It isn’t the lawyers that worry artist Whoodat Already the most. “They drone like mosquitoes,” he says, “but otherwise they’re harmless. I think of them as white noise generators – they help me get to sleep.” It’s not fellow artists, either. “They don’t know what to make out of what I do, so they assume that I’m being ironic and, in the Los Angeles art world, irony is the sincerest form of flattery.” No, it’s the gallery dealers who worry that he’ll disconnect their artist from the particular brands they’ve worked so hard to develop and disseminate. “You should see their faces when I run into them at a gas station, in a bar, at Whole Foods. They turn apoplectic red, crook their index finger at me, and stutter, “you…you… it’s you.’ Though I can understand – and have a quiet chuckle over - their anger, I’d rather that people witnessing these kerfuffles at least knew that it was on account of my art and not because I mismanaged their funds or their high school daughter.
Such is the world according to Whoodat Already. He’s been around these parts for three years. He says, matter of factly, that he got thrown out of college for an incident that involved a university’s female president, a rave, and a limousine, though, because of an out of court settlement, he can’t divulge the details. He adds, also matter of factly, that he’s been studio assistant for “three kick ass artists, two men, one woman, who were in the Whitney Biennial before they were thirty, all of which are how tenured professors at Southern California colleges, two of which are currently heads of their art departments.” All he says about the experiences is that, again, gag orders won’t let him disclose the nature of the relationships, the work he performed, and the details behind the subsequent social media fracas. He says he’s “around 48,” that he has a daughter, a talking head on a Fox news show, that he hasn’t spoken to for eight years, and that he lives and works in a upscale trailer park in Montebello. The mother? “Some Englishwoman. At the time she was like 22nd or 23rd removed from the British throne. Haven’t spoken with her in decades.”
What is it that makes him such an art world lightning rod? He’s not contentious, not even when he participates in panel discussions. As he says, “Never has so little been said by so few to the pleasure of so many.” He’s entertaining, he’s witty, and he seems to know everything about every artist that’s ever lived. “You want to see how to handle light in a dimly lit room? Check out Geertgen Tot Sint Jans’s “Birth of Jesus.” Amazing, simply amazing” His manners, like his posture, are impeccable, his manner unperturbed. He’s been described in a review (an ad hominem attack that had nothing to do with his work on display) as a cross between Forrest Gump, Joseph Goebbels, and Moe Howard.
In short, it’s his work, though it’s possible that he’s best known for the reviews his work generates. (He’s listed them all on his Web page. The otherwise tipsy but staid $#@@ &^!?>%# called his latest show “scabrous,” but, having seen the show myself, I have to think that either $#@@ &^!?>%#’s using a meaning not yet in the OED or the Urban Slang Dictionary or else he’s got it wrong. Again). The one thing that Whoodat Already is not not, though, is disingenuous. “Borges wrote a short story about a novelist whose work coincided, word for word, with Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” and no one made a fuss. They said that it was postmodern, that it pushed envelopes, that it was brilliant. When I do the same thing, hell, it’s like I painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa or displayed a urinal as a sculpture. Oh wait, someone did do that.”
When Whoodat Already has an exhibition, it’s always on a Sunday at a swap meet. He displays his work in a spacious mobile home (the one he lives and works in) that he’s gutted to make room for the work (He sleeps in a hammock). The shows are brief-lived, dictated by the hours of the swap meet. He’s shown work in old drive-in theatres, the parking lots of baseball stadiums, and even in the loading dock of Christie’s auction house. He has no staff, no gallerinas. He flashmobs the openings on social media an hour before the swap meet opens and, within an hour, his mobile home cum exhibition space is surrounded by hundreds of mavens and myrmidons. Even though it’s nine in the morning they’re dressed as though it’s an evening’s do. He’s always parked in the far corner, near the portapotties and food trucks. Critics won’t show up, though that doesn’t stop them from writing about him. I personally know of one such critic who, while he says he wouldn’t attend because the whole thing was just a P.T. Barnum stunt, was dying to show up but can’t remember passing out in a sorority the evening prior.
