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LACMA Soup

Last week, we began our highly subjective tour through LACMA‘s biggest, most ambitious exhibition ever. (If that issue isn’t still lining the birdcage, see www.laweek ly.comink0103art-harvey.shtml.) In Part One, we toured Sections 1 and 2 in the Hammer Building, taking us up to 1940. This week, we resume on the third floor of the Anderson Building, with the first of three more two-decade cross sections of California‘s visual history:

SECTION 3, 1940--1960: “CALIFORNIA AND WWII, A POSTWAR EDEN, THE BEATS AND JAZZ CULTURE, SPIRITUAL EXPLORATIONS, THE BODY BEAUTIFUL, HOLLYWOOD: THE DARKER SIDE, AND A PARTRIDGE IN A PEAR TREE”

The first port of call in this section is some bonus tracks to the recent excellent Charles and Ray Eames show, including a stack of their World War II leg splints and a molded plywood stretcher. In the next, suburban, chamber there’s a startlingly proto-pop canvas of freeway signs by Roger Kuntz, as well as another oddball building portrait by Edward Biberman. Richard Diebenkorn makes a strong first appearance with a small landscape entitled Freeway and Aqueduct (1957), and an exquisite egg tempera by Clinton Adams entitled Barrington Street renders Salomon Huerta‘s recent tractscapes a little redundant. The Midcentury Modern Environment is stuffed into an awkward dead end, but contains more Eames and other postwar designer furniture. Find the groovy modular ceramic sculptures by Lagardo Tackett at the very back, as well as the first of two pellucid John McLaughlin paintings in the show.

The Beatnik subsection features a kickass selection of macho gestural ceramic work from Peter Voulkos, John Mason et al., situated opposite one of Jess’ Tricky Cad series of surreal poetic deconstructions of “Dick Tracy” Sunday pages and a case displaying Wallace Berman‘s seminal 1955--64 zine Semina. A small but potent Bruce Conner assemblage, Portrait of Allen Ginsberg (1960), makes a nice set of bookends with Ed Kienholz’s Illegal Operation (1962). The next room is one of two that deals with “Spirituality,” apparently meaning “abstraction.” This is an excellent room, with a large and deeply encrusted painting by Jay DeFeo, 1959‘s The Jewel, as well as a minisurvey of Dynaton (French for “peyote-addled”) artists Wolfgang Paalen, Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican. A second and even more serene McLaughlin painting hangs adjacent to a viewing station for experimental abstract films, including works by Harry Smith and Oskar Fischinger.

The next gallery offers a nice selection of Bay Area figurative abstraction by David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Paul Wonner and others, so just ignore the bric-a-brac and bask before all the big, sumptuous paintings. Take particular note of Joan Brown’s over-the-top Girl in Chair (1962), with the paint laid on so thick it probably still isn‘t dry. Proceed to “Hollywood: The Darker Side,” beginning with a very peculiar authorless installation of little TV sets playing simultaneous looped testimony from the HUAC Hollywood witch-hunts. Another nice Biberman painting is the only real highlight of this section, but grab a peek at Hans Burkhardt’s thrift-store allegorical portrait of Ronald Reagan on your way out. Jog down the stairs and have your bar code scanned to enter:

SECTION 4, 1960--1980: “BEACH AND CAR CULTURES, COUNTERCULTURE, THE SPIRITUAL IN ART, AND THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE”

