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A favorite small book, The Tree by the novelist John Fowles, is just the right place to turn for wisdom on this last day of the year. A memoir and a meditation on human and natural notions of control, The Tree can be read again and again. W. S. Merwin claims that he has carried the book with him on his travels for years. First published in 1979 (Fowles died in 2005), this book feels timeless in its clear view of where humans fit in the great chain of being.

An essential framing in the book is built around the difference between how Fowles approaches nature—in particular trees—from his own father. The elder Fowles had a small suburban garden of trees that he carefully pruned and controlled. “He had himself been severely pruned by history and family circumstance, and this was his answer, his reconciliation to his fate—his platonic ideal of the strictly controlled and safe, his Garden of Eden.” This approach reflected his larger view of life and a hatred of natural disorder. From his view, “Good philosophers prune the chaos of reality and train it into fixed shapes, thereby forcing it to yield valuable and delicious fruit.”

Not so for Fowles. When he bought a derelict farm with acres of unmanaged wildnerness, his father was horrified. From Fowles:

He would never have conceded that it was my equivalent of his own beautifully disciplined apples and pears, and just as much cultivated, though not in a literal sense. He would not have understood that something I saw down there just an hour ago…two tawny owlets fresh out of the next, sitting on a sycamore branch like a pair of badly knitted Christmas stocking and ogling down at the intruder into their garden—means to me exactly what the Horticultural Society cups on his sideboard used to mean to him: a token of order in unjust chaos, the reward of perseverance in a right philosophy. That his chaos happens to be my order is not, I think, very important.

Fowles goes on to describe how his father sent him two cordon pear trees to plant. But the outcome was not what Fowles’ father had hoped for:

They must be nearly fifteen years old now; and every year, my soil being far too thin and dry for their liking they produce a few miserable fruit, or more often none at all. I would never have them out. It touches me that they should so completely take his side; and reminds me that practically everyone else in my life—even friends who profess to be naturalists—has also taken his side; that above all the world in general continues to take his side. No fruit for those who do not prune; no fruit for those who question knowledge; no fruit for those who hide in trees untouched by man; no fruit for traitors to the human cause.

Therein lies an essential dilemma many of us face every day. Do we have the stamina to live like Fowles? Its implications for art making of any kind is deep.

The book is full of richness. Fowles goes on to decry Linneaus and the need to name, categorize and individuate every element. It is that detaching of an object from its surroundings that destroys our ability to see, apprehend and experience the whole. “What I gain most from nature is beyond words. To try to capture it verbally immediately places me in the same boat as the namers and would-be owners of nature: that is, it exiles me from what I most need to learn.”

From the book:

One can say of an attitude that it is generally held by society; but society itself is an abstraction, a Linnaeus-like label we apply to a group of individuals seen in a certain context and for a certain purpose; and before the attitude can be generally held, it must pass through the filter of the individual consciousness, where this irreducible “wild” component lies—the one that may agree with science and society, but can never be wholly plumbed, predicted or commanded by them.


Three Pianos, currently playing at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, is another successful production in line with the theatrical proclivities of artistic director Diane Paulus—theatrical mastery, audience engagement, crisp production values, meaningful content (and context,) and the delivery of an evening out that is both fun and informatively rich.

Paulus has demonstrated a deft hand at finding ways to present existing works of art with a new front end. In Gatz, The Great Gatsby is given a streamlined, ironic and contemporary face. Sleep No More offers up Macbeth as a dreamlike and myth-laden tale. The Donkey Show finds a sweet spot in the disco era for Midsummer Night’s Dream. Productions of canonical works, like Porgy and Bess and Cabaret, are framed bravely within more contemporary memes.

This is not an approach unique to ART or to Paulus. Shakespeare is so fluid that many productions easily move his plays into a variety of historical eras. (Recent productions of All’s Well that Ends Well and Othello by Shakespeare on the Common come to mind.) And Mabou Mines’ recent production of A Doll’s House shifted the experience of Ibsen’s play inexorably by simply casting dwarfs to play all the male characters.

