Friday, February 15, 2008

They tried to make me go to BCAM; I said "No, no, no."

10 February 2008 (for Amy Winehouse)

Before I post what I was going to post a week ago, let me first say that NO, I did NOT GO to the BCAM opening. Fearless Leader and Fabulous Publisher went to the press preview Thursday and – though she submitted no direct comment to me of her own (her neutrality is somewhat understandable: the works shown from the collection are, almost without exception, superb; I believe a list is available from the website – both LACMA and Broad’s own)*, I found a comment she relayed to me from someone else who was there – a very knowledgeable perceptive and articulate (and widely published) L.A. critic – revealing. After asking FL for her thoughts, he responded with one of his own: “It’s all about money.” To that I might append a couple of corollaries, both more or less directly applicable to Mr. Broad’s apparently unslakeable competitive drive and his unshakeable need for control: it’s all about ego; and it’s all about real estate. Presumably we won’t be hearing too many complaints about the real estate for at least a few years, and maybe more. Between refurbished galleries on the rest of the campus, BCAM and the May Co. space, Mr. Govan, et al. should have enough lebensraum for, well, at least a tausendwochenreich. As far as Mr. Broad’s ego is concerned, I have an architectural proposal that, although probably not suited to the talents of Renzo Piano or Zaha Hadid, is sure to intrigue someone – maybe a Yale MFA or Architecture graduate. They would surely recall the design of the Beinecke Rare Book Library: a glass structure itself fully contained within an opaque but translucent ‘sarcophagus’ of Carrara marble. With all the talk (albeit understandably reticent at this stage) about yet another free-standing Broad facility for art, yet ambivalence about simply abandoning the elegant structure that now houses the Foundation, perhaps a structure, similar to the Beinecke marble box (but much larger) could be built around the building, holding the Foundation, art and library (and all those Beuys), and Mr. Broad’s ego, all at once. Presumably ego radiation danger should abate within, say, a tausendjahrensreich.

*By the by – has anyone else noticed that BCAM is listed on the Broad Art Foundation website as if it were simply one more proprietary component – or certainly an ancillary – of the Broad Art Foundation? Once you click on this BAF sub-head/’sub-entity’ for an ‘overview’, the unscrolled narrative presents BCAM as if it were a joint venture with LACMA -- which of course it is -- rather than an actual no-strings-attached gift to LACMA. (I’d love to see the deal memo on all of this.) As always, the language is carefully parsed – would that the press picked up on these things: “$60 million donation to create the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at LACMA” ; in the next graf – “the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at LACMA is open.” “BCAM at LACMA” – my emphasis. Not LACMA’s BCAM; not L.A. County’s BCAM – it just happens to be there on Wilshire Blvd. (I guess Armand Hammer beat Eli to the Wilshire frontage in Westwood that would have been more convenient to his office – though Hammer had an entire corporation behind him already hunkered down on Wilshire.) And it’s not as if that prime Wilshire Boulevard frontage has a negligible market value exactly – even in today’s depressed real estate market. As far as providing some architectural cohesion or coherence to the Museum complex (or at least that Wilshire frontage again), that remains to be seen. For the time being, I think they should just make the most of a rather syncopated beat.(to put the best spin on it), taking the length of that stretch of Wilshire between Curson and Fairfax, from the Pits and sculpture garden to that misbegotten ziggurat-pastiche by the Hardy Holzman firm (I’m not sure I even remember who designed this fortress – probably a team of architects, all working at odds with one another), to – I have no idea what’s going on with the ‘entrance pavilion’ – to say nothing of that Chris Burden installation (is that permanent? Reminds me a bit of a question occasionally (obnoxiously) posed to me: is it fashion or is it costume?) – to BCAM – and finally to the Streamline Moderne classic by Martin & Marx that was once the May Co. department store. (It surprises me a little that more hasn’t been done with those amazing spaces.) With all the attention splashed on BCAM, I sort of wonder if there’s a New Yorker-type cartoon in the making: the two buildings jostling with one another on the page: LACMA West to BCAM: “Hey, what am I – chopped liver?”

