California Art Thats Shallow?!
Photo by Jack GouldBoth the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and our own li'l Long Beach Museum of Art are wagging their tails like bitches in heat over homegrown California art. New York and London? They're not terribly concerned about this "challenge" to their aesthetic imperialism.
Judging by these roundups—LACMA's "Made in California" and Long Beach's "Rooms With a View" (which isn't strictly California art, but a highlighted part of the collection)—they probably shouldn't be. But rejoice, friends! Once podunk and painfully provincial, Long Beach is showing it can be just as booster-ish as the big boys —and equally scatterbrained! And that is where Long Beach kicks LACMA's ass. Kind of. Chalk up another one for the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Ha! But seriously, folks! The fact that Long Beach is as dizzy as a pompon girl is perfectly appropriate for a regional museum. It's so excited about its collection (now with bigger—and clifftop!—digs to accommodate it) that it's like a kid with ADD. LACMA, on the other hand, has world-class pretensions and should probably not look like a church rummage sale. But maybe that's just me.
LACMA's "Made in California" throws together floors' and floors' worth of objets d'art in 20-year chunks. The museum has received some pretty poisonous press for "Made in California." It's not that it's a terrible show; it's just that critics find it much easier to craft a readable review when we've got bilious sentiments to explore rather than simple apathy.
But neither is it a good show. Much has been made of its Smithsonian approach —using pop-culture detritus (for instance, orange-crate labels) as filler. But that's not what the critics are foaming about. No, they—rather, we—are pissed about how very lazy the show is and how much gets left out. LACMA sprawls on for nearly a dozen floors but is about as substantial as an OCN newscast. It's entirely enjoyable until you realize how far you've walked and how little you've seen. It is, as the Sex Pistols once said of themselves, pretty—pretty vacant.
Let's consider the two periods in which Californians can claim true pride in their regional art. There's the Plein Air movement of the early part of the century (in which every single painting seemed to have been created from the vantage point of Cliff Drive—where Las Brisas restaurant now sits—overlooking Laguna's Main Beach). And there's the 1960s and '70s, with its Finish Fetish (which was odious) and Light & Space (which wasn't odious at the time but became so with its constant retreading in the 1980s and '90s). About the Plein Air movement, not much needs be said, except, "If I see one more Franz Bischoff or Guy Rose painted in the style of Givenchy, I shall scoop out my own eyes with a mellon-baller." The '60s were a landmark time for California, with Joni Mitchell writing love songs to the Golden State and artist boy wonders inventing the Light & Space movement while repairing their surfboards.* Shades of Pollock dripping paint on his foot, nyet? California's pop-culture rise shook up the East Coast kingmakers, who responded with bitchy appraisals. For instance, New York snob Joseph Maschek wrote, "[T]he prospect of hip, young, dropout types hanging out in Venice, California, making fancy baubles for the rich, amuses us." Me-ow!
Plein Air is well-represented in Long Beach (lots of Rose and Bischoff, straight from the Irvine Museum). But Light & Space? Here's the difference between Long Beach and LACMA—and where the ass-kicking comes in: at Long Beach, the biggest room is given over to "Enter Laughing: Humor in Contemporary Art." It's got a fun Tony Berlant, a minor Billy Al Bengston, and a Tony Delap silver-fiberglass minimalist thing that's dull now but certainly seemed important at the time. Each piece is surrounded by a respectful space. But at LACMA, despite cosmological square footage devoted to the '60s and '70s, they settle for a calendar that shows pictures of these artists sitting in their cars. They have a Peter Alexander cloud box, but it's squeezed in amid so many period bathing suits and pictures of Muscle Beach that by the time you get to it, you just don't care.**
Meanwhile, in LA's unloved stepchild to the south, Long Beach keeps it relatively simple: here is the small room of crockery, and there is the room devoted to "Delftware"—tea sets and other bourgeois thangs that are overdone even by Marie Antoinette's precious standards. There are tiny little rooms with legends proclaiming things like "From Appearance to Essence: European Art from 1900-1930." Isn't that sweet? It's letting us know that in Europe from 1900 to 1930, artists were moving away from the figure toward abstraction. Why? To get away from appearance and to the essence. Sure, it's not California art. But friends, the LBMA has five Kandinskys, and the museum folks are so proud we should probably give them a parade. Up above is a gallery of plein-air works that I'm pretty sure were painted from Cliff Drive overlooking Main Beach. Long Beach is so very pleased to be able to share them with you. And you did see the five Kandinskys, didn't you?
*Yup. Peter Alexander invented the Light & Space movement while repairing a surfboard. At least, that's what I've heard. I wasn't born yet.
**LACMA does, however, have two specialty hot rods (one of Jetsons-like plexiglass and one mirrored and beaded as though it's Cher at the Oscars) from the master, Big Daddy Roth, that are the coolest things I've ever seen—ever. Long Beach should definitely get a couple. That would be cool.
"Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000" at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles (323) 857-6000; www.lacma.org. Through Feb. 25; "Rooms With a View" at Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 439-2119. Thru April 8.
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