An expanded version of the previous post now that I’ve retrieved the photos from my camera. Only in LA for a few days. Mostly doing family stuff. But we did check out LACMA and the Page Museum as well.
Category Archives: museums
After viewing Hidden Heroes, I went upstairs to check out Around the Table. I was pleasantly surprised even though I should know better by now. The San José Museum of Art takes risks which pay off more often than not. This show was no exception. Was it a mixed bag? Of course. But there is more good than bad and the good that’s there is all stuff I enjoyed very much.
Food is a tough concept to base an exhibition on. It’s so loaded and personal and wide-ranging that you can go anywhere and everywhere and fail to satisfy everyone. Lots of pieces which use food as a medium. Some work better than others but they don’t really explore the concept of food for me.
Where this show works best is when it touches on how food impacts people and places. Angela Buenning Filo’s Orchard photos and David Burns and Austin Young’s Fallen Fruit in particular stand out for the way they reference Silicon Valley’s past of fruit farms and canneries and pull that history into the present day.
I also really liked Karla Diaz’s Prison Gourmet and the War Gastronomy Food Cart.*Both of these pieces address how food and recipes are more than just sustenance. They’re creativity and survival and tradition which we adapt and create for whatever our current situations are. Sharing recipes, making due, the way food impacts our memories of time and place. It’s important to explore all of these aspects of food and realize how rich and complicated it is.
*Something that I’d seen previously at YBCA but hadn’t fully digested at the time.
Other pieces I liked?
I could have spent a lot more time with Rosemary Williams’s Supermarket than I did. It’s great. It’s a combination of Gursky and Adbusters. It demonstrates how abstract and corporate the food we purchase is—especially when displayed just across the room from works which show actual food sources. It makes us think about how our food choices are dictated by brands and placement on shelves. It forces us to confront how little choice most people have regarding their food sources.* I’d love to know what supermarket and where in the country this is because I think it would be absolutely fascinating to compare regions and chains.
*Worth noting that the ethnic aisle is full of choice brandwise.
And Jitish Kallat’s Epilogue is a moving memorial to a life. Illustrating each day of someone’s life is already a provocative memorial. Doing it with moon phases touches something deep and primal in us; I’m never fully aware of the moon, but I also know that I look for it and notice it each day. Illustrating the moon phases with roti seems more clever than interesting, but it’s abstract enough that it becomes more of a meditation on life, time, and what sustains everyone. I wasn’t expecting to like this but I did.
There’s also a gallery which is intended to provoke more interaction and make visitors rethink food and our usage of it. A lot of good things in there. One of the factoids in particular struck me though.
Specifically, it claims that food waste makes up 21% of landfills now. This is presented as a bad thing. At the same time, I remember being a kid and learning that paper waster was ~80% of all landfills. So my initial reaction was more of a, “holy crap, this is GREAT, look how much recycling has helped!” than any rue about how much food we waste.
The Hidden Heroes show at San José is a difficult one for me to review. At one level it’s an extremely exciting concept to select a number of mundane everyday objects and highlight them as design classics in a museum. The choices of what to include and what to exclude make for fascinating discussion and thought. At another level, the actual displays here are just not that interesting. There’s a ton of potential hinted at in each display but the follow-through leaves me frustrated.
First, the good part. Since the complete list is the most interesting part of the show, it’s a good thing that there’s a comprehensive online verison of the show. I don’t disagree with the items which are selected. They’re all things we’re familiar with but have never really considered. It’s great to be forced to confront them as designed objects.
Too many museums ignore design completely. The ones which do cover design tend to focus on design brands* while making the assumption that we’ll connect the dots in comparing the designer things to the generics. I don’t think most people make that leap as I still remember viewing Mood River at the Wexner,** mentioning that I’d love to see the exact same show only using generic components instead, and receiving some odd looks.
*Named designers or firms making conscious decisions to distinguish their objects from the generic pieces.
**Yeah, that’s an awful exhibition page. The Amazon listing of the catalog is a little better.
Mood River’s actually a good comparison to this show since it was about the collective effect that all these designed products could produce but never established what the baseline mood should be. Hidden Heroes meanwhile calls out the generics and suggests that we should appreciate them more for what they are.
