June, 2010

Forced Rebellion

4642590394_3ce12defcc_oIn the early 1960’s, special operatives from the CIA secretly recruited and trained over a quarter of the Hmong people—a minority ethnic group who lived in the mountains of Laos and were known for their combat skills—to fight against the north Vietnamese Communists. They were dubbed the “Special Guerrilla Unit,” and by the time of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, over 12,000 of them had died fighting in battle, many more injured. The remaining survivors were left to fend for themselves in Communist territory, and under constant threat of governmental persecution. Many were forced to flee to Thailand, and in the 1990’s-early 2000’s, were again forced to return to Laos. Fearing sustained persecution, thousands of Hmong  fled to the jungles to live a nomadic lifestyle, where they remain targets of attack.

For three weeks in early 2010, artist/photojournalist KC Ortiz willingly joined and lived with the last surviving members of the Hmong people in the jungles of Laos. The process of gaining access to this seclusive, nomadic, and persecuted group took Ortiz two years.

Ortiz’s images—all in black-and-white—which hang in the back room of the newly established Known Gallery on Fairfax under the title “Forced Rebellion,” reveal a stark, multi-generational, Flying Dutchman society. Constantly on the move, the Hmong cannot afford to plant crops, or build permanent shelters; the jungle, their only real home, serves as the background for almost every photograph. Most of the subjects hold AK-47’s in their arms, sometimes alongside a newborn baby. Their entire demeanor is one of defense. They stare into the lens of the camera solemnly, almost judging it—and by extension, the viewer.

Ortiz got his start documenting graffiti artists in the Chicago area (the work of his former subject, Pose, a major name in the street-art movement, is on view in the front room of Known Gallery), and his journey toward covering more remote, often subjugated cultures in the world is one of extreme courage. He has shot photographs of Vietnamese cancer patients, Burmese migrant workers, the Hong Kong lower class, and Delhi Tuberculosis victims. Word has it that his next mission is the Colombian drug trade.

Here in LA, it’s often too easy to dismiss socially conscious photojournalism, as if it were simply some type of clever “hook.” But seeing Ortiz’s work, and reading about what went into it, one can see it is just as personal as any other form of photography—or artwork, for that matter. He, much like the Hmong soldier posing center-frame with his rifle, stands for rebellion: a conscious, slow, determined, little-seen, and worthwhile rebellion.

Known Gallery is located at 441 North Fairfax Avenue. KC  Ortiz’s “Forced Rebellion” is on view until June 12th. For more information, please call (310) 860-6263, or visit www.knowngallery.com.

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Tales From New York: Skin Fruit!

skinfruit100405_560In 1985, world-renowned Greek art collector Dakis Joannou acquired One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank after viewing the work at Jeff Koons’s “Equilibriums” exhibition in the Lower East Side in New York City. In many respects One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank functions as a keystone piece indicative of the ideology and focus of Koons’ artistic practice, which is built on ways of seeing, both internalizing and realizing the self.  A pristine Spaulding basketball with goose pimpled treads is suspended in the center of an airtight water chamber, devoid of oxygen, motion, and any traces of the human hand.  The object through which we are most familiar by our ability to touch is only available to us behind a veneer of glass.  By manufacturing a strong divide between the viewer and the object inside the case, the tank becomes a source of kaleidoscopic reflection manipulating the appearance of any surrounding art objects. The introspection Koons arouses within the viewer speaks to the inspiration of his curatorial feet for “Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection”, which just ended its three-month tenure at The New Museum in New York City.

In a friendly twist of roles, Koons selected works from Dakis Joannou’s own collection to create a fantastical spectacle that transformed the floors of the New Museum into a fun house of contemporary art: towering sculptures constructed of fragmented matter; a daily performance of a passerby who strips from their street clothes into a loin cloth and crown of thorns, only to hang from a crucifix outfitted with a bicycle seat; and even a full-on chorus of museum guards singing “this is propaganda” in a tone similar to a Gregorian chant.

