Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Alexis Smith At Cottage Home/Tom Solomon

Our last stop in Chinatown was the Alexis Smith show at Cottage Home/Tom Solomon. Smith got a double-billing, so to speak, with her other show at Margo Leavin (who needs a serious website, dammit, not that lame artnet.com hosted page). There was a recent article in the LAT about how Smith had lost her old studio in Venice.
Tom Solomon kindly took the time to show us pieces by other artists upstairs, including an exquisite Sol Lewitt work on paper and a no-less exquisite Douglas Huebler, both of them I'd love to proudly display over my desk, if I could buy some art. He also regaled us with stories about his former life as a curator (I always suspected he was one, given the love he displays for the art) and about meeting Gordon Matta-Clark when he was 9. We had a great time, alas my shoulder was killing me, so it was clearly the moment to get back home.

The Shows at China Art Objects, Sister and David Patton

Just a few pics from various shows at China Art Objects, David Patton and Sister. The best thing at the Cal Crawford show was the music, it was mesmerizing , but the rest, uh...

Steve Lambert At Charlie James

We continued out lucky streak with the Steve Lambert exhibition at Charlie James GLinkallery. Mash up American vernacular visuals with corporate and commercial language, shake a little bit after sprinkling a bit of post-Warholian take on recent crass art market triumphalism (pre-recession) and you get a great show, funny and attractive but that has something to say. Did I mention the pieces were dirt cheap? Steve Lambert has received his MFA at UC Davis where Stephen Kaltenbach teaches. As I'm sure you would have guessed.
The show was reviewed by Christopher Knight in the LAT.

Judith Bernstein at The Box

Speaking about seasoned, mature artist, The Box has chosen to present work by Judith Bernstein. A smart and funny angry feminist, with political work from the 1960s denouncing the Vietnam war (and many other things) and giant, angry dicks populating the gallery. What's not to love? Before anybody gets the wrong idea (well, I cannot prevent you), for the record I think these drawings are extremely powerful. It would be smart from our local art collectors-generous benefactors to buy a few and donate them to our LA museums.

There was one very appreciative kitty that came and visited the gallery with us.

Henry Taylor At Mesler & Hug

Another show Joe and I enjoyed very much was the sprawling installation/series of drawings, paintings and sculpture by Henry Taylor at Mesler & Hug. We spoke about an interesting shift in what art galleries are now presenting, moving away from freshly-churned-out-of-UCLA-grads to more seasoned, mature artists with a body of work to show their worth. Henry Taylor's work has something to say about our common recent history (as opposed to, say, people "expressing themselves through their art"), in a smart but humble and desultory way, without verging in self-righteous propaganda à la Thomas Hirschhorn. I found this show touching, and also sweet. It reminded me a little bit of Martin McMurray.

Julie Lequin At 2nd Cannon

FBC! gal pal Julie Lequin has a show in the window of 2nd Cannon, where she hung drawings of her-life-in-a-suitcase since she has successfully embarked on an international, year-long, wandering series of artist residencies.

Joseph Herring And Amy Ruddick At The Brewery

Last weekend I've been fortunate to be taken out by artist Joseph Herring to see Chinatown galleries, as well as his own show (with Amy Ruddick) at LA Artcore and the Brewery. I'm going to post mostly pictures, if only because I cannot type that much with a crushed shoulder (not healing at all), but you can get all the information you need via his site here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Glen Avon Trilogy - The Spigot

[I've announced last month a new literary collaboration to FBC!, to depart a little bit form all the art stuff. Here's the first installment in a series of autobiographical stories by Renee Montgomery. I also have to apologize in advance for the slower pace at FBC! these days, not only my shoulder hasn't healed yet but we're also experiencing some recurrent breaks in our high-speed connection that make posting a little bit complicated. Linkage is messed up, apologies for the weird anchor icons here and there. FBC!]