Where Hidden Heroes fails is that it doesn’t enough beyond the identification of the objects. There’s a little history presented but generally not enough to satisfy. It’s important to know where these items came from and what problems they were attempting to solve. Especially when we take them for granted now than we can’t image them not existing.
If you’re lucky you get old advertising or a manufacturing video. But this isn’t consistent and a lot of what makes these design classics isn’t the actual common product but instead the manufacturing process which allowed this version to become standard.
It’s not a coincidence that some of the most-fondly remembered Mr. Rogers episodes are the factory visits.* Seeing how things are mass-produced, and the specialized tools used to do this is fascinating stuff. And the simpler and more ubiquitous the object the better. Pencils, crayons, paperclips, tetrapaks, etc. are so simple yet the machines which make them are design marvels in their own right.
Seeing how these common, everyday objects are made efficiently and cheaply is as much a part of the genius of their everydayness as their actual design
*The crayon factory in particular.
The other part which I’d like to see more of is an acknowledgment that a large part of what makes these things so common and genius is that they’re cheap and disposable. If we’re going to anoint things as hidden heroes, we also need to recognize their hidden costs too. It’s a glaring weakness that that the exhibition doesn’t address the ubiquity of these designs and how we may have selected them based on a certain set of values which we may no longer fully agree with.
Are they justifiable design classics? Absolutely. At the same time, a large part of modern design are attempts to improve on these classics in order to address the disposability side of things. Design is no longer just about creation. Cradle to Cradle is over a decade old now and it’s important to call out the blindspots of past classics.
While Alec Soth was the main draw for Project Los Altos, I did enjoy exploring the rest of the galleries. A show like this is expected to be a bit hit and miss. Soth counts as a hit. The highlight though is Christian Jankowski’s Silicon Valley Talks.
This piece was hilarious. And painful. I could only watch one (Vacation) before overdosing on jargon. I want to watch the rest but I can only deal with it in small doses. This kind of jargon is exactly the kind of thing we do for fun.* It’s also the kind of thing that management does without realizing it.
*Yes we’re all geeks.
Part of me is aghast at the idea that this is what the future of English will be. The other part of me accepts that English always absorbs the technical jargon of the day and uses it metaphorically to describe other things. We already mix metaphors in talking about ourselves as needing fuel or not being able to compute things. Future jargon such as buffer optimization or packet management is only a matter of time.
I also liked Kateřina Šedá’s Everything is Perfect, and the idea of giving awards for whatever achievement you can think of. I enjoy that this piece suggests that it’s good that we celebrate the ordinary instead of focusing just on the extraordinary. Especially since the much of the Silicon Valley culture is focused on being the best. I also see the flip side where this piece suggests that we’ve deluded ourselves into believing that everything is actually perfect and that we’re perfect and that this area is better than anywhere else.
And I want to go to everythingisperfect.org and nominate my friend’s parents because they’re the best.
The other piece I really liked was the recognition of Charles Garoian’s work at Los Altos High School. He was the High School art teacher for over a decade. It’s fantastic to see his student projects get recognized by the museum. I can’t help but think that maybe there should be an art teacher recognized like this every year.
On the heels of my enjoying Flesh and Metal, I figured I should check out SFMOMA On the Go’s Project Los Altos show too. I’ve been intrigued watching this show develop. SFMOMA, despite being in the Bay Area, doesn’t typically address Silicon Valley. As much as I love the museum, this is one thing which I’ve always felt like it misses. The San José Museum of Art often does great things here. So does the Stanford Museum. So does Oakland. I’m glad to see SFMOMA look South for once.
Project Los Altos is also interesting since it brings SFMOMA into a non-art space. This is also something I’d like to see more of. The small galleries still smells like fresh paint. The docents are all super eager and friendly. It’s a nice change of pace to collaborate in the city and encourages people to walk and explore a bit. The whole “let’s go find this other piece/gallery’ experience is something I haven’t felt since I was at Biennale.* I wish that SFMOMA had done something similar to this with its Six Lines of Flight show. Sometimes exploring just enhances the experience.
