Like, Conceptual, dude

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Thirteen years ago, a billboard went up in lower Manhattan to advertise "Made in Heaven," a movie that didn't exist but that Conceptual artist Jeff Koons wanted to make. The billboard pictured Koons, boyishly buff and utterly naked, reclining on a bronze-colored rock over the recumbent body of Ilona Staller, a former European porn actress, a member of Italy's laugh-a-minute Parliament and Koons' wife. Known as Cicciolina, she wore virginal white undergarments and a Botticelli-style wreath of artificial flowers in her hair.

"Made in Heaven" never got produced, but lots of related sculptures and photo-based prints did. The pristine busts of Carrara marble, cheery floral mounds of colorful blown glass and glamour-puss sex pictures of Koons and Cicciolina coupling were too banal to explode the vicious sexual politics then raging in the Reagan-era culture wars. Collectively, the suite flopped.

"Made in Heaven" represents a rare failure in Koons' otherwise laser-sharp career, where contemporary obsessions with the labyrinth of celebrity, the nature of mass consumption and issues of public and private morality can leave a gleefully dumbfounded viewer wide-eyed and gasping for aesthetic air. But now comes another New York-based Conceptual artist, 35-year-old Keith Edmier, with a project whose similarities to Koons' most notable fiasco are pronounced.

There's a sculpture of another naked, boyishly buff artist leaning back on a boulder of bronze, along with the feminine object of his erotic desire carved in white marble on another rocky mound nearby. A Botticelli-style clamshell with an absent Venus, two floral sculptures (one phallic, one vulval) and several photographic prints of the pair accompany the set.

These objects differ in tone from Koons' brazen display: They're rated R, not X. But the similarity also extends to the work's failure. Edmier's project is a collaboration with actress, amateur artist and former pinup model Farrah Fawcett, and it was unveiled Thursday in a hapless show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Titled "Keith Edmier and Farrah Fawcett 2000," the suite is more like a hipster version of Andrew Wyeth and Helga. Edmier was a student at CalArts when the notorious Wyeth pseudo-scandal was manufactured by an East Coast magazine, which claimed the discovery of a "secret" group of paintings by the married, cracker-barrel Pennsylvanian, age 69, showing his voluptuous younger neighbor in the buff.

Long after that smarmy media blitz, with its scandalized overtones of illicit May-December sex, it turned out that several supposedly clandestine Helga paintings had in fact been publicly displayed in previous Wyeth exhibitions. By the time these cheese-ball pictures arrived for a 1988 show at (where else?) LACMA, Edmier had quit art school to work in a Hollywood special-effects studio.

Of course, neither "Jeff {heart} Ilona" nor "Andrew {heart} Helga" is the back-story on which you're supposed to cogitate at the art museum today. Instead, it's assumed that "Keith {heart} Farrah" will take you back to those golden days of yesteryear -- the mid-1970s -- when an ordinary Midwestern adolescent caught his first glimpse of a mass-culture icon: a "Charlie's Angels" babe on a hugely popular cheesecake poster.

A period, not coincidentally, that also corresponds with the emergence of Conceptualism as the standard for avant-garde art.

Edmier has been making pedestrian statues related to his youthful fancies for the last few years -- a high-school sweetheart, daredevil teen-hero Evel Kneivel, his two grandfathers in the military uniforms they wore during World War II. Personal memories in public forms are memorialized in anachronistic styles.

The centerpiece of the LACMA exhibition, organized by curator Lynn Zelevansky, is a pair of life-size sculptures that do the same. Edmier designed the Farrah likeness in marble, with 19th century sculptures by Auguste Rodin in mind. (An anomalous diamond stud in her earlobe adds sparkle). Fawcett posed Edmier in a limp version of Michelangelo's Adam from the Sistine ceiling. Craftsmen in Italy carved his; hers was cast at a foundry in New York. Both are multiple editions.

One eminent strain of Conceptualism suppresses art's visual qualities, to refocus a viewer's attention away from sensual perception and toward the realm of ideas. The sculptures by Edmier and Fawcett, devoid of any appeal as physical objects, follow this lineage.

If they're not much to look at, they offer even less to think about. Pedants will note that the compositions conceal Fawcett's "naughty bits," while Edmier's are put on display. The convention of a May-December (or, perhaps, June-September) romance is likewise reversed, since the woman here is the man's senior by 20 years. And Fawcett is portrayed in her tousle-haired "Angel" period, while Edmier looks as he does today, making the gulf between present reality and past fantasy just a, like, awesome chasm, y'know, dude?

What passes for an idea will be found in the first gallery, where a small display of work by other artists means to provide historical context for the collaboration. It includes a 1967 bronze cast of an 1880s Rodin, which shows a nude on a rock (the model for the mythological figure was Rodin's talented and beautiful mistress, sculptor Camille Claudel).

There are nude photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe and Lee Miller by Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray, respectively, as well as a Miller photograph. Finally, a 1984 Conceptual work by the late, obscure Mexican expatriate Ulises Carrion recounts a film festival featuring B-movie actress Lilia Prado, which he toured to four cities in the Netherlands.

An evolving relationship between the artist (presumed to be male) and his muse (presumed to be female) is the concept, starting with Rodin's sculptural Impressionism and ending with Carrion's camp Conceptualism.

Edmier and Fawcett are positioned as postmodern heirs to this problematic tradition. Further, they are claimed to represent a noteworthy advance: At last, the once-silent muse has assumed her own voice as an artist and equal.

The fact that neither one has anything compelling to say is apparently immaterial. At LACMA, an artist's muse is indistinguishable from a teenager's wet dream. And that's an idea I'd rather not contemplate.


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