January, 2011

FEATURE: Museums of Los Angeles – Part One

nsmentry1A museum’s history is often as complex and varied as the works of art in it. Each of the three museums in this series have their own websites that can give you their stories of creation and evolution, so there is no reason for me to repeat that process here. This series is from the point of view of a traveler entering the gates of a far away city. I arrive thirsty and hungry and ready for any and all temptations …I stand eager to be stimulated and seduced…and the gates open.

PART ONE:  THE NORTON SIMON MUSEUM

Most supermarkets have bigger parking lots than the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. It is the smallest building on the smallest campus of the three major museums in this series. Intensely compact, the Simon’s focus is a very high quality of art that never becomes the overgrown cultural smorgasbord that often leads to institutional mediocrity. From the moment you drive into the free, single-level open sky parking area, everything about the Simon fits and flows.

As you leave your car you are already in a garden-like setting and the paths lead to a welcoming arrangement of larger than life Rodin sculptures. Without yet having breached the front door, you have been engaged by the narrative of Western Civilization. You cannot look at these works without also seeing everything that came before and after, and without feeling the weight of your own sack of skin and muscle and bone.

I have intentionally avoided pictures of the inside of the Museum because photographs cannot do justice to the art nor the experience of making your own entrance. Step through the doors and you are inside the core of the Simon. It reminds me of a flower with the petals made up of the four wings and a large theatre. One level below is the South and Southeast Asian galleries. The core, the center of this flower is for special exhibitions. Today I have come to visit the four wings that hold the story of my own history. These centuries of human emotion are the mirror I will be gazing into.

The first wing is filled with the 14th to 16th Centuries. Early, High, Mannerist, Northern, Southern…a Renaissance is a Renaissance is a Renaissance…and it is not my favorite art but neither I nor the Simon can ignore it. The Museum’s collection does more than just give a prerequisite Renaissance experience. With a selectivity and quality it demonstrates the genius of the Renaissance artists without beating you over the head with the religious messages. Perhaps it is the size of the museum that keeps it all more intimate and accessible. If you came to overdose on the Jesus and Mary Show this is not the museum for that…for the Simon’s examples of secular humanism hold equal stage. Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of Joerg Fugger is wonderfully alive…I wanted to step in front of Fugger and force him to look at me, to engage him with questions about his life.

One of the important elements in the entire Norton Simon Museum experience is the outstanding presentation of all the art. The height at which the art is hung and sculpture placed, the skill of of the lighting, and the flow of the groupings, for me it is the best of any museum in the city.  Never once did I find myself bobbing and weaving like a drunken prize fighter at war with glare and reflection on the art work.

The second wing throws us into the 17th and 18th Centuries…carried there by Guido Reni’s portrait of St. Cecilia. Reni overwhelms his religious subject with stunning technique that makes this artist the real center of the painting. Art for art is now an unstoppable wave and the Simon immerses the viewer in Baroque paintings from Italy and Spain and the North. Everywhere you turn life explodes. Jan (Johannes) Fyt’s Still Life with Red Curtain and Zurbaran’s Still Life with Lemon, Oranges and a Rose filled me with child-like awe at their skill. Thomas de Kayser’s Portrait of a Father and His Son; Marie Genevieve Bouliar’s Self Portrait; and Theresa, Countess Kinsky by Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigree-Lebrun all remind me that I am walking through a world of hearts that once beat as furiously as my own.

The last two wings contain the 19th and 20th Centuries and I cannot separate them because they are wife and mistress to our modern life. And here the Simon shines with outstanding art. Edgar Degas is everywhere…his paintings and sculptures swirl around you…taunt you. At first I was overwhelmed and then quickly I was glad. It felt as if this were his studio and his home.

I’ve often thought that the best Renoirs are always someplace else. Until today. But don’t look for the large grand canvases that have been reproduced on everything from coffee mugs to refrigerator magnets. At the Simon you will find small intimate Renoirs that will make you forget the “famous dead artist” and replace him with the living and curious and passionate and vulnerable Renoir.

