: Do you think of your work as a self-perpetuating machine?
: Yeah, when it runs perfectly. My work has to have information to feed on. It doesn’t feed on itself. It doesn’t feed into some bathtub conception of art. I never sit in a bathtub and come up with ideas.
– Amboy in conversation with Bernard Elsemere & Mark Sanders
Dazed & Confused, August 1998
AAs Paul Schimmel astutely observed to the writer of the Los Angeles Times August, 2006 Amboy obituary: “[T]he amalgam or juxtaposition of seemingly arbitrary elements, which Amboy was as adept at exploring and then quickly stockpiling, exemplifies the experience one might have while surfing the internet.” Though the obituary was proved a hoax, this characterization is as true of early Amboy works produced before the mass internet age, prior even to dial-up—as it is of the later, massive and grotesquely intricate Amboy works like Fiery Parts (2003) and Black Pussy (2006). While Ryan Trecartin is widely considered the avatar of the Internet Age, with his highly performed and reflexive, anarchic and gender-blurred videos, what Schimmel describes is a binarized process of association, capable of infinite splitting, that does and does not originate from a human mind. From Free the Mason (02), Amboy’s first major installation, produced at CalArts while he was still a graduate student, that featured (among other things) an air-powered ejaculation of detergent from the penis of a small dough-like figure towards a sculpture of Venus; through the pussy-word-harvest, (03_1) enlarged miniatures, frozen yogurt, or “shoegurt,” boot-feedings and hot wax ejaculations of I Cream Myself (03_2), Amboy’s prodigious work has always been intensely invisible, gleefully vulgar, “offensive,” but at the same time as affectless as the demeanor of an idiot savant or made-for-TV serial killer. (03_3)
While working with Amboy on his important 1988 exhibition at the Nürnberg Kunsthalle (titled The Penis and the Venus (Installed in the Seven Stomachs of Nürnberg) as Part of the Creation Myth), curator Eva Meyer-Hermann had the inspired idea of producing an encyclopedia of this encyclopedic artist’s already dense, heavily cross-referenced lexicon of his self. VOLUME A of the Amboy Referenz became not so much an “artist’s book” as it is a textual manifestation of the selfie (04). For example: the entry for ASS-HOLE (“Body part; A vulgar term”) cross-references five other entries including The Body, Bert, Volcanic Construction, Creation Myth, and Smoke, all of which in turn cross-reference dozens of other Amboy myths, objects, and icons.
Brilliantly, VOLUME parodies Amboy’s process, but also serves as a guide to a body of work that, in its relentless mixing of “low” cultural signifiers through channels of algebraic complexity, has been sometimes misread as “post-scatter art” or “Amboysian crud” or “indistinguishible from the artist’s actual body, or locus” (05_1). As Meyer-Hermann explains in her introduction, “Amboy’s work forms chains of … crystallizations … Like some complex, neuronal net, his work has been a web of associations from the outset and has now become so dense that it is difficult to isolate details from nature itself.” (05_2)
American artist, American psycho. Born at the end of the mid-twentieth century, in 1965, when the proliferation of image and consumer culture had already subsumed and come to define American consciousness, Amboy’s intent was never to offer something so futile as a “critique of consumerism.” Rather, his genius was to plunge into the heart of the image-flow and feed back the experience of pure information, demonstrating in the process how even without the artist, thought triggers thought, leaving only material traces. Clearly, Amboy was decades ahead of his time. His installations are ontological shaggy dog stories wherein each part of the story is equally weighted. As writer Trudie Dillon summarized Mecca, his 2003 epic:
In a secret society of malist rituals, including brothel-visiting, hardcore cocaine and alcohol, all in the context of the earlier fusion of racism, sexism, and monotheism, Lava God Amboy devours all at his feast, as if all of art history has been splayed out to serve him. And so it has been the woman who can approach Amboy with the perfect incredulity of St. Thomas. Her finger probes without forgetting: to look is to doubt.
