Exhibitions: Vacant and proud of it

Drive-By: New Art from LA

South London Gallery, London

Maybe it is our nasty British preconceptions about West Coasters; maybe it is just the echoing white space that is the South London Gallery: either way, a great feeling of loneliness sweeps over you as you walk into "Drive-By", a show of new art from Los Angeles. Try to deduce Angelinos from the works in the exhibition and you will come up with a race of people who apparently favour objects over subjects, appearance over anything that the average Londoner might recognise as reality. Emptiness stares dully at you from the gallery's walls: a sense of lack that can only be explained by the famed vacuity of the Southern Californian. Somewhere, in the background, you seem to hear an endless loop of people chewing gum and voices saying "I mean, like, rilly, aziff".

Listen a little more closely, though, and you will realise that the works in "Drive-By" are actually saying something rather different. Yes, they are all about vacancy: but that is not to say they are vacuous. Rather, the sculptures and paintings in this cleverly curated show turn vacuousness into an art form. This is not to confuse them with the East Coast trash art of Jeff Koons and his kind, which celebrated duh-uh American kitsch. No, the works in "Drive-By" are serious in their exploration of emptiness, less celebratory of it than they are intrigued or even haunted by it.

Take Catherine Opie's photographs of mini-malls. The first thing that strikes you about them is their deadness, a quality so palpable that it clearly takes a certain sort of brilliance to achieve it. Deserted shopping malls are easy meat for the portrayal of vacancy, but the subject of these pictures is, in a sense, coincidental. Where the real emptiness of Opie's work lies is in the hieratic nature of her style. These are architectural mug-shots: the malls are seen face-on, facades and telephone wires parallel to the picture frame, lamp posts perpendicular to it. It seems pointless to remark that these are self-consciously photographic images, but they are. Everything that photographers normally fight against - the inescapable stasis of the medium, the tyranny of frames - Opie embraces.

The paintings of Kevin Appel are also knowing. Like Opie's work, Appel's agonisingly neat acrylics lack people just where there could well be some - his works are called things like Interior with Screen and Lamp after all. Like Opie, too, Appel plays with our expectations. We have seen his pictures somewhere before: the modernist houses by Eames; the sun- faded palette of Hockney's West Coast pictures. But if these works were underpinned by a Californian belief in the perfectability of climate, Appel turns this into something less optimistic. This is utopia taken too far, the minimalist dream of Licht, Luft and Sonne rendered so perfect as to exclude humanity.

The difficult thing about exhibitions like "Drive-By" is that the process of curatorial selection can skew your view. There are only five artists - 23 works - in the show: to claim this as in some way representative of a new voice in Angelino art is obviously statistically risky. If you saw Appel's work without Opie's - or without the winsomely threatening sculptures by Jason Meadows, which morph picket fences and picnic tables - would its emptiness be as apparent? Is the satire in Appel's Interior Views series so very refined as to make it possible to read his work, taken out of this context, as a Hockneyish hymn of West Coast praise? To be honest, I don't know.

What is certain, though, is that the works in "Drive-By" do speak with a remarkable unity of voice. Whether this belongs to Los Angeles circa 1999 or to the show's curator, Sadie Coles, is for you to decide. While musing over this question, you might like to look at Jeff Burton's Untitled #97 (Clamps). Like Opie's malls, everything seems to be up for sale in Burton's work: not inaptly, given that the images come from his job as a photographer in California's thriving gay porn industry. Like Opie's malls, too, though, it is impossible to imagine wanting to buy: not because the subject - a muscular man taking his trousers off - is unattractive so much as because Burton is clearly so bored by the whole thing as to edge it out of the frame. Boredom in the face of plenty. Maybe we were right about California.

'Drive-By': South London Gallery, SE5 (0171 703 6120) to 30 May.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project