The first room in this section is my favorite in the whole exhibit. While a loop of James Dean and Gidget movie clips set to Junior Walker‘s “Roadrunner” cycles away, check out the two full-size oddball vehicles -- the shell- and jewel-encrusted Derby Racer (1975) by Larry Fuente, and the car-toonish Road Agent customized by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Surrounding them are a number of automotively inspired artworks, including a hammered and lacquered Billy Al Bengston from 1970, a surprising 1964 car-hood abstraction by Judy Chicago, shiny ceramic nodules by Ken Price, documentation of Chris Burden’s 1974 crucified-to-a-Volkswagen performance Trans-fixed, and a beautiful large pink-and-yellow Plexiglas lozenge from Craig Kauffman. This last is situated over the entrance to the next gallery, through which it is nicely echoed by Roto (1968), one of Ron Davis‘ still-hot geometrically shaped resin paintings. As you pass through, make sure to look back above the door to catch another echo, Claes Oldenburg’s molded plastic lithograph Profile Airflow (1968--69). There are some nice Ed Ruschas in this room, but you should have seen them in the print show this summer. Instead, a copy of Jose Bueno‘s 1969 calendar of (male) L.A. artists in their cars is laid out for your ogling pleasure, plus the best work I’ve seen by Peter Alexander: 1966‘s Cloud Box.

After you pass the criminally installed, allegedly motorized, but still lovely Synchronetic C-4400-s Series by Fletcher Benton, the kicks dwindle markedly. The next several clusters of work are collectively labeled “Counterculture,” meaning hippies, feminists and persons of color, in that order. First, there’s a minor William Wiley watercolor worth seeing, and a strange psychedelic landscape by Gage Taylor. Before entering the curved chamber of psychedelia, run around the other side and set the video program for Judy Chicago‘s Menstruation Bathroom, which has a great droning soundtrack and not much else to recommend it. Back in the lustrous golden spiral, groove on the vintage Hashbury posters, the disturbing funk assemblage of Robert Hudson’s Running Through the Woods (1975), and Robert Arneson‘s archly iconic ceramic sculpture John With Art (1964). Ignore the clothes and act nonchalant as you rush past the feminist and racial political art (though the ephemera case is particularly rewarding), pausing at the last minute to appreciate, in 1970’s Injustice Case, an early David Hammons mono-print self-portrait -- in margarine and graphite (now why didn‘t this technique catch on?) -- as Bobby Seale. You can skip the back section -- the best thing is Michael McMillen’s garage installation, and it‘s always there. But a few galleries up look for his excellent pedestal-as-core-sample landscape sculpture Nipomo.

Here’s another room of “spiritual” art, including one of Bob Irwin‘s hypnotic disc paintings, a bitchen slab of candy-lacquered fiberglass by John McCracken, a surprisingly delicate tissue-paper work by Ed Moses and a series of small prints by John Cage. Moving along, there are two boffo works by Joe Goode -- an Untitled (Torn Sky) painting (1971--76) and 1963’s House Drawing. John Baldessari also checks in with a pair of winners: 1967‘s Looking East on 4th and C, one of his breakthrough series of national city photo-paintings, as well as documentation of a hilarious conceptual piece of reverse Korzybskian cartography. The rest of the good stuff is mostly painting: Llyn Foulkes’ Death Valley U.S.A. (1963), David Hockney‘s The Splash (1966) and Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park Series #49 (1972). Roger Minick‘s droll photograph Woman With Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite (1980) seems perfect, but becomes even more so when cropped and juxtaposed (in the catalog) with Cathy Opie’s 1993 self-mutilation Self-Portrait (look for it in Section 5). This is what we mean by synergy, people!

SECTION 5, 1980--2000: “A DIFFERENT PLACE, IDENTITY POLITICS, BORDERS AND BEYOND”

