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American Idol Meets the Museum

American Idol Meets the Museum

"BlackBerrys, Turkish garlic, baby food, chocolate bars, perfume, fuel ... ." Artist Liz Glynn is fumbling through the multicolored wooden drawers in her installation at the Hammer Museum, pulling out lead sculptures.

The objects are life-size versions of banned or difficult-to-find items that Palestinians have imported through the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. The idea is that museumgoers can play with these things, taking them from the drawers and arranging them around the room. The exhibit includes a wooden tunnel that gets smaller and smaller, like a sideways pyramid; a round, white section of another tunnel, made of reinforced concrete bricks; a box of white gloves for handling the sculptures; and a closet with a wedding dress — brides have been smuggled, too.

Museumgoers particularly like the lead crabs. "People like to put them in funny places that have sort of a narratively suggestive" quality, Glynn says. "Peeking out from behind something, or the crab with a cellphone next to its claw." Some visitors have tried on the dress.

People are technically allowed to take the objects anywhere in the museum, though guards sometimes stop them. Glynn once found a lead BlackBerry stuck in a planter. She pictures people walking around with these items in their pockets, feeling their weight, simulating the experience of sneaking something where it's not supposed to go.

Glynn, 30, a graduate of Harvard and CalArts, grew up outside Boston, obsessed with the mummy display at its Museum of Fine Arts. The idea for her exhibit began with the great pyramids, where pharaohs were buried with belongings to use in the afterlife — and then got more complicated.

"I try to start with something any fifth grader would know," she says, but adds, "You aren't expected to know everything. It's better if you don't, and have your own story of the time you put something in your pocket or having been in a mine shaft or something else."

Whether people can relate to her work is a particularly important question for Glynn, one of five finalists for the Hammer's inaugural Mohn Award. The prize — which pays out $100,000 over two years and includes a book published about the artist's work — is given to the top artist in the museum's inaugural biennial, "Made in L.A.," featuring new work from 60 young or under-recognized L.A. artists and running through Sept. 2.

The twist? It is museumgoers who vote to determine the prizewinner — a process that has angered many L.A. artists and fueled a discussion about whether popularity is an appropriate goal for visual art.

The art world is full of prizes, including the $100,000 Bucksbaum Award for best work in the Whitney Biennial in New York. The Guggenheim Museum's Hugo Boss Prize — also $100,000 — is given every two years to an artist of any age or nationality. The most prestigious, and talked about, is the £25,000 Turner Prize for a British artist, run by the Tate in the United Kingdom.

All of those are juried prizes. But, slowly, voter-based contests are beginning to join them. The 4-year-old ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Mich., is a sprawling free-for-all with more than 1,500 entries, where anyone who shows up can vote for the top award of $200,000 (there are also juried prizes). The Brooklyn Museum in September will hold its GO project, in which the public votes on 10 artists to be considered for an upcoming exhibit. An online vote determined the 80 games chosen for the "Art of Video Games" exhibit now at the Smithsonian.

On the more private side of the museum biz, LACMA runs an annual Collectors Committee benefit: Ten curators pitch top donors on the pieces they want the museum to buy. The benefactors then vote on what is purchased (see sidebar).

The Mohn Award is bringing Grand Rapids–style democracy to a curated, prestigious exhibit. And it comes as Los Angeles is embroiled in a debate over a museum's relationship to the public. The Museum of Contemporary Art is still reeling from the firing of its chief curator, Paul Schimmel, after 22 years. Schimmel's relatively scholarly bent was perceived as a casualty of MOCA's direction under its buzz-generating museum director, Jeffrey Deitch, a fan of combining art with music, fashion, celebrity and other aspects of pop culture.

Museums have fended off accusations of commercialism for decades. The traveling "King Tut" exhibit in the 1970s ushered in the age of the blockbuster, which continued with last year's Metropolitan Museum's show on fashion designer Alexander McQueen, and Deitch's own street-art retrospective here, which attracted 201,352 visitors, MOCA's biggest tally ever.