The geological history of an America that has destroyed the world, lawn ornaments, dried peas, and urban legends of American porn stars are recast through the self as generative integers. Each element exists for itself, and simultaneously as a link in an associative chain.
Cady Noland is arguably one of Amboy’s closest precursors. (06) The impact of Noland’s installations upon Amboy’s generation of artists cannot be over-emphasized. Seeing Noland’s collection of beer cases, chain link, and redneck debris entitled This piece doesn’t have a title yet installed at the 1991 Whitney Biennial was a watershed moment for many young soon-to-be artists. Blunt and aggressive, composed of violence and low-culture paraphernalia, as if this paraphernalia were part of a larger and universal language, Noland’s installations opened a door towards art that might look how America looks like outside its museums and major cities.
(07) No coyness about this: no pandering, no clueless embrace of trash culture as “pop.” And yet Noland, nearly a decade older than Amboy, sought a kind of meaning and demystification through her installations. Studying violence and psychopathic behavior, rather than losing herself in the blur, Noland remained highly aware of cause and effect, i.e., aware of class, power and politics. As she remarked in a conversation with Michelle Cone, “…[Y]ou consume all of these celebrities each week, then you turn them into trash. This trashing helps to dampen people’s anger over their situation or their place in the hierarchy …” (“Cady Noland Interviewed,” by Michelle Cone, Journal of Contemporary Art, Fall 1990).
(08) But in viewing Amboy’s work (which began to be professionally shown just two years later) no such explanations seem possible, or even desirable. Amboy’s project was, at least partly, to enact a self-immersion in an overload of cultural detritus—Image/Religion/History/Meaning/Sex/Physical Culture—to an extreme point at which connections between things became visibly animate. As his friend and collaborator, the artist-writer A. T. Israel, observed, “Amboy’s like a magician. (9) The work is incredibly tactile, but it is as if all the things between the objects were as important as anything physical. There were the water-tanks early on, and all that Americana … that was just stuff that was available, he came from a rural upbringing. But I knew he was equally, if not more invested, in what was immeasurable, metaphysical: what he was trying to do was find the glow or the magic in the spaces between bits of Americana.” (10)
Born in Newcastle, California, a small town thirty-one miles west of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Karl Amboy was, according to his mom Pat Amboy, “a 4-H kid who raised sheep and pigs” and charmed his way through school. (10.1) Spending two years in New York and Europe after receiving his San Francisco Art Institute BA, things apparently came into focus for Amboy when he moved to LA to study with Paul McCarthy in UCLA’s MFA program.
According to his fellow-student, the critic Dough Harvey, “[Amboy] was a ferociously ambitious and competitive artist—in both his art making and his careerism—and he enjoyed pissing people off. For one quarterly review, he offered to jackhammer anyone’s initials into the floor of the Warner grad studios for five dollars a letter—the resulting cacophony virtually nullified the possibility of civil critical discourse anywhere in the building. Perhaps anticipating the complaints, [Karl] also provided an endless flow of delicious, freshly pulped carrot juice from a blow-up sex doll equipped with a spigot” (“Karl Amboy,” by Doug Harvey, LA Weekly, August 3, 2006).
(11) Paul McCarthy and Richard Jackson, another faculty artist, introduced this unusual student to their galleries (David Zwirner in New York and Juliet Romero in Los Angeles, respectively). Contributing greatly to the department’s later prestige as the “hot” MFA program, Amboy would have one-person shows at both galleries within his first two years out of art school.
“Richard [Jackson] never asked me to go see any of his student’s work except for Amboy,” Romero recalls. “Richard thought he was the greatest artist. When I went to see his first installation, Free the Mason (CalArts, 1981), I knew immediately he was someone important. I remember being impressed that there was an energy and intelligence there, a new approach to art making. He wasn’t just making an object. It was a whole concept. Ambition was a big part of it. I remember thinking, This is the real deal.”