*No, Los Altos is not Venice.
The main reason I wanted to see this show though was to see the Alec Soth photos. Besides him being a photography rock star, I was interested to see outsider views of Silicon Valley. There’s a bit of an echo chamber in the Bay Area which forgets how different the outside world is. Heck, it forgets that there’s a lot of non-tech stuff in the Bay Area too. In this case Soth is clearly looking at tech, specifically the current big-name companies. Lots of Google—and a resulting focus on Mountain View. Also Apple, Facebook, and Udacity. The garages* are a nice nod to origin stories. But it’s interesting that there’s no reference to Stanford or PARC or any of the intellectual sources of much of the Silicon Valley mindset.
*HP, Steve Jobs, Google.
I found myself thinking a lot about who else should have been chosen. The lack of Intel or Cisco for example are pretty striking considering what all the tech companies actually run on. I also thought about how the set would have looked different if it had been shot in 2000. Or 1990. Or 1980. Silicon Valley has been around a long time now but people only think of the current version as a new thing.
The photos themselves are very nice. Lots of low contrast black and white photos of home—foggy Bay Area mornings, sorta Baltzy industrial parks, and the suburbs I grew up in. Soth manages to pull a sense of calm out of the over-programmed Bay Area lifestyle while also emphasizing how lonely it can be here.
At the same time, they also feel also incredibly shallow. They try and scratch the surface of the gleaming fantasy of Silicon Valley success to show other aspects of the area only they don’t go deep enough. Nor do they suggest the boom-bust cycle which is common here. I’ve spent the last few weeks driving past the construction site for the gleaming new Apple campus, the first phase of which is to tear down what used to be the main HP campus. The constant churning of industrial park construction/destruction as industries come and go is completely absent from the photos. As is the similar churning of strip malls and suburban housing. The only constant I think are the schools since they’re the anchors upon which property values depend on. And the tech companies have to stay with commute range of those good neighborhoods.
Also, while I’m not Soth—both in terms of skill and vision, this is one of the first times I’ve been to a show where the subject matter overlaps with one of my own projects. I’m used to seeing photos which I’ve aped (either unconsciously or consciously). It’s a different experience to see photos which trigger the, “wait, do I have a photo like that” reaction. The two Soth photos in Redwood Shores are close enough to my work neighborhood in Foster City to have caused me pause.
It was also interesting to contrast Soth’s photos with Friedlander’s Cray photos. The two projects are very similar both in their subject matter and in their approach. Friedlander shows more people at work and isn’t as critical about what it all means. Soth is a bit more provocative in trying make a point about isolation. Still, both works come at a lot of our preconceptions about tech and where tech is developed. It seems like cutting edge devices should come from space age locations. The reality is much more mundane.
Because of my experience at Princeton, and because of what I’d seen in the Carrie Mae Weems exhibition, I decided to stick my head in the Africa section of the Cantor Center.* I’m glad I did since there’s a fantastic Keïta print** up on display right now. I had only seen his work online until then. As impressive his work is online, the actual print is worlds better. Definitely worth seeking it out if you’re in the area.
*I didn’t feel like looking through everything else that day.
**Which I’m unfortunately unable to find an image of online.
The Cantor African artifacts are across multiple rooms with one room specifically dedicated to post-1950 pieces which addresses the post-colonial sense of Africa as part of the global stage. As much as the “Africa is a country” thing is an annoying Western ignorant viewpoint, I found that it worked in this case. The commonality of having to deal with resolving cultures after Europe messed with things in the continent makes sense to me. The presentation wasn’t about how all Africa was the same but rather how different African artists dealt with the cultural whiplash of being unleashed from colonialism and set loose in the global economy.
That the items on display were actually intended as art rather than artifact also helped. As does the fact they were clearly marked as modern.
I went to the Cantor Center to see Carrie Mae Weems. I figured I’d stick my head into SFMOMA’s On the Go show there* because, what the hey, I was already at the museum. Oh man. Am I glad I did so. I was expecting sort of a retread featuring highlights of their early-20th-century rooms. What I got was something which caused me to rethink my opinions on a lot of my favorite artists and artworks.
