive look at his process.
Recently I’ve been writing short, wall text-ish blurbs for MOCAtv, a contemporary art video channel developed as a digital extension of programming of MOCA in Los Angeles. The idea behind MOCAtv is that the institution can rapidly and drastically expand the audience for contemporary art by engaging viewers online, through original artist projects, dramatic or cinematic web series, music videos, interviews, gallery tours and others. Some samples of my writing:
The lead single from Los Angeles producer Kingdom’s fifth EP Vertical XL, “Bank Head” is tense, restrained R&B in the tradition of Aaliyah, Brandy and Cassie, a new look for a producer who comes from the vortices of clubland. Making her Fade to Mind debut, Kelela sings of a physical desire and an attendant longing, which video director Jude MC depicts as nothing less than elemental, eternal like the sun and the stars, deep like a murky cave. Like so much of his and Kingdom’s work, the feeling is beyond human.
Like New York in the ’70s, modern day Detroit is a street art paradise. Bombed out, abandoned, and underpoliced, the city itself is grist for graffiti artists and writers who flock from other cities and beyond. In this short film, Los Angeles artist REVOK introduces us to the newest creative community in the Motor City, touring the fantastic assemblages made from decaying houses, and paying homage to the predecessors with a mural on the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Where others see blight, these artists see a canvas.
Through literature, scholarship, and digital curation, Los Angeles-based artist and writer Kate Durbin examines how identity is created online. Of particular interest to Durbin are the communities found on Tumblr, where users tailor constellations of images and content to wear like bespoke suits.
Clad herself in custom-made overalls to promote her new book E! Entertainment, a collection of stories and poems based on reality TV transcripts, Durbin curates three videos that toy with the relationship between popular culture and digital media. Through a “banned” David Hasselhoff Carl’s Jr. commercial, a Lady Gaga reenactment, and Britney Spears’ “crazy night” with paparazzi, Durbin reveals the impossibility and absurdity of pretending celebrities are just like us.
Amidst the crumbling of thousands of clay sculptures on the floor of The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA stands Urs Fischer’s Untitled (2011), a trio of perpetually changing sculptures which includes the artist’s bold reinterpretation of Giambologna’s sixteenth-century Mannerist masterpiece Rape of the Sabine Women as a monumental candle. This behind-the-scenes installation footage pictures sections of torsos and bodies lofted and affixed to each other to create the sculpture’s dynamic composition. Once the wicks are lit, the sculpture is subjected to a process of melting and dissolution, transforming the static figures and adding a performative element and a sense of duration to the work.
Chris Paul, Clippers Quarterback
Commissioned for the annual LA Weekly People Issue. (Last year I wrote about Li Fellers.) Story below:
Spotlights have a way of erasing your surroundings. The intensity blinds you, turns whatever’s not right in front of you to black. When Chris Paul was named the Most Valuable Player of this year’s NBA All-Star Game, he accepted the award with his four-year-old son at his side.
“I’m not who I am without my family,” says Paul, 27. Lots of professional athletes say things like that. Paul, the starting point guard and undisputed leader of an invigorated Los Angeles Clippers franchise, means it.
Seated on a folding chair at the team’s practice court in Playa Vista, the sounds of skidding sneakers and thumping basketballs filling the room, Paul explains his game day routine to a reporter. Normally, this is when he’d pick up his son, nicknamed Lil’ Chris, from school in Santa Monica, on his way home to Bel Air for lunch. But this is an off day. So the architect of Lob City — the swaggering team nickname coined upon Paul’s arrival in L.A. during last season’s lockout — and his son are playing putt-putt.
At a shade over six feet, Paul isn’t physically intimidating. His father taught him to play basketball more like a quarterback calling plays in football. He controls the floor — directing movement through shouts and gesticulations, dishing passes through unexpected holes, and of course, setting up outrageous, emphatic slam dunks that are more like touchdowns than two-point buckets. Before home games, while his teammates ham up for fans during the starting lineup, he scopes the referees and susses out his opponents for signs of low energy.
“I’ve always tried to play as unselfishly as possible,” says Paul. “My big thing is, make sure everybody gets the ball.”
When Paul was traded from New Orleans, his original destination was the Lakers, where he’d be the set-up guy for a superstar who plays as selfishly as possible. The trade was infamously scuttled for “basketball reasons” and Paul agreed to join a team who’d been underdogs for decades. Recognizing a potential franchise player, the front office solicited his input to build a team that could be a contender.
He was excited to come to L.A., but the move was rough.
“For two months, I was living in a hotel in the Marina,” he recalls. “I did Christmas in that hotel, and my wife was so depressed. We had a tree, like a little tree, and we had just found out she was pregnant with our daughter.”
Since he joined the league eight years ago, Paul and his wife have always lived in condos. In L.A., he bought his first house. He admits it’s a little “weird” living in a ritzy neighborhood, but when his friends and family visit from North Carolina, they stay at his place and shoot hoops on the neighborhood court. His agent just took him to his first Oscar party. And he eats healthier here. “You can’t just walk into a restaurant back home and order something gluten-free,” he says.