The fourth floor of the exhibit proves to be the most visually diverse and confounding as the elevator opens and the viewer is aligned with David Altmejd’s The Cave, a towering shard of glass that divides and refracts Charles Ray’s Fall ’91, a female mannequin outfitted in a blue skirt suit.  She would be considered dainty and feminine if not for her enlarged proportions and nine-foot stature.  Positioned directly across from the mannequin is a sparkling and bedazzled streetwalker, Liza Lou’s Super Sister, who cocks a gun against her wide hips.  The positioning seems intentional as it signals hyper femininity and sexuality that become conflated through the single prism of The Cave.

Descending upon each floor, the viewer not only witnesses the complete invagination of the body and its vulnerability, but the viewer themselves become untangled, and unglued in their efforts to gain understanding. The human form is continually considered and reconsidered through a literal and metaphorical dissection of “skin.” Like Urs Fischer’s melting wax sculpture What if the Phone Rings—in a constant state of decay as the candles that are lit inside the mold cause the sculpture to melt and disintegrate on the floor.

Perhaps it is this type of embedded catharsis within “Skin Fruit” that makes it linger with you days after you left the museum, reminding us that art is a living entity which sheds its own skin.

- By A. Moret

Related Los Angeles news:

This Sunday, June 13th, at 10 AM, the A.N. Abell Auction Co.—a family business run out of the City of Commerce since 1916—will hold its Spring Fine Art and Antique Auction. Normally, this event is the LA Art World’s best kept secret, as it is confined to invitees only. But this year, everyone’s invited. And among the amazing items up for grabs are two exemplary works by iconoclastic, American contemporary artist, Jeff Koons.

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Extra! Extra! The Importance of Being Earnest

You enjoy a good turn of phrase.  You’ve even been known to cut someone a little extra slack if they made proper use of a good pun whilst administering some kind of offense.  Wit and cleverness are tantamount – obviously.  Oscar Wilde had, one could say, his way with words.  From farce to satire and back again, Mr. Wilde is known for many things, chief among them his ability to utilize one word’s many meanings in one instance.  Case in point, his play The Importance of Being Earnest.

You’ll remember Rupert Everet giving the play a run, on film of course, and you’ll likely be familiar with the general storyline: a land-owning Brit in Hertfordshire leading a double life as both responsible-guardian-Jack and debauchery-hunting-Earnest.  Full of perfectly British names (and their corresponding stereotypes), Earnest is fun, quick-moving, and full of mishaps that force Jack, er Earnest, to come clean.

After the enormous, while short-lived, success of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde never wrote another play – perhaps because he was imprisoned for being thought a homosexual.  As many authority figures have doubtlessly learned, though, genius, like Mr. Wilde’s, can’t be quelled by a little jail time.  Nor should your getting to see such wit in action be stymied by a little thing like tickets!  Readers, you have found yourself amidst yet another of our Extra! Extra! ticket giveaways.

The performance of The Importance of Being Earnest comes as part of the “Wicked Wilde Shakespeare Festival” running through June 27 at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica and we’ve got tickets to Thursday evening’s performance!  (That’s Thursday, June 10 at 8pm for the people in the back.)

Here’s the drill: we need your first name, last name, and email address and – voila – you’ll be hopping across the pond for a taste of British wit courtesy of the ever important Oscar Wilde.

(Click here if tickets are nothing to be trifled with and you’d prefer to purchase some.)

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Is Johannesburg the New Hollywood?

GangstersParadise4-1023x767On June 11th, 2010, there will be two big premieres coming out of South Africa. One is the much anticipated 19th FIFA World Cup, the first time the continent of Africa will play  host to the world’s most popular sports tournament. The other is the U.S. premiere of the film Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema.

Clearly, the World Cup is a tad more significant than a movie opening, but both are representative of a larger global shift: the emergence of South Africa as an international cultural force—especially when it comes to cinema. From the success of a great film like District 9, to the obligatory Hollywood initiation of a Clint Eastwood-helmed drama (Invictus), it’s clear that the South Africa is tossing its hat in with the Western-dominated entertainment industry.

Is it any wonder, then, that their films are reflective of this cultural transcendence? District 9, for example, is not a provincial movie; it’s in direct conversation with the great alien invasions of Hollywood, from Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds to Independence Day. It pays its homage to tradition, while using the alien genre for its own purposes at the same time. And this is not simply a Tarantino-esque play of mash-ups; it’s a way to communicate.

