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Urs Fischer, “YES” (2013) (all photos by Stefan Altenburger, © Urs Fischer, Courtesy of the artists and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles)

LOS ANGELES — What do you get when you invite 1,500 people to make clay sculptures of whatever they want? An incredibly weird, crumbling, monotone wonderland. As part of his current retrospective, New York–based artist Urs Fischer organized this freewheeling project at the Geffen Contemporary MOCA in downtown Los Angeles, titled, appropriately, “YES” (2013). On view are an array of unfired clay skulls, humble pretzels, Batman’s head, octopi, dogs, birds, life-sized nudes, a bathtub, a fireplace, a tiny smart phone, a tombstone for chivalry (hah), a bowl of ramen, and an impressively huge and accurate Jabba the Hutt. Nearly every inch of gallery space is covered in this blitzkreig of diverse human creativity, even the rafters, poles, and walls. As half of Fischer’s two-venue exhibit (billed as his first U.S. retrospective), this exhilarating, crowd-sourced jumble ended up awkwardly eclipsing the survey of Fischer’s own work a few blocks away.

Fischer’s retrospective at the MoCA Grand Avenue space features works from the past 16 years, such as the giant ragged holes in the wall (seen in the 2006 Whitney Biennial) and the slick mirrored boxes depicting ultrahigh-resolution photographs of everyday objects — a banana, a lighter, a dollar bill — that were similar, but smaller, to those on view at his New Museum show in 2009.

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Urs Fischer, “Horses Dream of Horses” (2004) (© Urs Fischer, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich)

The gallery floors are covered in a glossy black vinyl which slaps up messily against the white walls, and strewn about are rough-hewn Pop sculptures reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg, surrealist objects with opaque titles, and lovely scatterings of water-smoothed rocks on the floor and blue cartoony raindrops suspended from the ceiling. Fischer oscillates between the hand-made and completely machinated (using an enormous digital scanner or a 3D printer) and indeed the latter category wowed with novelty.

Yet, while a few of Fischer’s humbler works emanated an engaging mystery and whimsy — like the planetary line of hung fresh fruit hovering above the floor by size (from pineapple to grape), or the dinner table tied up with intersecting string to look like the layered contrails of conversation — many objects read like stiffly ironic, expensive japes. Despite their playfulness, the frigid air of the massive commercial gallery space and the blindingly-lit art fair prevailed.

So, back to “YES,” yes?

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This was the fourth time Fischer produced a project like this; past European iterations asked volunteers to make cats out of clay, which resulted in a similarly broad range of interpretations. For weeks before the Geffen MoCA show’s opening, teenagers, artists, and the general public came to the museum and were told simply that they could use as much clay as they liked and make anything they wanted. The open call announced that no previous experience was necessary, resulting in a data-dump that was polished, practiced, wild, and crude.

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Urs Fischer, “Untitled” (2011) (© Urs Fischer, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich)

Interspersed among this chaos were a few more works by Fischer, like his hyper-realist sculptures made of wax which burn slowly and melt throughout the exhibit, playing off delightfully against the earthy entropic debris. Most astonishing of these was a 20-foot-tall replica of Giambologna’s 16th-century “Rape of the Sabine Women” in silvery marbled wax. In it, three figures wrestle upward and on the outstretched hand of the captured female, two steady flames burn hypnotically at the tips of her fingers. Surrounding it, of course, were more dusty armies of clay penises, plants, pizza slices, etc. By the time this show closes in a few months, the wax sculptures will be pools on the ground and the raw clay will have dried, cracked, and crumbled.

Oddly, with the recent news fresh in my mind of MoMA’s plans to destroy its neighboring Folk Art Museum building, the juxtaposition between Fischer’s auction-ready works in one venue, and the jumble of clay in the other, found a kind of mirror. I was reminded of a feeling I used to have when walking from one museum to the next on Manhattan’s congested 53rd street. Sometimes, the folk art just had more chutzpah, more freedom, and just more life in it than what was on view in the holy vaults of MoMA. It had a lot to do with context and the heavy veils of official sanctioning, even when the art at MoMA was goofy or transgressive. Sometimes life trumps “art.” Fischer seems to know this too. And 1,500 people said YES, right back.

Urs Fischer is on view at  MoCA Grand Avenue (250 S Grand Ave  Los Angeles) and the Geffen Contemporary at MoCA (152 North Central Avenue) through August 18.

Lyra Kilston is a writer and editor in Los Angeles interested in architecture, urban design, art, and art-world satires. She tweets at @lyra_k, and has written for Art in America, Artforum.com, frieze,...