New from the art-in-strange-places department, the USS Iowa, a permanently docked San Pedro museum, now also is home to one of the area's more eccentric contemporary art spaces. Alfa Romeo Tango — or A.R.T. — celebrated its inaugural exhibition in November, on board the historic, carefully maintained vintage warship.
A.R.T. is the labor of love of artist Ben Jackel, a renowned sculptor, who for five years has spent his free time volunteering at the Iowa. His own work forms A.R.T.'s first show, because it was the easiest way to get the gallery started and because it's perfect, but moving forward he will be curating its program.
“The future shows will relate to and expand upon the ship and its military roots and history,” Jackel says. “I plan on showing work from veterans, local artists and world-class contemporary artists that address these issues,” with a wide and equal range of artists across style and materials as well as race, gender and generation.
“There are many visionary minds among the staff and crew on board the Battleship Iowa,” Jackel explains. “Some of them also thought an art gallery on a historic warship could become a very special thing, and with their help I made it happen. Now that we have an art gallery aboard, everyone is very impressed and excited that we have created something completely new.”
Visitors arrive at the gallery by a somewhat circuitous but fascinating route. The A.R.T. space is a part of the tour packages, which range in ticket price and duration, with docents or app-based audio guides. Yes, at this point you do need to buy a ticket to visit the gallery. “It is a gallery within a museum, so it's hard to get around that one,” Jackel says. He's working on it, though, and access to the space is free for San Pedro's first Thursday art walks and the openings and closings of each exhibition.
A wide ramp leads up to the main deck. The ship itself is an imposing and anachronistic sight, a behemoth of gun-metal gray with stories-high stacks of windowed compartments, cranes, turrets and close-up views of all the nuts and bolts of the architecture of the ship. Toward the north-facing fore of the vessel, a modest watertight door opens to a slim, steep ladder stair. Descending not one but two levels down, you enter a long, low labyrinth of archival and more high-tech exhibits on the history of the Iowa in wartime, and the people involved in its escapades. Around several corners and curves, you come upon a strange white box space at the end of the arcade, its walls sharing space with hefty pipes, and a netted hatch leading even further below deck at one end of the room. This is Alfa Romeo Tango.
Jackel's “USS Indianapolis and Other Tales From the Sea,” which is on view daily through March 17, is the ideal exhibition to unveil this space and articulate its concept — to exhibit contemporary thematic art dealing with topics of military and nautical history in a variety of mediums. The broader, aka non–art world, context visitors absorb on even a brief stroll through the outer exhibit, much less the more expansive exploration of the ship itself, perfectly sets up the experience of Jackel's works. He has long addressed issues of war and disaster in his art, from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina, spear-wielding soldiers from antiquity and the Stealth Bomber.
Though he also works in ax-carved wood, Jackel is best known for his work in ceramic and stoneware. He uses a dark, slate gray clay, which he then rubs with beeswax to achieve an effect that is both steely and sensual, industrial yet almost organic. It has a subtle sheen that is quite luxurious, and the abundance of finely wrought, accurate detail is delightful and surprising. Yet this also creates a kind of cognitive dissonance between the pleasurability of the objects and their content of industry and destruction, weapons and warfare.
About a dozen such sculptures are on view at the Iowa, both large and smaller scale, depicting famous as well as lesser-known naval vessels across American history. One singular work is afforded pride of place on a long pedestal, while most are arranged on the walls, as though sailing a vertical white sea. Some of the work dates back several years, and has been exhibited in one of Jackel's several shows with renowned gallery L.A. Louver in Venice. For example, there is a roughly hewn, ax-chopped USS Maine, and elements from a larger, multivessel installation based on the USS Johnston.
“When I told L.A. Louver about what I was getting into on board the battleship, they warned me about how much work it would be and how much time of mine it would eat up,” Jackel says. “They were correct! But they thought it was a perfect fit for me and completely supported my new endeavor throughout the process of creating A.R.T.”
The central work in the show, and the piece for which it is named, is a brand-new sculpture of the ill-fated World War II vessel USS Indianapolis. This was the ship that ferried the bomb Little Boy to the Pacific island of Tinian, before being sunk in shark-infested waters by a Japanese submarine. The wreck of the Indianapolis was recently discovered after it was thought lost for 70 years — which is what prompted Jackel to undertake what he calls one of the most ambitious sculptures of his career, and one of the most meaningful. And now he's created the perfect place to show it off.
USS Iowa Museum, Pacific Battleship Center, 250 S. Harbor Blvd., San Pedro; (310) 971-4462, pacificbattleship.com. Open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; free with tour ticket and special events, $20-$30.