Museums

FEATURE: Museums of Los Angeles: Part Three

LACMAWe began these spontaneous looks at three of Los Angeles’ cultural icons with The Norton Simon Museum, followed by The Getty Center. Now we come to the third side of the triangle and I am still trying to define LACMA.  Perhaps that is because I am most familiar with it; spend the most time at it. Of the three museums it is the most diverse in content, the most bureaucratic in design and administration, and also perhaps the most ambitious in its reach. You can go to LACMA’s website and discover the history of its birth on your own. Today we again arrive as a stranger with no bigger an agenda than to see what we can see.

PART THREE:  LACMA

THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART

Though the newer buildings get the big “oohhhh” when you first arrive at LACMA, it is the old buildings that I find have held up quite well. The Times Courtyard is a wonderful place to gather with a friend and plan your time and what you want to see. If you don’t have an official agenda, you will be surrounded by choices.

The Japanese Pavilion with its Guggenheim-like spiral, the Hammer Building with the most comprehensive collection of Korean art outside of Korea and Japan, the Arts of the Americas Building which has special exhibits on the 2nd floor while the 3rd and 4th levels will take you through both pre and post European influenced art. There, ancient feathered serpents shake hands with Diego Rivera, David Hockney and Millard Sheets give you differing birds eye views of Los Angeles, American landscapes prove equal to the best of the Barbizon, and social realism reminds us that our relatively short history is filled with powerful human stories—Reginald Marsh’s Third Ave. El, Miki Hayakawa’s Portrait of a Negro, Paul Cadmus’s Coney Islandall are grand fine art, and of these last, sometimes I wish LACMA would give them the greater promotion that they deserve.

The two new stars of the LACMA campus are the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, and the even newer Resnick Pavilion. Both are mega-buck ultra contemporary architectural superstars. BCAM, as the Broad is called, is for those who love or who are at least curious about the cutting edges in Contemporary Art. For those who “get it” no more need be said—they will embrace the silk purse while others will hold their nose at the stench from the sow’s ear—and some will see nothing and insist the emperor is naked.  Rapture or anger, you won’t be bored.

The Resnick Exhibition Pavilion is the newest member of the LACMA family and already has had a major success with Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico.  Renzo Piano’s designs for the BCAM and Resnick structures is all 21st Century optimism, colors and shapes and promises for the eyes. And they reflect LACMA’s focus on the future demographics of Los Angeles.

However it is the Ahmanson building that is still the “museum” building at LACMA…the grand lady where you can find a genuine Egyptian mummy and “Jack the Dripper” just one floor apart, and while running from one to the other, have some Tea with Henri Matisse and gawk at Giacometti and puzzle over Modigliani and don’t miss those weird unhappy German expressionists and why did Picasso make all those women look like horses as he went from Neo Classic to Cubism and then to a fusion of both and how can you not see the big black thing in the lobby. The Ahmanson building has it all, plus Hindus and Buddha and a nod to Islam.

The gallery for the Impressionists/Post-impressionists/Paris School is weak. No way around it. And the reason is simple. The Getty and the Simon are the raucous offspring of wealthy individuals. LACMA is the hesitant creation of a city born of orange groves and dreams, trying to puff up its chest and imitate its East Coast peers. The great examples of European Modern Art were mostly bought and sold before LACMA even existed. However given how late it got into the game, LACMA has rolled the stone up the hill and done worthy job for the tax payers and the museum goers.

I want to end this piece with a treasure hunt for some modest works of art that continue to draw me back again and again. I’ll give you clues but you will have to search for them and find them. In the Art of the Americas building is a trio of works hanging side by side, paintings by two students and their teacher: Miki Hayakawa, Yun Gee and Otis Oldfield. I leave it to you to learn the stories behind them. In the Ahmanson on the 3rd floor are two great little paintings, one hung so high up you might need a step stool to find it. They are Painting and Music by Martin Drolling and Palermo Harbor with a View of Monte Pellegrino by Martinus Rorbye. This last one is very small; actually it was a sketch in oil for a later work. However if you can get close enough to see the amazing detail in even this sketch, you will see that this very small painting is every equal to a much larger nearby masterpiece, View at La-Ferte-Saint-Aubin, Near Orleans by Constant Troyon. Lastly, look for a beautiful and almost life-sized bronze, Seated Hercules by Guillaume Boichot, stare into the face and wonder…in wonder.

