In late October, LACMA unveiled “Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900–2000,” its largest-ever exhibition, a sprawling five-part millennium show exploring the state’s popular image and art‘s role in promoting or jamming said image. The buzz on this show has been bad. Word of mouth and critical response have it pegged as an unfocused, politically correct mishmash that, by trying to please everyone, fails to please anyone. Expansive works of art are crammed to illustrate an ill-fitting thesis. The curatorial rationalizations for specific inclusions stretch credibility past the breaking point. The attempt at creating a cohesive, linear narrative is said to utterly disintegrate toward the end. Important artists and entire subcultures are left out. There’s too much to read. It smells.
Because of all this, I waited to see the show, and went in hoping for a way to write positively about it, just to be different. The show is exhausting. It would take four or five long visits to do justice to the amount of work included, and having to figure out if each representation of a happy farmhand is racist or not keeps the contemplative bliss of a good art fix at bay. Many of the previously aired criticisms of “Made in California” are valid. But hey — why heap more abuse on this weird mess? If it doesn‘t hold up to its curatorial ambitions, it doesn’t hold up to its curatorial ambitions. Maybe they should have ditched the collaborative curatorial thing, or narrowed the criteria for inclusion by 90 percent or so. Maybe they should‘ve done “L.A.’s Greatest Hits.” But they didn‘t. The question now is: Is this an exhibit worth seeing, and how?
There’s at least three or four shows‘ worth of excellent material strewn throughout “Made in California,” and it’s impossible to sort it out in the couple of days most of us can afford to spend there. You could use your time just examining the cases of fascinating ephemera gathered for the exhibit — fliers and posters and magazines and post cards and model kits and rolling papers and surfboard wax and souvenir stamps and telegrams from Martin Luther King Jr. to Cesar Chavez and pamphlets from the Chinese Exclusion Convention of 1910. You could focus on architecture and design, jumping from Greene & Greene to Schindler & Neutra to the Eameses to Frank Gehry and Eric Owen Moss. You could spend a day on just photos or just ceramics or just textiles. My advice is to move quickly through the spaces, pausing only when something catches your eye or seems to compel scrutiny. Savor it, then, wrenching yourself free from the narrative undertow, continue trawling.
I understand that this sounds like a bit more mental filtering and processing of information than many people want to experience during an art excursion, so for their benefit, I‘ve drawn up a two-part guide for a two-afternoon nonlinear remix. My curatorial premise is “things that are cool to look at.” As mentioned, the cases of ephemera are uniformly of interest, so I’ll leave them as a wild card — stop at whichever ones grab you, but always check for a lower drawer at knee level, or you could miss groovy stuff like Ken Price‘s cartoon scroll letter to Billy Al Bengston. Avoid the apparently Web-design-inspired, minimally interactive “Timelines” at the beginning of each section, as they are peculiar and frightening. On our first visit, we’ll be looking at Sections 1 and 2, in the Hammer Building. Are you ready? Then let‘s begin.
SECTION 1, 1900–1920: “SELLING EDEN, WORLD’S FAIRS, MISTAKEN IDENTITIES & HOLLYWOOD GLAMOUR”
This section is the most convincing as regards the curatorial thesis, so you may be tempted to slow down and follow the exploration of the collusion between artists and real estate developers to promote California as an unpopulated fruit basket. Don‘t. Hold firm. I’m not a big fan of California plein air Impressionism, except when the colors get really really weird, but there are still a few outstanding paintings here. John O‘Shea’s The Madrone (1921) and Granville Redmond‘s California Poppy Field (n.d.) are pleasingly lurid. Robert Harshe’s hideously framed Sunrise Over Skyline (Near Portola) (1910) triptych is the most subtly hued and masterfully composed painting in Section 1, so you may pause at it for up to five minutes. While you‘re standing there, you might as well turn around and peruse William Wendt’s Where Nature‘s God Hath Wrought (1925) before hurrying around the corner to see Murice Braun’s Moonrise Over San Diego Bay (1915). You can‘t miss Redmond’s Poppy Field, but take note of the billboard poster for San Francisco‘s Sutro Baths and, across the way, the flier for the 1903 Rose Bowl Parade. Greene & Greene, very cozy, but is it art? Keep moving. The two muted pastel paintings in the Theosophy room are kind of nice, but the really interesting works are the intricately carved Katherine Tingely’s