(12) By then, Amboy had already married his fellow student, the artist Agreb David, whose background as the child of Israeli/Palestinian parents provided him with a parallel heritage. Beginning in 1981, Amboy evoked the Mideast in his CalArts installation More Morass. He would continue to do so for the next thirty years. If, as Amboy’s one-time assistant Laura Owens suggests, the artist “regarded the world’s perception of him as an artistic medium … to be manipulated just to see what might happen,” it should come as no surprise that Amboy’s engagement with all things Islamic increased after 9/11, when the very mention of “Islam” became as provocative and polarizing as Amboy’s “search” for the ultimate vagina synonym across history and cultures.
In More Moor, Amboy dressed up as a Cuban businessman (13) and set up a raffle and sale of paper-crafted “Oriental rugs” in a parking lot near UCLA. The piece was concerned with, among other things, commerce and communism: two vital, enormously generative conceptual blocks within the Amboy lexicon. From the history of Islam, that began with Mohammed’s destruction of 360 pagan idols housed in the Ka’bah, to the confluence of religion and early commerce, to the reinvention of pagan idols as celebrity culture with its black antiheroes (14) (ca. 1989, with Eazy-E, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube (15) and DJ Yella (16); Amboy is known as the Malcolm McLaren of NWA). (17) Sex, which would be a constant element in Amboy’s breathlessly cerebral work, connects with religion via Creation and I Volcano … the subtitle of the 1998 Desert exhibition in which “a torrent of images from various sources—everyday life, the artist’s work and life at a very basic physical level (PORNOGRAPHY)—constitutes the reality that engages in multiple interaction with the terrain” (pp 47-48 Amboy Referenz).
(18) In his first commercial exhibition, The Blank Wall (The Innocent Mrs. Duff), presented at David Zwirner New York in fall ‘93, Amboy hewed close to a constellation of myths drawn from his own cultural background. Old West, Gold West, Deranged Loner, Gold Dust, Cocaine, Faded Star Racer, (19) Low Level Coke Dealer …
The recreation of The Blank Wall (20) for the New Museum’s recent NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star exhibition gave American viewers a rare chance to see Amboy’s work, which until now has, since his death, inexplicably faded from art-critical narrative. But time is on Amboy’s side. Occupying most of the first room on the third floor, The Blank Wall (21) looked just as witchy and troubling as it must have looked two decades ago. Unlike most contemporary art—and particularly installations—Amboy’s work looks far better in life than it does in the documentation. None of the photos of artworks in Blank Wall begin to convey the cerebral and queasy encounter the exhibition enacts on the viewer.
Blank Wall is, principally, an unfinished planet, overflowing with stuff, (22) although off-camera circumstances seem to have required the addition of several haphazard annexes: a rabbit hutch in front of one exterior wall, an unfinished drywall shelf set on another. Cheap white plastic trash bags piled outside the door contain unknown materials. (23) There’s also a basketball hoop; a dead, headless sheep; and inside the shed, some topless calendar pin-ups, a still from the 1968 film Paint Your Wagon, some tin-foil sculptures, and a tool-belt. More or less at the heart of this excavation is the famous Mrs. Duff , a dead female artist (24). While Blank Wall was initially read as an incomplete “critique of masculinity,” twenty years later it is clear that the work enacts something much deeper and stranger.
As it changed in time, Blank Wall became Amboy’s most auto/biographical work and the only installation to present a single, albeit multi-faceted, persona or character. The “Man in the Garage” who ostensibly built and inhabits this space is, variously, a studio artist who attended “art school”; a retired racecar driver turned handyman, plummeting down into the ranks of the self-underemployed; as well as a counterfeiter and/or low-level coke dealer.
These “identities,” or maybe “moods,” prompt and mutate into each other. But to describe Blank Wall as a meditation on gender identity would be to strangely ignore the visceral sense of fragmentation and psychic chaos Amboy feeds back from the culture through the remains left by this individual. Initially repelled by this sort of work, Johanna Drucker discovered that “[T]he most conspicuous aspect … is its devaluation of labor. (25) No work, lack of work, lack of craft, lack of skill, became the subject of an art piece. … At the same historical moment, the values of real work, craft and skill were under attack in the economy of real production” (Johanna Drucker, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity, University of Chicago Press, 2006, pp 95-96).
