Last October, a strange sight appeared in West Hollywood. In the park adjacent to the library between Melrose Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, a preternaturally luminous, gridded and speckled white structure, an immense X-ray Rubik’s cube, appeared as a sudden monolith, a masonic Malevich.
The concrete looks like marble in magic hour, seems to hum when left alone, and resembles an ancient version of a T.A.R.D.I.S. — and, in fact, it is bigger on the inside. Soon enough the cube was pulled apart, and a cascading tower of angular climbing benches spread across the lawn. It stayed like that for two months, and then one day, it began to float away.
Guadalajara-based artist Jose Dávila’s Sense of Place is an 8-foot cube made of 40 separate but interlocking forms. Dávila created this large-scale public sculpture at the behest of L.A.N.D. (Los Angeles Nomadic Division), a nonprofit organization supporting site-specific public art exhibitions. It was their project for Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, the Getty Foundation’s survey of the history, influence and presence of Latin American and Latino art in Los Angeles.
Like all the PST programs across the region, Sense of Place got started in early fall 2017; it first appeared in West Hollywood Park in October. Most of the other PST projects and exhibitions ended in January, but instead of ending, Sense of Place had travel plans. Beginning in November, then again in January and in March, the sculpture was disassembled and its sculptural benchlike components dispersed to locations from the beach to the mountains. The March deployments are wrapping up this week, as the work prepares to move for the fourth and final session. But this time, it’s going back to where it started, the park in West Hollywood, and to its original state — the cube.
Each time its elements have been relocated, the team has repositioned the modular pieces in site-specific responses to their temporary surroundings. Audiences are invited to interact with the individual pieces in each location, to use them as they see fit. Children play on them, artists paint them, students perform improvised dance and theater on them, folks sit and read, talk and eat on them. It’s even interesting to watch the Teamsters setting them up, like live-action Tetris with cranes and belts.
As an organization focused on temporary public art installations, L.A.N.D. was the perfect shepherd for the unfolding the Sense of Place tour of L.A.’s cultural institutions, gathering places and civic hubs.
Dávila (b. 1974) is largely self-taught as an artist but he was educated in architecture, an influence that continues to manifest itself throughout not only his work but also his stunning adaptive-reuse studio in Guadalajara, which he designed himself. Dávila plays with elements of modernism, referencing artists and architects such as Luis Barragán and Donald Judd in works that “explore and dismantle the legacies of 20th-century avant-garde art and architecture,” he says in his artist statement. His specific interest in the use of industrial and construction materials evokes a sense of disorientation but also a kind of functional familiarity. These aspects of design and engineering intersect powerfully with Dávila’s growing interest in the management of space through social practice in the evolving urban landscape.
As esoteric, academic and art historical as Dávila’s constructs may be, in the end he’s really more of a populist. This is true in his studio practice of elevating common materials. It’s true in his love for adaptive reuse strategies culled from architecture into the fine arts. It’s true in his commitment to employ local artisans and craftspeople, such as stonemasons or welders, both in Mexico and elsewhere. And it’s also true about how he wants the work to function in the world, and how he wishes for the audience to interact with it.
While his photographs, collages and many of his large-scale gallery sculptures are best left pristine despite their rough aesthetic intrigue, his work for the outdoors tolerates interaction and, in the case of Sense of Place, anticipates and solicits it. Its format changes but its aesthetic qualities never do, giving audiences a constant to measure the world by juxtaposition.
Yet Dávila is not a city planner, he’s an artist. So even when it’s not crowded or specifically in use, the powerful presence of this work in the landscapes and plazas of our public zones is also beautiful, and deliberate in the way it activates architectural and environmental phenomena. It causes us to see our familiar surroundings in new ways, and the enhanced quality of our attention to that place will linger long after the physical departure of the work.
It echoes the architecture at the Brand, creates a sort of Craftsman brutalism on a sloping, grassy front yard, sets up a zigzag as a small cluster of geometric fossils edge toward the anthropomorphic when they interact with one another, meditates as tiny leaves gather on its ledges under the shade tree.
It lays low like an unadorned plinth in front of Beverly Hills City Hall, or converses with Franz West’s big pink abstract giant at the Marciano Art Foundation, and finally, here and there it is let loose in nature. Hovering in and out of genres, the work succeeds in blurring the boundaries, which it is Dávila’s intention to dismantle, including that between art and people, between people and each other, and between art and the city.
By the end of July when its cycle completes, Sense of Place will have existed in six phases. Original installation October-November, First Movement November-January, Second Movement January-March, Third Movement March-April, and the Fourth and final, its return to origins May-July. The First Movement sites were Inner City Arts downtown, Brand Library & Art Center in Glendale, Plummer Park in West Hollywood, MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Fitzpatrick-Leland House in Hollywood, and the Santa Monica Pier. Some stayed behind in West Hollywood.
Second Movement sites include Marciano Art Foundation, UCLA Lab School, Beverly Hills City Hall, Union Station and a front yard in Echo Park. As part of the Third Movement in March, the pieces migrated to the John Sowden House in Los Feliz, Bob Baker Marionette Theatre, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Ace Hotel Downtown, Lewis MacAdams Park in Frogtown and Silver Lake Independent Jewish Community Center. And now they will appear in Grand Park as part of Our L.A. Voices — Spring Arts Festival, from April 23 to 29.
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In its final iteration, the sculpture will return to its original cube format, reinstalled at West Hollywood Park but no longer as outdoor furniture. Instead, as it gathers itself for the end, it becomes a self-contained monument to, or an archive of, everything it has been through since October. But once the cube is reassembled, many of the pieces will no longer be viewable from the outside; they’ll be tucked inside, surfaces and entire segments turned inward.
To see all of the markings and other evidence of their travel histories, try to catch the pieces as they are currently installed, in 17 locations across Los Angeles. There’s a handy Google Map on the project site to help you better accomplish this low-key scavenger hunt, but do it soon, because by May 5, it will all be back at the proverbial square one.
The PST LA/LA slogan was a multiverse of endings to the premise, “There will be…,” which described individual projects. Dávila’s was, “There will be a 13,000-pound cube of empty color.” And so there was. But to update that PST slogan, this cube is no longer empty. It is now the vessel, keeper and witness of everything that happened on its travels. Now it really is bigger on the inside.