LACMA is very big and there is a lot to see, worth seeing, worth sharing with people you care about. It has free jazz concerts on Friday nights, and movie programs, and it has places where you can sit and be alone with a piece of art and take your time getting to know it. And if you do that with just one work of art, then LACMA is a success. You can learn more about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art at their website, www.lacma.org.

- By John Ireland

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FEATURE: Museums of Los Angeles: Part Two

tgc5Eric Gibson, in his WSJ review of a new wing in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, writes “…museums are about collecting as well as building…” That is a prime issue in this series covering The Norton Simon Museum, The Getty Center, and LACMA. In the first part of this series I praised the Simon Museum for its intimacy and experience combined with its depth of art. In each of these articles, I come as a stranger to a new city…filled with bias and anticipation…and trying to record what I see as I see it…without anymore expertise than a horny sailor at a fifty-cent peep show.

PART TWO:  THE GETTY CENTER

For me The Getty Center is the quintessential Los Angeles museum: impossible (or at least exceedingly impractical) to get to without using a car. You must wind your way through the Sepulveda Pass and the Santa Monica Mountains that separate the Westside from the Valley. Finally you see it…The Getty Center sitting on a peak, accessed via—what else—Getty Center Drive. Attendants wave you into a gray concrete bunker which becomes a winding Dr. Strangelove-like descent into  the seven-levels of Dante’s parking garage. None of this, however, inhibited the throngs of people who joined me for a brisk elevator ride back up to the planet’s surface.

Bathed in Southern California sun, the tram station looks born in the New Wave French cinema of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 and Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. Inside a plastic spaceship-subway pod we bumped and curved our way through Salad Nicoise landscapes interspersed with aerial views of the 405 Freeway.

At last we reached Getty Center’s mountain-top main entrance where white stone and chromed steel and blue skies announced that this was Olympus and we should be prepared to walk with the Gods. Yes arriving at The Getty Center is a visual show all its own. The complex of multiple buildings seems even larger because there is nothing else next to it except the wild home of deer and coyote and mountain lions. Los Angeles exists as a far away dream sculpture seen from enormous windows and imposing observation decks.

In addition to the four main halls (named for points on the compass) there are multiple gardens and administrative and research buildings plus studios and an Exhibition Pavilion and a Lecture Hall and an Auditorium and to keep on naming all the features is needless.  I glance left and right…people seem to either rush or move slowly…umbrellas and tables always available for shade and rest…I look up at Giacometti’s enormous Standing Woman I…(my Giacometti is bigger than your Giacometti?)…and for a moment I feel no need to even enter a building. But I do because that is what you do with Museums; you enter to worship the ghosts of your civilization.

In the entire western world, museums must be divided between those that feel compelled to show The Renaissance and those that do not. Yes it was a great time in human history…blah blah blah…but why does so much Renaissance art make me think of cheesy political commercials? (Perhaps because that is what much of it is was?) But this time was different on my trip to The Getty Center—whether it was the specific examples or the setting or the day or the pretty young Asian school girls swirling around like excited butterflies, whatever—I fell under the spell of art that I usually walk quickly past. For now, let me chalk it up to the Getty’s selection. I settled back and enjoyed the details of labor and skill in the amazing varieties of Jesus and his gang and their stories of good and god vs. evil and desire. This was the hip-hop Hollywood of its day and now because it is old and fragile we store it in giant temples such as The Getty Center and we come and look and maybe we even see ourselves in this old stuff. Later we think about it silently while answering email or maybe make a passing remark about it the next day.

