By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
As the sprawling but elegant ”Drawn From Artists Collections“ and the echo-chambered and peyote-riddled ”Lee Mullican: Selected Drawings“ shows were winding out their last days, the Armand Hammer opened three new exhibitions clustered around the current popular and academic fascination with all things Victorian. Two of the shows -- ”Secret Victorians,“ organized by London‘s Hayward Gallery, and Kara Walker’s large-scale installation ”No Mere Words . . .“ -- are worth a quick run-through. While it contains some excellent pieces, such as Steven Pippin‘s train-toilet experiments in photography and the late Helen Chadwick’s sleek pop body art, ”Secret Victorians“ suffers from a vaporous inclusiveness -- too much mediocre work that is so secretly Victorian it requires a laborious text-panel justification to make any sense. If you like Kara Walker‘s work, which I don’t, here‘s a roomful of the same old same old: Pittmanesque silhouettes of Chapmanesque monstrosities caricaturing last century’s grievous social injustices for Peter and Eileen Norton. The pairing of Walker and Victoriana was handled substantially better at the Huntington Beach Art Center two years ago, when curator Meg Linton‘s Notions of the 19th Century shared the space with Walker’s first West Coast solo exhibition.
Apparently organized as an afterthought, the third exhibit is a documentary exegesis on the life and work of that most quintessential Victorian, Oscar Wilde. UCLA‘s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts culled the extensive Wilde holdings of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library downtown for the material included in this unassuming but rewarding agglomeration of ephemera. Presented in a straightforward museological form firmly rooted in 19th-century ways of seeing and understanding the world, ”Oscar Wilde“ consists of manuscripts, photographs, letters, paintings, caricatures, opulent book covers and illustrations, relics and artifacts, grave-marker maquette, all soberly vitrined and text-paneled into an object lesson cautioning tolerance and contrition.
Rather than re-configuring Wilde in the context of the flamboyance and irreverence he inspired, this show feels like a retroactive vindication, outfitted in particulars that would have been most meaningful at the time of his death, without aspiring to the presumptuous flattery of mimicry. While currently widespread and trendy (Museum as Muse, etc.), this form of institutional nostalgia often seems like a tacked-on pseudo-conceptual banner, about as meaningful as a Styrofoam car-aerial ball in the great parking lot of cultural discourse. The decorum with which ”Oscar Wilde“ is nestled in dusty display vernacular is, by contrast, a sign of the deep conceptual integrity of this show.
Wilde’s relevance to contemporary art is based on two things: his brilliance as a writer, particularly in his role as a disciple of John Ruskin, the English man of letters who invented art criticism; and on turning his own sweeping aesthetic philosophy into practice as the first ”out“ celebrity. In essays such as ”The Decay of Lying“ and ”The Artist as Critic,“ Wilde laid the foundations for the current hot debate on the meaning and value of ”authenticity.“ As a dandy, Wilde pioneered the paradoxically superficial and passionate art of self-creation that has been a hallmark of queer identity, and subsequently the default mode for survival as a creative intellectual in postmodern times. Would that we were all so ruthless, compassionate and bon with the mots.
it was another UCLA exhibit that brought to my attention a parallel collection of objects which, while deserving of a similarly scrupulous and earnest exposure, has remained literally closeted for over 25 years. While visiting Los Angeles from her home in Arlington, Virginia, to attend the opening of an exhibit of the woodcuts of Edgar Dorsey Taylor -- at UCLA‘s department of special collections, to which she had loaned some of her late husband’s collection -- Corcoran Gallery of Art curator emeritus Linda Crocker Simmons brought along a bulky parcel. In it were documents pertaining to ”the other Edgar,“ representing the single major unrealized curatorial vision of her husband‘s second career. Robert Hilton Simmons, a longtime naval intelligence officer and merchant marine with an art-history degree from Berkeley, was an avid art collector and founding trustee of the Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Retiring from maritime duty in the late ’60s, Mr. Simmons became a freelance journalist reporting on the ”federal art scene,“ and a semiprofessional curator.
While his collecting focused on early Chinese and Japanese ceramics, one of his journalist friends tipped him off in 1973 to a secret lot put up at Sloan & Co., a D.C. auction house. Hoping to avoid publicity, Clyde Tolson, bereaved partner of recently departed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, had offered a selection of ”artistic“ knickknacks from his inheritance, identified only by the grease-penciled code letters JET, for J. Edgar Tolson. Sensing an important opportunity, Mr. Simmons attended the auction and successfully outbid tearful ex-bureau men for almost the entire collection. (One exception, a ceramic pig cookie jar, reportedly found its way into Andy Warhol‘s infamous tchotchke warehouse.)
Running the gamut from authentically collectible pop-culture memorabilia (a pair of Stork Club figurines), to Koonsian kitsch (chrome-plated ”peeing boy“ sculpture, The Purple Cow porcelain sculpture), to the pathetic (Popsicle Stick Basket, ”fashioned from 288 used popsicle sticks; attributed to Clyde Tolson“), the 50-odd pieces in the Hoover Art Collection are 100 percent cheese. Whether old-maid dainty like the Molded Paste Vase Decorated With Raised Flowers, archly hetero-vulgar like the ”Bending Nude Maiden“--handled rain-barrel salt-and-pepper shakers, generically exotic like the mysterious J. Edgar Hoover as the Buddha, or faux-opulent, as in the enamel and false-jewel musical cigarette box ”in the shape of the Celestial Sphere“ that rotates while playing the theme from Around the World in 80 Days, the objects reflect a pre-Sontag-ified camp sensibility, dense with ornamentation and sentimentality. While Simmons never revised his catalog to incorporate the revelations about red-dressed and feather-boaed ”Mary“ Hoover’s rubber-glove-job orgies with Roy Cohn at the Plaza, rumors of Hoover‘s sexual preferences went back to the ’30s, and Simmons scrupulously avoids the issue, letting the collection‘s convoluted cartography of an obviously tormented libido speak for itself.
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