From spectacle to introspection; a look at a few of the stand-out exhibitions in Southern California’s ongoing institutional initiative, Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945 – 1980.
Artist Edward Kienholz’s controversial installation, Five Car Stud (1969-72)
It doesn’t happen very often, but once in a while you get lucky and come across a work of art that really leaves a lasting impression on you. It’s something that continues to haunt you long after you’ve left the museum grounds. You’ll find yourself mulling over it on a jog later that day or perhaps even over dinner a few weeks down the line. On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I happened to stumble upon such a work. The piece, entitled Five Car Stud (1969-72), was an installation by American artist Edward Kienholz and was being displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA.)
Upon entering the installation space, I quickly transitioned from the familiar vernacular of a typical museum- white walls, cool hard floors, and the pleasantries of airconditioning- to the abrupt prehension of darkness and real dirt floors; the startlingly organic “carpeting” to a scene seemingly ripped out of a contemptible moment in American history. The darkness of the room was illuminated only by the eldritch headlights of a group of vintage automobiles encircling 6 life-size male figures engaged in a gruesome act of racial intolerance.
I wasn’t surprised to find out that almost immediately after its completion in 1972, Five Car Stud was met with explosive controversy. After several failed proposals by the then-director of LACMA that same year to have it shown in the States, the installation traveled to Kassel, Germany where it was exhibited as a part of an underground show, Documenta 5. Documenta served as the first and last public exhibition to feature the piece before it was acquired by an unnamed art collector and subsequently stored in Japan where it sat untouched (and forgotten) for nearly three decades. After a recent and extensive restoration led by Kienholz’s life partner and collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, the controversial installation finally resurfaced back at LACMA and was being exhibited for the first time in the U.S. thanks in part to the initiatives of Pacific Standard Time.
Pacific Standard Time was conceived back in 2002 by the combined efforts of the Getty Foundation and the Getty Research Institute. Since its official launch last year, it has managed to raise more than $10 million in funds to go towards promoting and preserving L.A’s legendary yet often overlooked art scene that’s steeped in seminal history. The program, which is considered to be Southern California’s largest collaborative initivate to date, brings together over 60 of the region’s finest art institutions and has even managed to garner some mainstream media support (celebrities like actor Jason Schwartzman and hip-hop artist Ice Cube have appeared in PST adverts.)
That a crucial work like Five Car Stud would go unseen under the procrustean guise of societal apprehension for such a long period of time is deplorable. Granted, I agree this piece falls short of ranking amongst the “most accessible” works of art out there (I wouldn’t be in a hurry to bring any children to see this), however there exists an indelible importance to its message. Kienholz meant for it to be a civic allegory; a tragic reminder of a dark era in our country’s history that regrettably still resonates with relevancy today. Aesthetically, the altered cast figures that occupy the carefully orchestrated environment act as vehement simulacrum; a masterful balance of both realism and grotesque abstraction.
Like Kienholz’s installation, the many other resulting exhibitions and installations that fall under Pacific Standard Time’s umbrella offer up material that’s equally as challenging and engaging. It was an impossible task, but I’ve managed to compile a top 3 list of PST stops I’d recommend. These venues threaten to crystallize Southern California’s place in the annals of art history and promise to perpetuate intrigue and critical dialogue again and again.
Maria Nordman: Smoke
09/04/2011 – 5/20/2012
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
The plot for artist Maria Nordman’s video installation, Smoke (1967) at LACMA might at first seem a bit anticlimactic: an anonymous man and woman lounge around on the shore of a Malibu beach, exchanging positions from sitting in an upholstered arm chair to smoking cigarettes as the tide predictably rolls in and out. Big deal, right? Before you write this piece off, I urge you to take a closer look. What initially intrigued me about Smoke was its use of juxtaposing camera angles. The events within the short film are depicted in split screen by way of double projection; one screen depicting a generalized view of unfolding events, while the other displays a more detailed or specified perspective. There is a curious absence of synchronisity as we attempt to follow the actors in their separate actions, going along a seemingly singular plot but at different moments in time. Visitors to the installation are only allowed in to the viewing room two at a time, perhaps serving as Nordman’s way of pointing to our own perspectival limitations.
De Wain Valentine sanding his polyester resin sculpture, “Gray Column” (1975-76).
From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column
09/13/2011 – 03/11/2012
The Getty Center
In a small gallery at The Getty Center, enlarged production sequences depict men wearing all-white jumpsuits working with a mysteriously glassy substance. That substance is polyester resin, the medium which comprised much of artist De Wain Valentine’s work from 1960-80. Measuring 12 feet high, Gray Column (1975-76) is Valentine’s largest polyester resin sculpture ever cast. The piece is a wonder to behold; the resin has a deep and highly complex color, shifting from a dark almost-black at the base to a majestic, grayish turquoise peak. Interestingly enough, the unique colors that resulted from various workings of the medium were what intrigued Valentine most, leading him to experiment with varying formulas and consistencies.
These experimentations eventually resulted in the coining of his own formulation, later adopted by the Santa Monica-based company Hastings Plastics in 1966. Accompanying the production stills in the room are various videos and audio clips as well as wall texts documenting the creation of the colossal 5,000 pound sculpture. Perhaps the most moving of them all is a line excerpted from the documentary, “A Good Time to Be West: 12 California Sculptors, 1984” in which Valentine is quoted as saying, “I would like to have some way, a magic saw, to cut out large chunks of ocean or sky and say, ‘here it is’.” Well, if you ask me, this is about as close as it gets.
Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974 – 1981
10/02/2011 – 02/13/2012
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)
I fell in love with the title of this exhibition the first time I heard it. There’s just something so subversive and irreverent about it, yet it still manages to be poignant. This is a description that also happens to be true of the seminal artworks the exhibition boasts. Of the many noteworthy pieces in this show is Ed Ruscha’s iconic piece, The Back of Hollywood (1977). The painting was one of several “Hollywood sign” pieces Ruscha created from 1970-80.
It’s always wonderful to see the influence of artists such as Ruscha perpetuated in contemporary culture. I am reminded of artist and prankster, Maurizio Cattelan’s 2001 stunt in which he managed to round up several of the artworld’s elite, shuttling them by private jet from that year’s Venice Biennale to a remote dump-site in the hills of Palermo. Aside from their already puzzled reactions to their surroundings, Cattelan’s guests were further surprised to find that he’d installed on site an exact to-scale facsimile of the iconic Hollywood Sign. His message, like that of Ruscha’s, can be read in to any number of ways, but is ultimately open to interpretation. That mischeivous ambiguity is perhaps the most beautiful thing about it. Other names in the show include Judy Fiskin, Bruce Conner, and Chris Burden.
ARTiculations is a blog on culture and the arts by Carolyn Mirante for FLUX Hawaii. Carolyn is a Honolulu-based art critic and Owner/Director of the Gallery of Hawaii Artists (GoHA), an alternative exhibition space dedicated to the contemporary arts in Hawai’i.