Whether understood as a reflection of budgetary deficiencies or as a deeply cynical comment on the state of literacy in the last 20 years, the absence of cases of popular-culture ephemera makes Section 5 a distinctly intradisciplinary experience. Also, there is a haphazardness to the installations that renders important works like Jeffrey Vallance‘s Blinky the Friendly Hen better off unexhumed. Nevertheless, some of my favorite works in the exhibition are here. Let’s burn through the front section: Jessica Bronson‘s Lost Horizon video plays like outtakes from fellow genius Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster; D.L. Alvarez‘s paint-by-numbers drawing Redwood is lovely and good for a laugh; Ginny Bishton’s laboriously sampled landscape photo collage, though often on view, is worth another look, as is Hockney‘s photo-cubist rendering of the Merced River. Michael Gonzalez’s abstract collage is actually made from Wonder Bread bags; Elizabeth Paige Smith‘s marble coffee table is actually made from balsa wood; Mark Bennett’s architectural layouts are actually of fictional sitcom sets. Richard Misrach, Allan Sekula, Robbert Flick, Anthony a Hernandez and Judy Fiskin provide various powerful, elegiac takes on social-landscape photography. This doubles us back around the corner into a rather barren section that you can probably skip altogether, unless you want to sit through a long video for a few glimpses of actual L.A. River--style graffiti. Backtrack past the pretty piece of juvenilia from Manuel Ocampo. Lari Pittman‘s Spiritual and Needy (1991-92) exemplifies the peak of his exquisitely designed erotic horror vacuii period -- plug up them holes! Alan Rath’s Watcher (1998) is the one great piece Nam June Paik never made. Behind you is an array of various protuberances and concavities, including elegant small works by Phylis Green and Linda Stark. Even though Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy are in the next room, don‘t bother, except for the Tim HawkinsonIssey Miyake Pleats Please collaboration. Does that jump suit come in a 38 tall? Bummer. Move on.

Look waaay up to where Alison Saar’s Topsy Turvy dangles ominously from the ceiling. Dig Viola Frey‘s totally ’80s giant ceramic He Man (1983) and Charlie Ray‘s totally ’90s Male Mannequin (1990). There‘s that Cathy Opie photo, best thing she’s ever done. Pause to contemplate Anne Walsh‘s gently subversive two-channel video Two Men Making Gun Sounds (1996). Boot it down to the corner gallery, where there’s a great Martin Kersels piece I never even heard of, a sort of karaoke puppet aerobics automaton. Spend some time with it and familiarize yourself with its repertoire. Notice the little silver Snowman by Robert Therrien, the sexy Elvis pots by Adrian Saxe and the startling small painting of a deer on a raft by Ernest Silva, apparently one of a small handful of paintings made in the state over the last 20 years. Tired yet? We‘re entering the home stretch.

The almost too-simple poetry of the Yonemoto brothers’ Golden (1993) is curiously affecting, and Rachel “One Trick” Luchowicz‘s lipstick riff on Richard Serra stands up surprisingly well. If you must get your cryptic fortune from the slot machine, don’t trip over the Jason RhoadesJorge Pardo collaboration -- it‘s Art! This last, large room contains strong works on paper from Russell Crotty, Jim Shaw and Alexis Smith, as well as two ominous reconfigurations of Disney iconography by Todd Gray and Enrique Chagoya. Ruben Ortiz-Torres’ leaf-blower display Power Tools is a funnier and more coherent statement than the similar Alien Toy included elsewhere. On the way out, there‘s another authorless installation of looped media -- this time, of L.A. soundscapes. It’s okay, but there are several actual artists who have done works like this for real. And it‘s a curiously deflated end note for such a Sisyphean exhibit. Luckily for us, there are a few more must-see artworks!

Stagger to the basement and walk the gauntlet of Chris Burden’s still-timely, oversized 1993 L.A.P.D. Uniform series, and you‘re free to go. Exit toward the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ogden Street, past the excellent garden-hose wave by Lynn Aldrich to the green area adjacent to the parking structure. Find Richard Jackson’s Who‘s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue (2000), perhaps the most sarcastic conflation of modernist painting tropes and California’s automotive fetish imaginable. You‘ve made it. Go home.

“Made in California: Art, Image and Identity” isn’t going to win any awards for curatorial conciseness, but that shouldn‘t stop us from having a good time. In these days of excessive rationalization, it’s easy to forget that the art precedes the curatorial premise, and that while the object might gain from savvy juxtapositions and insightful text-panel analogies, it can seldom lose from their opposite -- as long as the viewer trusts his instincts.

Next week: We follow Eleanor Antin‘s The Freebooters installation on a detailed journey through LACMA’s permanent collection . . . KIDDING!