Art diary, 4/18/06: LACMA, MOCA, and Why All Art Would Be Improved by Snarling Bears

I’m not one of those people who reflexively hates Los Angeles. It’s true that you couldn’t pay me enough money to actually live there; and it’s true that I have the usual San Francisco smugness about SF being, by all reasonable standards, inherently superior to all other places on the planet. But there are many things I like quite a bit about L.A.

And the museums are very high on that list.

I was just down in L.A. this weekend, visiting my friends Chip and Hayley, and I spent much of my visit dragging them around to art museums. Here are the bits that hit me in the face the hardest.

LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Tejo Remy, Chest of Drawers/”You Can’t Lay Down Your Memory”

This was by far my favorite piece of everything I saw this weekend. It’s a pile of drawers, different shapes/sizes/materials, all balanced on one drawer and held together by a mover’s belt. And it’s such a beautiful mess of contradictions. It looks so fragile and precarious, this big complicated pile all balanced on this one little drawer on the bottom. And yet it has this sturdy quality, like serious time and effort had been put into making it hold together solidly while keeping the appearance of instability. More than any other art I saw this weekend, this piece looked like the inside of my head: jumbled and disorganized, but with an internal logic and structure that makes sense from the inside, and that “I know it’s around here somewhere” quality that drives other people crazy but always makes sense to yourself.

The shape is a lot like Andy Goldsworthy’s seed/cone things, but made of man-made found objects instead of natural ones, which makes it look both more comical and more fragile. And it reminded me a lot of my friend Josie Porter’s assemblage art, with that same sense of something beautiful and evocative and unique put together from mass-produced flotsam (Josie does lots of work in plastic trash and AOL signup CDs). It rocked. I kept coming back to look at it one more time, and part of me wanted to spend the entire afternoon skipping the rest of the museum and just sitting in front of this one piece.

John Sargent, Portrait of Mrs. Edward L. Davis and her Son Livingston Davis

I’m not usually a fan of Victorian portraiture. In fact, I’m not usually a fan of any pre-modern portraiture, or indeed most pre-modern art of any kind. I go through a gallery with painting after painting of Some Victorian Dude or Some Victorian Chick, and I think, “What’s the point?” But this one has this tremendous force of personality, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. (The reproduction, alas, does not do it justice.) It gave me this vivid sense of the subjects as actual people — not characters in a costume drama or names in a history book, but people with selves and lives, people you might have over for dinner. The woman looks smart and funny, strong-willed and opinionated, feisty and passionate and quick with a barbed remark. The son looks like he has her smarts and strength of character, maybe even more full of himself than she is — but also more quietly observant, with some sort of sadness under the twinkle. The more I looked at this portrait, the more I wanted to hang out with these two. Sargent knew his shit.

Gorham Silver Company, Ice Bowl and Tongs


I cannot begin to express the magnificent cheesiness of this piece. It looks like the cover art of a bad fantasy novel. It looks like something you’d buy on impulse at a Renaissance Faire, and then take home and wonder what the hell you were thinking. With rugged boulders dripping with icicles and guarded by snarling bears, it looks like it’s supposed to look like the wild and forbidding Arctic tundra. But it’s a silver ice bowl! With tongs! (Also adorned with a snarling bear.) What are we supposed to think — that the ice in our drink was carved from the Arctic wasteland, hacked out at tremendous risk by an intrepid adventurer, surrounded by angry polar bears, an ice pick in one hand and a revolver in the other? It became a running joke throughout the day — whenever we spent any amount of time with a piece of art, one of us would say, “Well, it’s pretty good, but it’d be a lot better if it had some snarling bears.”

MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art)

After Cezanne

This is an exhibit of modern and contemporary figurative art (art with pictures of people in it). Which means that it’s an exhibit almost tailor-made for me. I mostly prefer modern art — in fact, I almost entirely prefer modern art — but a lot of the super-abstract stuff I find a bit bloodless, an intellectual exercise with little passion or emotional impact. But it’s hard to do a portrait, I think, without emotional impact. My favorites were the woman seated in thin air suspended from the ceiling; the creepy masked face with the mouth dug out of the canvas and the tiny fetus placed inside; and the gargantuan portrait of the teenage girl murderers done in ballpoint pen.