The Broad approach to collecting – I wouldn’t even call it high market/’blue chip’ (crass to use this kind of jargon in the context of art, however commodified), though of course, it is high market, if not top of the market, because, with rare exception, Broad’s penchant for control doesn’t seem to really allow him the latitude for the kind of risk top-market, high-stakes bidding entails – tells us something about what is lacking in this approach – and what may be missing in the collection as a whole: adventure, passion, discovery, a sense of the moment, the truly contemporary, a confidence of taste – however that may be characterized over the short or long term.

In other words, with certain exceptions (and there are always exceptions), I don’t think you ever really get collecting at the high end, without understanding something about collecting at the low, the new end. That doesn’t mean every new art starlet, every new graduating class from the major art schools. It does mean a willingness, an eagerness to seek out and seriously consider the new (or simply unseen, unanticipated; ‘emerging’ should also encompass the newly ‘emergent’ from well off the beaten (cyber- or other) track), a voracious appetite for new visual ideas, and to consider them in a continuously refreshed cultural context; ancillary to that is of course a vigorous engagement with the culture. It’s really not for the faint of heart, and – even in the saturated hyper-connected digitally extended world from which most of us operate – it’s not something that can be entirely accomplished from a Wilshire Boulevard office, a suite at the Four Seasons or a Gulfstream jet.

I was reminded of this as I made my round of openings this week-end (minus BCAM). I wasn’t sure what to expect from Eve Wood (whom I know a bit and have frequently enjoyed chatting and sharing discoveries with; her enthusiasm is irresistible) – and I have to say I was prepared to be less than thrilled. There’s a whimsical and anecdotal quality about these paintings that risks being labeled a bit ‘twee’. (Okay, is that what I’m doing here?) When I saw the image on the invite (“Between Sea and Land”), the thought-association that immediately came to mind was The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Sunflowers’ (as in Paul Zindel‘s play, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.). A whimsical (or so it seemed) portrait set against a fantastic arabesque-like backdrop of sunflowers set into a densely floral hedge sinking into the painting’s foreground/lower edge. The portrait has a slightly cartoon-schematic cast – a fairy tale figure (and configuration). What redeems it is the clarity of the painting within that arabesque. I’m not sure it matters that the portrait doesn’t really look like its subject (a well-known local artist); the real subject (I think) is the arabesque itself. (Aren’t we all, though?) This is the problem Wood sets up for herself: conjoining the ‘iconic’ with the anecdotal, while fully exploring/exploiting her capacities for painterly clarity, transparency and expressiveness. The unusual composition – a deliberately ‘painterly’ backdrop that both supports and undermines the ‘pictorial’ aspect, a slightly skewed or oblique orientation (congruent with the impulse towards arabesque) just off the vertical axis – certainly supports the latter of these objectives. The first is somewhat harder to achieve. Far easier, I think, to let that clarity work, in a sense, as a kind of reveal, to let the subject emerge within the painterly whole – which is what happens in the best of these canvases. E.g., notably “No Way Home,” a portrait of the artist’s mother looking up (stageward) amid a sea of red plush theater seats – beautiful character study, gorgeous painting; also “Every Good Story Has A Cherry In It” (which features Wood’s adorable dog) – already a ‘picture on a wall’ in rich amber tones relieved by chartreuse. In “Lone Wolf on the Prairie, the figure (here, unambiguously twee) floats amid a gossamer mille-fiori backdrop that needs no justification for its exuberant beauty, its sheer joie de peintre.

