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Los Angeles — Narcotic-riffing duo Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe have been at it again, creating an immersive drug den abandoned to time and decay. After staging their faux meth labs in Marfa, Miami, and New York, they’ve moved onto a fictional narcotic, Marasa, and an invented cult figure, Dr. Arthur Cook. Like previous projects, this new installation, Bright White Underground, is a serious gesamtkunstwerk, man. They’ve transformed every detail of the house into dereliction, from peeling moldy wallpaper to cracked mirrors to a broken concrete floor. There’s a manufacturing laboratory filled with cacti and crystals (the secret ingredients in Marasa) and a groovy bedroom with a secret observation chamber for the doctor to record the effects of the drug. Empty bottles and boxes of Marasa litter the floor, and the artists have even created dozens of book covers for a hilarious library of hokey 1960s self-help and spirituality books with titles like Future Polysex: The Genetic Time-Bomb Person. Far out, man.
In Los Angeles though, the project took another twist: it’s in the Buck House, a 1934 landmark modernist home designed by R.M. Schindler. Pristinely white and filled with masterful light wells and curvaceous built-in shelving, the Buck house is an altar to California modernism. Currently host to Country Club gallery, art openings here — under the sparse city stars and shivering bamboo on the patio, surrounded by the calm horizontals of the Austrian émigré’s genius — is beyond urbane. So it’s even more audacious, then, that this paean to rationalism and organic geometry got overhauled to stage a moldy, corroding warren of creepy bacchanalia.
Freeman and Lowe are nothing if not extremely thorough, so there’s a complicated back-story about Dr. Cook, who started out doing psychedelic experiments for the US Government, later founded the “Artichoke Underground,” a network of safe houses for drug experimentation, disappeared periodically, directed a film, led a Marasa-cult in Japan, got rich off the dot-com boom, and finally wrote a book about computers as tools for psychedelic research. In other words, a classic West Coast narrative, man. If you’re lost, don’t worry — byzantine tales of drug-addled conspiracy and collusion are Freeman and Lowe’s schtick, and whether you’re wowed or underwhelmed by the combination of quasi-fiction+1960s nostalgia+cults+search-for-utopia, you must hand it to these guys for their imagination.
In fact, the artists took their fiction a step even farther by staging a happening earlier this summer in the Buck house. Black-and-white photographic “documentation” of the revelers is exhibited in one room, framed and spotless. And this is unfortunately where the spell breaks. The photos remind you: all this is for sale. Comely, self-conscious Angelenos dressed in various costumes pose and preen before the camera offering cocked eyebrows or their best chin angle. This isn’t how a bunch of drugged out people seeking mystical enlightenment might have posed 40 years ago. This is portraiture in the age of Facebook and online dating. This is the overly-mediated 21st century longing for a realer bohemianism than what comes in a packet of organic green tea from Whole Foods. It’s all just surface, and a joke, like the spray-on mold on the wallpaper.
And once the spell was broken, all the pieces began to fall: the lack of mustiness (or other, more piercing scents) renders the drug warren a sanitized fabrication; the $30,000 price tag of one of the rooms wrenches you back into commercial reality; and most disappointingly, it’s just another example of the aimless nostalgia for an earthier, groovier, more radical era that scads of contemporary artists are mining (seen a few geodesic domes, crystals, staged political urgency or fictionalized utopias around lately?), often with wan results. So, while it remains an entertaining and impressively detailed stage set, and the culty creepiness comes through loud and clear, it ultimately just feels like a high-budget wink. And that’s not far out enough, man.
Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s Bright White Underground is on display until October 30 at Country Club (Buck House, 805 S Genesee Ave, Los Angeles).
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