Of course, as it was at the Norton Simon, when you turn away from the religious hoopla and sneak into the shadows of humanism, when art and sex conquer Religion, then the Renaissance really comes to life. And in this where The Getty Center excels. The sensual lust that artists masked behind Greek and Roman mythology seduces the viewer and cannot be talked away. It is about being naked, being ripe with desire. It is about blood and the human smells of hate and love.

It is the Getty’s Northern Renaissance works, however—and three by Rembrandt—that left me breathless, specifically An Old Man in Military Costume, Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak, and Saint Bartholomew (this last is a direct link to Vincent van Gogh). And here, for me, is the fascinating conflict between the anti-religious Northern Renaissance and the Holy Roman Catholic Renaissance of southern Europe. All the sexy, exciting stuff is from the heavily religious south and all the beautiful but dry, pinched, tight-ass painting is from the north. And maybe that reflects the modern European political world today—in Germany we have Angela Merkel, a prim matronly woman, and in Italy we have Silvio Berlusconi, a vain lecherous old man. Yes the Renaissance is alive and well in the 21st Century.

If you like modern decorative art (small d and small a intentional) then you can browse La Brea Avenue’s pretentious second-hand stores full of 50’s junk. But if you want to see Decorative Art so insanely beautiful that it drove a nation to murder its King and Queen, the furniture and French Tapestries at Getty Center are awe inspiring.  No Swanson frozen TV dinner short cuts, no phony San Fernando Valley McMansions, no Facebook/IKEA disposable software/hardware…here you will gain a hint of just how grand that period called “long ago” could be. Warren Buffett and Justin Bieber and Mark Zuckerberg all live in Pimple Land in comparison. And until you see this, you don’t know what the word rich means.

For all that Getty Center has, there is also something that it does not have. By the time I reached the art of the 1800s the curators seemed to have run out of inspiration or inventory. Up to that point Getty Center was a thrill ride…and then the ride sort of just…slowed…down.  Yes they have impressionists and post-Impressionists and van Gogh’s Irises, but for this period of art history, the energy just wasn’t there for me.

All museums acquire what they can afford at the time they buy it. That is why West Coast museums just don’t have the…juice, the big stuff you see in East Coast and European museums. The West Coast came late to the party. That’s the reality. And that said, The Getty Center is a wonderful museum and a wonderful experience. If you love art, do not deny yourself a visit there. I went looking for one thing, and was surprised and enthralled by something else.

- By John Ireland

For more information on The Getty Center go to www.getty.edu.

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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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Steampunk Football