Some think the Mohn Award's public vote, which ended Aug. 12, turns a serious exhibit into an extravaganza, focusing on what the public desires at the expense of what's truly deserving. But Hammer director Ann Philbin responds that she's just trying to get more people seeing and thinking hard about "Made in L.A." And what could be wrong about that?

 

Every so often, the directors at L.A.'s big four — the Getty, Hammer, MOCA and LACMA — meet for lunch. At one of these lunches, Philbin heard that L.A. art collector Jarl Mohn had been calling museums around town, pitching his idea for an art prize. As a matter of fact, Philbin replied, the museum was planning a biennial — a perfect setting for the prize, everyone agreed. The Hammer should do it.

Philbin and Mohn eventually brokered a deal to give the award at the next five biennials. Mohn conceived of it as a jury prize; it was Philbin's team that suggested a vote.

The culture is becoming participatory, Philbin thought. We "like" things on Facebook. We vote on American Idol. We identify new stars on YouTube. We're all curators now. What if we brought this philosophy to an arena that is considered a little more serious?

They settled on a jury narrowing the field of 60 artists in the biennial to five, then the public voting on the winner. "We hoped the process would be twofold in that the public would first ask themselves, 'Why did the jury select these five particular artists?' " Philbin explains in an email. "Then we hoped it would invite them to drill deeper, engage more actively and ask more questions about all the works in the exhibition."

In March, at a cocktail party for the "Made in L.A." artists, Philbin announced the award. She'd assumed they'd be thrilled. "We didn't foresee the concerns of the artists as we probably should have," she acknowledges.

Artist Lisa Anne Auerbach sums up the L.A. art-world reaction: "People were really pissed."

Auerbach is not in the show but is co-chair of the Hammer's Artist Council, an advisory group of artists that meets with museum administrators a few times a year. Some on the council were fine with the award; Auerbach and others were not.

Many were upset that the museum hadn't consulted with the council beforehand. A bigger issue was the competition — that the award would make the supportive environment of the L.A. art world more cutthroat by handing a too-large sum of money to only one person. Auerbach snipes that it turned the show into a "capitalist spectacle."

"We were surprised," Philbin explains, "because the art world is already a fairly competitive place. Getting a gallery and selling work — that's all a form of competition as well. I suppose they felt they didn't need another place to compete."

The public vote was another point of contention. Philbin remarks, "Frankly, this was confounding to me. When I asked why, no one could really answer that question. It is hard to answer without implying that the public is incapable of knowledgeably and meaningfully engaging with the work — which of course is not true."

"Sometimes the most difficult work is the most interesting," Auerbach responds, and "maybe it's too academic or people don't think they understand it."

The announcement came too late for artists to change their exhibits. After the party, though, Liz Glynn says, "There was a flurry of text messages, like, 'I'm adding a snake to my exhibition.' 'You haven't seen my trapeze walk I'm adding to my painting.' There was a little bewilderment around what it was asking the work to perform.

"Working toward being the best at being something is so different from what artists are engaged with in their practices," she adds.

Meg Cranston, an Artist Council member who made the two colorful murals on the entryway stairs for "Made in L.A.," was generally in favor of the prize. She felt the public voting scared artists whose work focused more on the subject matter, the process and ideas, rather than the execution, the visual or visceral appeal. "Artists are just saying, 'Well, the public is just seeing if it looks good.' Well, maybe they're right. That's what the artists are afraid of. Their reactions might be a little too accurate," she says.

The first Artist Council meeting after the announcement of the prize was contentious but civil. Some artists objected to the word "prize." Prizes are for children, it was thought — "what you win when you're throwing balls through a net in a county fair," Auerbach says. The Hammer later changed it from a "prize" to an "award."