And when he takes Lil’ Chris to birthday parties, are the other parents Clipper fans?
“They are now.”
Compared to stars like Matt Kemp or Pau Gasol I suppose Chris Paul is still new in town, a North Carolina native and brilliant point guard haphazardly acquired by the Los Angeles Clippers during the NBA lockout of 2011. With a contract extension in the works I think that perception will change but for now the story is this: during that shortened season Paul led the Clippers to their first winning record in years; this past season, with a roster fortified with a crew of nomadic veterans purchased at Paul’s behest, perhaps because he needed some help getting his team to follow him as a leader, perhaps because that franchise-anointed leader is comparatively young and green, the team posted their best record in history; and even if that team did get knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, therefore demonstrating some kind of softness or un-big-time-ness, the electrifying alley oops Paul orchestrated with the huge guys at the rim, after shouting at the rest of the team to clear some room and gesticulating with emphatic points of his free hand, were basketball’s version of the three-run homer, or the touchdown, a theatrical magic that just lit up the crowds at Staples.
We met a few days after I was treated to a home game evisceration of the Milwaukee Bucks, and sitting next to each other on folding chairs at the team gym, I was struck by his courtesy but also his candor. He’s a real professional, a company man who’s not going to criticize his colleagues and all but flinches when I tried to talk about business and contracts, but when we talk about his approach on the floor he was insightful and spoke about it at a small distance— here is a guy who was on JV in high school, only a few years ago, so success is still fresh to him. Platitudes were reserved for his family, which was really sincere and adorable, and my article dwells extensively on that relationship.
Before the game I was in the team’s locker room, where I was sort of surprised to find myself calmed by the mildness, surrounded by enormous pituitary cases wobbling productively with their trainers, nervous younger guys slamming chocolate mints, the enormous heat pads covering the extended thighs of veterans in repose. Just hanging out, getting ready. I think that’s a pre-game thing because after the win I was shocked by the beat reporters who were actually asking questions from that well-worn script we continue to read in sports pages and hear on AM radio. Obviously the place for introspection and interesting questions isn’t going to be in the locker room while heads are throbbing and everyone’s still in game mode, but nevertheless seeing the NBA industrial complex up close is sort of appalling, these unapologetic sycophants queueing up outside the locker room, and then filing in to thrust their iPhones in the faces of Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford, show them videos of their own slam dunks from the game they just finished, and then ask for a ranking. After a few minutes of that we were ushered to the press room next door, where Paul, Griffin and the reporters all looked at the same startlingly unceremonious stat sheet — Cambria, size 12, white office paper, done — and talked about the latter’s first career triple double. Look out for this time next time you watch a post-game press conference and guys answer questions by looking down at the table and reciting stats.
All of which is to say, imagine my surprise when I was talking to Paul at practice, and he talked about basketball in a way that was so unrelated to that tightly choreographed idiocy — about the importance of footwork, or acclimating to butterflies in the moments before games by checking out the refs, or sussing out the other team’s warm-up line for signs of low energy, and especially, touchingly, about flying a bunch of his buddies from small-town North Carolina out to Las Vegas for his birthday (via Houston for the All-Star Game) and wow, as if it wasn’t amazing enough that he was successful enough to get them all together like that, then he won the MVP award, with all of his friends there. Moments like that, he said, was when he reflected on his life of basketball. I loved that clarity.
Art Los Angeles Contemporary Journal
Over the weekend I developed editorial content for Art Los Angeles Contemporary, often described as the contemporary art fair of the west coast. I inaugurated ALAC’s Journal—an in-house editorial organ—with turnaround coverage of events, performances, screenings and parties on the fair’s website. It was the fair’s fourth year. Some of the posts I’m most proud of:
Jon Pylypchuk Readies His Installation. This, the second time ALAC hosted an installation at its entrance. Like a sculpture of a hot dog oozing mustard all over itself outside a food stand, or a tooth brushing its own teeth to advertise a local dentist, we gawk and wonder — I know you’re trying to tell me something, but is it about you, or me?
Keyed to the Sunset. An after-party at the home of Jim Goldstein and a tour of his private James Turrell skyscape. I obliquely allude to the muzak being piped into the skyscape, a forty-five minute drum loop that’s more appropriate in a plastic surgeon’s office or on a Virgin America flight before take-off, and regrettably exclude description of the bed built into the floor.
The World is My Idea. Scott Benzel demonstrates the power of will by physically communing with the objects on his stage. He flings belt sanders down stage-spanning wood chutes, their movements for a moment paralleling his outstretched arms, and bumps the bass on a reel-to-reel tape player.
Night Becomes Day Becomes Night. How an architect is helping a small, downmarket gallery retain its spirit of surprise in the move to a cavernous warehouse. There’s plans to build freestanding structures inside this building, like a chapel made of felt and a triangular-shaped chill zone, that abut each other and in whose interstitial space will be opportunities for what I euphemistically call “serendipitous encounters.”