It was an evening of such small, contemplative pleasures – which continued at the Carl Berg Gallery – right across the street from the splashy luau my editor and I were missing at LACMA. Jessica Minckley, who was featured in the L.A. Louver Rogue Wave of 2005, showed a small gallery of enigmatic objects and panels/pages(?), that (with the exception of a series of watercolors made with pages actually torn from books) initially seemed quite disparate, yet with an eerie sense of correspondence. Taken in succession, though, that sense of correspondence built into an assemblage of dark, quiet power. From the “Epigraph/Epitaph” series of watercolors – simultaneously dark and bitterly ironic yet almost elegiac – to the nascent Narcissus about to lose his shadow (a framed watercolor panel that actually has its full blown/full-grown cut-out counterpart in a fabric silhouette attached to the frame and dangling to the floor. Between these book-ends, among other things, a life/death mask, a stack of pink bakery boxes stacked almost to the ceiling, with only the top box opened, a pair or salt-lick cubes suspended from a set of plastic fingers (used for grazing cattle), a ‘salt drawing’ laid over a magazine ad for Morton Salt. I had the benefit of a rather cogent chat with the artist; but ultimately, the book pages with their ironic texts and ineffable watercolors (scatters, tangles and hatchings of variously brights and pastels) are by themselves enough to nail down Minckley’s thesis. Consider just one or two out of the 10 or so watercolors. “Without Reason” is a dark cloud of hatchings (this one actually in pencil); the epigram on the flyleaf is by Hannah Arendt (that alone promising a mordant note), “ … the great and incalculable grace of love, which says with Augustine, I want you to be, without being able to give any particular reason for such supreme and unsurpassable affirmation.” The book: Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us. Or, more simply/obviously(?), “Unanswered Prayers,” a spray of bright confetti on the flyleaf of – what else? – Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers. “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” Is there anyone who doesn’t know that one by heart? (And is there anyone – atheists included – who doesn’t routinely set aside its wisdom?) Amid such resonance, the revelers across the street could only seem like bright shadows, the Chris Burden installation a long row of candles to light their way to the Tomb.

The evening only grew darker – yet cooler, too – as I headed to Chinatown for Rommelo Yu’s show at Chung King Project – Nitwittliwitt, continuing his fascination with Sol LeWitt – yet both morphed into a kind of permutation of the classic LeWitt stereometric grid and projection, and with an implication of something queasy or unsettled. (Something I should have taken away from the Wood show earlier? – what happens when the axis tilts? The center doesn’t hold? And when it tries to right itself – or take another turn altogether?) Behind a curtain of orange and purple ping-pong balls (that’s what they looked like anyway) arrayed in a runic configuration (or perhaps a scroll of Greek characters – they looked like interlocked lambdas – stood Yu’s wobbly-looking (but surprisingly sturdy and well-constructed) wood ‘LeWitt’ openwork 27-(3x3x3) chambered “Shaky Cube.” The geometry of combinations and permutations took on a darker cast with the suite of fragmented pentagram studies Yu took from the pictorial structure of some of the first released photographs of the Abu Ghraib horrors. Any student of iconography has some familiarity with the vocabulary of political gesture, the semiotics of power, control, abasement, humiliation (and exaltation) – the examples, both royal and religious, fill the pages of art history texts. A cautionary exercise -- this dissection of humanity’s heart of darkness; sentence diagrams, if you will, in humanity’s grammar of self-degradation. Dark pleasures indeed at that wobbly core.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Art fairs and art films; Bassman and butterflies

1-2 February 2008

Before I go over a few notes about Victor Man, the art fairs, Chloe Piene’s drawings, which always amaze me, Rosson Crow, and – speaking of the fairs – a late, very late discovery that is really a re-discovery, but either way, so bizarrely lagging behind the rest of the world, you would think I’d just crawled from beneath a rock where I’d been trapped for the last five years. That apparently is when the Farmani Gallery (on South Robertson) had a show of the work of Lillian Bassman, photographer of fashion, fantasy, and the ephemeral glamour, mystery and sheer joy of their intersection in the gritty grisailles of urban life. But more of that in a moment.