In the case of Three Pianos, the work of art at the heart of the production is Winterreise (Winter Journey), the extraordinary song cycle by Franz Schubert. From that set of 24 songs written in the last year of Schubert’s short life (he died at 31), an entire era is recreated—the political repression in Vienna, the absence of artistic patronage, the brotherhood of artists, the emergence of new forms of the romantic poem and song writing. At gatherings of likeminded artists with Schubert at the center (called Schubertiades by Schubert’s close friends), the concept of the salon was adapted for a more subversive clientele. Poetry, music, camaraderie and ribald adventure came together in a participatory and collaborative way. Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy have stepped back into that form and created a theatrical event that pays a very heartfelt homage to Schubert, his music and his circle.

Offering every audience member a drink upon arrival as well as continuously throughout the production may sound like a fey device. But it isn’t. Boundaries between the audience and the stage fade as these three actor/musicians take us through the songs of the cycle. There are moments in this journey that are as musically informative as a lecture by Robert Greenberg. The ability to keep the flow fresh and engaging feels well worked, carefully honed and delivered. As characterizations bounce back and forth effortlessly between current time and the early 1800s, the similarities as well as differences in these two eras start to take form. Lots of relevant topics come up in this fast paced production like how should artistic works of the past be accessed, the difference between high brow vs low brow art forms, the constraints of canonical narrowness, the importance of context, how any work of art comes to reflect our own cultural proclivities. And little known facts as well. Who knew the portly Schubert was nicknamed Schwammerl (mushroom)—by his friends?

What’s more, the set is visually lush. The stage is full of iconic references—a miniature house, leafless trees, a graveyard (and other landscape features described in the poems of the song cycle), with pianos that move about freely to form a bar, a prison, a bed, a coffin.

I share my birthday with Schubert. Even as a small child I felt a connection with him and his music. We grew up singing Schubert lieder, and Winterreise was always one of my favorites. The next time we gather to sing that cycle, it will feel substantially different to me—richer, more nuanced, even more personal.

The production runs through January 8.

Rick Burkhardt, Dave Malloy, and Alec Duffy in ‘Three Pianos.’ (Ryan Jensen)

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Linear

Minnie Pwerle, Bush Melon Seed

It is in the nature of an artist to look for commonalities between contemporary concepts of form and those of ancient or indigenous cultures. Brahms and Schubert wandered the countryside listening to and absorbing native, folk and gypsy musical idioms, incorporating many of those traditions into their compositions. Travel for me is similar, inspired by visual iconography that lies outside the Western “songline” but speaks to it nonetheless.

I certainly felt that way about encountering the aboriginal women artists of Utopia, in particular Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Minnie Pwerle. Although never exposed to contemporary western art, these women produced paintings that are conversant with something I was seeing in the work of Western artists I admired like Jackson Pollock, Brice Marden and Joan Snyder. From an earlier post on Slow Muse:

I traveled to the center of Australia with the hope that I could step deeper into understanding why I have such a powerful attraction to aboriginal art. For 15 years I have been studying these works, often only in reproduction, and my attachment has only deepened with time. While in Alice Springs, I must have looked at several thousand paintings. Sitting with some of the aboriginal artists, I was convinced that they are feeling and seeing the world in a way that is completely different than me. Their boundaries are different: It feels as if they carry the land inside them. Not the image of the land, the land.

I was struggling with the language to describe this significant difference when I fell onto an extraordinary book––Metonymy in Contemporary Art, by Denise Green. Green is an artist, an Australian, and a cerebral thinker who has articulated some of my own questions about the aboriginal world view as it relates to the context of art making.

Here is how she describes her own work: “Denise Green introduces the concept of metomymic thinking, as developed by the late poet and linguist, A. K. Ramanujan, one that is often different from what is present in Western art critical writing. In Ramanujan’s formulation of metonymic thinking, the human and natural worlds are intrinsically related to one another as are the transcendent and mundane worlds. Metonymic thinking in contemporary art implies that one must take into account the inner world of the artist. When artists create metonymically there is a fusion between an inner state of mind and outer material world.”

In her book, Green takes on the likes of Clement Greenberg and Walter Benjamin. Both have argued against subjectivity in painting, and Green asserts that the hegemony of their viewpoints in western art criticism has inhibited a deeper understanding of painting. She wants to open up the possibility of viewing contemporary art from a more “global and pluralistic perspective.”