There are no labels, no checklists, and no price tags. The pieces are not for sale. In fact, he says he destroys them immediately after the show. “I don’t see the point of having these things in circulation,” he says. “I just want to make a point and then it’s on to the next project.” I asked him what he thought the point is. “The point is, the point is, well, isn’t it obvious?” He never answered the question.
Not a little intrigued – where else could you find something like this nowadays? - I decided to go to his latest opening. Even though I knew about it in advance, I was not a little tickled by his Facebook message: “’Whoodat Already?’ you might be asking yourself? Come see, Sunday, 8am – 3pm, 2540 Rosemead Boulevard, South El Monte CA 91733.” No image, no indication that this even was an art show. I was dying to see what the fuss was about.
I got there early, parked, and, as he said, made my way to the bronze statue of Abe Vigoda. There he was, next to the statue, sitting on a camping stool in front of his mobile home, smoking a cigar. A few pleasantries (traffic, weather) and he left me to my devices. For one thing, the space was huge. For another, the show looked eerily familiar. Wait, it was familiar. It was the exact same work I had seen three days prior in Sally Bemis’s studio, a week prior to her exhibition at Gallery Quim. I had very carefully looked at Bemis’s work, reverse engineering it to imagine the things being undone, stroke by stroke by stoke, and then putting them back together. So I knew how many layers had been added to the surface and then all but one scraped away. I noticed how globs of paint reflected my image back at me. I noticed the black cat hair (she was so proud of it she even mentioned it in her artist’s statement). I glommed her painting rhythm (also in her artist statement - “I listen to Perez Prado when I paint. He inspires my brush handling.”). The landscapes and faces becoming weather, the Rococo frames, the atmospheric shimmer: I had most definitely seen it before.
Were I ever to be subpoenaed as an expert witness (no goddamn way, but little matter), I’d swear it was Bemis’s work. It was too perfect to be a simulacrum. The only thing it lacked was a signature. I later asked Whoodat Already why he didn’t sign the pieces, either with the appropriated artist’s name or else with his own. “Appropriated? No,” he said, briskly, “these works are not appropriated.” “Then what are they?” I asked. He looked at me for a moment, slowly shaking his head. “I’m afraid I can’t answer that question.” I knew better than to ask him why. This was getting nowhere. I asked, “Where do your ideas come from?” “From my head,” he said. “No,” I continued, “what were your influences.” “I don’ have influences.” How then does your work look just like the work of Sally Bemis currently on display at Gallery Quim?” “Does it? You’d have to ask her. I stand by what I’ve done.” With that, he handed me a cigar and headed off to buy some horchata. “It was good talking to you, man,” he said, “hope we can do it again sometime.”
It occurred to me to ask Sally if yet she knew that her show had been recreated brushstroke-by-brushstroke and was on display in a mobile home at a swap meet in South El Monte. I wondered how she would take it. I wondered whether Universal Rundle, her Thurston Howell the Third of a gallery owner, would sic his lawyer on him. Of course, a cease-and-desist would be useless because the show would be down and the work supposedly destroyed by the time Monday rolled around. How did he do it? The show had only been up for a week. I wondered if he had installed a video camera in her studio to transmit live feeds of work-in-progress back to him, so he could keep pace with her progress. It was too, too…too coincidental.
Mostly, I was curious whether he actually destroyed the work. I mean, if nothing else, he could make a bundle and auction it, open a gallery, or run an underground arts newspaper like Specs Topercer, Heinie Mueller, and George Kopshaw. I came back to the swap meet a little before three. I waited by the entrance until his unmissable mobile home ambled by with its cloned cargo. It wasn’t hard to tail him –he had no rear view mirrors on either side. The 710 south, the 405 north – wait, didn’t he live in Montebello? Past LAX, to the 10 west. Cloverfield – whoa. I watched Whoodat park in front of a now-familiar warehouse by the airport. I’d been there three days before. He walked up and punched in a code – I already knew it: 483611 - on a keypad mounted on a chain link fence. Dang. He parked in front of a loading dock and, by the time he flipped up the rolling door, I knew what he was up to. Well played, Whoodat Already or Sally Bemis or whomever you are. Very well played.