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That MOCA’s current show is its best since Helen Molesworth, upon her 2014 arrival, reinstalled the permanent collection and the last that Molesworth will curate at the museum, since she was let go earlier this year, seems particularly of the time: canon-busting models offered even as they are slipping away. One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art, a consideration of an obsessive, intuition-embracing painter-critic and his successors, operates like the collection rehang in that it does not assume that artworks have always already-determined positions in their historical contexts. Nor does it assume that a focused thesis negates a sixth sense.
The spacious first gallery of One Day at a Time belongs just to Farber, the late, prolific UCSD professor whose seminal essay White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art managed, against odds, to be at once polemical and confusingly open-ended (“the best examples of termite art come,” he wrote, when artists can be “wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, […] and not caring what comes of it”). His aerial still lives, doggedly non-hierarchical, straddle messiness and composure. In Honeymoon Killers (1980) porn scenes come to life on a tabletop crowded by zines, tomes, and trains. Earth Fire Air Water (1984) collapses harvest into leftovers into scattered handwritten notes. The colors are vivid and compositions precise, contrasting generous painterly looseness.
The monograph then disassembles into a group show, one of Farber’s paintings anchoring each subsequent gallery. Flattened domestic scenes by Farber’s wife, Patricia Patterson, hold their own next to Joan Brown’s defiant simplicity, Leidy Churchman’s on-canvas quips. Nancy Shaver’s Part of a Part of a Part (2018), bejewelled found clothing next to patchwork sculpture, sprawls near Jordan Casteel’s casually complex painting of a man selling vases in Harlem. Another room gives over a wall to Wolfgang Tillmans—a sticky, bright pile of fruit peels (1996); a cut open Evian bottle next to a loaf with a broken plastic fork on top (2004)—reigniting all the democratic seductiveness his photographs had before he became a market darling. So too do Cathy Opie’s photos of Elizabeth Taylor’s house, arduous in the former MOCA PDC exhibition of photos of the actress’ possessions, suddenly appeal: that wallpaper on the kitchen vent! You might almost forgive the museum for putting a board member (Opie) in so many shows.
Molesworth addresses that somewhat in the catalogue, citing Opie as an artist she returns to. She also calls this her “most personal” show in 20 years, giving herself permission in her writing to dwell on her own relationships and questions, just as One Day at a Time celebrates deep dives into seemingly local investigations. It thus offers a specific take on the “personal as political”—building around you a modest, democratic, intentionally idiosyncratic world in itself a way to resist the control of hierarchies and status quos, as Farber’s work reminds, with those lounging asparagus sticks next to a note saying “this is not debris.”
One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art runs from October 14–March 11, 2018 at MOCA Grand (250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012).