A couple of days ago a friend of ours tipped us off to what he called “a mind-blowing group show” at Richard Telles Fine Arts, in Los Angeles. Called 'B.Wurtz & Co, it's been curated by White Columns director Matthew Higgs, who’s placed the incredible sculptures of the somewhat overlooked Pasadena-born artist B. Wurtz alongside those of 'insider' artists such as Richard Hawkins and Martin Creed and 'outsider' artists Judith Scott and the Philadelphia Wireman.
B. Wurtz has deftly avoided categorisation for almost four decades. He’s always been something of an outsider, but not in the way that say Judith Scott or the Philadelphia Wireman are outsiders. His practice may have been out of step with most of the art world throughout the last 40 years, but Scott was profoundly deaf, mute and had Down’s Syndrome. The Philadelphia Wireman’s entire oeuvre was found outside a transient shelter; to this day, nobody knows his identity. So what can these artists possibly have in common?
More than you think according to curator Higgs who's ratherly cleverly pulled together 11 artists who share a sensibility that can’t be attributed to cultural influence, prevailing trends, or artistic intention alone. Higgs’ suggestion is that something innate – not learned – expresses itself similarly in the work of artists with vastly different backgrounds and self-perceptions. It’s a fairly radical idea but one we can empathise with.
Setting aside, for the moment, the inclusion of Scott and the Wireman, it may seem a stretch even to accommodate, for example, the conceptualism of Martin Creed and the decadent sensualism of Richard Hawkins within this same artistic communion, or Thai artist Udomsak Krisanamis alongside the much younger, LA-based Noam Rappaport. The exhibition, however, shows that Wurtz may be the missing link - whether or not his influence is acknowledged by the other artists.
Operating in the elastic space between sculpture and drawing, Wurtz’s work invokes a decidedly informal take on formalism. Roberta Smith has described his method as “... an example of an artist making much out of very little, committing acts of ingenious recycling in which existing materials and artistic thought are brought into an unusual kind of mutually enhancing alignment.”
Wurtz’s sculptural assemblages – taut connections of wire, string, plastic bags and peeled-off labels – use whatever is closest to hand to show that what is overlooked can also be transcendent. Other artworks in the exhibition, from Hawkins’ bedraggled sculpture made from a sliced rubber Halloween mask to Gabriel Kuri’s inventoried scraps of paper coin packaging, emphasise the political implications of such an approach.
It is nigh on impossible to attribute comparable motivations to Scott and the Philadelphia Wireman, whose work seems to arise from desires that were probably inexpressible even to themselves. Both artists wrapped found objects: Scott in coloured yarns, and the Wireman, with, well, wire. However, Higgs’ curation of their work in this exhibition is political. He offers no contextual or biographical information for them save a few publications of their work on the front desk. He treats them just as he would any other artist.
Many of us who look at art regularly are prone to shorthand categorisations or rapid appraisals of a work’s references and conceptual framework. But Higgs and these artists also require us to look closely and carefully, without prejudice, and without thinking about whether something is ‘outsider’ or ‘insider’. If you’re in LA we urge you to see the show - it really will make you think. If you've seen it let us know what you thought in the box below. And if this has piqued your interest in the work of curator Matthew Higgs you might like to know he’s written an excellent piece about the structure and content of Christian Marclay's immensely complex, highly enjoyable Video Quartet in our monograph on the artist. You can also find a number of the artists above featured in our Vitamin P2 and Defining Contemporary Art books too.