The Glen Avon Trilogy - The Spigot
In light of my chronic childhood fear of kidnapping, our family’s move to Tyrolite Street in Glen Avon didn’t improve my mental health condition. If Glen Avon wasn’t already on the correctional system’s map of potential drop-off zones for repeat-offenders, it should have been. Every other property certainly telegraphed a lifestyle that lowlifes, dangerous criminals and other "despicables" would find warmly familiar. Filling most lots were old mattresses, junkyard cars, junk heaps, junked appliances, and unkempt children Dorothea Lange would have rejected as too depressing.

Given the option of being left alone in the house while my parents worked in the fields, I preferred the chore of lugging around muddy irrigation pipes in the pasture. Although the indoor TV reruns were attractive, at least in the middle of the field I could keep my eye on anyLink sudden movements from the crazy neighbors. The acreage provided a buffer zone on all four sides, and, although heavy and awkward, the pipes would afford a modicum of defense when attacked. So the pipe-management task meant relative peace-of-mind throughout each day until my parents breathed the dreaded words: “the spigot.”

Not normally fearful of plumbing fixtures, the spigot wrecked panic in my heart knowing it meant having to cross several adjacent properties, alone, to the main drag to turn on the irrigation valve. Stables lined the path on either side to the spigot and I would draw comfort from the horses’ presence but was ultimately dismayed knowing their inability to describe my bludgeoning to the police. The only consolation en route to the spigot was the awareness my parents would soon realize something was amiss when the irrigation water didn’t flow. Upon inspection, they’d shortly discover the reason for blockage: my dead body.

The play-dates:

By the end of the day, even the hardest-working pipe-toting children wear thin on parents’ nerves and the question “Why don’t you go across the street to play?” always comes up. Although she had never met the Shermans, my mother, in her infinite cluelessness as a parent, was positive they were upstanding individuals, --seeing that the couple both had jobs with Lay’s Corporation – a distinction my farmer parents could only imagine. And the Shermans had a child meeting all the qualifications for a playmate in that era: a boy or girl within ten years of my age. So as was customary in those days, I was sent over on my own without introduction to play with Darrell Sherman.

Although a standoffish child, once I made it past the goat gauntlet in the front yard, it didn’t take long to get to know Darrell and his parents. Their three-room shack meant the family held few secrets. I soon recognized where Darrell got his large looks -- from his size XXXL parents. The small house design must have been restrictive for the full-body Shermans but they wisely kept to a simple furniture layout: two Barcaloungers and one TV in a classic V-pattern. I recalled what my mother had implied about the family’s corporate connections upon seeing the floor covering – an ocean of potato chip bags from wall-to-wall, mostly open. Hmmm... Yes, my mother was right, the Shermans had unlimited access to corporate perks – all the defective bags of chips they could eat. After polite conversation following snacks, I edged to the door.

New friends:

Except for the time I saw someone resembling Darrell on the Rikki Lake show being craned out of his house, I hadn’t thought about the Sherman family for years till recently stumbling into Ted and John’s property. A shack, junk everywhere, -- memories flooded back. “Come and see my creek in back,” John invited. Memories of my childhood paranoia also streamed back. Had Chandra Levy been invited to see “the creek in back”? John seemed like a nice-enough guy though and so I listened intently to his descriptions of the "toxic flume" -- confusing but plausible I guess? Following a tour of the garage and trailer stuffed with layers of crap, John stooped down and asked if I wanted to see his wiener? -- his favorite joke when introducing his dachshund, he explained. Ha ha!

Then came John's truck, covered with a notice of confiscation -- part of John’s dispute with the State? County? Feds? Who had taken his former land, -- not eminent domain, or failure to pay taxes or mortgage payments, -- but communists, in our government, confiscating private property for their own evil purposes. Furthermore this had to do with me, John explaining he had been watching my car for me all afternoon – in case it might be seized too. In thanks for his careful oversight, a date was implied. Recalling my set-up with Darrell and the horses unable to testify for the prosecution in my murder case, I graciously declined and edged to the door.