image4At LACMA on Saturday night, a girl in a white Victorian dress sat on a bench with her hands folded, looking pissed off. A photographer from the clothing company Clockwork Couture stood a few feet away.
“Want to sit in her lap?” the photographer asked me.
“I think I’m okay,” I said. The girl looked so familiar, I had to ask. “Have you ever watched True Blood?” I asked.
She stared at me. “I know what you’re going to say,” she snapped. “Lorena, right? I hear it all the time.” She looked coldly into the camera as it flashed.
I guess I don’t blame her for being pissed off. I would be too, if I had to pose with bystanders at the fourteenth annual LACMA Muse ‘Til Midnight event, where the clothing was Victorian, the food supplied was chips and salsa, and there was an open bar. The tickets were $40 for non-members, $25 for Muse members, and it was hard to see what all the fuss was about.
The event sounded great, in theory: a neo-Victorian dress-up night at the museum, coinciding with the Thomas Eakins and Catherine Opie show, Manly Pursuits. Eakins painted wrestlers and rowers in intimate situations in the late 1800-early 1900’s, while Opie currently photographs teenage football players and surfers. Connecting the two artists requires a stretch of imagination, but the show is a valuable statement about the forced efforts and vulnerability of masculinity.
However, the Muse ‘Til Midnight event didn’t have much to do with the show, or with anything at the museum. The event was described by a Yelp user like this: “A full line-up of entertainment with open bar in an unique environment for $25-$40? On a Saturday night? In Los Angeles? Even including parking? Do I need to keep asking rhetorical questions?” Unfortunately, the event became a Los Angeles situation in which too many good ideas were not executed properly, with too many people in attendance to leave such margin for error.
After waiting in a long line, guests were ushered into the museum’s main plaza where Dusty and the River Band played and video projections flashed on the walls. Two performers on stilts made their way through the crowd, surrounded by a thick circle of photographers, documenting the “insanity” for various nightlife blogs. Two stilt-walkers, a couple of dancers and some people in costumes didn’t seem like enough to justify paying $40, but let’s not forget about that open bar, which included “100% Agave Tequila, Blackheart Spiced Rum, Hpnotiq Liqueur, Pernod Absinthe, and FIJI Water.” It seems that people will spend any amount of money to get sloshed while wearing a corset.
Maybe next time, LACMA should make dressing up for the event mandatory, as the people who were wearing full neo-Victorian garb looked to be having the best time. Many people wore costumes from Clockwork Couture, a “steampunk” line that mixes Victorian clothing with modern touches, while others had improvised their own costumes. A thin blonde woman and her chunkier date wore matching top hats and lace-up boots, trailing long feathers behind them. Another woman wore a corset and a matching flowered neck brace, and many men (and women) sported fantastic moustaches.
At ten o’clock, everyone was ushered into a much longer line leading to the roof of the Penthouse suite, only accessible by an elevator. (Too bad for the claustrophobes.) The roof offered a nice city view of the Variety building, along with some mysterious devices, including a giant telescope and various contraptions used to “measure electrical phenomena.” A stage was set up for a burlesque show, and a dancer in chalky makeup tiptoed around the crowd en pointe as flashbulbs popped all around her.
Nearby, a man wearing suspenders rested his foot on a stack of pillows. “I sprained my foot, but this is awesome,” he declared, looking at the dancer. “Look at this. Look at her. Can you believe it?” I could believe it, though next time I would prefer to look at photos of the event rather than attend. Despite the congestion, chips and salsa, long lines and limited number of performers, it seemed like many people had a wonderful time. Never underestimate the power of a little absinthe.

- By Cassandra McGrath

For mose information about LACMA, and any upcoming Muse events, please visit www.lacma.org/membership/Muse.aspx, or call 323-857-6000.

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Not Your Typical Desk Chair

CharlesI’ve never quite understood why the decorative arts are overlooked, but unfortunately they are the forgotten stepchild of all art collections. Throughout the entirety of my four years of art history classes, the decorative arts came up only once and took the form of a humungous book that we were forced to purchase against our will, filled to the brim with photos of tables, chairs, chests, ottomans, buffets, dining sets, and headboards. At the end of the semester I re-gifted this behemoth to my mom for Mother’s Day and now it gathers dust on her coffee table. I fear that’s more exposure to the decorative arts than most people ever get.

As I crossed the threshold from busy, loud, smoggy Los Angeles into my personal Mecca, sanctuary, and glorious escape—aka The Huntington, I asked my good sport of a boyfriend why he thought the decorative arts didn’t get the recognition he or I thought they deserved. We agreed that maybe they are placed on the artistic back-burner because they are born, first and foremost, out of necessity, but I have always held the decorative arts in the highest esteem. Maybe I do because I believe that art is not only hung on a wall but rather all around us, from the way we garnish our homes to the very things on which we rest our tired feet. Furniture, just as much as painting or sculpture, represents and defines the visual culture of the times, and provides a platform for individual expression and audacious risk-taking. This holds true more than ever in the Huntington’s current exhibition, The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, the first-ever display of Rohlfs’ exhilarating and unmistakably avant-garde late 19th / early 20th Century furniture.

Charles Rohlfs (1853-1936) is frequently classified with the other greats of the Arts & Crafts movement (think William Morris and the writings of John Ruskin), but while he was undoubtedly a leader in America’s first entrée into modernist design, his vision and execution resisted a generalized and conformed grouping. His lack of formal training enabled him to create unconventional and mind boggling shapes. Even though his work advocated truth to material and traditional craftsmanship inspired by the medieval, romantic and folk styles of decoration, his furniture reveals overwhelming individuality and character. His are the type of fixtures you’d swear were conceived over a late night of pipe tobacco, opium, and absinthe—and I mean in all the right ways.