Other art prizes — especially the Turner — have been met with carping. The public complains about the artists. The artists complain about the scrutiny. Some chosen as finalists have turned down the honor. In 2002 the U.K.'s culture minister, Kim Howells, called the entries "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit." Martin Creed won in 2001 for his Work No. 227: the lights going on and off, an empty room in which the lights went on and off. An angry artist threw eggs at the wall.

 

The Hammer has welcomed dialogue about the award, and has been forthcoming about its criticism. Perhaps it can afford to be, as Philbin's years of well-received shows and focus on local artists have engendered a lot of community goodwill. At another museum — say, MOCA — the award probably would have met with more indignation.

Part of the Hammer's effort in winning over the artists involved helping them learn about the main donor. "When you get to understand or get to know him as a person," Hammer senior curator Anne Ellegood says, "you can see what his intentions are." And Jarl Mohn is not your average art collector.

In 1986, just after Jarl Mohn joined MTV Networks, he attended a company retreat in Boca Raton. His colleagues were trying to do flaming tequila shots, but blowing out the fire before drinking. Mohn had owned a radio station in El Paso, a border town. He knew how to do flaming tequila shots.

So he got up to show them how it's done — and lit his beard on fire. He smothered the flames. The crowd applauded.

The next morning Mohn called his new boss, MTV founder Robert Pittman, to apologize. "Are you kidding?" Pittman told him. "You're a god to these people."

Today Mohn is one of the Los Angeles' most important art collectors. He's attracted to abstract, minimalist works, yet his sensibility is far from rarefied. When he reads art magazines, the impenetrable language drives him nuts. At the bottom of his emails, his iPhone apology reads: "Plz xcuzz da typos, gramma and sintax. MayB da content 2!!!"

Although the structure of the Hammer's contest wasn't his idea, funding a controversial art prize decided by popular vote is eerily fitting with his career as an executive. He's shown a knack for finding out what the public wants, facing institutional resistance at every turn.

"I get nervous about seeing myself as a populist," he says in an interview at his home in the Mandeville Canyon area of Brentwood. "I think I'm reasonably good at what's going to resonate with the core audience."

He was, until recently, known by his catchier disc jockey name, Lee Masters. As a teenager, he convinced the manager at WBUX-AM in Doylestown, Pa., to let him on the air. "I sounded like Minnie Mouse," he says. He jumped from station to station, moving up to management, and finally was hired at MTV Networks, rising to vice president and general manager of MTV and VH1.

Charred facial hair aside, the company was a tough culture to fit into. Mohn battled a line of naysayers as he tried to combat sagging ratings by moving the channel away from videos and toward half-hour shows.

A young associate producer named Ted Demme used to come into Mohn's office and demand that MTV embrace hip-hop. Mohn told him to do a special. The ratings exploded. Yo! MTV Raps started airing daily. (Demme would go on to direct movies, including Blow.)

Mohn also proposed a game show. "That was like rolling a grenade into the room," he says. The marketing department thought he was killing the brand. Focus groups said they didn't want an MTV game show, but Mohn told them to go back and ask what an MTV game should look like. Out came the hit Remote Control.

When Andrew Dice Clay hosted the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards, the ratings were gangbusters. But Dice delivered one of his adult nursery rhymes on the air. Mohn took the fall, he says, and was fired.

It was a blessing in disguise, as Mohn was quickly hired to turn around a struggling cable channel called Movietime, which aired mainly film trailers. When picking a name, young people liked ETV. But when the graphic designers came in to present the logo, it was just E with an exclamation point at the end. Mohn trusted their choice — and with that, E! Entertainment Television was born.

While programming E!'s first slate of shows, Mohn found himself thinking about the time a white supremacist broke Geraldo Rivera's nose by punching him in the face and hitting him with a folding chair. Mohn came up with the idea for a show that would make fun of talk shows' outrageous moments — leading to E!'s first hit, Talk Soup with Greg Kinnear. Mohn hired Howard Stern to do a talk show, bringing the channel more male viewers, despite protests from women's groups.

