By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In late October, LACMA unveiled “Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900--2000,” its largest-ever exhibition, a sprawling five-part millennium show exploring the state’s popular image and art‘s role in promoting or jamming said image. The buzz on this show has been bad. Word of mouth and critical response have it pegged as an unfocused, politically correct mishmash that, by trying to please everyone, fails to please anyone. Expansive works of art are crammed to illustrate an ill-fitting thesis. The curatorial rationalizations for specific inclusions stretch credibility past the breaking point. The attempt at creating a cohesive, linear narrative is said to utterly disintegrate toward the end. Important artists and entire subcultures are left out. There’s too much to read. It smells.
Because of all this, I waited to see the show, and went in hoping for a way to write positively about it, just to be different. The show is exhausting. It would take four or five long visits to do justice to the amount of work included, and having to figure out if each representation of a happy farmhand is racist or not keeps the contemplative bliss of a good art fix at bay. Many of the previously aired criticisms of “Made in California” are valid. But hey -- why heap more abuse on this weird mess? If it doesn‘t hold up to its curatorial ambitions, it doesn’t hold up to its curatorial ambitions. Maybe they should have ditched the collaborative curatorial thing, or narrowed the criteria for inclusion by 90 percent or so. Maybe they should‘ve done “L.A.’s Greatest Hits.” But they didn‘t. The question now is: Is this an exhibit worth seeing, and how?
There’s at least three or four shows‘ worth of excellent material strewn throughout “Made in California,” and it’s impossible to sort it out in the couple of days most of us can afford to spend there. You could use your time just examining the cases of fascinating ephemera gathered for the exhibit -- fliers and posters and magazines and post cards and model kits and rolling papers and surfboard wax and souvenir stamps and telegrams from Martin Luther King Jr. to Cesar Chavez and pamphlets from the Chinese Exclusion Convention of 1910. You could focus on architecture and design, jumping from Greene & Greene to Schindler & Neutra to the Eameses to Frank Gehry and Eric Owen Moss. You could spend a day on just photos or just ceramics or just textiles. My advice is to move quickly through the spaces, pausing only when something catches your eye or seems to compel scrutiny. Savor it, then, wrenching yourself free from the narrative undertow, continue trawling.
I understand that this sounds like a bit more mental filtering and processing of information than many people want to experience during an art excursion, so for their benefit, I‘ve drawn up a two-part guide for a two-afternoon nonlinear remix. My curatorial premise is “things that are cool to look at.” As mentioned, the cases of ephemera are uniformly of interest, so I’ll leave them as a wild card -- stop at whichever ones grab you, but always check for a lower drawer at knee level, or you could miss groovy stuff like Ken Price‘s cartoon scroll letter to Billy Al Bengston. Avoid the apparently Web-design-inspired, minimally interactive “Timelines” at the beginning of each section, as they are peculiar and frightening. On our first visit, we’ll be looking at Sections 1 and 2, in the Hammer Building. Are you ready? Then let‘s begin.
SECTION 1, 1900--1920: “SELLING EDEN, WORLD’S FAIRS, MISTAKEN IDENTITIES & HOLLYWOOD GLAMOUR”
This section is the most convincing as regards the curatorial thesis, so you may be tempted to slow down and follow the exploration of the collusion between artists and real estate developers to promote California as an unpopulated fruit basket. Don‘t. Hold firm. I’m not a big fan of California plein air Impressionism, except when the colors get really really weird, but there are still a few outstanding paintings here. John O‘Shea’s The Madrone (1921) and Granville Redmond‘s California Poppy Field (n.d.) are pleasingly lurid. Robert Harshe’s hideously framed Sunrise Over Skyline (Near Portola) (1910) triptych is the most subtly hued and masterfully composed painting in Section 1, so you may pause at it for up to five minutes. While you‘re standing there, you might as well turn around and peruse William Wendt’s Where Nature‘s God Hath Wrought (1925) before hurrying around the corner to see Murice Braun’s Moonrise Over San Diego Bay (1915). You can‘t miss Redmond’s Poppy Field, but take note of the billboard poster for San Francisco‘s Sutro Baths and, across the way, the flier for the 1903 Rose Bowl Parade. Greene & Greene, very cozy, but is it art? Keep moving. The two muted pastel paintings in the Theosophy room are kind of nice, but the really interesting works are the intricately carved Katherine Tingely’s Chair (circa 1905--1910) by Reginald Machell, and the mystic-crystal-flower-of-music sprouting from Frederick J. Schwanokovsky‘s Woman at the Piano (circa 1925) oil painting. Check out these turn-of-the-century baskets. Expertly crafted, brilliantly designed and beautifully decorated in subtle, Minimalist geometrical abstraction. You don’t need a text panel to recognize a viable culture when you see one. Too bad they didn‘t have more guns and paranoia. (For more of the same, visit the Southwest Museum’s “Reflections of Culture: Basketry From the Southwest,” at LACMA West through December 31.) There are several interesting photographs by German tourist Arnold Genthe in the Chinatown section and some attractive posters in the Hollywood Glamour area, but nothing to detain you long. Head for the up escalator and continue on to: