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Art review: Fallen Fruit at LACE and Another Year in LA

July 10, 2009 |  1:00 pm

Fallen

In the front gallery at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, a peculiar standoff is taking place between two photo-murals installed on deep blue walls. Dead ahead is a bright yellow, partly peeled banana, an explosive shape that looks like a jaunty commercial advertisement. (The spotlights help.) Turn around, and on the opposite wall is a mildly grinning Latin American laborer, a machete holstered at his side and a rifle slung across his chest.

Being caught in the middle between images of the point of sale and an armed worker is funny and odd: “Drop that banana or I’ll shoot!”

The installation is the high point of “United Fruit,” a project by David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young, who go by the collective name Fallen Fruit. Loosely reminiscent of groups like the Danish artists’ collective Superflex or L.A.’s Ten Lb. Ape or Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Editorial Collective, Fallen Fruit employs art as a means of social practice. They began by charting all the fruit-bearing trees on public land (or with limbs overhanging public land) in their Echo Park neighborhood, and since then they have been planting more.

The idea is that public fruit is free food — both an image and an act of social nurture. Fallen fruit turns on its head the sinful conception of the “fall” represented by literary events in the Garden of Eden.
There’s also something of Jean-François Millet’s “The Gleaners” to the scheme. That classic, 19th century Realist painting (an inspiration to Van Gogh) reflects on how the poor are left to scavenge for survival among the bits and pieces left behind from the rural harvest. Here, such is life in the urban megalopolis.

Given gross economic shenanigans in American life going back at least a generation, Fallen Fruit resonates. But their artistic dilemma lies in how to translate productive social practice into an engaging exhibition that is more than thinly didactic. Partly the banana-laborer installation works because it introduces unexpected humor into an otherwise rather grim mix. (Humor  succeeds only if its core is truth.) But another pairing of images — South American farming fields on one side and workers’ portraits on the other, large photographs pushed away from the walls on boxes — is uninspired illustration.

In the back gallery, short video interviews with workers in the “banana industrial complex” add little, as do two video projections contrasting the production process on one side with young people eating bananas (sometimes rather lasciviously) on the other. Given the brutal history of U.S. corporate exploitation of Latin American farming by the United Fruit Co., to which the title “Fallen Fruit: United Fruit” refers, the attempt at personalizing the anonymous process feels rather pale.

Livelier is a companion Fallen Fruit show at the gallery Another Year in LA. “Fresh ’n’ Easy” is a sort of exhibition as neighborhood co-op, where people bring scavenged grapefruits, plums and oranges to display, and a picnic table, homemade jams and cutting boards are displayed. The objects are etched with assorted self-deprecating aphorisms, few of which can be printed in a family newspaper, but all of which insist on the virtues of liberalism as a foundational American ethos.

Also shown are brightly colored digital prints, related to one of the projected videos at LACE, showing young people against vivid backgrounds ready to chow down on “fallen fruit.” Produced in digital rather than analog form, the prints affirm an unmistakable gusto behind the simple, metaphorical enterprise of partaking from the publicly available tree of knowledge.

Like a Benetton ad campaign without the commerce, these fallen fruit consumers slyly refuse docile inhibition. They reconfirm for the first time in a long time that youth isn’t always wasted on the young.

-- Christopher Knight

LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 957-1777, through Sept. 27. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Another Year in LA, 2121 San Fernando Road, Glassell Park, (323) 223-4000, through Aug. 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Above: "Fresh 'n Easy" at Another Year in LA. Credit: Austin Young/Another Year in LA

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