(Renee Montgomery writes from Glen Avon, located near Jurupa, near Rubidoux, outside Riverside California, -- known for its toxic groundwater, auto junkyard and life-size dinosaur models.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pompeii And The Roman Villa At LACMA

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting a former colleague for lunch, and one thing leading to another I ended up visiting my first exhibitions since that last car accident. I had overestimated my energy level by a too wide margin, so today I'm paying it with extreme tiredness and increased pain. In passing, I apologize to the friends I didn't say hi to yesterday or didn't spend that much time with, but my body sorry state got the better of me and I had to get back home. Also, for any of my friends and social acquaintances, a word of warning: while I totally appreciate the sentiment behind your desire to hug me when we meet, please absolutely refrain from touching my right shoulder. The left one is fine, but the right side of me is a major block of pain. I know it's not obvious because I'm not in a cast or wear bandages, but believe me, it hurts.

Anyway, it was pretty good to look at art again, especially since I got to see the really excellent Pompeii And The Roman Villa exhibition. You all know the story, 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupts, and buries an entire region under an inferno of ashes and lava. Fast-forward to the 18th century, the site is accidentally re-discovered, excavated, and a very-well preserved series of buildings and artifacts is unearthed, helping generations to re-discover Roman art in particular and Roman civilization in general, fueling the Neo-Classical movement in art, and a couple of centuries later the Roman-inspired Hollywood tradition of macho men fighting in togas and crimson capes.
This show was excellent for all the good reasons that make an exhibition memorable. First of all the material exhibited was first-rate. When almost all the pieces in an exhibition are good, you know you're in for a good ride. No little fragment of a copy of a copy here, but carefully selected outstanding pieces.
Then the curators did a great job of explaining the influence of Greek art on Roman art, but also separating the genuinely native Roman art from the Greek-inspired one. I loved the few pieces where they presented archaic-style (in French we say "archaïsant") Roman pieces made to look like antique Greek art, but with variations that clearly showed they were much later works, made to look like Greek originals. The labels were good at telling the audience these were either a case of local Roman artists trying to make fake works to sell to collectors, or on the contrary the result of commissions by the patrons wanting to have work "in the style of".
Generally speaking the educational part was really excellent, never lacking in explanations, clearly written without taking the public for a bunch of illiterate retards who don't know any better than look up words they don't understand.
It's good to see labels and didactics aimed at a higher level than 6th grade. With one glaring exception, a label placed right next to a beautiful bronze depiction of Epicure that managed to totally distort the philosopher's theories, succumbing to the Wikipedia-culture of our age, alas. Speaking about the subtext of many of the labels, it seems directed at taking stabs at "rich patrons", "wealthy Romans", etc. Now I understand curators in this country are generally frustrated at having to deal with our modern equivalent, the generous-but-not-so-knowledgeable-trustee-cum-philanthropist-patron-of-the-arts, but the way this was approached wasn't very subtle. I thought.

The other great thing about the show was the abundant examples of works made in various mediums, including lots of bronze sculptures (usually we see more marble than bronze), and some fresco fragments which emphasize the germane, original Roman painting styles. The Romans were also masters of glassworks, and if the examples chosen for the exhibition were few they were all absolutely exquisite. And there was one mind-blowing object, a cup made of obsidian with inlays (I think they were gold filigree and enamel, but I didn't write down notes, so I may be totally wrong here) depicting Egyptian-style scenes. Now this is a type of object you rarely see when going into a Roman art show or permanent collection, so busy are the curators usually perpetuating the mantra of "the Greek massive influence on the Romans". Aside from this there were few mosaic pieces, sadly, as the Romans were really masters of that art, but you could see some gold jewelry and a few examples of banquet dinnerware.

Apart from the class subtext I was mentioning earlier, the other underlying message about this exhibition is the obvious importance of "appropriation" (to borrow a contemporary term) for Roman artists and art audiences alike, whether they were appropriating/being influenced by Greek or Egyptian artists (and earlier, Etruscans ones through whom the Greek influence was initially channeled). This message is repeated in the last room of the exhibition, which contrarily to Christopher Knight I thought was absolutely appropriate, in the sense that following the message of the rest of the exhibition (the Romans being influenced by the Greek, OK?Shall I repeat it again?) we understand how this same mechanism repeated itself when Pompeii was unearthed in the 18th century and European artists started to be massively influenced themselves by what they saw.
It doesn't matter that most of the neo-classical art looks dreadful to contemporary audiences, if only because to many modern audiences the Greek-derived Roman art also appeared dreadful once the distinction was made (following Winckelmann), for a long, long Purgatory period that only now is starting to be lifted. I was also happy that in addition to the mandatory Christopher Wright of Derby (an 18th century painter specialized in volcanoes) whose work you see each time an exhibition calls for the representation of some eruption or other, the curators added a painting by Valencienne*, a French painter established in Italy who made exquisite plein-air landscape paintings on paper a long time before the Impressionists decided to follow in his steps.

