LACMA

I didn’t just visit The Getty while I was in LA. I also had a chance to wander through LACMA. While I’ve been to special exhibitions I’ve never spent the time to just see what’s in the main collection. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to give it a proper runthrough so I only have what’s in my notes.

The German abstraction stuff is great. Especially the prints which oddly remind me of a lot of the 1970s book illustrations I grew up seeing.

I enjoy the Kandinsky, Klee, and Feininger room. But it really weirds me out the way the galleries are grouped by collector. Seeing that plaque about whose collection in in each gallery immediately makes me think that the museum hasn’t curated anything beyond maybe the wall text. Still as with at SFMOMA, it is nice to have dedicated galleries for each artist. So at least the collectors featured have enough pieces for that to work.

It’s always a joy to see Bay Area Figurative on display outside of the Bay Area. I wish SFMOMA would feature it more in its new building.

I really want to see an exhibition of John Chamberlain’s sculptures get mounted across the street at the Petersen Automotive Museum.

The Oldenburg Pool Balls appear to be a big instagram magnet based on the number of photos I saw people taking of them. I found myself incredibly bothered by how they’re not the correct colors/stripes for actual pool.

I got really confused on the top floor of the Ahmanson building. They had Roman objects installed with 18/19th century French and English objects. Took me wandering through multiple galleries before I realized it was intended to show inspiration. That the modern galleries don’t do anything like this with any of the primitivism pieces really bothers me now.

I do however enjoy the Salon hangs. There’s only so much white cube I can handle.

Photography at LACMA

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.

Untitled. Series: My Trip to New York. Judy Fiskin
Untitled. Series: My Trip to New York. by Judy Fiskin

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.

Nathan Lyons. Untitled. 1962-74
Nathan Lyons

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.

Gabriel Figueroa. La Perla.
Gabriel Figueroa. La Perla.

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.

Calder and Abstraction

Calder and Abstraction

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.

Best of 2013

Instead of the top-10 list I did last year, I’m just picking one favorite/best for different categories. Also, I haven’t done a writeup on everything yet so I’ll be updating this post well into 2014 with links to the relevant reviews.

Best exhibition overall: Jay Defeo

Jay DeFeo at SFMOMA was the first thing I saw in 2013 and set the bar so high that I’ve been comparing everything since to this show. Her work is all over the place. In the best way possible. It was fantastic and exciting to see how she jumped from medium to medium, constantly taking on new and different projects while at the same time referencing all her past work and never putting a foot wrong. She deserves to be treated as the master that she was rather than merely as the creator of The Rose.

Other non-photography* shows in the running here: James Turrell at LACMA which blew my mind by making me geek out on color more than I thought possible. Lebbeus Woods at SFMOMA—a show I’m still incapable of writing about because my brain exploded while viewing it. Flesh and Metal at the Cantor Center (by SFMOMA on the Go) which put photography, sculpture, and painting together to force me to see some of my favorite pieces in completely new ways.

*I’m splitting things up this way since I’m finding that I’m viewing them with different mindsets. While DeFeo and Flesh and Metal both involve photography, neither of them are photography exhibitions. I’m basically keeping three categories (photography, non-photography, online) running in parallel. If my best overall was a photography show, I’d have a best non-photography category listed later.

Best Photo Exhibition: Garry Winogrand

Garry Winogrand at SFMOMA, as obvious a choice as this is, is also my favorite photography show I saw this year. Part of this is because I love the photographs and slice of American history they show. But a large part is due to the fact that, more than any other show, Winogrand spurred a lot of discussion about photography, editing, ethics, etc. and anything which gets us all talking like that is a great thing.

Also in the running: Carrie Mae Weems at the Cantor Center providing a much-needed non-white perspective on art, photography, and representation. Itinerant Languages of Photography at Princeton addressing how photos change meaning as their context changes. Richard Misrach at the Cantor Center making us ask serious questions about our modern lifestyle.

Best Online Exhibition: Form and Landscape

The Huntington’s Form and Landscape project represents the kind of thing I’d love to see more of moving forward. The concept of unleashing multiple editors on a single archive and then collecting the results is what the web should be great at. That this exhibition also manages to tell the story of LA as well as explain a lot of the myths of the US is the icing on the cake.

Other noteworthy online exhibitions this year: Flak Photos Making Pictures of People is the latest foray into demonstrating how curation itself is a creative act. SFMOMA’s Rauschenberg Research Project shows how a museum can take its existing holdings  online in a ways which not only enhances the collection but also keeps the museum relevant when the collection itself is offline.

Best individual artwork: Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment

Pippin Barr’s Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment was part of San José Museum of Art’s Swans, Swine, and Sirens show. It’s awesome. The only thing more fun than playing the game is watching other people play, fail, and not get it.

I also enjoyed Christian Jankowski’s Silicon Valley Talks as part of SFMOMA’s Project Los Altos. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry with it though. And sitting inside Turrell’s Breathing Light at LACMA is not an experience I’ll forget.

James Turrell

James Turrell.  Breathing Light, 2013. Photo: Florian Holzherr.

As promised, longer museum write-ups from my visits to LACMA. First, the James Turrell retrospective. This one left me a bit at a loss for words. My initial response?

Holy crap.