Looking back two decades through the cracked lens of this installation, one might recall that at the same time organized labor was being eliminated and factory production outsourced to lower-wage countries, the phenomenon of “recovered memory” and “multiple personalities” was sweeping through American self-help and popular culture. (26) At the same time Amboy was conceiving what we call the selfie, the editors of the DSM IV were adding DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) (27) to this clinical encyclopedia of diagnosable, treatable psychiatric disorders. Published in 1994, the DSM IV describes DID as “a lack of a single unified identity.” (28) The subject, lacking a single, unified identity comes to rely upon multiple, disparate identities “as centers of information processing.” (29) “Personality,” for those suffering with DID, can never be “whole” or “authentic.”
(30) The “multiples” of DID sufferers are disparate patterns of thought, feelings, moods, and behaviors that pulse through the individual. (31)
The clinical definition of DID perfectly narrates this installation. To view Blank Wall is to receive psychic feedback from an uneasy stroll through the Old West Suburban Small-Town Handyman Loner image-bank that describes swaths of that era’s American culture. A Schematic Drawing, hung on the museum wall behind the garage, traces the (32) “Musician in the Garage”’s erratic trajectory:
I take a job
As hired sound-man
For a Company Named
Bella McDina America
Bad luck to those who take even a pebble away from the Lava God
It’s not about the idea itself, it’s how to communicate an idea.
“I think it’s crazy to make more of the same thing and expect different results.”
“Flower power failed. What’s next?”
“use what you have”
For the First time
I discover that my
Mother’s tools are important
To me as a Being From my
not Just tools
Art can end itself
Kind of like the movies do
DO NOT CLOCK IN UNTIL FULLY TUNED (33)
The vibration of the Makita drill cutting through sheetrock creates a cocaine-like white dust reminiscent of Amboy’s younger friend and collaborator Jason Rhoades. The white rain of cocaine mirrors the salt that seeps through saloon floorboards in the desert emerging out of the Hollywood musical Paint Your Wagon. Set not far from Amboy’s childhood home in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Paint Your Wagon featured a drunken Lee Marvin, the young Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg, who, eleven years later, would overdose on barbiturates after being smeared by the FBI’s COINTELPRO who targeted her for donations made to the Black Panther party.
(34) Six months later, Amboy produced his first Los Angeles gallery installation, Fiery Parts, at Juliet Romero. Inspired by the church outside Romero’s Santa Monica Boulevard building, Fiery Parts was as dissociative as The Blank Wall, albeit more cheerfully. Romero remembers Amboy’s original proposal to arrange musical instruments pulled from a landfill. Although at the same time, he was equally interested in IKEA, both as craft and corporate ethos. (IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad famously sought to “make daily life better for people” with his mass-produced modernist furniture.) When Romero casually mentioned that the gallery building had once housed Tom Kelly’s Red Velvet photography studio … site of the Marilyn Monroe nude portrait that features the actress on a velvet bed … Amboy remembered a Monroe-like photograph of his mother, taken when she was a young woman. Amboy’s mother was blonde; a color that is not only yellow, but quintessentially Germanic; and that coincidentally forms part of Amboy’s maturing interest in European museums as future sites for the authentically American. As Romero recalls, the space was still empty one day before the show’s opening: “Amboy said, don’t worry—I’ll come in, and we’ll work all night, and it will be done the next morning. But it was a big space … 4400 square feet. But by the time I came in, at ten the next day, the whole place was filled and done perfectly. All of the ‘Aryan’ furniture covered with yellow legal paper. When you walked in, there was a bedroom set, kitchen stuff, book shelves, washers and dryers, everything you can think of that you can find at IKEA was there, but he’d made it from cardboard and wood and covered it with legal paper—and then he destroyed everything. It looked exactly un-perfect.” (35) The yellow chicken truck ended up outside in the parking lot. As Filtz recalls, “David Zwirner came, and he bought it.”