My feet are no longer on the ground at this point…I am picked up on a Barbizon cloud and it carries me forward through the dreams of Corot and Monet and Seurat and Gauguin and Caillebotte and Lautrec…and at last I am at the feet of my personal Buddha, Vincent van Gogh. Even the Metropolitan in New York did not satisfy my eyes for his work. But at the Norton Simon there is a wonderful sampling and it is just large enough so that you can say “I met van Gogh today, and we talked awhile and then went our separate ways.” And for those who can only dream in modern media, take the time and you will come to discover that Vincent van Gogh is 3D…without the glasses.

I think Gertrude Stein would like the Museum’s view of the 20th Century…even the pictures she didn’t like. What would Picasso say to Sam Francis? What would Matisse think of Warhol? Would Modigliani and Braque agree? Perhaps it is because of the size of the Norton Simon Museum that this is a perfect place for making the walk from the Renaissance up to and through the last one hundred years. By the end of the journey you haven’t just viewed a history of the people of Western Civilization, you have also gazed into the mirror that this art offers and you have seen a reflection of yourself. And when our prejudices become an acid inside us, that is when we can turn and look back at the footsteps we have been walking in…and we can unflinchingly question ourselves and our lives, as every artist present in the Norton Simon Museum has also done.

This is a museum that has confidence and competence in its bones.  This is an art lover’s museum…and a museum’s museum.

- By John Ireland

For more information go to www.nortonsimon.org

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Labute’s Own Mercy Seat

labute

There’s not a lot of middle-of-the-road when it comes to Neil Labute—not in his work, or in the reaction to his work. He creates lean, hard-nosed, often reverse morality tales fraught with meticulously manipulative or ethically challenging characters, and people either love it or despise it. Almost no one, however, will dismiss it.

Having read pretty much his entire published oeuvre, and even acted in a short film he recently wrote, I can confidently say I fall on the love side of things, but I do understand his critics. For instance, Labute has a penchant for what some call a “twist” ending. And I quote this word, because I’m not sure what it means—“twists” can either be a reveal (i.e. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time), or a kind of re-write (i.e. it was all a dream). Labute likes to work with the former type of “twist,” and as exhilarating as it can be, it does beg the question of why? Why not show us the behind-the-scenes footage of Evelyn’s project in The Shape of Things? Why not reveal sooner the true intentions behind the main characters in Some Girl(s) or In the Company of Men or This is How It Goes? Is it all for the reaction?

Another much-discussed facet of Labute’s work is the misogyny. All of his early plays, in the words of a former acting teacher of mine, always end up with hate. And though my acting teacher was prone to exaggeration, there is no doubt that hate, especially toward women, does happen in said plays. Very few people write male assholes as well as Labute can—or as harshly. He presents his characters’ defects without apology, which can lead to accusations about the author, and leaves audiences, once again, asking why? Why show us, over and over, the worst version of ourselves, if not to exorcise some demon within you? Is it all for the reaction?

Labute’s style of dialogue—raw, biting, direct—is maybe the one part of his writing most people agree is well-crafted. Well, almost. I do recall forcing my ex-roommate, a bright and articulate critic of all things media, to watch the film version of The Shape of Things. And like any time I’ve pushed some hobby or piece of art upon somebody, the reaction was not what I’d hoped. He vehemently disagreed with the film  and when it was done, beckoned me to recite one single line from the movie I thought to be a “good line.” I couldn’t do it. I was sure Labute was a good writer, and I felt strongly about the merit of his language, but I couldn’t come up with one single zinger. Why? Does Labute exist wholly outside the world of aphoristic dialogue? And if so, does that not somewhat contradict the idea that he writes for reaction?

I wish I had all the answers. But to further quote the acting teacher mentioned above, “the only way to do Labute is with a question.” And that I believe. There may be a small middle-of-the-road with him, but that’s probably only because the sides are not so defined. Therefore, I encourage anyone who mildly interested in acting or writing or directing (and has some expendable income) to show up tonight, at 7 PM to the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Hollywood for “An Evening With Neil Labute,” a benefit for the non-profit Vs. Theatre Company (who are producing his Mercy Seat later this year) as well as the charity organization, 9/11 Health Now. Actors suspected to join him include Amanda Peet, Johnny Galecki, Sharon Lawrence, and Bill Pullman. Between them all, you might even get to ask Neil a few questions.

- By Joshua Morrison

For tickets and more information, please call 800-838-3006 or go to www.vstheatre.org.