Chair (circa 1905–1910) by Reginald Machell, and the mystic-crystal-flower-of-music sprouting from Frederick J. Schwanokovsky‘s Woman at the Piano (circa 1925) oil painting. Check out these turn-of-the-century baskets. Expertly crafted, brilliantly designed and beautifully decorated in subtle, Minimalist geometrical abstraction. You don’t need a text panel to recognize a viable culture when you see one. Too bad they didn‘t have more guns and paranoia. (For more of the same, visit the Southwest Museum’s “Reflections of Culture: Basketry From the Southwest,” at LACMA West through December 31.) There are several interesting photographs by German tourist Arnold Genthe in the Chinatown section and some attractive posters in the Hollywood Glamour area, but nothing to detain you long. Head for the up escalator and continue on to:
SECTION 2, 1920–1940:
“URBAN VISIONS, CONTESTED EDEN & REVISITING CULTURES”
The first thing you‘re presented with here is a large satirical painting by Barse Miller called Apparition Over Los Angeles (1932), which pokes fun at Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, and it sets the tone for the mostly idiosyncratic works that stand out in this section. Nearby is Millard Sheets’ Angel‘s Flight (1931), a vertiginous trashcan-school vignette of Bunker Hill. Find the tucked-away Coffeepot From Our America (1939) by Rockwell Kent and the adjacent droll landscape etching California Boom (before 1932) by Richard Day, and you’re free to move on to the next room. The mute industrial landscape Sepulveda Dam (n.d.) is the first of several unusual paintings by Edward Biberman. Except for the case of labor pamphlets and some interesting video clips of Upton Sinclair and the SFPD trying to break strikes, skip the labor room and move on to agriculture. It opens with an empty, luminous lettuce farm painted on a three-part screen by Rinaldo Cuneo, and then basically alternates between paintings and WPA photographs, beginning with a set of alternate takes of Dorothea Lange‘s iconic Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936). Millard Sheets also documents the Nipomo migrant camps in watercolor, and his circa-1935 oil painting California is worth a look. Also take in his Old Mill, Big Sur watercolor near Edward Biberman’s weird, glowing picture of the Mandalay Beach administrative offices. Henrietta Shore‘s The Artichoke Pickers (1936-1937) and Untitled (Cypress Trees, Point Lobos) (circa 1930) lead us from the cultivated fields back to the wilderness.
More landscapes, Ansel Adams — skip it, buy a calendar. Clayton S. Price’s gestural seascape Coastline (circa 1924) anticipates the stylistic strategies of the Bay Area figuration in Section 3, and Knud Merrild‘s elegant, slyly erotic collage Exhilaration (1935) prefigures the 1980s work of Alexis Smith, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Two of the best works in Section 2 are right around the corner: Agnes Pelton‘s breathtaking Sandstorm (1932) and Chiura Obata’s untitled sumi-ink sketchbook, open to a dark, washy impression of a mountain forest. Soak these in, then jog through the next two galleries, pausing briefly at: Bernard von Eichman‘s small patchwork oil painting China Street Scene No. 1 (1923), Yun Gee’s Chinese-American expressionist Where Is My Mother (1926-1927), the sombrero fallout Textile Length from California Hand Prints, the wonky diorama of Diego Rivera‘s Allegory of California mural (be sure to stoop and ogle the ceiling), the adequate example of Frida Kahlo’s work, and Stiles Clements‘ architectural sketches for The Mayan Theatre Facade (1926-1927). Now stop, and turn back.
Beyond this doorway, though nowhere indicated, lies the permanent collection. Sneak a glance at that bitchen Matisse with the dog. Now quickly cut back through the “Early Modernism Environment,” chock-full of ugly varnished Schindler furniture. Pause halfway to contemplate the strange pink Souvenir Gloves (1930) by B.A. Payre, embroidered with the words “Los Angeles” and images of … men competing at what appears to be the high jump. This calls for a martini. Head for Pentimento. Knock back a couple. If there isn’t a queue, now might be a good time to visit the always peculiar Liza Lou‘s Homette (1999-2000). Whether you’re a fan of her obsessively beaded domestic surfaces or not, this surprisingly grim take on noir-pulp masculinity will give you pause.
And pause we must. That‘s enough art for one day. Bear in mind that the museum’s next free day is December 12, and that on Monday, December 11, LACMA, as part of the “Made in California” concert series, will present The San Francisco Tape Center Revisited, a concert of experimental music from the legendary precursor to the Mills College scene, featuring compositions by Morton Subotnick, Tony Martin and Pauline Oliveros. Next week: Condensed Cream of “Made in California,” Part 2.