*Since SFMOMA is closed for remodeling, it’s partnering with various other museums and organizations so as to maintain a physical presence in the community. This show at the Cantor is the first I’ve seen of the closed SFMOMA.
This is one of the rare shows which not only combines painting, sculpture, and photography into a single gallery, but puts them all in conversation with each other too. It’s beyond wonderful.
Look at the list of artists on display. Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, etc. etc. They’re all looking at objects and architecture from a surface/form/texture point of view. The artworks aren’t depicting physical objects, they’re exploring, in different media, the new textures and surfaces which have resulted from the mechanical age.
It’s so obvious when you see them all together that I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t put this together on my own.
I’m also upset that museums don’t blend photography in with everything else all the time. So much of photography is about taking the everyday object and transforming it into something more by emphasizing its form. Readymades and photographs should go hand-in-hand in museums. Instead photography is off in its own wing or floor as if it were in its own distinct world from the rest of art.
Which is an extremely limiting view of photography. And does a disservice to painting and sculpture too.
I hadn’t realized how much, say, Weston and Duchamp had in common before. Weston’s Excusado isn’t even on display and I’ve never even seen them linked by subject matter let alone by concept. This show makes it explicit and obvious and has me rethinking the context of all the early photographers now.
Nicely done SFMOMA. I hope all your On the Go shows are this revelatory.
Stanford really scored when Carrie Mae Weems won a MacArthur Fellowship right before her retrospective opened at the Cantor Center. Not that I wouldn’t have gone without that bump, just that it was nice reminder to make that show the first thing for me to see when I got home for the holidays. It was worth it and it was brilliant.
Weems’s work is black-specific but manages to be inclusive and relevant to non-whites in general. This isn’t a case of an artist making work which the art establishment treats as black because of who she is. Weems is consciously and specifically addressing issues of representation and identity based on her experiences as a black woman. However, I found myself responding to much of her work as feeling consistent with my upbringing as a non-white. I’m still not exactly sure how she pulls it off but it’s a hell of a balancing act.
If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because so much of her work is explicitly about representation. She gets a camera and is introduced to photography. So, like so many other people, she begins shooting street in the style of people like Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. However she’s also aware of Roy DeCarava and James Van Der Zee and understands how important it is to represent herself and address the myths which society has used to define her. The rest of her work which follows consistently comes back at and attacks the stereotypes and myths which she grew up seeing. While those myths aren’t the same as what I felt growing up asian, the larger picture of calling out stereotypes and embracing your own representation rings true.
For example, her family photos and stories. These are all extremely personal but they’re also specifically reacting to the way black families are represented in the mainstream media as being broken and weak. Instead we get a lively, strong, large family (complete with men present). I particularly love the in-frame text providing individual vignettes for each photo.*
*Something which is unfortunately missing from her website presentation.
These photos transcend blackness and feel appropriate to working class non-white in general. They remind me of my wife’s family and family gatherings. They also suggest that a large reason of why I like The Jangs is because that series comes at the myth of the Asian family the way Weems comes right at the myth of the black family.
Similarly, her American Icons and Ain’t Jokin’ series take the stereotypes head on by explicitly illustrating them. A lot of this reminds me of Fred Wilson except that instead of putting the actual objects in the museum, Weems is photographing them. I look at the photos and also see direct relevance to the current arguments about Native American mascots and appropriation. Representing minorities as stereotyped objects is so insidious in how it quietly shapes how they perceive themselves.
Ain’t Jokin’ takes things a step further by actually posing people in black stereotypes (Tough girl. Watermelon man. Fried chicken eater). These photos only work when you know they’re an inside job but they also show exactly how these kinds of stereotypes shape our perceptions of ourselves. I found them incredibly funny but in a cruel black humor way.
They also show how even a “good” stereotype becomes baggage. Fried chicken and watermelon are delicious and I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t like them. At the same time, I can totally see a a black kid trying to avoid those foods just because they’re stereotypical. That minority kids aspire to white bread, kraft singles, and blister-pack bologna because it’s what the white kids eat is a horrible state of affairs.