Ralph Ziman’s Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema, which I got a chance to see this Friday at the USC Albert and Dana Broccoli Theatre, is no different (except maybe in budget and heaviness of hand, which I’ll get to later). Based loosely on a true story, it’s about the rise of slumlord Lucky Kunene, who starts off stealing cars in the small South African village of Soweto, but eventually moves to Johannesburg, where he enacts a brilliant plan to take over a series of high-rise buildings in the ghetto of the city, providing a deadly though lucrative buffer between the properties’ white landlords and black tenants. Along the way, he develops a relationship with a white woman from the suburbs, picks a fight with a drug kingpin, and becomes a kind-of slumlord Robin Hood.

The film’s South-meets-West dialectic is evident even in the title. When it was released in South Africa two years ago, it was just called Jerusalema, a reference to a well-known regional hymnal. The producers of the movie, however, felt the title needed an extra kick to be able to sell in America. So they added the preamble of “Gangster’s Paradise,” an obvious allusion to the 1995 Coolio song (though in actuality, may refer to the change in the Johannesburg motor license plate prefix post-Apartheid to “GP,” which stands for Gaunteng Province). Director Ralph Ziman, in a Q&A session after the screening, said he was okay with the change in title if it meant more people would see the film. And to my eye, this same cultural compromise was central to his entire cinematic creation.

Narrative-wise, for instance, the movie was yet another re-telling of the all-to-familiar gangster story—the rise and fall of a sympathetic crime boss. But the details of this particular tale are entirely fresh. The character of Kunene is someone you want to get to know better and better (especially in the hands of the actors Jafta Mamabolo and Rapulana Seiphemo, who respectively play the young and old versions of him), and the politics of how he takes over the high-rises are fascinating. Visually, too, it was photogrpahed in the overused documentary style made popular with films like City of God, and even District 9. Yet the gritty realism of the setting (they shot in one of the world’s most dangerous slums) was undeniable. And musically, the composer (who was present at the screening) certainly borrowed from the rhythm-heavy soundtracks of modern-day thrillers, while still seamlessly inserting never-before-heard, African chants and beats into the background of the mix.

According to actor Jafta Mamabolo—also present at the screening and Q&A— these cultural interweavings in Jerusalema have helped it to become a genuine, South African cult hit. Whether or not this proves to be true for American audiences, however, is another issue. Because while such narrative and aethetic borrowings may help to bridge gap between worlds, there is such a thing as overdoing it. Cheesy voice-over dialogue like “In the beginning…,” unnecessary chase scenes, predictable book-ends, and romantic sub-plots within the movie often cross the border into cliché. And I found myself, after the highly informative Q&A, wishing Ziman had let go of some of these Hollywood trappings, and stuck more closely to the real events that inspired him in the first place.

Regardless, the film is most definitely worth seeing, if for no other reason than to witness yet another step in the maturation process of a fast-growing industry. If you see it on opening night though, just make sure to not to miss the first game of the World Cup: South Africa vs. Mexico. My bet’s on the underdog.

Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema opens in select theaters on June 11th. For more information, please visit www.gangstersparadisejerusalema.com.

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Chills of Recognition

6a00d8341c630a53ef01156f223ac4970c-500wiThe best thing about A Chorus Line—and there’s a lot of good things—is that there’s a moment every ten minutes or so when chills run up your spine. You know these chills, too. They are the chills of recognition, chills of connection. They are the cells inside your body racing alongside your bones, like an excited dog, at the mere thought of meeting something or someone like them.

A Chorus Line—which opened at the Pantages Theatre this past Tuesday, and runs for two weeks only until June 13th—comes loaded with history. Michael Bennett’s visionary piece, since 1975, has been a staple of Broadway, off-Broadway, and high-school productions alike. It has won numerous prizes, including the Tony and Pulitzer Prize for Best Musical. It spawned an awful film adaptation, and a wonderful documentary. In 2006, the show was revived on Broadway by the original co-choreographer, Bob Avian. It broke all sorts of box office records. And the cousin of Avian’s revival still tours today, occasionally to Los Angeles for brief, two-week runs.