Kira, or woman’s dress, from Bhutan

King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The clothes, the colors—lush, saturated, exquisite

Another body of work that speaks to me multi-dimensionally: the textiles of Bhutan. The weaving tradition in Bhutan is a famous one, and that long history of textile design does create an armature of structure that informs the work. But within that form, the colors and patternings are more than what they seem on the surface. There is something else going on.

The visual experience of Bhutanese textiles is not confined to the shops or museums. Traditional dress is required of each Bhutanese when in public, so just walking the streets of Thimphu is a visual feast.

Images from the book, Tantra Song

My lastest discovery: Abstract tantric images. the book, Tantra Songs, features the images collected by French poet Franck André Jamme. Using tempera, gouache and watercolor on salvaged paper, these images are based on hand written illustrated religious treatises dating back to the 17th century.

These images are just what I looked for when I was in India and only occasionally caught sight of. Their rarity is clear when you read Jamme’s account of how he found his way to these works. They cross over into that zone that Green describes as metonymic—a fusion between the inner state of mind and the outer material world.

My friend Altoon Sultan wrote a beautiful post about Tantra Song. I wasn’t surprised that we were both drawn to these images quite independently. Her post can be read in its entirety here.

Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976; gelatin silver print; courtesy George and Betty Woodman; © George and Betty Woodman

A few highlights from a day spent at the San Francisco Museum of Art, a visit that followed the feast that was Pacific Standard Time in Los Angeles over Thanksgiving…

Francesca Woodman‘s life was a short one. The daughter of two visual artists, her precocious gifts were apparent early on. She attended RISD, did a residency at the McDowell Colony in Peterborough New Hampshire. She committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22.

Thirty years later, Woodman’s work is still timelessly haunting, deeply personal, darkly envisioned but not without moments of light and a redemptive glimmer. Most of the images are self portraits of some kind. Her body is her highly plastic terrain, creating landscapes of skin and flesh that are exploratory, not exploitative, direct and yet hidden.

The show is enormous and yet I felt drawn to spend time with every image. Her work has that kind of mystery and intrigue. I’m generally not a photohound but this was work so painterly and distinct it was hard to not give it your full attention.

Her parents, George and Betty Woodman, have been careful stewards of Woodman’s body of work all these years. They waited for just the right venue and opportunity for Francesca’s first retrospective.

Further reading: Ted Loos has written an excellent article in the New York Times that provides a good overview on Francesca and the show.

Francesca Woodman, Self-portrait talking to Vince, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975–78; gelatin silver print; courtesy George and Betty Woodman; © George and Betty Woodman

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, ca. 1976; gelatin silver print; collection of Susan Turner and Scott Purdin; © George and Betty Woodman

A few other viewing highlights:

Richard Serra

The Richard Serra drawing show that was at the Met this summer is now at SFMOMA. They look different in every venue. Some of these are exquisite and are reminiscent of those gorgeous overworked drawings by Brice Marden in his MOMA retrospective from a few years ago. Others feel less enchanting but the statement being made is a big one. This is, after all, Richard Fucking Serra.

A quote from Dieter Rams.

SFMOMA does a lot of design shows, and the latest features the iconic head of design at Braun for many years, Dieter Rams. Rams is associated with a variety of iconic pieces and is known for his memorable edicts, most famously his advocacy for “less but better” design.

Richard Aldrich, Untitled, 2008; oil and wax on panel; 11 1/2 x 9 in.; private collection, New York; © Richard Aldrich.

Richard Aldrich, a young artist from Brooklyn, has a room of new paintings. The work is open, fresh, painterly and smart. He’s someone I will be keeping track of from here on.

The ever playful Eric Hundley

Close up view of the Hundley

Rosana Castrillo Diaz’s exquisite hallway mural

Diaz close up. This piece is dazzling in the sunshine.

Rosana Castrillo Diaz is a fabulous artist who moved to the Bay Area from Spain. She’s another I’ll be tracking. Her work is subtle, lush, minimalist and yet expressive.

Ray Saunders

Ray Saunders was a prominent influence on me during my formative years in the Bay Area. In the small circling way of art thermals, my son studied with him at CCA a few years ago.

