Earlier this month, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter published his "Best Art of 2015" list. Wedged between MoMA and a series of solo shows he liked, Cotter ranked Los Angeles No. 4, as though the city itself were the equivalent of a single gallery exhibition or museum exhibit. This funny paternalism probably doesn’t bear much mention — when has the Times not treated L.A. as a novelty? — but Cotter was right in a way. The whole city was a weird mess of happenings and shifts this year; it was hard to put a finger on exactly what mattered most. For the first time, no one neighborhood seemed like the gallery district, and the proliferation of commercial and alt spaces felt almost too sprawling to track.
Perhaps that’s why the art events that stood out the most this year — in both good ways and bad — engaged the city's complexities, including its perplexing geography, racial histories and class divides.
"Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada” at LACMA
"Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada," curated by LACMA contemporary art department head Franklin Sirmans and independent curator Yael Lipschutz, opened at LACMA 50 years after both the Watts Rebellion and the museum's opening. Purifoy built his work from the wreckage of the riots, but the burden of advocating for the African-American community led him to walk away from the L.A. art world for years. "Junk Dada" is the artist's first major museum retrospective and his first solo show since his death in 2004, which is surprising given how often artists and historians reference his weather-worn, ambitious and charged sculpture garden in Joshua Tree. The sculptures in the show often evoke the late artist's anger over racial injustice but in a way that feels visceral. The charred, discarded materials he used were the residue of frustration — and it shows. LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire; June 7-Sept. 27 (condensed version through Jan. 3). lacma.org.
Bethlehem Baptist Church
Austrian-born architect Rudolph Schindler built only one church during his years working in Los Angeles, a spare white building on Compton Avenue in Central-Alameda. The first congregation, the African-American Bethlehem Baptist Church, stayed from 1944 through the early '70s. Then a prophetess known for healing followers and casting out demons moved in and stayed through the early 2000s. Every congregation that inhabited the building remembers Schindler fans, most of them white, coming and sitting in back during services. The building, which has a remarkable 3-D cross in place of a steeple, is currently on the market, but from October into December, Tom Solomon of Thomas Solomon Art Advisory arranged for New York conceptualist Robert Barry's first solo show to be exhibited in the space. Nearly invisible white text covers the white walls at angles, accentuating the building’s gorgeous high ceiling and anti-hierarchical design. According to one of the church's former secretaries, winos and vagrants have always kept an eye on the building, but they couldn't prevent it from being vandalized by gangs throughout the show's run. 4901 S. Compton Ave., Central-Alameda. thomassolomonartadvisory.com.
MOCA's "The Art of Our Time"
The day the Broad Museum opened on Grand Avenue, billionaire collector Eli Broad talked to the press about the value of his new $140 million venue, saying, “This is the art of our time." Depending on where they were standing, onlookers might have noticed that across the street a banner hanging on MOCA's exterior also trumpeted "The Art of Our Time" — only it was referring to a different, more raw and less canonical version than Broad. Helen Molesworth, MOCA's newly appointed chief curator, organized the show, which comprised pieces from the museum's permanent collection. Picasso appeared sparingly. There were more women in the main galleries than ever. Molesworth juxtaposed obscure artists with big shots, which made the show feel fresh, smart and nowhere near as flashy as its neighbor's inaugural installation (though I still recommend visiting both). 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown; through April 30. moca.org.
Skid Row History Museum
The other LAPD, aka the Los Angeles Poverty Department, opened the Skid Row History Museum on the mezzanine of a market on Broadway this spring. The museum is pretty sparse, but events held there have been spirited. One evening last spring they hosted a discussion between General Jeff, a Skid Row resident, and Fred Dewey, who co-founded the Neighborhood Councils Movement in the early 1990s. General Jeff talked about wanting to form a Skid Row Neighborhood Council since downtown developers have systematically silenced and ignored voices in the homeless community. When Dewey tried to explain the challenges involved in establishing a neighborhood council, General Jeff thought Dewey was being condescending. The event felt heated and contentious, but that suited the topic. 440 S. Broadway, downtown. lapovertydept.org/wordpress/skid-row-history-museum-archive.
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The American Bar in Vienna, in Los Angeles
Rumor has it that architect Adolf Loos designed Vienna's American Bar for a wealthy businessman whose son was drinking himself to death. If the son had a designated place where he could self-destruct, at least the tab could be controlled. Artists Andreas Bauer, Christoph Meier, Robert Schwarz and Lukas Stopczynski built a poor man’s version of the fantastic onyx-walled, marble-floored space in Mid-Wilshire this summer. They altered the dimensions, slightly since their bar had to fit into a studio roughly the size of a one-car garage. American Bar was open on Friday nights until T-Magazine ran a story about the project and neighbors complained. The bar was disassembled and built again in the desert for one night. That night, the artists hosted a wedding, then burned the bar down. Formerly at 1137 S. Cochran Ave., Mid-Wilshire. makcenter.org/programming/los-bar.
Fruit Salad, Accentuated
Katherine Bernhardt's mural on the side of newly opened gallery Venus Over Los Angeles was supposed to be perfect for industrial downtown. According to the gallery's press release, DTLA was "a location and environment ideal for a large-scale and amplified version of [Bernhardt's] already bold imagery." In July, the New York–based artist painted toucans and papayas and flattened cigarettes along the side of the already pink gallery. Once the mural was tagged by local graffiti artists, it truly did have the "boldness" that part of downtown calls for. 601 S. Anderson St., downtown. venusovermanhattan.com.