But for all the bombast, A Chorus Line is best when it sticks to its roots—the loose grouping of Broadway dancers that Michael Bennett brought together in 1974 at the Nickolaus Exercise Center to tell their stories on tape. The show often veers from this core focus, unable to restrain from bits of bravado, much like the character Cassie (Rebecca Riker) does when told by her ex-boyfriend/director Zach (Derek Hanson) to stick to the choreography. These hardly un-enjoyable departures, however, only allow for the true moments—when Paul (Nicky Venditti) has his monologue, when Sheila (Ashley Yeater) starts to sing “At the Ballet,” and of course when Diana (Selina Verastegui) leads the cast in “What I Did For Love”—to shine all the brighter.

As far as this particular production goes, it’s pretty much what you would expect, which, when talking about A Chorus Line, is a good thing. Because you expect to be thrilled, and to be sad, and be privy to that oh-so rare sight in musical theatre: honesty on stage. Without a doubt, actor Andy Mills, who plays the show-stealing character of Mike, steals the show. Mills is so good-looking he stands out from the mezzanine, and his dancing is so flawless you find yourself using him as the bar for other dancers. I also enjoyed Derek Hanson, who’s interpretation of Zach—the fictional director that remains in the shadows for most of the show—was complex enough to support the facets of the for-sure Michael Bennett stand-in character. Other notables include Rebecca Riker, Ashley Yeater, Donald C. Shorter, and Nathan Lucrezio.

A Chorus Line is a musical that kind of begs to be updated or adapted. I’d love to hear one of the dancers talk about bulimia, for instance. Or have a character make a comment on gay marriage, or the economy. But seeing the show live, and with such an excellent cast makes me realize this is not the way to go. Every line and every step of Bennett’s masterwork holds up, and though it wouldn’t exactly be sacrilege to change a few things to make it more topical, there’s really no need to change what still gives me those chills up my spine. 

A Chorus Line runs until June 13th at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. For more information, please call 323-468-1770, or visit www.broadwayla.org.

Posted in Art, Dance, Hollywood, Jazz, Music, Musical Theatre, Neighborhoods, Performance, Theatre No Comments »

Cell Phone-Person

586737_300On my phone, I can store hundreds of contacts, dozens of messages—both text and voice—I can take photos, videos, and surf the web. But can a mobile device, such as my cell phone, store inspiration? Does it hold objects of historical, artistic, and/or scientific significance? Is it a genuine platform for discussion and representation of the human condition? Put more simply, and yet ultimately more complex: can a cell phone be a museum?

Most pro-Tweeters and social network-mongols—who would text yes to any and all of the questions above—will point to the Iran election as the tantamount example of mobile technology meshing with social and political phenomena to enact positive, realistic change. This is difficult to argue, as is the often belabored fact that such technology has radically altered the way in which we communicate. In Japan, for instance, the keitai shosetsu, or the “thumb novel”—a literary publication broadcast solely to cell-phones—has gained incredible popularity, with sites like Maho I-land generating millions of amateur novels, many of them going on to huge successes as tangible books.

Both the Iranian election and the keitai shosetsu would lead one to think that mobile networking may have a place within the world of museums. But as a casual user (and I believe that drug terminology is appropriate) of Twitter and Facebook, the main issue is not whether a cell phone can be used as museum, but how often the muses are overwhelmed by oblivious, shameless, and not-so-shameless marketing.

Which brings us to LACMA’s latest venture: Cell Phone Stories, a three-month-long chain of stories—much like keitai shosetsu—not told in first-person or third-person, but in an all-together new mode of narrative: cell-phone-person. Artist Steve Fagin conceived the project, and brings together a diverse grouping of commissioned authors, ranging from actor Rainn Wilson, to chic designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, to supply the tales.

Sounds interesting enough; I’m a huge proponent of using literature as art (LACMA’s other, less-publicized project, Word Without Pictures, is borderline brilliant), and the idea of telling your story walking is appealing to me (and Jonathan Lethem).

But there’s an odd catch. All of the stories/essays have to revolve around LACMA.  I suppose this is to bring up the idea that a museum is not just a building—after all, one can be mused anywhere—yet I can’t get over the idea that it’s all a clever marketing ploy.

