Teen delinquency and antisocial behavior take center stage," proclaims a brochure from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles about some of the work in "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s." They sure do. This multimedia survey of 16 artists (through April 26 at MOCA's Temporary Contemporary warehouse annex) contains enough grungy sex and severed appendages (heads, arms, penises) to fill the notebooks of an entire study hall of bitter high-school head bangers. And to live up to the show's sensationalist reference to the Charles Manson cult murders of 1969. There are also some giant hardened-foam Siamese twins, a comic strip about a serial killer (depressingly, not the only work in the show portraying a body in a car trunk) and a confessional video with an elevator-music score. (MOCA has posted signs warning that the show "contains imagery and language that some people might find offensive.") The exhibition does include some relatively traditional works-in the tradition, that is, of colorless "installation" rooms. But the predominant tone of "Helter Skelter" is rant and purge. Most of the show evinces that combination of whine and boast so endemic to troubled youth: See what society made me do? Oh yeah, well, I want it to look that way!
Art has been regressing toward adolescence for more than a generation now. Theory-laden 1960s minimalism, in which every artist posed as a graduate student in philosophy, gave way in the '70s and '80s to an expressionist effusion in which galleries took on the ambience of undergraduate dorm rooms on party night. Now artists are cursing in homeroom again. By the time the siecle hits the fin, they'll probably be gurgling infants offering up God knows what artistic gifts to their parent civilization. But for the moment there are a lot of angry pubescents, so to speak, in L.A.
In the back row, cupping forbidden smokes and passing filthy notes, are bad boys Mike Kelley, 37, and Paul McCarthy, 46. Kelley's "Proposal for the Decoration of an Island of Conference Rooms (with Copy Room) for an Advertising Agency Designed by Frank Gehry" (1991) consists of real rooms on whose walls are silk-screened blowups of faxed office jokes on the order of "If a-holes could fly, this place would be an airport." The piece implies that even an artist-friendly architect like Gehry inevitably caves in to commercialism. Kelley is also one of the chief indulgers in the show's single sanctioned political incorrectness: sexism. His appropriated cartoon of a housewife suffering an anally inserted Christmas tree is just one of myriad misogynies in "Helter Skelter." Since Kelley only borrows the original drawing, he can point, in effect, to the nerd in the next seat and say, "He did it." McCarthy, on the other hand, offers perversion direct. "Garden" (1992) replicates an idyllic section of deep forest, populated with two noisy, motorized David Ferrieish figures who copulate with the ground and a redwood tree.
While the hardcore delinquents lounge in the back of the class, the comic-book aficionados dare to doodle a little closer to the front. Robert Williams, 48, was in fact one of the cofounders of Zap Comix in 1968. His intricate bimbo-monster fantasies should have stayed comic-book panels. Instead, they're fattened with acrylic into bad paintings and then installed with all the sensitivity of a Van Nuys garage sale. Llyn Foulkes, 57, employs comic-book imagery, too. But with a fallen Superman motif (in one painting, he's a tired dad with a Walkman-addicted kid), Foulkes provides "Helter Skelter" with its lone adult soliloquy. Nevertheless, he fits right in with the general gore: there's a real dried fetus in the mouth of the gun freak in "Double Trouble" (1991).
Latino artist Victor Estrada, 35 (an ex-student of Kelley's), and Manuel Ocampo, 26, who was born and raised in the Philippines-are exceptions to the pervading nihilism. They seem to feel something, as opposed to getting all weird about not being able to feel anything anymore. Estrada's "Baby/Baby" (1991) consists of the aforementioned huge, deformed infants and a saccharine greeting card posted nearby. The precocious Ocampo, who's already been collected by the Saatchi Museum in London, contributes some big, satirical religious paintings that look like early Julian Schnabels rediscovered in a Guadalajara thrift shop. Career moves aside, however, it's probably a mistake for Estrada and Ocampo to emulate Anglo alienation even just a little bit in order to be included in overstuffed anthology shows like this one.
Wise senior, Chris Burden, 46, has a lengthy resume that shows he knows how to rock with the kids and roll with the authorities at the same time. His five-ton "Medusa's Head" (1989-91), hung by a chain at the show's entrance, looks like a brain the size of a meteorite. Toy railroad tracks wrap around it like twine and seem to preview every pessimistic train of thought in the exhibition. Burden's steadying presence clears some ground for the show's most earnest artist, Charles Ray, 38, a sculptor who specializes in anti-septically improbable objects. This time out, Ray displays custom-made mannequins, one an innocuous self-portrait, another a wan humanoid with a brightly realistic sex organ. A third is a perfectly coiffed and coutured career woman-eight feet tall. Set alone in an empty chamber, "Mannequin Fall '91" is a genuine quiet shock amid the overriding din.
"Helter Skelter" is the first MOCA show organized by curator Paul Schimmel, who's been on the job two years. The results are mixed at best. The casting is peculiar: no black and only four women artists, none of whom is really noticeable among the rowdy guys. The show's program veers back and forth between a "Yes, this is new" stance and a "No, it's really not" recantation. (The catalog essays trace the predominant noir motif all the way back to the 1930s.) Schimmel says that "Helter Skelter" isn't merely a "response to international trends" but is instead about "being an artist in this complex social and geographical environment"which is, of course, the latest international trend. He maintains none of the show's artists are "'do-gooder' artists [who] seek direct political ends," but then admits the exhibition contains "a preponderance of explicit ... political investigations." Viewers are left to split that particular hair. Then again, part of the blame might lie with the "Tee Cee" itself, a building whose sheer cubic footage is capable of bowdlerizing practically any dirty exhibition. In it, a show that might have been titled "Scandals of '92" slouches somewhat toward "The Wonder Years." So let's just cut to the report card: Art, B minus; Sociology, C.