Today, Mohn concentrates on his own investments in tech companies. He also helps out USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and Pasadena public radio station KPCC, serving on their boards.

 

One day while getting off a plane in Oakland, he was on the phone with KPCC president Bill Davis, who was trying to think of a slogan for the station's nonpartisan political coverage. As Mohn walked down to the baggage claim, he said he'd think about it, and almost hung up. Then he stopped. "It just popped into my head," he told Davis. " 'No Rant, No Slant.' " It's now on mugs and billboards.

Mohn's father was a literature professor who wrote poetry about artists like Paul Klee. But Mohn didn't get serious about art until his wife, Pamela, suggested they get some for their walls. The first art Mohn bought was not what she expected — two Larry Clark photos, one of a pregnant woman shooting up and another of a baby in a coffin. He found them disturbing but beautiful. "I show them to my wife, she says, 'There's no fucking way these are going up in this house,' " he recalls.

He wanted his collection to be unique, to stand for something. But he didn't realize how until 10 years later, when he was in a New York gallery and spotted a John McCracken sculpture called Triton — a tall, stainless steel, mirrored column whose horizontal cross-section is a triangle.

It's now in his backyard, between the house and a green hedge. If you look at it from the house, it reflects the hedge in such a way that it almost disappears. From one angle, it seems like a rectangle instead of a triangle. From another, up close, it's a two-dimensional sheet.

"The day they installed it, I looked at it and I went, 'Holy shit, that's what I want to do,' " he says. "It's almost juvenile. 'This is cool.' 'I like the way it looks.' 'My God, that is beautiful.' "

He sold everything else and zeroed in on New York and California minimalism from the 1960s and '70s — a narrow spectrum that makes his collection unique. His house is littered with works: two neon tubes by Dan Flavin, one red, one green, are next to a ground-floor bathroom. A bulbous oval of pink and orange by Craig Kauffman hangs above a few MTV Video Music Awards on the mantle.

Mohn is a fan of James Turrell, an artist known for his skyspaces — enclosed spaces open to the air through a hole in the roof, with colored lights shining on walls and the outsides of the ceiling. Turrell made one for Mohn in the form of a stunning private movie theater. It has a retractable roof, and the screen seems to float a few inches from the wall. At sunset, Mohn has friends over to watch the lights shining on the walls slowly change colors, contrasting with the hole in the roof as it fades from blue to black.

Like many collectors, Mohn and his wife began donating to local museums through their foundation, writing the checks and dressing up for the galas.  But "it didn't feel right," he says. He wanted to do something more personal.

That's when his entertainment-executive brain kicked in. They would fund projects that "leverage the money so that it's much, much different than if I were to just write a check for the same amount," he says. "It's being creative."

One of those projects was LACMA's rock. When, after planning the project for four decades, artist Michael Heizer finally found the boulder for Levitated Mass, he called LACMA director Michael Govan and urged him to buy it before it was destroyed. Govan wondered who would be crazy enough to fund such a thing — so he called Mohn.

Other donors eventually gave more than Mohn did, but he gave enough early on that the museum had to go through with it. "We got them pregnant," Mohn says.

The publicity around the work has helped leverage its $10 million cost into something monumental — a reward that's intangible but far more valuable. Similarly, the Mohn Award is a way to get people talking about "Made in L.A.," to look at art in a different way, just as the Oscars get people arguing about movies.

"Is it a bit of a trick?" Mohn says. "Yes, it's a trick to get people to think, and I don't think that's a bad thing."

Part of Mohn's mission is to make art more accessible, to show people it's OK to have opinions. "Even as a collector, I walk into a gallery in New York that I don't have a relationship with and the gallerina that's 22 years old, sitting at the front desk, who just got out of art school, if she doesn't look up and smile at me, I'm, like, 'Wow, maybe I shouldn't be here,' " he says.

"It's like my indie band's cooler than yours because my indie band, only three people have heard about it, and your indie band, 10 people know. There's this whole thing in the art world that I think is really not conducive to openness and bringing people in."

