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IN THE 17th CENTURY THEY REALLY KNEW HOW TO lay on a spread. From the days of Louis XIV at Versailles until the mid­19th century, the great courts of Europe supported an entire genre of art-making devoted exclusively to the design and creation of fantastic presentations of food -- monumental in scale, surreal in their baroque excess, and currently the subject of a fascinating exhibit at the Getty Research Institute. Assembled by curator of rare books Marcia Reed, the show gathers 70 cookbooks, commemorative programs, playing cards, popular prints, scrolls and menus from the centuries in question, as well as presenting a modest example of a molded sugar centerpiece depicting the Palace of Circe, faithfully re-created by English culinary artist Ivan Day. Tracing the history of public food sculpture from the banquet tables of popes and kings to the Cuccagna street festivals of Naples to annual Swiss Wine Harvest parades that continue to this day, "The Edible Monument"'s engravings depict massive agglomerations of fruits, candies, breads, roasted pigs and chickens, pastry and molded sugar paste, as well as candles, flowers, precious metals, wooden scaffolding, papier-mâché and stucco. Formed to resemble scenes from classical mythology and the Bible, or mountainous landscapes, the massive centerpieces were populated by sugar-paste sculptures in the forms of municipal demigods and mythical beasts, and may have been designed by artists such as Bernini.

But where these extravagant private displays may be appreciated as more or less benign examples of conspicuous consumption, taking it to the streets resulted in a more grotesque spectacle. Usually built in the town square, the Italian Cuccagna monuments were temporary food-encrusted landscapes based on the medieval legend of the Land of Cocaigne, which survived into the 20th century as the hobo legend of Big Rock Candy Mountain. A parallel universe made of porridge, with butter trees and cheese mountains, rivers flowing with honey and wine, and rainstorms of cakes and candy, Il Paese della Cuccagna was a peasant's paradise where well-dressed, well-fed citizens passed the time eating, playing games and making love. Translated into a lavish street spectacle, though, Cuccagna took on somewhat more perverse overtones. A typical Cuccagna monument built for the marriage of King Ferdinand in Naples in 1768 was designed to resemble a fortress of food on top of a slippery mountain of mud, surrounded by a moat full of live fish. On a signal from the King, the desperately poor street people of Naples were allowed to swarm the massive structure, flailing through the water and clambering up muddy slopes to grab what vittles they could -- a most inventive amusement for the noble audience.

Apart from the sheer story value of this neglected art-historical stream, I was struck by the number of its similarities to contemporary art practice. While religious street festivals have been cited as precursors to 20th-century performance art, the notion of grand-scale ephemeral public sculptures -- particularly ones that are offered for literal consumption, engage on a multisensory level, and precipitate what amounts to a spectacular collaborative performance (the crowd's behavior having been essentially choreographed for an aesthetic effect) -- is alien to most of our concepts about what constitutes art. So while an artist like Rirkrit Tiravanija gets famous for cooking and serving Thai food for gallery visitors, or Veronika Dreier casts human figures from strawberry ice cream, and while recent public spectacles -- from the Nazi Nuremberg rallies to the Yippie/Chicago Police Department collaboration of '68 -- are critically recast in terms of their aesthetic import, the cutting-edge synthesis of all these trends can be found not at UCLA grad reviews, but in musty tomes from the vaults of several libraries. In this sense, the exhibition sort of reconciles the concerns of the 20th century's avant-garde with J. Paul Getty's notorious lack of appreciation for contemporary art, though just next door a more direct approach is under way.

Mister Getty made no bones about his disdain for modern art and architecture, yet in his will he made no stipulations for the museum to stick to the Greek statuary and 18th-century French frou-frous that had so tickled him in life. In spite of this, a certain inertia has prevented the Getty from launching full bore into the contemporary art world. Until now. Across the patio from the Research Institute, in the Museum proper, "Departures" features the work of 11 contemporary Los Angeles artists commissioned to respond to works in the permanent collection with unique original pieces. Curated by Lisa Lyons, who has overseen less ambitious Getty forays into contemporanea by Ed Ruscha and Alexis Smith, "Departures" is a Trojan horse­full­of­old­man­spinning­in­his­grave strategies.

By serendipitous coincidence, Lyons begins her "Departures" catalog essay reminiscing about a seminal childhood art experience over an elaborate 2-foot-high jade centerpiece in the shape of a mountain landscape. Ruminating on the intimate, anti-blockbuster appeal of museums' permanent collections and the local community, particularly artists, and given further impetus by a video work in progress by Judy Fiskin, Lyons conceived of "Departures" as a way to haul the Getty's purview wholesale into the 21st century. Her final 11-artist selection, while covering all the bases and containing no real wild cards, is just idiosyncratic enough to avoid seeming unadventurous.