Having thought about it for a week now, I think I’ve finally figured out how to be more intelligible. Where most retrospectives seem to try to pick as many pieces as possible, this one picks representative “best” pieces and suggests that we spend a lot of time (often ten minutes or longer) with them. Most of them are well worth the investment.

Turrell’s work involves viewing and experiencing light. Most of the pieces have a single gallery dedicated to a single piece so viewing everything is also somewhat meditative as you let your eyes and brain adjust to the light and just pay attention to how your perception changes.

It’s not an experience which I typically have in a museum. It’s actually more like the experience I have at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Outer Bay tank where I’m sitting in a dark room looking at a glowing dimensionless space which is simultaneously a screen and a void. Except that where the aquarium has things in the tank providing some depth and you can get right up and notice the tank glass, Turrell is 100% pure light.

James Turrell. Raemar Pink White, 1969. Photo: Florian Holzherr.James Turrell. Raethro II Blue, 1971. Photo: Florian Holzherr.

The exhibition really gets going with a number of “slim spaces” which feature the dimensionless light in a space in one side or corner of the gallery. The lights doesn’t come out of the space and you can’t tell whether the space has a hole or a screen. Yet at the same time, the light manages to also fill the gallery. When you’re looking at the light, you want to try and touch it and figure out what the hell it’s doing and how the hell it’s doing it. Thankfully LACMA provides a map which shows the floorplan—including the sizes of the slim spaces.

The photos on Turrell’s website suggest that these are all super brightly colored but the effects are much more subtle as your eyes adapt. In the pink room (Raemar), it’s overwhelmingly pink at first and then your eyes filter it out into more a more subtle shade. It amazed me how much color remained after filtering out the pink as I was expecting something similar to Olafur Eliasson’s Room For One Color to occur.* Instead, the the room stayed pinkish but still in color while the slim space wall remained incredibly vibrant and compelling.

*Eliasson featured low-pressure Sodium Vapor Lamps to create a yellow room with such a low frequency response that once your eyes have filtered out the yellow, everything is in greyscale.

Similarly, Raethro II sits in the corner of its gallery and demands to be touched—or reached into—through its vibrancy and the fact that despite being a void in the corner, your eyes complete the form even though there’s only light in there.

I also really like the super-dark pieces like Key Lime which slowly reveal themselves as your night vision kicks in. I still have no idea how this piece works, just that my eyesight isn’t enough to figure it out even after losing track of how much time I spent inside it. I want to touch it and fail so that I can see where the shadows fall and verify that I’m not looking at a scrim. At the same time, I love the sense of confusion which makes this piece fit in with the best magic tricks.

All the slim spaces build up to the giant ganzfeld piece Breathing Light—essentially a slim space you can enter with another slim space as one of the “walls.”* While you’re inside the piece, the light changes hue and you’re truly left in a state where your sense of light, white, color, depth, and space is never certain. The single anchor available to you is the void through which you enter the piece and even there, due to the changing light inside, it appears that everything is changing outside too.

*Really a void which you’re (correctly) cautioned against approaching because of safety reasons.

This is light as architecture in how it defines and determines space. It also, sort of perversely, reminds me of Richard Serra* in that instead of providing walls which define a space, Turrell does the same thing with light. It’s easy for me to get caught up in the exploration of the medium and lose track that it’s really the exploration of space which is going on.**

*This is most obvious in his drawings, but is also worth keeping in mind when walking through his sculptures. It’s nice that LACMA has a giant Serra downstairs from the Turrell show.

**Of course, this isn’t an either-or decision.

The other nice thing about Breathing Light is that it gave me hints about how the previous pieces were constructed. Being able to enter one allowed me to observe how the walls were shaped and how the entrance portal had bevelled edges.

As a photographer, I find myself especially excited by Turrell in that by exploring how light can define space, he’s making what photographers are trying to capture. That he does it with color is even more impressive. His work is essentially unphotographable while at the same time being photographic catnip. For once I was glad the galleries prohibited photographs. I’m happy to see the official photos of the pieces as they remind me what I saw. None of them do justice to the experience.

A number of the rest of the Turrell pieces are also interesting but didn’t blow me away in the same way as his architectural light constructions. His projected shapes are neat but seem like steps toward the actual architectural usage of light to create shape space rather than just play with perception.

I really like the Sky Spaces concept. When I first saw Three Gems at the De Young I didn’t quite get it. I need to revisit it now. The Sky Spaces show how it’s possible to remove depth perception from natural light too. Instead of just being far-away, by framing the sky it becomes dimensionless and variable. I’m fascinated by the Roden crater project since it appears to take the sky space concept to its logical extreme. I hope he manages to finish it to his satisfaction since I’d love to see it.

Note

While they don’t seem to fit with the rest of his work, Turrell’s Holograms are also extremely interesting. I remember when holograms were the neat new thing in the mid-1980s.* Then they became security features on tickets, and money and a feature of blinged-out baseball cards when that market started to implode.** I haven’t seen them used as art before this. I really like that Turrell’s approach exploits the 3D nature of holography without making it a literal 3D  picture.

*Seriously. The March 1984 National Geographic cover blew my mind.

**Random note on baseball cards. The packs at the Dollar Tree still consist of  commons from 1986 through 1992.