The furniture of Rohlfs on display at the Huntington is impressively delicate and noticeably romantic. The most modernist piece, in my opinion, is his Desk Chair (c.1898-99). Subtleties like the parabola shaped seat, intricate cross bracing and complicated trapezoidal legs distinguish this chair as one of the exhibition’s highlights. It screams turn of the century, but just like all of his furniture, it takes the inspiration to a whole new level. The pieces looked awesomely futuristic and at times almost alien, even by today’s standard. In 1899, the experience must have been fantastical laced with a slight touch of terrifying. Similarly, his Hall Chair (c.1904) served as another focal point to this unprecedented exhibition, but took on a less contemporary aura and resonated something very to similar to Deco architecture.  I couldn’t help but compare the symmetrical, geometric, and cubist attributes of Hall Chair to the details of deco masterpieces such as the Chrysler Building (1928) or even the terracotta sunburst I’ve noticed in the Eastern Columbia Building (1930) right here at home. Clearly, Rohlfs was ahead of his time.

Upon seeing his work, one might think that Charles Rohlfs was a celebrated genius among his contemporaries, but beyond the surface lay a man whose career and ambitions were in a constant state of struggle. The exhibition does a beautiful job showcasing not only the product of an inventive mastermind but also poignantly tells the story of Rohlfs’ complicated and distressing legacy. He was in a perpetual state of debt, scrounging for enough buyers to support his growing profession, all the while thinking of bigger and better marketing strategies to keep his dream afloat. In 1907, amidst one of America’s most severe economic panics, he developed a plan to market his furniture to a larger audience by issuing cards with descriptions, illustrations, and prices of his work—all on display in the second half of the exhibition. Despite his efforts, he still relied heavily on commissioned interiors and therefore had to design with the client in mind first, his own motivations second.

Photos and pieces from his large scale commissions make up the final parts of the exhibit. The compromise between artist and patron is evident from the noticeable discrepancy between the furniture born out of inspiration and that born out of necessity.  The commissioned interiors show fixtures that are far weightier, solid and sturdy and that are clearly different from the delicate and elaborate details of his earlier work. Even though this look is more popularized, it remains distinctly Rohlfs.

Rohlfs remained productive and active throughout his life, far after the 19th Century’s House Beautiful movement first inspired Rohlfs to pour his ingenuity into the decorative arts. The final object on display is the last piece he ever created. “Lamp Made for Sterling Rohlfs” is a tribute to Charles’ son who tragically died in a 1928 plane crash. The piece, while intricate and expertly devised, speaks to Rohlfs’ unwavering dedication to his art and his family.

If ever there was a reason to brave the 110 freeway, The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs is it. Exhibitions like this don’t come around often, especially those on the decorative arts. I assure you, this exhibition will change the way you think of furniture, and make you utterly abhor your boring desk chair at the office.

-By Brittany Krasner

The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs is on display at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens through September 6th. Visit www.huntington.org for more information.

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You’re Just Projecting

450Randy and Jason Sklar, better known as the Sklar Brothers, even better known as the hosts of the only ESPN Classic show I’ve ever watched on a regular basis—Cheap Seatsand possibly best known as the Cain and Abel of Hollywood agents in HBO’s Entourage, got their comedic starts amidst the burgeoning “alternative” comedy scene of mid-90’s New York. Back then and over there, such now-defunct clubs as the famous Luna Lounge used to hold regular open-mic nights, where names like Marc Maron, Greg Fitzsimmons, Louis CK, Dave Attell, Sarah Silverman, and many, many more once tuned their respective crafts. The Sklars didn’t immediately fit in. In fact, they stood out, and in a bad way. They’re identical twins, which, in the eyes of the comedy club weary, was synonymous with hacky—not far off from ventriloquism, as both shticks tended to traditionally rely on the straight-man/wacky-man dynamic. In interviews, Randy and Jason have talked about their initial struggle against this assumption, not so much with their audiences as within their act. They had to work hard to eventually to find their patented rhythm of completing one another’s sentences, riffing on topics the other brings up, never disowning their uncanny likeness, yet never relying on it either. Basically, they had to find their true collective self, a feat which simply would not have been possible without the open-mic.