As far as I was concerned the only faux-pas in this exhibition was the inclusion of a piece by Eleanor Antin that looked so contrived and out of place in the show it managed to make that LACMA mantra of using contemporary artist to "update" historical art totally gimmicky. No, it is not because an artist makes a work that refers to the popular culture view of Roman art that the works is necessary relevant to the exhibition, no matter how it tries. Unlike the neo-classical works exhibited in the same room (as well as some Roman bronze originals), the Antin piece was trying too hard to be ironic, like twenty-something hipsters priding themselves on their ability to be sarcastic to mask their lack of intelligence and emotional empathy. When the entire exhibition was striving to underscore the path genuine cultural foreign influences can take to organically contaminate and then fertilize an entire civilization, centuries apart, the post-modern abstract take used by Antin in her piece lacked depth and breadth to make a useful connection. It's a curatorial mistake I feel LACMA should be weary of making, as not all exhibitions necessarily benefit from juxtaposing oranges and apples, nor does it behooves contemporary artists to see their weakest work selected out of context to "actualize" ancient art. But it certainly would benefit living artists in Los Angeles to go see this exhibition, if only to ponder the powers of appropriation, influence and other themes that were at play in the long history of art a long, long time before Jeff Koons & consorts.

[Aside from this, the exhibition runs through October 8th, and I advise all my beloved FBC! readership to go see it, high price notwithstanding, as it is one of the most beautiful and well-thought exhibition to see around.]

* The Louvre has an outstanding collection of Valencienne works on paper.

All photo credits can be found here. I wasn't able to copy and paste them on FBC! so I'm resorting to linking to the page.

A Few Photographs By Matthew Betcher

LA-Based photographer Matthew Betcher kindly let me re-post some of the pictures of jellyfish he took recently at the Monterrey aquarium. You can see more of his work on this Philadelphia-based blog. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Things My Students Would Love To See At Museums

No, not the art, but the stuff around it.

[Before I start, please note my students are a sample of 39 people, with a ratio of 55% women for 45% men, a very diverse crowd that includes African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and White students. All of them work to support themselves and sometimes their families, the age rank is overwhelmingly under 25 with a few students (about 5) in their early 30 and one student in his 50s. They are all majoring in either fine arts, graphic design, communication and marketing, or art history (only 3 of them).
They are not your everyday sophisticated art crowd, but the type of people most likely to be paying visitors in museums.]

1. They want the museum admission to be free. They rightfully compare museums to libraries in the sense they both have the same type of mission (making a certain type of knowledge accessible to all). However, they don't realize it is a funding issue (libraries publicly funded, museum mostly privately in America). Some of them explain that if they have to pay, they expect to have the same type of experience as going to Disneyland or to the movies: being entertained.

2. Information, information, information, of the printed type. They complain about the fact there is no easy way to get it during the visit, especially in permanent collections where they feel it is the museum's true job to tell them about the era, the geographic location, the civilization, what the artifact was used for, its signification and if there is some information about the creator of the piece. It sounds pretty straightforward, but they are absolutely right in stating this information is almost always missing.
I know most curators are worried too much print near an artwork can be distracting from the aesthetic contemplation, but there are ways to do this (i.e. floor labels).
Their major complaint is that if they want to know about one artwork, the info is usually abundantly available only on the website (yay for this) but not right in the building when they visit.
Also, something they were not aware before the class but they got attuned to: if the collection isn't comprehensive (as it is indeed in most California museums) they would like some type of explanation about the gaping holes: what's not there, which are the missing links, etc.
Lastly, it seems super simple, but it isn't: they want to know where to go when they get inside the museum. Where to start, in which order if there is one, and where things are. Effective signage is rare.