Karl Haendel

This one was interesting. I didn’t like it at all at first, I thought it was didactic and obvious, and the gallery’s unusually bad art-speak intro about confronting the audience didn’t help. But when I looked closer and realized that every one of these pieces was done in pencil, I began to change my mind. I’d assumed it was all done in some sort of photo/print process. But with a couple of exceptions, every one of these pieces — many of them gargantuan, with photo-realistic detail — was painstakingly executed in pencil. Once I knew this, the artist’s passion and conviction began to get through to me, and the images took on a visceral impact they hadn’t had before.

So thanks to Chip and Hayley for the art tour. Next time — the Getty, the Jurassic, and the Frederick’s of Hollywood Lingerie Museum!

Art diary, 4/18/06: LACMA, MOCA, and Why All Art Would Be Improved by Snarling Bears

5 thoughts on “Art diary, 4/18/06: LACMA, MOCA, and Why All Art Would Be Improved by Snarling Bears

  1. 1

    So is that what all that art stuff meant? Very cool. I really love your take on the jumble of boxes…all the pieces actually. I hope to make it to MOCA. It was so great to see you. If anyone is interested in an out of town guest…Greta’s a great one to pick up. Mi couch es su couch, Greta. Looking forward to the next LA museum tour, looks like you’ve pick out some good stops for us to peruse. xo Hayley

  2. 2

    I beg you, beg you, to skip the Getty. So preposterously awful. You have to ride in a Disney tram from the parking lot, and then you get to their absolutely abysmal curation.
    What you MUST visit all day, and what you will never recover from, ever, and I will probably have to go down there and extract you bodily, is the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I don’t even understand why you’re not the president of the thing already.

  3. 3

    I actually have been to the Jurassic. I loved it with a passion, even though a lot of the exhibits weren’t working. I’m dying to go back — and to take Ingrid.
    And if the Getty sucks so bad, I’ll skip it. I’ll drag Chip and Hayley to the Watts Towers instead. But I’m curious — what’s so awful about the curation at the Getty?

  4. 4

    Well oh my – I enjoyed getting to prowl the Getty for a whole day while Lise was in library-consortium meetings (on the grounds). I loved the grounds and the exhibits – but then I’m a sucker for illuminated medieval manuscripts, fossils in the walls and steps, gardens that show they’re definitely sculpted by a local (it’s a river! no, it’s a sculpted container for flowing water!), but what I dragged Lise to at the end of her day was the Bill Viola installation at the time, Emotions. He shoots people, or scenes at about 170 frames per minute and plays them back super slow; framed art in flat panel screens that changes — just about too slowly to watch, but definitely as you move about the gallery and then come back.
    the tramway from remote parking is honestly the only way to handle traffic in and out of the place, and works like the air-tram at SFO. Sure it’s “welcome to the Future” cute, but it’s also plain practical.
    I liked it.
    But you must absolutely prowl down to Simon Rodia’s folly, Nuestra Pueblo, or as folks generally call it these days, the Watts Towers.
    Since it now looks to the state, there’s been refurbishing money for it, but also a fence put around it (which is Utterly Silly but there you go), a right-on community center next to it; you pays your two bucks and you get your narrated tour and walk-around. The place cannot be captured in mere pictures, which of course does not at all keep one from trying:
    I think we should take the Nettles and go dance there, just to drag Josie there for inspiration, and jump back and see what she makes next…
    The humble littler Craft and Folk Art Museum sitting in the middle of the Miracle Mile is probably way too often overlooked, but I spent a fabulous morning there, prowling an exhibit of contemporary fiber artists’ work, and an exhibit of modern native pacific northwest glass work from students past and present of the Pilchuck school of glass. It’s the kind of place that might grab your attention for an hour or two, which makes its location good – if it doesn’t suit, there’s plenty of other museums to choose from. (It also opens earlier than the fancy-pants county museum, as I recall).

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