I'm not one of those people who reflexively hates Los Angeles. It's true that you couldn't pay me enough money to actually live there; and it's true that I have the usual San Francisco smugness about SF being, by all reasonable standards, inherently superior to all other places on the planet. But there are many things I like quite a bit about L.A.
And the museums are very high on that list.
I was just down in L.A. this weekend, visiting my friends Chip and Hayley, and I spent much of my visit dragging them around to art museums. Here are the bits that hit me in the face the hardest.
LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
This was by far my favorite piece of everything I saw this weekend. It's a pile of drawers, different shapes/sizes/materials, all balanced on one drawer and held together by a mover's belt. And it's such a beautiful mess of contradictions. It looks so fragile and precarious, this big complicated pile all balanced on this one little drawer on the bottom. And yet it has this sturdy quality, like serious time and effort had been put into making it hold together solidly while keeping the appearance of instability. More than any other art I saw this weekend, this piece looked like the inside of my head: jumbled and disorganized, but with an internal logic and structure that makes sense from the inside, and that "I know it's around here somewhere" quality that drives other people crazy but always makes sense to yourself.
The shape is a lot like Andy Goldsworthy's seed/cone things, but made of man-made found objects instead of natural ones, which makes it look both more comical and more fragile. And it reminded me a lot of my friend Josie Porter's assemblage art, with that same sense of something beautiful and evocative and unique put together from mass-produced flotsam (Josie does lots of work in plastic trash and AOL signup CDs). It rocked. I kept coming back to look at it one more time, and part of me wanted to spend the entire afternoon skipping the rest of the museum and just sitting in front of this one piece.
John Sargent, Portrait of Mrs. Edward L. Davis and her Son Livingston Davis
I'm not usually a fan of Victorian portraiture. In fact, I'm not usually a fan of any pre-modern portraiture, or indeed most pre-modern art of any kind. I go through a gallery with painting after painting of Some Victorian Dude or Some Victorian Chick, and I think, "What's the point?" But this one has this tremendous force of personality, and I couldn't take my eyes off of it. (The reproduction, alas, does not do it justice.) It gave me this vivid sense of the subjects as actual people -- not characters in a costume drama or names in a history book, but people with selves and lives, people you might have over for dinner. The woman looks smart and funny, strong-willed and opinionated, feisty and passionate and quick with a barbed remark. The son looks like he has her smarts and strength of character, maybe even more full of himself than she is -- but also more quietly observant, with some sort of sadness under the twinkle. The more I looked at this portrait, the more I wanted to hang out with these two. Sargent knew his shit.
Gorham Silver Company, Ice Bowl and Tongs
I cannot begin to express the magnificent cheesiness of this piece. It looks like the cover art of a bad fantasy novel. It looks like something you'd buy on impulse at a Renaissance Faire, and then take home and wonder what the hell you were thinking. With rugged boulders dripping with icicles and guarded by snarling bears, it looks like it's supposed to look like the wild and forbidding Arctic tundra. But it's a silver ice bowl! With tongs! (Also adorned with a snarling bear.) What are we supposed to think -- that the ice in our drink was carved from the Arctic wasteland, hacked out at tremendous risk by an intrepid adventurer, surrounded by angry polar bears, an ice pick in one hand and a revolver in the other? It became a running joke throughout the day -- whenever we spent any amount of time with a piece of art, one of us would say, "Well, it's pretty good, but it'd be a lot better if it had some snarling bears."
This is an exhibit of modern and contemporary figurative art (art with pictures of people in it). Which means that it's an exhibit almost tailor-made for me. I mostly prefer modern art -- in fact, I almost entirely prefer modern art -- but a lot of the super-abstract stuff I find a bit bloodless, an intellectual exercise with little passion or emotional impact. But it's hard to do a portrait, I think, without emotional impact. My favorites were the woman seated in thin air suspended from the ceiling; the creepy masked face with the mouth dug out of the canvas and the tiny fetus placed inside; and the gargantuan portrait of the teenage girl murderers done in ballpoint pen.
This one was interesting. I didn't like it at all at first, I thought it was didactic and obvious, and the gallery's unusually bad art-speak intro about confronting the audience didn't help. But when I looked closer and realized that every one of these pieces was done in pencil, I began to change my mind. I'd assumed it was all done in some sort of photo/print process. But with a couple of exceptions, every one of these pieces -- many of them gargantuan, with photo-realistic detail -- was painstakingly executed in pencil. Once I knew this, the artist's passion and conviction began to get through to me, and the images took on a visceral impact they hadn't had before.
So thanks to Chip and Hayley for the art tour. Next time -- the Getty, the Jurassic, and the Frederick's of Hollywood Lingerie Museum!