I found myself picturing other series by other minorities addressing their specific stereotypes. Like say a mexican woman holding a baby or an asian with a calculator. In many ways I think this is the best way to call BS on the whole thing.
Which brings us to the Kitchen Table Series. These are selfies, but not. Self-portraits are a very different thing than self-representation. Weems is drawing on Frida Kahlo here and carving out her own space rather than fitting into the standard male artist view of women. This is the flip side of both Cindy Sherman’s work* and the Ain’t Jokin’ series. Weems is using herself to represent what isn’t represented. The result is a series which feels appropriate to almost every woman, but especially non-whites.
*Not self portraits but directly confronting stereotypes of women by presenting them.
This series is also the first big instance of Weems using herself in her work as a representative of concepts larger than herself. That she’s able to do this consistently and make it work so well is a testament to her skill.
The concept of representation continues through the exhibition and is a reminder of how much context and the creator of a photo matters. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, it’s fascinating to compare Colored People, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, and African Jewels. Photography is so much more than just the photos themselves. Who took the photos matters. As does the way things are displayed. As does the relationship between the subject and the photographer. We forget this a lot of the time. Weems continuously reminds us to think about the intent behind the images, the way they’re displayed, and the agency—or lack thereof*—in the representation.
*Especially by Weems choosing to caption images using the passive voice.
The other nice thing about this exhibition is to see Weems just grow as a photographer. It’s not that her earlier work is not good, but her technique keeps improving to the point where her later work leaps off the wall. In particular, her photos from Gullah, the Slave Coast, and Africa are great photos which evoke a sense of place.
And there’s still so much more going on in them. There’s a focus on typography, word origins, and signage which reminds me of both Walker Evans and how all these locations are trade zones full of cultural mixing. There are specific items and tools pictured which I’ve seen in other museums as if they are ancient artifacts when in fact they’re modern. They work much better in-situ with the context that they are still in use and without the implication that Africa is a primitive backwater stuck using millennia-old technology.
I especially love the gendered buildings photos.
Her photos from Rome, Cuba, and Louisiana are also great in a way which makes me rethink my dislike of travel photography. These aren’t exactly travel photos. But they also kind of are. Heck, they’re almost the worst kind of travel photography in being travel selfies which emphasize the difference between the traveler and the location.
A black women traveling and taking photos in colonial or racist places completely changes everything.
That she’s there—proudly—means something. Says something. White guy photography may bore me. Flipping the privilege dynamic on its head does not.
There’s a lot of other work in this show which I haven’t mentioned. A lot of it is also very good. I just didn’t have specific reactions to it the way I did to the pieces here. I also find myself responding most to the representation questions that Weems raises and thinking how to deal with the stereotypes I’ve internalized as I’ve grown up. We’re always so tempted to run from them. Confronting everything head on like Weems does is a better tack.
Many shows lumping together because I was too blitzed from Turrell to see them all properly.* There are a lot of photography shows there right now. From what I could tell, they’re all pretty good too.
*I saw the Calder show while I was waiting for my timed entry to Turrell.
The first show is See the Light. It’s another personal-collection show so I was a little bit on alert for name-dropping. I shouldn’t have worried. This show avoids a lot of the “I’m a collector” pitfalls because it’s not “big name” dominated nor does it show any “collect them all” tendencies. Instead what we see are lots of photos, nicely grouped by specific subject matter.
It’s a good approach for a show like this. Lots to see and appreciate. Nothing overwhelming. A decent place to learn more about photography if you’re only just getting into the medium. Enough obscure things to interest experts.
I very much enjoyed looking through the galleries, relaxing my brain, and taking note of anyone new who stood out to me. In this case, Judy Fiskin, Kozo Miyoshi, and Nathan Lyons. Fiskin looks to be making contact prints from 6×6 negatives—something I didn’t think would be practical but the results are surprisingly striking. Miyoshi’s work was just super interesting. And Lyons was framing things in ways which broke the rules but which worked tremendously well for me.
At the back of this exhibition was a small gallery devoted to a newish David Hockney piece. I’d read about these before and kind of went “blah” about the premise. They’re much more interesting than I expected and are more like video joiners despite being in arranged in a grid. As video camera costs continue to decrease, it’ll be interesting to see where these kind of pieces go.
