English as a Foreign Language 

The scribes at MOCA

Wednesday, Mar 3 1999
ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON, THE MAIN ACTIVITY IN downtown Los Angeles is bargain hunting. Here, where the poorly dressed search for the cheaply priced, and men with raw, battered faces line alleyways for food, the visitor to MOCA engaged in a search for cheap parking is apt to feel a bit like an interloper. From the vantage point of a grimy $3 parking lot, or in the midst of crowds filing past cut-price Korean toy stores, one thing is obvious: No one down here goes to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Not that you can actually see the museum from the streets south of Grand. Even at the bottom of Angels Flight, the funicular that takes one up the hill to California Plaza, there is no sign for the museum. You either know about it (and how to get to it) in advance, or, walking around the cool, fountain-chilled spaces of the plaza, you stumble on it by accident: the bunker in Bunker Hill.

I went to MOCA to see the Charles Ray show, about which I'd heard a great deal. Some of Ray's work was already familiar to me, though not enough to get a sense of whether he deserves the kind of accolades accorded him by departing MOCA director Richard Koshalek in the show's catalog. Describing Ray as an artist who, "in just a few years, has helped define, on an international scale, the role of contemporary art in the 1990s and beyond," Koshalek writes:


In this time of ravenous consumerism, worship of the cult of celebrity, and questions of meaning and authenticity, Ray's work -- immaculately crafted and strangely beautiful -- has the rare power to be both artistically valid and culturally on the mark.

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I love that sentence. It begins with a pompously phrased truism ("In this time of ravenous consumerism"); continues with another pompously phrased truism ("worship of the cult of celebrity"); and then -- without so much as a "See ya!" -- veers off into sheer abstraction. Reading it is like walking around on a clear sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, and then -- suddenly -- pea-soup fog.

Scratching my head, I tried to translate Koshalek's words into plain English:


In this time of too much shopping, too much celebrity worship, and questions of meaning and authenticity . . .


But I couldn't do it. That last part had me stumped. What, I wondered, were "questions of meaning and authenticity"? And then, later in the sentence, there was that glittering little mousetrap of a phrase, "artistically valid and culturally on the mark." What did that mean exactly? In my mind's eye, I saw the melancholic ghosts of all the starving artists who'd ever hoped to have shows at MOCA, only to be told, "I'm terribly sorry, Sir/Ms./Madame, but though your work is artistically valid, culturally it's not on the mark." Or, conversely: "Culturally, your work is right on the mark, but artistically . . . I'm afraid it's just not valid." (Exeunt artistes.)

But let's get on to the work that did have the "rare power" to be both "artistically valid and culturally on the mark." Let's get on to Charles Ray -- and, more important, the people who decide what belongs in MOCA and what doesn't.

Ray's show is, at the least, varied -- a definite crowd pleaser. Among the objects on display are a dizzyingly tall mannequin, a toy fire engine that's the size of a real fire engine, a fiberglass replica of a smashed car, a giant cube filled ominously with black printer's ink, a bathtub mounted vertically in a wall, a portrait of the artist in a bottle, a sculpture of an orgy in which all participants look exactly like Charles Ray, and a 12-minute movie of a woman wearing lots and lots of different clothes.

What does it all mean? That would be hard to say. For, as MOCA curator Paul Schimmel informs us, four or five years ago Ray began "sculpting a Pop persona that seemed completely revealing while simultaneously revealing nothing at all -- an emptiness filled with a faux intimacy."

The audience seemed at home in this falsely intimate emptiness -- if that's what it was. They snickered over the orgy sculpture, chuckled nervously at the mannequin, and walked out of the 12-minute movie with nine minutes left to go. Apparently -- if I overheard the whispers at the front desk correctly -- one or two audience members were even moved to masturbate, though over what particular item on exhibit I'm not sure. Looking up at the towering lady mannequin, however, I couldn't help recalling the John Betjeman poem that begins, "The sort of girl I like to see/Smiles down from her great height at me . . ." On the other hand, J.G. Ballard fans may have found the car-crash sculpture more to their taste. Whatever it was that was exciting people, I'm sure it wasn't Paul Schimmel's catalog essay:

  • The scribes at MOCA

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