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Mishappen Pearl: Win Tickets to See L’Arpeggiata Live!

Baroque is one of those words that seems to have somehow morphed into a false and flavorless definition over the years. These days, when I hear something described as ‘baroque,’ I instinctively think of haunted archways and Gothic ornamentation, but more than that, I think….old, dead, of the past. My old music teacher in middle school used to have a chart that mapped out, with cartoonish illustrations, the major periods of Classical music, and I distinctly remember the baroque portion of the chart appearing creepy and cold.

But despite my probably colored memory and purely individual reaction to the term, I still feel our societal understanding of baroque, in general, has come a long way from the original adaptation of the Italian word barocco, meaning mishappen pearl—a singularly beautiful phrase. And one listen to the French early music ensemble, L’Arpeggiata, a collection of some of today’s most pre-eminent soloists who will be performing “Baroque Variations” at the Walt Disney Music Hall on Wednesday, January 19th at 8 PM, will illuminate that beauty within the word.

Their mission as a group is “to revive an almost unknown repertoire and to focus especially on works from the beginning of the 17th century,” and that they do. When you watch the video above, or listen to one of their recordings, they don’t sound or look old, dead, or cold, they don’t even appear to be in strenuous revival-mode. They simply seem like they’re a group of extremely talented, modern musicians, having fun on stage. Which, I believe, is what the original baroque practitioners were doing as well.

To win tickets to see L’Arpeggiata perform “Baroque Variations” at the Walt Disney Music Hall on Wednesday, January 19th at 8 PM, simply enter your first, last name, and e-mail address into the form below, and you will automatically be entered into the running to win not only those tickets, but the tickets for our next three giveaways as well. Talk about a pearl.

- By Joshua Morrison

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The Aging of Aquarius

Hair TourAs 2012 is supposedly the true dawn of Aquarius, and as we are currently involved in at least one overseas military conflict with no foreseeable resolution, and as baby boomers’ babies are now reaching the age of maturity, and as the state of musical theatre in America seems to be careening in the direction of over-hyped, big-budget cartoon adaptations, Hair would seem to be the ideal show not just to revive, but to re-invent for a new generation.

After seeing the Tony Award-winning production, directed by Diane Paulus, on its opening night at the Pantages on Thursday (it runs until the 23rd), however, I realized the producers made no such effort toward re-invention. Instead, the non-stop round of musical number after musical number—sung as if the characters were participating in a cocaine-fueled campfire Kumbaya session—comes off as kitschy and embarrassing for anyone (like my one-time-hippy mother and father) who may have actually lived through the Summer of Love. In that sense, the show not only fails to adapt to post-millennium politics, but also to resuscitate the actual feelings that created the 60’s counter-culture in the first place.

If there was ever any plot to speak of in Hair, I didn’t catch much of it in this production. Essentially, there’s a commune of hippies living in New York City who spend their time singing and dancing about sex and their parents and sometimes the Vietnam War. The protagonist, Claude, a soulful lover and wanderer played efficiently by Paris Remillard, struggles to negotiate between his ‘duty’ to join the military and his new-found identity amidst the  tribe of peace-loving protesters. There are mild hints of potentially interesting love triangles within the commune—Jeanie (the beautiful Kacie Sheik) is in love with Claude, who, in turn, loves Sheila (Caren Lyn Tacket), who really loves Berger (Steel Burkhardt), etc.—but they are glossed over, much like every other breath of complexity.

And I realize many great musicals thrive upon their emotional simplicity (why else would anyone spontaneously break into song if not propelled by some deep, irreducible desire?) The problem, though, with painting hippies, in particular, with a one-color palette is that their critics (i.e. their parents, their teachers, even their government) start to make sense in comparison. When Claude is the only person out of his entire “tribe” not to burn his draft card, for example, I respected him. He showed to be capable of individual thought. Yet still, when he is asked by why he acts and dresses the way he does, all he can do is sing a non-sensical song about…well, hair.