There’s also a room of John Divola photos. This room is part of a larger exhibition which covers three different museums. I’m not sure this approach works in this case* and felt a bit underwhelmed with what was available at LACMA. It wasn’t bad, just not enough to transcend the sense that the work is merely clever. I liked what I saw though. The movie sets as landscape concept is interesting and works as a nice blend of Cindy Sherman and Sugimoto. I also liked the “As Far as I Could Get” series though I found myself thinking about variations of the theme (so not just running away from the camera) more than the photos on hand.
*The Turrell exhibition was also actually in multiple museums but this felt okay since his work seems too large for one museum to be able to handle everything. And because what was available in LACMA was sufficient to really get to understand his work.
The last photography show is the massive Gabriel Figueroa show. Holy crap. I needed another day at LACMA to properly view this one. Or a massive caffeine hit since there’s no other way to view this and Turrell on the same day. It’s excellent and works really well when paired with the Itinerant Languages of Photography show I saw at Princeton. Where that show just scratched the surface of the vibrant visual culture in Mexico, this one is overflowing with movies, posters, stills, photography, etc.
Mexico is a visual place with a culture that trades on visual imagery. Amazes me still that so much of this was missing from Photography in Mexico. The Figueroa show rides his work but pulls in artists and threads from all over into the realm of visual imagery generated by him and the Mexican movie industry.
Outside influences like Weston, Modotti, and Strand are present. Manual Alvarez Bravo’s movie work is here too. Movie stills which reference the original revolution photos such as the Soldaderas are there as well. As is the cross-olllination between Mexican and US films. And the evolution of Mexican visual culture as it evolves past what Figueroa is referencing to making him the reference point for new works.
I’m considering buying the catalog (or at least downloading the app) just because this show deserves more attention than I could give it. What I saw was great enough. That this show is in LACMA and is 100% culturally relevant to LA is also great to see.* I love it when museums are locally relevant like this.
*Unlike my visit to the Page Museum with its human civilization timeline which only mentions Mediterranean civilizations. No mention of what humans are doing in Mesoamerica or Asia despite the vibrant cultures there and the fact that those cultures are more directly important to many LA residents.
A quick post on LACMA’s Calder exhibition. It’s a good show and worth going to. At the same time, Calder is one of those artists who is so familiar to us that I can’t recommend making a special trip just for these.
That said, I loved the presentation here. The gallery is filled with alcoves which allow for each piece to breathe. At SFMOMA in 1998 it felt like things were too jammed together. Calder’s pieces have such presence that they need their own space in order to not compete with each other. LACMA allows them to do that.
There’s also just enough air movement in the gallery to allow everything to move without tempting people to blow on things. The only choice I’m questioning is the lighting since they managed to avoid a lot of shadows. For the purpose of this exhibition (emphasizing the abstract forms) that may be the correct choice. But I’ve always loved the shadows that Calder pieces project as well.
The exhibition does a nice job at placing Calder in context art history-wise by mentioning the influence of people like Miró and Duchamp* as well as discussing the postwar public art movement and how giant monumental abstract sculptures because such a thing.
*Who coined the term “mobile.”
As I wandered through I found myself appreciating the balance between the abstract forms and the way the lines flow together. I also must have had the Monterey Bay Aquarium on my brain* since so many of the mobiles remind me of kelp and the aquarium logo.
*As I also thought of it while viewing Turrell that day.
My main interests though were in looking at Calder’s construction. It’s so simple that it borders on being crude. The mobiles are held together without welds as the wire is pretty much just shoved through the metal. Things are just cut out of sheet metal, deburred, and painted. The result is almost inspiring in a sense of “I should go and try making this kind of thing myself” kind of way.
The maquettes for the massive public stabiles are also extremely interesting from a construction point of view. In this case, they don’t have the same ribbing and construction details as the final pieces. Kind of shocks me that Calder didn’t spec that out. At the same time, looking at the maquettes provides some guidance into what details mattered to Calder and which ones did not.