More on Pacific Standard Time

PST encompasses over 60 venues, so my coverage from just a week in Los Angeles is limited. Here is an overview of other PST exhibits worth highlighting (as well as a few others thrown in for good measure):

Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980
Hammer Museum

Breaking down the profile of Southern California art even further, the Hammer has assembled work by African-American artists who in many ways were operating in their own unique swirling thermal during those years. Many of the works in this show are visceral, textured and taut, relying on an arte povera aesethetic which predate the current embrace of outsider art. The physicality of assemblage was not a common form back in the 1960s and 70s. So many of these works speak timelessly to a subsequent generation of artists, in LA and otherwise.

David Hammons, Bag Lady in Flight

John Outterbridge, No Time for Jivin’, from the Containment Series

Betye Saar, Black Girl’s Window

Noah Purifoy, Untitled (Assemblage)

John Riddle, Ghetto Merchant

Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972–1987

Yet another glimpse into a subculture within the LA art scene, this show highlights the performance art of a group of Latino artists. Named for the Spanish word for nausea, Asco was primarily “four style-conscious art jesters — three men, one woman — cavorting in outrageous outfits around the streets and empty lots of East L.A., making a scene, actions sprinkled with cutting social commentary, then disappearing. A Dada daydream in Chicanoville, USA” (from LA Weekly.) The sophistication and extent of their oeuvre astounded me.

From Asco documentation, LACMA

Glenn Ligon: AMERICA

This show by Glenn Ligon (which was on view earlier at the Whitney Museum) is so far ranging in scope and mastery—it features a hundred works including paintings, prints, photography, drawings, and sculptural installations and neon reliefs—that it is astounding to me that the work was made by one person. There are moments for everyone, from the exquisite coal dust surfaced paintings to his conceptual installations to his take on Robert Mapplethorpe‘s black men portraits. Political and also a visual feast. Extraordinary.

Close up of the coal dust surface on a Ligon piece

Pre-Columbian art at LACMA
Jose Pardo display design

LA artist Jorge Pardo was asked to design LACMA’s new Pre-Columbian art collection. Stunning. The space has been transformed.

From Christopher Knight‘s review in the LA Times:

Conceptually sophisticated and visually smashing, the installation design that artist Jorge Pardo conceived and executed for the impressive Pre-Columbian collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was unveiled to the public Sunday. Unlike anything you’ve seen in an art museum before, it’s built on a deep understanding of the potential power of smart decoration.

To decorate is not just to embellish but to valorize. LACMA’s often exceptional collection of ancient art deserves nothing less — especially the fine ceramic vessels and sculptures from West Mexico, Central America and Colombia. Pardo’s eccentric, unexpected scheme delivers.

It accomplishes two feats. Obscure works of ancient art are elucidated, and so is our contemporary experience of them. This decorative installation design is a meaningful honorific, not an empty flourish.

Installation views of the Pre-Columbian galleries at LACMA, designed by Jorge Pardo

Edward Kienholz: Five Car Stud 1969–1972, Revisited

Edward Kienholz was a highly visible and influential artist for me during the 60s and 70s, and his installations used effrontery and truth speaking as a powerful tool. This exhibit is one of his most harsh and disturbing. It is on view for the first time in the US after having been purchased by a Japanese collector who warehoused it for over 40 years. The artist’s widow Nancy Kienholz reassembled this brutal reminder of the brutal castrations of the pre-Civil Rights era. Not for everyone but quintessential Kienholz.

Julius Shulman’s iconic archictectural photographs capture California’s new sense of architecture, space and lifestyle.

Returning to my coverage of the Pacific Standard Time art exhibit/extravaganza in Los Angeles:

LACMA’s sprawling multi-building expanse is a stop I make every time I am in LA. Their flagship PST show, California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way”, fills the new Resnick Pavilion with artifacts from an extraordinary era—architecture, furniture, ceramics, fashion and textiles, industrial and graphic design and accoutrements of a new style of living.

