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
From time to time I have lent my hand as a tester of loose electrical wiring (among other chores) at the Museum of Jurassic Technology -- which is why you never read me on the subject of what is surely one of the single greatest artworks of the ‘90s in Los Angeles. People come and go in the backroom at the Jurassic -- carpenters, artists, inventors, writers, interns, homeless schizophrenics -- and two of the young women I met passing through that dark place have since re-emerged elsewhere in Los Angeles, with ambitious installations that draw on their time in Mr. Wilson’s gnomelike presence.
Mimicking the sheer unlikeliness of the Jurassic -- a pocket of 19th-century cultural anachronism in the middle of a crumbling, sun-blasted commercial neighborhood -- the Velaslavasay Panorama sits hunched among the palm trees of Hollywood Boulevard like a UFO with its cultural cloaking device stuck on the wrong era. From the outside, it‘s ’50s tiki-tecture, namely the Tswuun-Tswuun Rotunda, a former Chinese restaurant slightly east of the Walk of Fame, slightly west of the giant hot-dog sculpture next to Le Sex Shoppe.
Inside, it‘s a curious hybrid of pre-modern pop-cultural re-creation and postmodern painting practice. Artist and proprietress (and former Jurassic intern) Sara Velas’ “360-degree marvel” is a revival of a mostly forgotten precursor to cinema -- particularly CinemaScope and IMAX. Patented by Robert Barker in 1787 as “an entire new contrivance or apparatus, which I call La Nature a Coup d‘Oeil, for the purpose of displaying views of Nature at large by Oil Painting, Fresco, Water Colours, Crayons or any other mode of painting or drawing,” the panorama, as it came to be known, took on many forms but always boiled down to the use of a painted, illusionistic vista that stretched past the viewer’s peripheral vision, often to form a complete cylinder. A small industry grew up around this form of entertainment, and many of the hundreds of buildings devoted to panoramas were outfitted for elaborate theatrical displays, including music, narration, sound effects, special lighting and projected magic-lantern slides. A panorama built for the Paris Fair of 1900 re-created a railway voyage from Moscow to Peking in 45 minutes, using ultrarealistic luxury railcars as the theater and four concentric bands of painted scenery, each more gigantic than the last, which spun past at different speeds to simulate the parallax view, at up to 1,000 feet per minute.
In some ways, Velas is more of a purist, using only the single-cylinder format and judiciously dimmed recessed lighting to create her immersive simulation. But touches of less than academically anal fidelity to historical accuracy in many aspects of the presentation queer the deadpan museological pitch of her panorama, opening the discussion to contemporary critical fascination with this particular piece of obsolete virtual-reality technology (beginning with Walter Benjamin) and to the imprint of the artist, whose original chosen medium -- Velas studied painting with Sabina Ott in St. Louis -- often requires elaborate conceptual framing to buttress its currency. The painting itself is fluid and sketchy, a landscape of the Los Angeles basin as it might have appeared 150 to 200 years ago, at the height of the original panoramania. The Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes is well-painted in a way that serves its primary illusionistic function, but there is no attempt to re-create the style of the era. Sketched-in pencil marks showing through hazy washes, roughly impastoed daubs of paint representing foreground blossoms, and a general fuzziness of detail constitute an impressionistic take on reality that would have scandalized paying customers 150 years ago.
But early on in its evolution, the panorama was already sensational -- the moral equivalent of Sensurround -- and the reduction in stimuli between bustling Hollywood Boulevard and the serene, low-impact Velaslavasay Panorama environment is jarring in an inverse way to its ancestor. Velas has plans to include three-dimensional diorama effects and projected slides (some audio would be nice) in future displays. Having recently applied for nonprofit status, she hopes to establish her quirky anachronism as a new kind of Hollywood landmark, changing the show periodically as the institution settles into the neighborhood as a fixture for locals and a stop for offbeat tourists.
Speaking of offbeat tourists, they don‘t come much more offbeat than Aby Warburg. Warburg (1866-- 1929), a German-Jewish art historian and anthropologist who traveled from Hamburg to Arizona in 1895 to photograph Hopi kachina ceremonies, developed elaborate art-historical theories about the recurrence of pagan visual symbolism in the European Enlightenment and world culture (well before Jung), and documented his researches in a semipublic library (which continues to this day as the Warburg Institute in London) that was labyrinthinely cross-referenced using a modular cataloging system that has been recognized as a precursor of the Internet. Much of Warburg’s investigations were an attempt to reconcile the rational and the irrational in a way that was continuous with European cultural history -- at a time when the European nation-state‘s fundamental zaniness was learning to express itself industrially. By the end of World War I, the deeply personal aspect of this schism drove Warburg to the bughouse (a.k.a. Kreuzlingen Bellevue Sanatorium), where he remained for five years.
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