In subsequent years, the association/dissociation in Amboy’s work exponentially multiplied, both inside and out of the studio. Incorporating a clear movement to the desert, often these dovetailed associations were as much the product of California’s obscure, layered history as of Amboy’s own process. In a sense, Amboy’s associative drift mirrors LA’s urban landscape which, through the nineties, reeked of histories abandoned more than erased.
(36) Gallerist Brian Butler of 1301 PE recalls producing the Dead Man Walks multiple, featuring small plastic objects, inflated into uncanny scale. Each multiple in the 1301 PE edition was named for a different California National Park. (37) Butler says he never knew why, but he recalls that while taking some photo-documentation in the Santa Monica Mountains, they stumbled upon the old Peter Strauss ranch. The Strauss ranch—not far from the Malibu Hills site of Niki de Saint Phalle’s 1961 Shooting performance—would become the inspiration venue for Amboy’s still-continuing Roy’s Motel project: a collaboration between Amboy and numerous artists and musicians. Staged over two days in October 1996, Ranch, according to Butler, was “mostly a bunch of people hanging around eating and drinking,” although it also included nightgowns sewn by Jorge Pardo’s mother, audience mini-bike racing, and wheels fabricated by V’ketah, an astrologer/numerologist who was Rachel Kheedori’s cousin. (38) But most importantly (at least to Amboy), the Strauss ranch was originally owned by Harry Miller, an early auto-industrialist who invented the super-carburetor, and thus helped hasten the environmental decline.
“Amboy was fascinated by that history,” Butler recalls. “And also by the second part, which was that during the Depression, Miller had to sell it. After that, it became ‘Lake Enchanto.’ But Karl found out that when Miller owned it, he had monkeys there, monkeys running around, and draftsmen working there, outside in the yard, drawing cars.” Harry Miller was friendly with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, one of the denizens of the Jack Parsons group that gathered in Parson’s Pasadena house on Orange Grove Avenue. (Amboy himself, at the time, was living in Hollywood in the old A. E. Van Vogt house, where that science fiction writer once penned the foundational classics SLAN (39) and the WEAPON SHOPS OF ISHER. A founder of modern science fiction, Van Vogt figures largely in twentieth century LA lore.)
Describing their mid-nineties collaborations, Butler observes, “the thing about [him] was, how successful he was at turning all these ideas into something coherent. In the beginning, he had all these complicated ideas in his head, he kept finding more and more and more … When it came to his collaborations that began in a state of apprenticeship, Amboy was definitely the driver, of a train made up of numerous collaborators going ever slower. By slowing things down, in a funny way, Amboy was ending things so we didn’t have to go about destroying them anymore. That was the difference between the later collaborations and the earlier shows with Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon, and Jeff Koons in ‘89, things were really at high speed, almost out of control. All this crazy folklore started building up around the absence of a sellable work.”
“Everybody,” Butler concludes, “has their own opinion about the trajectory of Amboy’s life and career. But I think that’s part of a larger discussion.”
I used to imagine all these nymphs will come and stay so I can become a polygamist and just live in the strange fucked-up world that I have. I realized I could become one of them myself. I just think of something; but I cannot have it become a reality in the way I intend. Why not? What is the source of this weakness?
– Amboy as quoted by Heimir Bjorgulfsson in “Charisma Catcher,” Artnet 2006
In 2000, A. T. Israel moved back to LA after a brief stint of work in New York. Soon afterwards, David Zwirner, who knew Amboy was looking for help in organizing the I Cream Myself evenings that would generate human and real-time material for his in-progress installation, introduced him to Amboy. (39.1) Israel had not shown his artwork for some time. Having grown up in LA, he knew people not just from the art world, but from various milieus throughout the city. As Israel recalls, “Amboy was frustrated that he’d lived in, but hadn’t shown in LA for so long. He wanted to re-engage with the city. His studio was all the way out on Rosemead [in East Pasadena], and he wanted to reach out further, into the desert proper. Amboy used to say that doing the (40) Roy’s Motel soirees was a way of improving his social life. Having the museum buy an entire town for him gave him the chance to make something public on his own terms, outside of a gallery or institutional context.” Others close to Amboy at the time remember his paradoxical isolation: extremely well known in the art world, he was separated from his wife and at odds with some of his oldest Los Angeles art friends.
When Israel agreed to co-host what would become ten highly curated evenings in the Integratron of Landers, California, Amboy had already started to build the large (41) lava cone that would rise into his signature work. Hauser and Wirth had already shown the “public” half of the sculpture in London in 2005. Whatever occurred in the Integratron, meanwhile, would, event by event and cumulatively, comprise the “private” half of the installation. Amboy saw this as a chance to create an installation comprised not only of objects, but animate sounds. As Israel says, “Amboy wanted the luxury of being able to work with the ownership of time music could demonstrate. He could live in it, and invite people into the work. It wasn’t something he had to finish on a deadline and immediately hand over to a gallery or curator.” Israel knew people from various cultures throughout the city. His conversations with Amboy centered on who they’d invite, what the evenings would be like, and how the space would be used.
Beginning in January 2006, Amboy retreated from public life altogether. He divided the Roy’s site into areas, and devised certain activities that would result in the abandonment of objects, and photos, and art, so as to hasten the demise of the surrounding ecosystems. All reports suggest that Amboy’s greater ambition was to capture his guests’ “charisma,” and incorporate it into the “body of work.”
(42) As Israel says, “It felt like it was all happening in an organic way. It felt like the main idea was to fold the work into the actual real, so that within an ostensibly real event another was taking place, but that other event was no longer invisible. We were. It was, is, a kind of death for the invited viewer. A horror movie come to life. The sculpture would be finished only by its activation by, or engagement with, the invited guests. I booked the musical acts, which ranged from Phantom Planet to Jennifer Herrema to Holy Shit. All kinds of people attended—Kenny Scharf, Joey McIntrye, Vidal Sasson, Pamela Des Barres, Paul Giamatti, Ashley Olsen … (43) We had ten events, spread over six months. Amboy believed the project would end when the sculpture was finished.” I asked A. T. Israel how he would know that, and he replied, “When it had captured enough charisma.”
In a sense, the work was conceived to never be finished.
The artist Serge Jensin, who served as Amboy’s naked lava-cone technician, describes himself forever changed by
… Dionysian orgies where outlandish machines and props do what they aren’t designed to do, namely become sexually charged organs. Donuts are made but not eaten, leaf blowers give ‘blow jobs,’ a drill is turned on but nothing happens, turning into something else. Amboy injected his rebellious instincts into useful, yet used-up objects, making them his tools of liberation … inverting and re-inflating the habitual uselessness of things. Just like an orgy in the dark, doing what and whom you are not supposed or even want to be doing, using/sharing/being used—thanks to a host of incubi, familiars, or other uplifting vehicles.
(44) When it was widely believed the Artist died in a plane crash looking over the Black Pussy his Volcano, in a Guardian obituary Jerry Saltz suggested “[T]here is a sense in which Amboy’s art resembles not so much sculpture as dance—once the dancer is gone, it disappears too. … [I]t may be difficult for those who come to get an adequate idea of what he did” (The Guardian, August 11, 2006).
Or maybe not. As A. T. Israel says, Amboy was intent on “creating something entirely transformative.” The next project—Am-Girl—never seemed to have gotten off the ground. And so we’re left in the middle of nowhere, with not a drop of water in sight, except that water we need to suck salt from the earth—an artist whose disappearance, whose going away, was accomplished—even without the failure, death, suicide, demise today’s careers demand. Thank you very much, and good evening.
Chris Kraus’ latest book is After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography. She is a co-editor of Semiotexte, with Hedi El Kholti and Sylvere Lotringer, and teaches writing at European Graduate School.