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The pairing of Herms and Koh may feel like an odd one at first: Herms, the bohemian elder statesman of assemblage, who has been consistently experimenting in his signature mode for the past 60 years, and Koh, the fashionable, shape-shifting bad boy who got his start making zines under the moniker “asianpunkboy” before becoming a rapidly rising art star with a penchant for performative spectacle. Billed as a two-person exhibition, a recent show at Morán Morán featuring the two artists in fact offered something much broader. The exhibition was an homage, a collaboration, and a look at the personal connection between artists of two generations. Yet, more suspect, the exhibition also felt like a cribbing of the older artist’s work by the younger, illustrating what can happen when reverential homage slouches towards undistinguished appropriation.
The first room in the gallery set up a respectful hierarchy, honoring Herms as a godfather of West Coast assemblage art. A dozen or so modestly-sized sculptures by Herms were displayed across an L-shaped plinth, from simple abstract compositions of wood and metal to more complex juxtapositions of once-purposeful objects. Since the mid-1950s, Herms has been trafficking in his own brand of Beat-inflected assemblage, piecing together found and discarded objects into constructions that are more than the sum of their parts. “I turn shit into gold,” he remarked in 2013.1 Herms’ works in the Morán Morán show were dated from 1983 to 2013, but they all had the worn, sepia-toned patina of neglect and disuse. Assembled from chunks of wood, tin cans, pine cones, light bulbs, rusted metal, and more contemporary—but still dated—detritus like CDs and an old flip phone, Herms’ abstract fabrications were all form, material, and whimsy. Like junk shop Calders. In Nose Cone Rose (2005), a pine cone hung off the end of a metal rod, part of some disassembled machine, elegantly balanced by a curving piece of wood. Onto this, Herms stamped “LOVE,” a phrase repeated on several other works. More exuberant than Joseph Cornell’s discreet boxes, Herms’ seemingly slapdash arrangements beg a similar kind of poetic free association in the viewer. In Therapeutic Rose (2001), a paint can supported the slipcase for the three book set, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, itself topped by a suggestive firework canister. The elegiac For Dizzy (1993) was a metal hoop holding a feather, a scrap of red velvet, and the L.A. Times obit for jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. The pleasure in these works came not just from what Herms has assembled, but how he put it all together. Each work set up a tension between its components’ previous lives and the new formal and narrative context Herms has established. Economy never looked so rich.
In the second gallery, Koh drew on Herms’ large archive of found materials to create his own installation, simply titled boats (2019). Using “assemblage materials relinquished by George Herms,”2 Koh created an armada of boats laid out on the floor in a triangular formation, all headed towards a sculpture at the far end of the room. Herms’ familiar pie tins, books, and medical apparatuses, along with weathered wood and metal, were fashioned into little boat-like assemblages. Each held a candle or small plant, which stood in for the ships’ masts in several instances: a flip-flop sported a paper sail, a speaker was tethered to a black light bulb, twin IV bags trailed long tubes in their wake. The overall effect made the simple efficacy of Herms’ sculptures that much more impressive by comparison. Pressed into service as one big illustrative metaphor, Koh’s boats had little of the charm and complexity of Herms’ three- dimensional collages, in which he elevates and transforms his simple materials, taking them beyond their initial function. Koh’s objects tightly hinged on being adapted Hermses—banking on the use of the older artist’s idiosyncratic found materials— and the one-note boats never managed to escape this provenance.
The sculpture the boats pointed to is called honey boat (2019), an assemblage work based around a hive box filled with buzzing bees. A boxwood tree sprung from a can strapped to the front of the box, joined by solar panels, a speaker, and a small wax effigy of a person. Apparently semen, as well as ashes from the Woolsey fire (which raged across parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties last November), were sprinkled in somewhere too. A plastic tube led bees out of the hive through a large gash in the gallery wall and a smashed window out into the gallery’s parking lot. The piece was not without poetic moments— a branch extending from the box out through the hole in the wall, just caressed the vines outside—but the work generally failed to capitalize on the potential of its loaded parts. Koh pulled together several elements that allude to some sort of transformative, ritualistic function, but an overwhelming vagueness hampered any explicit or evocative reading.
This was not the first time Koh has used bees in his work. Two years ago he built a bee chapel atop the roof of Morán Morán (then called Morán Bondaroff) for his solo show sleeping in a beam of sunlight. The press release captured the deadpan mix of self-seriousness and tongue-in-cheek absurdity that often characterizes Koh’s persona, specifying that for the duration of the show he would live in the gallery. “Snacks are pages from ayn rand’s anthem marinated in honey and baked at 450 farenheit to a bitter sweet crisp,” he wrote. “My toilet for the next month and half will bee [sic] a compost toilet six feet up in the air that will drop poop from the sky.”. Before the bees though, Koh was more well-known for the immaterial and pristine than the worn and tactile. He crawled around a white pillar of salt on his knees eight hours a day for a month, shot a bright floodlight across the Whitney Museum, goldplated his excrement, took to wearing all white, and hobnobbed with celebrity art world crossovers like Lady Gaga and Marina Abramović. In 2014, he withdrew to the Catskills in a drop-out stunt that simultaneously screamed for attention. Then he returned with the bees, wax, dirt, plants, and an aesthetic that aligns well with Herms’ timeworn archive. Although Koh seems to genuinely honor Herms’ precedent—and Herms has given the younger artist his blessing—the show ended up highlighting the gulf, rather than the implied synergy, between them. Herms’ assemblages explore the tension between original function and new meanings derived through juxtaposition, and while Koh’s works were constructed from the same cache of found objects, they lacked the same sense of open-ended resonance.
Matthew Stromberg is a freelance arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Carla, he has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, Hyperallergic, Artsy, Frieze, Terremotto, and Daily Serving.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 17.