These days, the Sklars still perform almost everywhere in Los Angeles, but have also transitioned into the world of film and television, an industry with lots of microphones (as well as projectors, the mic’s visual equivalent), few of which are “open,” almost none of which are free.  Hence, “Open Projector Night,” hosted by Randy and Jason Sklar, this Tuesday, August 17, 8:00 PM at the Hammer Museum. Free popcorn, cash bar, and a first-come-first-serve policy for any under-ten-minute film or video out there, these semi-regular nights have developed a reputation for rowdiness, rudeness, and yes, even the occasional cinematic gem. Come screen-test your private masterpiece (submissions begin at 7 PM), or just support your local filmmakers by getting drunk and voting them off the docket completely.

The Sklar Brothers, more than most, know what its like to struggle for an identity, and they’ve kind of made an on-screen career out of it (not to mention, paved the way for stellar teams like the Walsh Brothers). So if you’re tired of being constantly confused for someone you’re not, of having to dress different to stick out, of explaining the subtle yet imperative dissimilarities between you and that other idiot, just leave it in the hands of Sklars. They may not love your work, they may make some clever jokes at your expense, but they’ll at least give you a mic.

For  more information about “Open Projector Night” and Hammer Public Programs (all of which are free), please visit www.hammer.ucla.edu, or call 310.443.7000.

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In Print: Jacob Samuel’s “Outside the Box”

25The Edition Jacob Samuel exhibition, titled “Outside the Box,” celebrates LACMA and the Hammer Museum’s joint acquisition of the collection of 43 print portfolios produced by Jacob Samuel in collaboration with a host of international artists from 1988-2009. Samuel generally works with intaglio techniques, such as aquatint and engraving, but his deployment of these techniques is as varied as the group of artists he has worked with over the twenty-two years of his studio’s existence. Above all, he responds to each individual artist’s concepts and visions, helping them translate their practices into a reproducible medium. Samuel offers expertise and guidance, but in his own words, he “just show[s]up.” The finished prints themselves run the gamut of styles, from abstraction to representation, from seeming spontaneity to carefully planned and arranged wholes, from the organic to the mechanical. This range of practices and subject matter makes for a compelling exhibition.

Among the most intriguing portfolios were those that emphasized process or performance. Marina Abramovic’s Spirit Cooking, as its title implies, was envisioned as a metaphysical cookbook of sorts. The images themselves are sometimes gestural and indexical—images were scratched into the ground with the artist’s fingernail, or spit bites performed with actual spit, or handprints done in acid-resistant ground. The images interact with the printed text, complementing it with gestural impressions that somehow relate to the words, and by creating a rhythmic separation that distinguishes one ‘recipe’ from the next. Ed Moses’ Abstraktion and Apparition is a series of etched abstractions that seem at once spontaneous and carefully crafted. Spontaneous, because the organic forms recall abstract expressionist paintings, and crafted, because these images are executed in a highly process-driven medium.

Also on display is Samuel’s expertise and skill as a technician. James Welling’s Quadrilaterals and Jene Highstein’s Five Works both rely on dense patches of black without irregularity, while the images from Josiah McElheny’s White Modernismare barely there, ghostly white on white forms. Joe Goode’s Storm Trees series features fluid and amorphous illustrations, while Barry McGee’s Drypoint on Acid prints rely on a process that allows the artist to draw directly onto the plate, mimicking the original pencil drawings.

Jacob Samuel is an interesting figure—a master printer whose collaborations have intersected the careers of some of the most celebrated artists of the day—and “Outside the Box” tries very hard not to let you forget it. Certain placards perhaps go into too much detail about superficial aspects of Samuel’s relationships with the artists (i.e. Did you know he shares a common interest in jazz music/rock music/surfing with artist X?). Certainly Samuel’s resume is impressive, and the brief documentary and interview in the exhibition brochure explain how these relationships are important, but at a certain point the information begins to seem gratuitous or redundant.  This criticism is minor compared to the depth and breadth of work on display.