3. The security guards (cutely named "museum attendants") usually know zilch about the exhibit. Obviously, the public has no idea most security guards work for subcontractors and are not part of the museum staff. Nevertheless museums everywhere should train their security staff, subcontracted or otherwise, at least in the basics of what is where in the building, and how to direct the public to where it can get information.

4. Speaking of which, photography policies that vary from one point of the building to another are confusing. Some students feel under attack if they fish in their bag to fetch their phone or lipstick and are yelled at : "no photography". Museums should stick to a decision (allowing photos everywhere or forbidding them everywhere) as long as it's consistent, and train the guards about the policy. It's confusing if it's allowed in one exhibition but not at the one next door.

5. They feel that most museums that have activity rooms are only geared toward children and families, and that as young adults they feel left out. They would love to participate in hand on experiences.

6. They hate audioguides, and refuse to join tours if they have to pay for it. There's also a peer aspect to it, i.e. if no one in their age group tends to join a tour, they don't want to be in one. They don't really care for aging docents. For some reason, they expect to learn about the works on display form other visitors. There may be some untapped potential for educators here, but I don't know how.
BUT they really like: podcasts, and any interactive info they could get during a tour on their iPhones and such like (I know there's a contradiction between wanting a free admission because one's a poor student and owning an iPhone, but it's their contradiction, not mine).
They also want free wi-fi throughout the museum (which makes sense if the info available about the works is through the website).

7. They want ... more seats! more benches! more cafés, possibly with cheap and good food.

8. They overwhelmingly enjoy all-nighters at museums with live bands, food, interactive activities, etc. They want their type of music (which varies, but not Jazz nor Classical, I was surprised to see they mostly favor electronic music) so they can dance. Many of them are unaware of the various movie programs or lectures, which would benefit from more PR.

9. They have suggestions. Like installing interactive kiosks with touch screens in museum galleries, where they could select the work they want to know more about and quite possibly, print it out on demand.

10. They want... holograms! Yep, like "Leonardo talking about the Renaissance".

11. They would love to see more reconstitutions of period rooms where they get a sense of how people lived, but also how the art was used and displayed. One student even asked for a church-like room where altarpieces would be displayed the way they were, etc. But what they mean really is that they would want to be in the period room themselves, handling the objects and learning how/why they were used (replicas, I see a market for you). The kitsch factor doesn't seem to be on their radar.

12. About contemporary art... they really, really want to know about the work without having to buy a $55 catalog. They feel also the contemporary art museums environment is the most sterile (painting the walls a different color and putting in some seating would help). They suggest to have the artist himself, since in most cases (s)he is alive, to give a small talk about the work that could be podcast/Youtubed/received on their iPhone, etc.
Which I think makes sense, and would probably teach a bunch of artists I know how to express themselves clearly without using gibberish. Most people don't want to know "you're trying to subvert the codes of perceptions" because they don't understand what you mean, and chances are, you neither. What are the codes of perceptions your paradigmatic shift is subverting?

13. About non-Western art, some of them feel there should be contemporary art from the same region/culture exhibited in the same department: i.e. art from Iran or Northern Africa in the Islamic Art Dept., same with Indian art, Chinese, etc. They don't want it to be separate and shown in the Modern and Contemporary Art Dept. (where it isn't shown anyway but as a token, punctually).

14. They can stomach obscene/transgressive content as long as there is some explanation about why it's there or why it is important in this or that aspect of a particular culture. A very devout catholic girl told me about being shocked when seeing erotic Indian art but upon reading the explanatory didactic right next to it understood its function and felt comforted by knowing how important it was in Hindu culture at the time. They also feel that religious content isn't sufficiently explained/described i.e. when they see an Annunciation, they have no idea what it is about, except there's Holy Mary and an angel. Since its the basic of Art History 101, a refresher in the guise of an extended label would help.