 

And the finalists picked by the Hammer jury were certain to provoke opinions. "It even took my breath away," he says. "The people that come in to vote aren't going, 'Oh, that's so pretty; let's vote for that.' ... They're going to have to think about it. Sorry."

After "Made in L.A." opened on June 2, the art world continued to raise objections to the award. A group of artists from the show met a few times on the lawn at Barnsdall Art Center as a gesture toward community and to commiserate about the award. Performance artist Simone Forti also was there, agreeing with the group; she was later slightly embarrassed to find out she had been named a finalist.

But people also were curious about who would win this thing. Before the jury picked the finalists, a group that included Eric Kim, co-director of alternative space Human Resources, went to dinner one night and decided to create the Mohn Games. It was, in part, an artistic response to their anxiety over the spectacle of the prize, as its poster showed dice, bling and a bow and arrow, à la The Hunger Games. But it was also a legitimate betting pool to predict who would win the award, attracting around 100 entries at $5 each. When Mohn heard about it, he got so excited that he threw in another $500 just for fun.

Liz Glynn proved the pool's favorite, with eight entries, Kim recalls. "The feeling is actually that enough people in our community are going to make up the bulk of the voters to the extent where Liz Glynn probably will win. She's a very popular artist."

Then the jury saw the show. One juror, Rita Gonzalez of LACMA, was from L.A. The other three were curators from New York — a balance determined with the theory that New Yorkers would have fewer ingrained biases about L.A. artists, though during the discussions, Gonzalez was crucial in providing context. The jury was told not to consider demographics, financial need or anything besides the art.

Philbin helped mediate but couldn't give her opinion. Only one finalist selection was unanimous from the beginning. There were some trade-offs and compromises, although in the end all the jurors had to agree on all five.

When the finalists were announced, in late June, the Mohn Games' players seemed to be on the right track: Liz Glynn was on the list. She got the call while eating lunch with her gallerist. "It was exciting for five minutes," she says. Then she remembered: "What's the state of the website?"

The finalists use a range of media. They also span all three of the exhibit's locations — Glynn and Erika Vogt's multimedia installations and Meleko Mokgosi's walls of paintings are at the Hammer, while performance artist Simone Forti's exhibit is at Barnsdall Art Center in Hollywood, and the art collective Slanguage took over LAXART in Culver City. (These satellite venues are less traveled than the Hammer, creating anxiety that the playing field would be imbalanced.)

With the finalists in place, it was natural to wonder who had the leg up. But knowing what art the public likes is harder than it seems.

"No one can predict what the public will like," Cranston says. "It's like predicting what collectors will buy."

In the three years of Michigan's ArtPrize, voters have picked works that are realistic and benign: a painting of ocean waves, a large drawing of American cavalry officers, a glass mosaic of Jesus on the cross. This doesn't worry ArtPrize creator Rick DeVos, a 30-year-old web entrepreneur and grandson of the co-founder of Amway. "The goal is not to find better art through voting," he told the Grand Rapids Press.  "I just want to see crazy crap all over Grand Rapids, and I think we've achieved that."

The outcome in Michigan fits the stereotype. In the play Red, now at the Mark Taper Forum, painter Mark Rothko (played by Alfred Molina) says dismissively, "You know what people like? Happy, bright colors. They want things to be pretty."

That perception would seem to favor the only pure painter in the group of Mohn finalists. Meleko Mokgosi, 30, grew up in Botswana, surrounded by artwork like reed baskets sold to tourists on safari, and learned to draw using graphite and charcoal. A high school teacher gave him paint, introduced him to German expressionism and sent him on a journey to Williams College in Massachusetts and UCLA's MFA program.

Mokgosi's large paintings wrap around three walls, showing a series of snapshots. The starting point is an incident in South Africa in the 1850s, when the Xhosa people killed their cattle in order to try to drive away the colonists and resurrect their ancestors. But the work extends to today. "It's trying to figure out how people in Southern Africa try to make themselves bulletproof, or immune to the colonial legacy," he says.

