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.

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*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.

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