The scope of the show is broad and the ramifications over time of these designers are very clear in hindsight. California represented something quite different from the cultural epicenter on the east coast. In David Weinstein‘s review of a smaller and less ambitious show, Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury at Philips Andover’s Addison Gallery in 2008, some of that essence is described:

‘Cool’ meant art that, unlike the earth-shaking solos of bebop or the splatters of paint that seemed to burst from Jackson Pollock’s very soul, was rational and restrained, but deeply emotional nonetheless. In “the ethos of cool,” the show’s curator Elizabeth Armstrong says, can be found “a cerebral mix of seeming detachment and effortlessness.”

That streamlined detachment and effortlessness is what I remember from my California childhood in the 1950s. Everything was cool, not heated and overworked. Engaged and yet not. When I moved from California to New York City in the early 1970s, it was like landing in a place with a completely different set of cultural coordinates—intense, cerebral, serious, driven, etched into, worn through. At that time that was just what I needed.

Meanwhile California followed its own trajectory, and that legacy is so evident in this show. Hovering over all of these artifacts is the presence of Ray and Charles Eames, the husband and wife team whose designs became icons in the American mid-century landscape. One of the highlights of the LACMA show is the recreation of the living space from the Eames’ 1949 Pacific Palisades house. Named a National Historic Landmark in 2006, the house is currently in the process of being restored.

A few highlights from the show:

Installation view

Installation view

The Eames House Living Room, Charles and Ray Eames. © 2011 Eames Office, LLC ( Courtesy Antonia Mulas

Glen Lukens, Bowl. Photograph © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Gertrud Natzler; Otto Natzler, Bowl. Photograph © 2010 Museum Associates/LACMA

Margit Fellegi for Cole of California. Photograph © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Dan Johnson, desk. Photograph © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Additional note to readers close to Boston: The last viewing of the film, Eames: The Architect and Painter, is showing at the MFA this coming Wednesday at 3pm.

Ray and Charles Eames at the Aspen Design Conference. © 2011 Eames Office, LLC

I have more to report on Pacific Standard Time but a channel change seems like a good idea right about now. So here are a few highlights from The Visionary, a portrait of Jaron Lanier by Jennifer Kahn in the New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2011. (I am particularly fond of Lanier and have written about him previously, here, here and here.)

Unlike more Luddite critics, Lanier complains not that technology has taken over our lives but that it has not given us enough back in return. In place of a banquet, we’ve been given a vending machine.

“The thing about technology is that it’s made the world of information ever more dominant,” Lanier told me. “And there’s so much loss in that. It really does feel as if we’ve sworn allegiance to a dwarf world, rather than to a giant world.”

About his childhood:
“The trifecta for me was eating chocolate, listening to Bach, and staring at Bosch.”

Part of what Lanier finds most regrettable about Facebook—the way it mediates social contact—is precisely what makes it so appealing to most people. “We use technology this way all the time,” Andy van Damn, a professor of computer science at Brown University, notes. “To create a layer of insulation. We send an e-mail so we don’t have to call someone on the phone. Or we call someone so we don’t have to go over to their house.”

“My dad was more into ‘Be the Buckminister Fuller or the Frank Lloyd Wright’–be the weird outsider who becomes influential. Which is kind of where I ended up.”

Lanier is like “an innovative painter who alternately courts and scorns the establishment.”

June Wayne, founder, at Tamarind in the 1960s, photograph by Helen Miljakovich, courtesy June Wayne

More on the exhilarating Pacific Standard Time art extravaganza in Los Angeles:

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has assembled its PST exhibit around the intriguing story of printmaking in Los Angeles—Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California. At the epicenter of the story and the exhibit is June Wayne, artist and founder of the legendary printamaking facility, Tamarind. Wayne is the reason lithography was brought back into the lexicon of art and printmaking in the US, and her influence on the trajectory of printmaking in this country is incalculable. In many ways Proof is a loving homage to June Wayne who died just before the show opened. She was 93.

Wayne was an East Coast transplant and primarily a painter when she became interested in lithography. To do the lithographs she envisioned for an artist book of love sonnets by John Donne, she had to travel to Paris to work with master printer Marcel Durassier. There was no one in the United States with the skill set she needed.

Wayne ended up submitting a proposal for funding from the Ford Foundation to cultivate a new “ecology” for lithography in the U.S. McNeil Lowry, head of the Ford Foundation’s Program in Humanities and the Arts at the time, described June and her proposal:

June Wayne is an unusual person. I have never seen…anybody who presented more exhaustively and graphically what she wanted…The Ford grant was a multi million dollar bet on one person alone.