 

Some parts are realistic, like the faces of an affluent black couple dancing together in contemporary South Africa, or the rumpled skin of the dead cows lying in the burnt-orange sand. But other aspects are more metaphorical. Eras are jumbled. Large white expanses are left on the canvas, with ghostly sketches of incomplete doorways or mountains in the background. Shadowy soldiers stand behind the cows with spears, their legs a single brushstroke.

Mokgosi is influenced by psychoanalytic theory, and by cinema. The wall of paintings is the size of a screen. The white spaces are silences. "This kind of space or silence [is] to allow the viewer to come into installation, become part of installation," he says.

"I like the blank," says Andy, from West Hollywood, who was walking past the work one evening. "It's like skin," making the painting "like a tattoo." He found it hard to compare it to multimedia installations like Glynn's. "You're looking at this one like you would normally view art," he says of Mokgosi's paintings. "The other one you can play with — you can create your own piece."

Some evidence suggests the public is more comfortable with abstract work than one might think. Ivy Ross, the chief marketing officer at Art.com, which sells more than a million different images for your walls, says that photography and Old Masters are the site's top categories, but recently it has seen a rise in abstract art, especially mid- to late 20th–century artists: Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhard Richter and Richard Diebenkorn. Landscapes are still popular but the less literal versions have seen a sharp increase.

Ross pins the trend on the glut of photography, thanks to smartphones and the Internet. "You can find literal images of things in Flickr," she says. "People are resonating with art that takes that idea to an abstraction."

Mokgosi is not well known in the art world, and only finished grad school in 2011. He doesn't think the realism in his paintings gives him an advantage in the voting. "That would be unfair," he says.

"A place like L.A. where there are art institutions, there are so many people who are educated," he adds. "People are clever."

On Thursday nights throughout the summer, similar to previous years, the Hammer offered free admission and set up a bar in the courtyard. Young Angelenos danced to a DJ and flirted in a photo booth. They registered to vote by scanning their driver's license at an electronic kiosk, to make sure they only voted once.

On one of these nights, upstairs in a gallery, finalist Simone Forti was acting out one of her News Animation Improvisations, a type of performance combining dance and spoken-word commentary on current events. Forti, born in 1935, thought up the concept when her dad died in the early 1980s. He had always read the newspaper — that's how he knew to move their Jewish family out of Italy before World War II.

To prepare, she reads the news and writes a few pages a day longhand, trying to find connections. During a performance, she's instinctual, letting the words shape the movements, or vice versa.

"Supposedly China has a hard time with basketball, because it's so improvisational," she says during the performance, before bouncing around like an NBA player on defense. It's like a performance-art version of The Daily Show.

Many in the audience seemed familiar with Forti's work, such as David Bronstein, from West Hollywood, who took a workshop with her in the '80s. "To take that on in movement is hilarious to me," he said. "People with doctorates are trying to figure that shit out. It takes balls."

Still, Forti was a long shot for the prize. You had to be at the right place and time to attend her performances. Her installation was over at Barnsdall, and her work was conveyed through sketches, scribbled writing and a long, often grainy video. "I think I'm off the hook," she acknowledged.

The only finalist to significantly campaign was Slanguage, an art collective run by married couple Mario Ybarra Jr. and Karla Diaz. Since 2002, the pair has run a combination artist studio and community hub in Wilmington, a port city near Long Beach, offering classes and creating interactive exhibits while also traveling to residencies at the Whitney Biennial and the Tate Modern.

For "Made in L.A.," Slanguage created a visual celebration of its history: old photos, street art–style paintings, hand-painted shoes the group sells. In a side room, visitors can just sit and draw.