The first story to appear publicly as a part of the Cell Phone Stories project was one by performance-artist Rich Bott. It began at 1 PM on May 29th, and combined brief text messages with even briefer cell-phone videos, which can be seen here. The initial installment: “Jacques Debierue sculpture reported missing STOP LAPD on the scene STOP Continental operative Richard Bott on the scene STOP.”

Clearly Bott was setting up an absurd art-heist mystery of some sort (by referencing a fictional sculptor), though I don’t claim to understand the repeated usage of “STOP,” which continued throughout his hour-long “text-performance”—a sort of hard-boiled detective story that had him speaking to a “wise-cracking lamp,” getting tips from a nude “prostitute” in a Picasso painting, and finally catching the thief and recovering the stolen sculpture. The problem is none of this was very clear at all, and any sense of drama that could be generated from the natural cliff-hangers of episodic text messaging was lost in translation.

Furthermore, I didn’t get to see, or even imagine, much of the museum at all. To me, the magic of a museum is the same magic of a church or a mosque or a synagogue; it’s a temple. When you walk into the LACMA, or the MOCA, or the MET, or the MOMA, you enter into a different frame of consciousness. You’re supposed to temporarily let go of the world of money, and traffic, and work, and advertising, and yes, cell-phones. There’s a reason why they’re not allowed. And while I love the idea of a global museum, or even a museum of the imagination, LACMA’s Cell Phone Stories has yet to provide one.

Cell Phone Stories runs until September 6, 2010, and can be accessed by texting “LACMA” to 67553, or by visiting their Twitter account at http://twitter.com/LACMA.

Posted in Art, Conceptual, Contemporary Art, Mixed media, Museums, Neighborhoods, Personalities, Technology, Video Art, West LA No Comments »

Art Unites, But Not United

Gallery800_openingFor those not lucky enough to have someone who works in art department as a personal acquaintance, let me let you in on a little secret: they are some of the most talented and diversely knowledgeable people you will ever meet. They are the ones responsible for the physical “look” of any film or television show you see. Give an average person a ream of paper and they can load a printer for you; give someone in the art department a ream of paper and they are likely to produce a mind blowing installation of a thousand origami cranes.

And that was the main reason I was so excited to check out the “Art Unites” exhibition at Gallery 800 in the NoHo Arts District. Gallery 800 showcases the work of members of the Art Directors Guild, IATSE Local 800. With nearly 2,000 members who work in film, television and theatre as Production Designers, Art Directors, and Assistant Art Directors; Scenic, Title and Graphic Artists; Illustrators and Matte Artists; and Set Designers and Model Makers, Local 800 is most certainly chock-full of creativity and talent, so I was expecting an inspiring afternoon.

I couldn’t imagine what the work of these artists would be like when left to their own devices without the constraints of a crazy production schedule, some pretentious director’s vision, or a caffeine addled brain (okay, so maybe the caffeine stays). I obviously made the rookie mistake of expecting too much, however, because even though it pains me to say it, I was disappointed with what Local 800 had to offer. I expected the work to be prolific, and while it was technically skilled, very little of it was moving or innovative. The number of traditionally themed oil and acrylic portraits, landscapes and florals felt stale and ordinary. Where the heck were my paper cranes?

Also, while I think the idea behind Gallery 800 is an admirable one, having 30 artists featured together without a focus or theme left the show a bit disjointed. Putting an art exhibit together provides the curator an opportunity to make a commentary, but this seemed more like an overtly random collection—much like a student show. I found myself standing in the middle of the gallery trying to suss out a common thread and just when I thought I had finally found one – because what self respecting Art History major can’t over analyze an exhibit to find the deeper meaning – nothing.

Issues of personal taste and lack of cohesion aside, I do believe in what Gallery 800 is trying to accomplish by giving the unsung heroes of  many of our favorite films and programs their own platform. While I didn’t enjoy the show as a whole, I don’t doubt that there is an abundance of talent in Local 800 as there were definitely some bright spots. So while I wouldn’t make a special trip to the 818, if you find yourself in the valley this summer (because it isn’t hot enough where you live), stop by Gallery 800. Just don’t expect to find any paper cranes.

Gallery 800 is located at 5108 Lankersheim Blvd. in North Hollywood. For more information, please call (818) 763-8052, or visit www.artdirectors.org/?art=gallery_800.

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