This week, the stories behind the art are at least as interesting as the art itself, like the one about a small insurance company that started a big art collection, and the photographer who documented Diamond Bar.
5. Anonymous Letters
Odeya Nini, an experimental composer whose music moves between melodramatic and comedic, invited anyone to send an anonymous letter to Machine Project, the alt art space on Alvarado. The letters were supposed to express some sort of desire, maybe describing an object you wanted or a language you want to learn, a New Year's resolution or a refrain stuck in your head. Nini will give the contents of these letters rhythms and music for her performance Voice of Your Desire. Machine Project, 1200-D N. Alvarado St.; Jan. 8, 1-3 p.m.; free. (213) 483-8761, machineproject.com.
4. Art With the Dinosaurs
With all the historical L.A. exhibitions proliferating this fall, the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park wanted to show that it, too, played an important role in SoCal's art history. It did so with a minuscule exhibition (which seems even smaller if you stopped to see any dinosaurs on the way) in its rotunda that includes art it exhibited when it was still the L.A. County Museum of History, Science and Art. It includes awful, expressionistic paintings Robert Irwin and John Baldessari made before discovering heady minimalism, but a few truly great works by Mel Ramos and Billy Al Bengston. Somehow, it's charming to walk through history in that rotunda and see how the museum was both out of touch and in touch with the city's growing art scene. In a museum full of archeological specimens, even the failures feel like telling artifacts. 900 Exposition Blvd.; through Jan. 15. (213) 763-3466, nhm.org.
3. Backyards in Diamond Bar and Other Oddities
In 1980, Joe Deal photographed backyards in Diamond Bar. The images, all black-and-white and clinical, make suburbia seem absolutely absurd. Among his strangest is a photo of a swimming pool-shaped island of perfectly green grass, empty but surrounded by lawn furniture, cacti and other brush arranged in dirt. It's on view in the Getty's "In Focus" show along with about two-dozen other silver gelatin prints that examine SoCal from the '50s until 1980. The show feels like an Errol Morris documentary -- skeptical but almost eagerly so, and all strung together with understated, dry humor. 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood; through May 6. getty.edu.
2. Riffs on School Rules
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When Ericka Beckman made the film The Broken Rule, she was spoofing high school culture, public education and bureaucracy in general. "The boys" (played by now well-known artists like Mike Kelley and Jim Isermann) raced in a relay in a poorly lit gymnasium while "the girls" not only kept score but actually were the scores, appearing in profile whenever a team won points. Paced like an early Looney Tunes cartoon, it's addictive to watch, which makes its gender politics all the more sinister. Beckman's work will screen alongside a handful of other short films at MOCA on Sunday as part of "Dangerous Ideas: Political Conceptual Work in Los Angeles." 250 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Sun., Jan. 8, 3 p.m.; free with admission and reservation. (213) 621-1736, moca.org.
1. Survival Stories
"Places of Validation," California African American Museum's contribution to the regionwide Pacific Standard Time initiative, tells stories more thoroughly and compellingly than most of the other historical exhibitions up right now, framing African-American art within narratives of the world wars, economics and urban geography. One of the best stories is of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance, an African-American-run company founded in 1925 that collected and commissioned African-American artwork. The exhibition includes 65 works from Golden State's collection, along with cases full of letters, photographs and legal documents showing how an initially small company survived and thrived against the odds, and became an enormously influential patron. 600 State Drive, Exposition Park; through April 1. (213) 744-7432, caamuseum.org.