 

At a slam poetry event they organized, the performers shouted to the crowd, "Don't forget to vote." Posts on the group's Facebook page said things like "Swizzle Sticks Votes Slanguage!!" with a photo of swizzle sticks giving a thumbs-up. In a YouTube video, Ybarra proclaimed, "A hundred thousand dollars can be stretched a long way down in the ghetto, and we need you to vote."

He tells the Weekly, "I never see art as like a 'Kumbaya' moment. I've always seen it as a competitive sport."

Still, Vegas' odds might have favored Glynn. That Thursday night, at Glynn's installation, people are moving around the lead BlackBerrys and iPods. One kid starts kicking the wooden tunnel. "I want to go inside," she protests, as her dad whisks her off. Lots of kids want to go into the tunnel, a security guard reports. Some Thursdays, drunk people stumble in. One day a man walks in and breaks one of the planks.

The exhibit's interactivity and topicality make it especially accessible. Moving around objects makes it memorable, and Egypt is a hot topic after the Arab Spring.

And Glynn thinks hard about how people interact with her work. She was going to leave the wood unfinished but then realized that painting the drawers red, blue, yellow and green would help indicate that they are drawers that can be opened, inviting people to look inside.

Her installation has similarities to that of another finalist, Erika Vogt, around the corner. Vogt's includes a series of scary-looking tools on the ground, but you can't pick them up (kids sometimes kick them over). There's a video of a hand turning the tools, superimposed on road-trip footage. Rows of images of everyday objects, such as one of a dollar bill that says, "This may be your last," made using pencils, crayon and a "spirit duplicator" (a mimeograph-type machine), are next to a charcoal drawing of a dancing tooth.

The unifying ideas are more elusive than in Glynn's work. Vogt was inspired by "turning," she says, along with "margins and notes and what's kind of fixed and what's not fixed." But these themes were just jumping-off points. "This is very oblique to what's in the room."

Wandering around Vogt's installation is Brent Gilmore, who works in international freight-forwarding in Houston and appears to be in his 30s. "I like how the objects on the ground are also in the video," he says. "Otherwise I probably wouldn't last long."

He's happier around the corner at Glynn's: "I like the tunnel. I read it's about the Egyptian revolution — I get a sense of that. The opening."

Two girls in their 20s, Melani, from Koreatown, who works in human resources, and Gabrielle, a fashion wholesale rep from Orange County, agree. Vogt's is "a little alienating," Melani says. "This one is a little more welcoming. It's more tactile."

"I like woodwork," Gabrielle says.

Vogt isn't worried that visitors might not understand the thinking behind her piece. "It just reminds me of this question of what does it mean to 'get' art," she says. "Can you ever?"

By the time voting closes on Aug. 12, around 4,000 people have registered to vote, and 2,051 voted, both smaller numbers than the museum had hoped. Given the initial controversy, the Hammer plans to re-evaluate the process for future Mohn Awards, to see if the public will vote on future prizes.

But by some measures, the grand experiment was a success. Some 50,000 people came to the Hammer in the two and a half months the show was open, compared with 32,000 for the entire summer last year. Barnsdall Art Center's attendance was 20 to 30 percent higher than usual, and LAXART also saw a jump in visitors.

Last week, Meleko Mokgosi was buying a stew pot in Marshall's in New York City, where he's a temporary artist-in-residence at Harlem's Studio Museum, when he got the call that he had won the Mohn Award. "I had no idea," he says. "You can't anticipate these things."

His Hammer display is just one section of a series of 50-plus paintings on post- colonial Africa, which he'll use the $100,000 (minus taxes) to complete. "It's conveying the messages that are very important to me and need to be said."

No one picked him as the likely winner in the Mohn Games — those funds will be given to charity or folded into another pool.

After the call, Mokgosi did a dance, discreetly, in the aisle at Marshall's. He then took the pot home and made stew.

Reach the writer at zpincusroth@laweekly.com.

A series of paintings by Meleko Mokgosi depicting Africa's colonial legacy.
PHOTO BY BRIAN FORREST
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