I mentioned that I might have a few words about Schnabel’s Le Scaphandre et le Papillon – and I do; except they’re mostly en français. Le Scaphandre is one of those movies that, as essential as language is to the film, to the story as Jean-Dominique Bauby writes it, seems to sweep away conventional grammar and syntax, indeed all the linguistic structures that comfortably occupy the mesh of neuro-synaptic networks that are the springboard for our verbal communications. And maybe that applies to visual language, too. Before even two minutes of the film have elapsed, you’re aware of a radical shift in the narrative and purely visual priorities of the film. That the film is intended to be told from the point of view of the “locked-in” Jean-Do Bauby is a given. But the film doesn’t lock itself into that framework but floats freely through and around it and, when necessary, entirely away from it – much as Jean-Do would have liked to himself. It is as if, having one destroyed one set of experiential filters, Bauby – from the conrfinement of his diving bell, his scaphandre (which nevertheless might be considered an implement of discovery) – and Schnabel behind his own two eyes, that of his camera and his seemingly limitless imagination, are continuously engaged in discovering (and rediscovering), reassembling, imagining another. Writing these words, I suddenly have an image (from Robert Polidori?) in my mind of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – a scattering of old family photographs and mementos and pages of handwritten letters and journals floating on the dirty waters amid broken furniture and other flotsam flowing in and out of a ruined house. What of the past, the markers of identity, of residence, can be recovered from such disaster? Bauby’s actuality has nosedived into a dark murky full fathom five and reemerged bobbing on the surface, grasping for anything familiar, unfamiliar – trying to find a compass, a paddle (visual, emotional, physical, intellectual) to navigate a course back to himself, to his life. Irony fails here, at least initially. Outrage, indignation are what we viewers and Bauby grasp at; obliteration – even of self, to make peace amid this ‘sea of troubles’ (to the initial despair of his earnest ‘speech’ therapist, Henriette (played by Marie-Josée Croze); to sweep it all before us as we swim towards an ‘undiscovered’ surface. Light itself, in endless variations, unlocks the reserves of irony, however cruel, perverse. Sensually appreciative, even sexual within his scaphandre/sarcophage, Bauby laughs and bemoans simultaneously the cruelty of his fate. Schnabel’s task is to navigate a perceptual channel to and through this imprisoned Bauby, and to reconstruct his imaginative – liberation is too strong, too large a word – reengagement with a world that can never be the same. Light fades by degrees (or ’blinks’ closed) to darkness, returns fitfully to close on an image – the actuality, a memory, a schematic view of something that might or might not be happening – we are aware even within the first few frames that this is an image-maker of astonishing power. As self-pity gives way to acceptance, a process of transformation – out of light and darkness, memory and imagination, a projection or superimposition of one reality over another (or its subtraction, but more often not – Bauby’s realism, his poly-pragmatism is re-made into something more malleable, something that will admit the participation of its sidelined, paralyzed narrator/composer) – begins. Bauby ‘surfaces’ and the composition of his book (and recomposition of self) begins.

Without going into detail about the beauty, originality and power of the film (which I may develop at more length for artillery), let if suffice to say that, regardless of what Academy members are voting for in the Best Picture category (I’m not sure if Schnabel’s film is eligible; at the very least, it should have been nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category), this is the best film of 2007. I know it sounds absurd to make such a sweeping and categorical judgment. But – like the best films of Welles, John Ford, Bergman, Antonioni, Godard, etc. – it has changed (or should change) the way we look at and the way we make movies. (The film itself is a liberated and reengaged kind of film-making, if you will.) Can I be allowed to change my mind? (Well, my artillery copy will or won’t bear out my thinking about it.) I’ll admit I wasn’t as detached a viewer as I would have liked – I wept profusely through sections of the film (too many end-of-life issues, etc.). Let me see it again. Though I think it can be recommended without qualification to anyone who likes movies. I feel as if, just as Richard Strauss was able to say upon his deathbed that death was “just as I wrote it” (in Death and Transfiguration), Schnabel may one day be able to say much the same thing. Speaking of music, the film (not surprisingly) has a fantastic soundtrack. That I will state firmly and categorically. With respect to my own emotional response, almost ordeal, I would say to Schnabel – quoting from the film (and Bauby’s book) – in English this time: “I don’t mind you dragging me to the bottom of the ocean because you’re also my butterfly.”