The Tamarind Lithography Workshop—whose evocative and exotic name was simply the street name in Hollywood where Wayne had studio space— opened in 1960 with Wayne as its director. Tamarind quickly became world famous, and artists from all over came to work with Wayne. The list includes Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Ed Ruscha, Bruce Conner, Louise Nevelson, Rufino Tamayo. After ten years of hard work, Wayne believed that her goals had been reached. In 1970 she transferred stewardship of Tamarind to the University of New Mexico where it is still in operation today.

Tamarind was the seedbed for a revolution in U.S. art printmaking. A number of Tamarind-trained printers went on to start their own print ateliers, like Ken Tyler of Gemini Ltd and Gemini G.E.L., and Jean Milant of Cirrus. (A fascinating wall-sized chart at the beginning of the exhibit details the relationships and connections of the printmaking world of Southern California during this era. Too complex to capture in its totality, I’m including a small subset here.)

Southern California’s printmaking genealogy

Additional book resources:
Proof, catalog for the show.
Tamarind Touchstones: Fabulous at Fifty.

A few highlights from the exhibit:

Anchovy, by Ed Ruscha (1969)

Untitled, Richard Diebenkorn (1970)

Great Bird, Nathan Oliveira (1957)

Two Figures, William Brice (1966)

Untitled, John Altoon (1965)

Studies in Desperation: Now the Act Is Consummated, Connor Everts (1963)

The Bride, June Wayne (1951)

Civil Tapestries, by Theaster Gates, 2011. Decomissioned fire hoses and wood.

Concomitant with Under the Big Black Sun at Geffen Contemporary (which I wrote about here) is an exhibit by Theaster Gates called An Epitaph for Civil Rights. Tethering this installation to events during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign in Birmingham in 1963 where demonstrators were hazed by police and fire departments, Gates achieves an exquisite tautness with content and the visual. Using simple and unpretentious materials that reference that civil rights confrontation—lengths of fire hose, fragments of urban living, remnants of where lives have been lived—Gates achieves an aesthetic that I have come to term “potent minimalism”: visuals that are elemental, elegant and clean while also offering an evocative and compelling narrative. Walking into An Epitaph for Civil Rights you get it immediately, and the right response seems to just experience the work in reverential silence.

Gates is on the cover of the December issue of Art in America, interviewed by Lilly Wei about his many-faceted approach to his work. I first learned about his Chicago reclamation initiative, The Dorchester Project, at the Whitney Biennial last year. Gates studied urban planning and ceramics as an undergraduate at Iowa State, then earned a masters in fine arts and religious studies at the University of Cape Town. His work touches on all of those interests and feels enriched because of his broad-based background. He is now the Director of Arts Program Development and Faculty Artist in Residence at the University of Chicago.

This raises an old conundrum for me. I used to believe I could pick out the paintings in an exhibit that were done by women artists. It’s a conceit perhaps and one that touches on a highly volatile topic that burned brightly and fiercely a few years ago. Are there gender differences in visual language and expression? As we explore the biology of gender, more questions are emerging rather than fewer so this is still an undetermined issue (and a topic I am not keen to unpack here.) But recently I have expanded my visual sympathies to another subgroup, an ever increasing coterie of young contemporary African American male artists. Some of my favorite viewing experiences recently have been with works by Mark Bradford, Leonardo Drew, Glen Ligon, Sanford Biggers, Kerry James Marshall, Theaster Gates. Ready for more, more.

Theaster Gates

More on the exhilarating Pacific Standard Time show (extravaganza?) in Los Angeles:

Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, MOCA, has its main location downtown near Disney Hall (and, until they were expelled last weekend, OccupyLA.) The MOCA’s “we could play football in here”-sized spillover exhibit space, the Geffen Contemporary, is in Little Tokyo. A former warehouse redesigned by Frank Gehry, the Geffen is hosting MOCA’s PST exhibit, Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981.

The timeframe focused on in this exhibit is one that is banked between two national political events—Richard Nixon‘s resignation and the subsequent inauguration of Ronald Reagan.