- By Joe Capezzuto

“Outside the Box” will be on display at the Hammer Museum through August 29th, 2010.  The work on display can be seen atwww.editionjs.com.

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Low Double Standards

IMG_0346-e1279000387395In the underrated classic Los Angeles film L.A. Story, Steve Martin fails to get a reservation at L’Idiot, a fictional hot L.A. restaurant with a line out the door, ticker tape reading the income level and importance of each dinner guest, and paparazzi at entry and exit. As Martin and his dinner guest leave, paparazzi back away, screaming, “Never mind! They’re nobodies!”

At the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, the opening of “Dennis Hopper: Double Standard” felt more like a cinematic tribute to Los Angeles stereotypes than a serious exhibition. Before passing away at the age of 74 due to complications from prostate cancer, Dennis Hopper had an uneven career in art, mostly dedicated to imitating his slightly older artist friends. But at the opening, it didn’t seem to matter.

The opening was much more exciting than the show itself. Curated by Julian Schnabel, the exhibition drew an eclectic crowd from all corners of the city, everyone obsessed with the scene moreso than with Hopper’s art. Wearing gowns of peacock feathers and skintight high-waisted bandage shorts, guests took pictures of people outside, pictures of themselves, and pictures inside the gallery. Waiting by the bar, a woman wearing six-inch red high heels whispered to me, “Just to let you know, Diane Keaton and Liv Tyler and the lady who used to be married to Charlie Sheen are inside. Diane Keaton! I almost peed my pants!”

Inside, Diane Keaton was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she was obscured by the giant fiberglass sculpture of a Mexican waiter looming in the entrance, which might have been a cultural symbol of fear, or stereotypes, or something. Either way, it rang hollow. Hopper began his artistic career with painting in the 1950’s. Some early abstract pieces on small canvases show promise, or at least, the promise of promise, which fades later on. Equally unsuccessful works use found objects and graffiti, including an early drawing of a woman with a mustache scribbled above her upper lip. As commentary on femininity and pop culture, it falls flat and graceless.

Hopper was most renowned as a photographer though, and the black-and-white photographs from the 1960’s are the best part of the exhibition. In one of the loveliest pictures, a young, golden Jane Fonda wears a bikini and aims a bow and arrow into the distance, full of promise. Other subjects include Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ike and Tina Turner cheerfully posing with a giant inflatable Coke bottle.

After the year 2000, however, Hopper reproduced some of these earlier photographs to billboard size, with garish results. “I kind of hate this,” said one woman, standing next to a giant black and white reproduction of Andy Warhol, who is holding a droopy iris flower and oozing self-importance. The piece seems preoccupied with itself, more like a painting in a Hollywood comedy about the L.A. art scene rather than actual art.

And after looking at the umpteenth photo of Warhol, the title of the show begins to make sense. One wonders, did Hopper’s creativity lead to his fame, or was his fame a result of his access to renowned artists and celebrities? Are the two qualities really inseparable from one another? Was Dennis Hopper’s artistic fame a double standard? After all, Hopper starred in everything from Easy Rider and Blue Velvet to “classics” like Speed and Super Mario Bros., and dabbled in all types of art, equally embraced for his creative eccentricity as he was exiled for his drug use. But Hopper’s cinematic career was more interesting than his artistic one, and as a big survey exhibition, the show sells Los Angeles short. The art scene in the city is much more complicated and intriguing than this exhibition gives it credit for, and MOCA must have access to many more talented artists.

But as the night wore on, no one at the opening seemed to care. The guests stood at tables outside, drinking from clear plastic cups, and everyone watched one woman yelling and dancing to DJ tunes by herself. A plump MOCA photographer leaned against the wall, waiting to capture the L.A. moment.

- By Cassandra McGrath

“Dennis Hopper: Double Standard” is on view at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA until September 26. For more information, please visit www.moca.org, or call 213-626-6222.

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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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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.

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