The cast, however, is in no way to blame for my issues with the show. In fact, I appreciated seeing actual human body-types on stage—even in the infamous nude scene—showing off realistic stomachs, flabby biceps, and of course, curls of hair. Their genuine excitement was fun (if not completely contagious), and their voices were tremendous. They collectively proved you don’t need to look beautiful to be beautiful. I especially enjoyed Matt DeAngelis, who played the slinky, acid-burned Woof, and Josh Lamon, a legitimate show-stopper in his turn as Margaret Mead.

The one cast member, though, who gave the most exhilarating performance, by far, was the audience. Like a true method actor, they were “on” before the curtain even parted. It was strange. I’ve been to a bunch of huge Broadway shows and tours, on opening nights and closing nights, in London and New York and LA, and rarely have I seen this much palpable enthusiasm for a show. They absolutely carried the other, weaker actors on their backs the entire time, and in the end, proved the whole 2-plus hours to be a worthwhile endeavor—in my eyes—when they were duly invited on stage to sing a massive, rousing rendition of “Let the Sun Shine In.” Watching with glee as middle-aged women joined young, effeminate men and dolled-up, heel-clad girls in a shamanistic rage of song-and-dance, I thought, for maybe the first time in the production, this is something my mother and father would like.

- By Joshua Morrison

Hair runs until January 23rd at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. For more information, please visit www.broadwayla.org, or call 800-982-ARTS (2787).

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Artistic Capital of North America???

la-arts-monthIs Los Angeles really the “arts capital of North America?” How about “the world?” According to Steve Rountree (President of The Music Center), Antonio R. Villaraigosa (Mayor of Los Angeles), Olga Garay (Executive Director of the Department of Cultural Affairs for the city of Los Angeles), and many others in attendance at Wednesday’s kick-off for the 3rd Annual LA Arts Month—which took place outside, between the Music Center and the Ahmanson Theatre—it is. Which brings to mind another question: if you repeat something enough times, and you really believe it in your heart of hearts, does it start to become true?

Los Angeles Arts Month—or January, as most people know it—was put together three years ago in an effort to promote tourism and encourage artistic community engagement. And from what I gather—although it was difficult to ascertain during the afternoon’s strange launch party, which included a Glee-like performance from the Hollywood High School Choir and a body-bending tidbit from this coming summer’s Cirque du Soleil show at the Kodak—it’s essentially a couple ticket give-aways, free museum entries, and of course, lots of media coverage.

Of course, any Angeleno—no matter how prideful—who’s ever been to New York will tell you Los Angeles is not the artistic capital of North America. And anyone who’s ever been to most any major city in Western Europe will scoff at the notion that Los Angeles is the artistic capital of the world. Don’t get me wrong: I spend a lot of time supporting and enjoying LA’s enormous, eclectic, and vibrant arts scene, but I would never claim it to be any more than it is—which, at least on the government-supported side of things, is struggling.

25 full-time positions, between last year and this year, were eliminated in the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA); grants and donations to the DCA decreased significantly from 2009 to 2010; the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), responsible for a quarter of the Department’s entire budget, was decreased by approximately $1.6 million; and the expenses for the coming year are projected to be about $0.7 million more than last year.

And these numbers are not just numbers. They actually do affect our city in a major way. The DCA, through grants, is responsible for producing over 400 free or low-cost exhibitions, classes, performances, film screenings, and festivals each year. So all those times you go out to a cool, free event at LACE or LA Theatre Works or the Echo Park Film Center or even make the trip downtown to MOCA or the LA Philharmonic, you can thank the DCA. Not only that, but they provide grants to over 25 individual artists each year, they uphold historic sites like the Watts Towers, and they make sure those many murals all over town stay in tact.

So, if the DCA is in trouble, why all the bravado? Well, on one hand, there is a significant amount of money coming in through grant awards. These include the Arts and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. stimulus), Pacific Standard Time (an award to fund a massive collaboration of over 50 exhibitions throughout the city designed to show off Los Angeles’s contribution to modern art), and the Mayors’ Institute on City Design 25th Anniversary Initiative (a plan to install affordable artist housing in Downtown LA). On the other hand, it may have more to do with what I mentioned before—that the illusion of a thriving artistic capital (much like the illusion of easy weightlessness created by the Cirque du Soleil dancer as she balanced her entire body on top of her chin) is less challenging than the reality of a city that’s come a long way, but must still use every practiced muscle in its body to pull off the act.

- By Joshua Morrison

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