The work included in the show reflects a time that was “out of joint,” fragmented, disrupted. From the Under the Big Black Sun exhibit description:

Celebrating California as a turbulent, often anarchic center for artistic freedom and experimentation during the 1970s, this major survey exhibition examines the rise of pluralistic art practices across the state. The years 1974 and 1981 bracket a tumultuous, transitional span in United States history…and borrows its title from the 1982 album by the Los Angeles–based punk band X to suggest that, during this period, the California Dream and the hippie optimism of the late 1960s had been eclipsed by a sense of disillusionment during the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era.

The dystopian atmosphere of the 1970s created an artistic milieu that seemed to include everything under the sun. Across the state, competing social and political ideologies and clashing cultural perspectives resulted in heterodox approaches to art-making. The spirit of questioning and experimentation occurring in and beyond the studio took precedence over affiliation with any art-historical group or movement, and a rich dialogue developed between artists in Northern and Southern California in the absence of powerful regional art museums and commercial galleries. California artists, particularly young, recent art school graduates, embraced a DIY attitude that resulted in the hybridization of media and the breaking apart of traditional forms and genres, freely experimenting in their works with painting, sculpture, photography, performance, video, installation, sound, books, and printed matter.

The work IS all over the place—political protest, social commentary, politics of identity, shock value, deadpanned, ironic—and less welcoming to my sensibilities than many of the other PST exhibits. But there were some important moments captured in this show. Here are a few that spoke to me:

Ed Rusha, The Back of Hollywood, 1977. (Collection of Musee d’Art Contemporain de Lyon, France, courtesy of the artist)

I like what Ed Ruscha had to say about this image: “The Hollywood sign is actually a landscape in a sense. It’s a real thing and my view of it was really a conservative interpretation of something that exists, so it almost isn’t a word in a way—it’s a structure.” There is the apocryphal story that he also used the Hollywood sign (which he could see from his Venice studio) as a measure of the smog. If he could see the sign, that meant it wasn’t so bad. This brings back memories of a very different Los Angeles from the clear skied, blue beautied light that is more common now.

Zuma #5, from the Zuma Series (1977/2006), by John Divola. Photo courtesy of the artist.

John Divola‘s Zuma Series is visually compelling but is also a strong statement of its time period, between 1974-1977. Divola recorded the breakdown and decomposition of a shack along the shore in a novel way—he participated in its demise as if he were a force of nature as well. Dystopic yes but you can’t not look.

Childhood Rejection Drawing, From the Rejection Quintet, by Judy Chicago. Colored pencil and graphite on paper. Photo courtesy of the artist

Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro intervened in my life in 1972 with the first major feminist art statement in California, Womanhouse*. That installation brought a significant shift in perspective to me and my female artist friends which feels awkward and difficult to explain to younger artists. Seeing a set of these Chicago drawings on display at the Geffen brought back the intensity of that experience.

Three Weeks in May, Suzanne Lacy. Panel, map of Los Angeles, RAPE stamps in red. Collection of the artist. Photograph by Grant Mudford

More on a feminist art theme: In 1977 Suzanne Lacy collaborated with Leslie Labowitz to create the “Three Weeks in May” event that included a performance piece at City Hall, consciousness raising (I know, but that is what it was called back then) and self-defense classes for women. Lacy went on to be an important presence in my life, editing the book, Mapping the terrain: new genre public art, and producing “The Crystal Quilt”, a performance that featured over 400 older women.

Crossroads, by Bruce Conner. Video installation

Crossroads was made in 1976, one year after the fall of Saigon. Bruce Conner, ever resourceful and multifaceted, took archival footage of nuclear weapons testing program in the Bikini Atoll during the summer of 1946. For this video presentation he slows down the footage and puts a soundtrack on it by minimalists Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley. The video is poetic and meditative while offering a window into the horrific.

Big Ideas (1000 of them), by Richard Jackson

What painter couldn’t be moved standing in front of Richard Jackson‘s wall of 1000 canvases, hidden from view and face down, with paint oozing out? It’s an unforgettable image.

*The Getty has an extensive exhibit up now that documents Womanhouse. That is a topic I will be covering in more detail in a future post.