Fiskin's video, in fact, is probably the most experimental work presented. Having abandoned her highly regarded trademark tiny photographs for video only a couple of years ago, the artist turns in a refreshingly lo-tech and surprisingly hilarious critique of the ostensible accessibility promised in the museum's "Your Getty Center" ad campaign. Other artists who rose to the assigned challenge include Martin Kersels, whose annoying photography series has finally paid off in spades with the ã generously proportioned artist performing a vigorous gymnastic pas de deux with a foam replica of the notorious Getty Kouros. John Baldessari displays a similar ability to apply his considerable formal and conceptual gifts to a given set of criteria, with his multilayered appropriation of Dürer's exquisite Stag Beetle watercolor. Ruben Ortiz Torres has taken the opportunity to reconcile his somewhat problematic representations of customized lowriders with his own artistic vision and family history.

Inspired by a series of 1899 stereographs of Cuba from the bowels of the Research Institute, Ortiz's La Zamba del Chevy combines bravura associative conceptual leaps with the more literal and crowd-pleasing dynamics of automotive hydraulics and 3-D video. All of the included artists turned in solid, occasionally challenging work, though some of the putative connections to Getty holdings are threadbare, and even a trifle insulting. Still, it's good to be able to see Lari Pittman's impressive recent work without traveling to New York. John Miller's Op paintings are similarly far-fetched from their alleged inspiration, but deliver the usual contemplative punch. Sharon Ellis and Uta Barth turn in strong, characteristic works. Adrian Saxe's installation is over the top in garish anachronism, even for him. Steven Prina's film is surprisingly moving, and Alison Saar's Afro-di(e)ty is an effective prod at the museum's political and spiritual Achilles' heels. The show is rounded out by a series of masterful portraits of the artists by architectural photographer Grant Mudford, whose formal approach varies widely but gracefully from subject to subject.

AT THE BERGAMOT STATION GALLERY OF Mudford's dealer (and sparring partner) Rosamund Felsen, another amazing coincidence is played out in the form of an installation by Renée Petropoulos. Having a Wonderful Time . . . consists of layers of colorful vinyl rectangles and chalk lines derived from the superimposed display schemes and architecture from eight different photography and painting galleries in the Getty's modern wing. The result is a humorous and affectionate deconstruction of the usually invisible design conventions that underlie our museological experiences. If you happen to be in the gallery at 11 a.m., 2 or 4 p.m., the sweetness of the work is given a more critical edge through the addition of the similarly layered audio-tour soundtracks, which build in complexity from a mere doubling of the authoritative voice of official explication into a Babel-ous text-sound of oceanic glossolalia. Petropoulos' work easily ranks with the best work in "Departures," but is only on view through March 18, so see it first.

If anyone in the late modern era was equivalent to the dukes and Sun Kings of the Renaissance, it was flamboyantly egotistical industrial robber barons like Getty and Howard Hughes, whose lives and legacies have been as intrigue-ridden as those of the Borgias. Within the walls of Xanadu, the noble effort to incorporate the finest examples of contemporary cultural activity with their illustrious forebears is just that, and commendable. Most of us have indeed had, and continue to have, some of our best art experiences in museums -- institutions that are able to mobilize resources to realize artistic visions impossible otherwise. Nevertheless, the discomfort generated by the impossible hybrid of institutional conservation and the imperative ephemerality (at least on some level) of contemporary art only grows.

The preservation of J. Paul's belief in the efficacy of benevolent cultural dictatorship -- in the face of the self-regulating anarchy of the best modern art -- is sustainable only by large infusions of cash money. In spite of the Getty Center's Sisyphean efforts to pitch itself as a resource for regular folk, and the fact that the moat-wade and slope-scramble have been supplanted by a not-unpleasant tram ride, it is impossible not to think of this fortress on a hill as a sort of postmodern Cuccagna monument encrusted with gourmet eye candy, where we peasants may, on occasion, and parking permitting, ascend to taste the nourishment Art is said to offer -- meaningful and finely tuned sensual pleasures, unhurried entertainment, deeply nuanced psychological adventure, sublime spiritual transcendence -- and carry away what we can. In his throne at the right hand of God, J. Paul looks down and chuckles softly at our naive yearning. Inevitably, back down the hill we must go, to lives by implication devoid of such lofty sustenance -- and the chasm between Art and Life never seemed wider.

THE EDIBLE MONUMENT: THE ART OF FOOD FOR FESTIVALS The Getty Center, Research
Institute Exhibition Gallery, 1200 Getty Center Drive
Through May 21

DEPARTURES: 11 ARTISTS AT THE GETTY | The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive
Through May 7

HAVING A WONDERFUL TIME, WEST PAVILION ART AFTER 1800 J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM LOS ANGELES CALIFORNIA | Rosamund Felsen Gallery
Bergamot Station, B4, 2525 Michigan Ave. | Through March 18


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