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Season of the Witch

One of the remaining distinctions between art museums and theme parks is that museums don’t program around Halloween (much). Still, a couple of witchy acquisitions have been announced this October: Henry’s Fuseli’s The Three Witches at the Huntington and Jordan Wolfson’s slutty android in witch mask for the Broad Art Foundation (below). Another museum-to-be, that of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is presenting “Hollywood Costume” with the gingham pinafore of film’s most famous witch hunter, Dorothy. But this year’s ultimate Halloween show is  “Cameron: Songs of the Witch Woman” at MOCA Pacific Design Center.

Cameron was not just an artist, mystic, and underground film diva. Her friend Scott Hobbs recalls that Cameron wore black, drove a hearse, and gave interviews as a “witch” to L.A. TV stations on Halloween. I have tried to find Cameron’s video (or newspaper) Halloween interviews online, with no luck. If any reader can find them, let me know and I’ll share them.

Cameron took a feminist-realist attitude to the passing of youth and beauty. She told a friend who’d had plastic surgery: “You can erase the lines, but not the pain!”

(Top of post: Cameron’s Black Egg, a self-portrait. Below, one half of Cameron’s Witch Diptych).

Eli Broad Buys “the Most Terrifying Robot Ever”

The Broad Art Foundation has acquired L.A. artist Jordan Wolfson’s Female Figure (2014), an Uncanny Valley-girl android that twerks in front of a mirror. It’s part of a recent effort to add crowd-pleasing interactive works for the Broad’s Grand Avenue museum (now set to open fall 2015.)

Female Figure was shown earlier this year at New York’s David Zwimmer gallery and Art Basel. I won’t try to top this description by the U.K.’s Daily Mail.

“Is this the most terrifying robot ever?…

“From creepy clowns to demonic serial killers, ‘possessed’ dolls have been the subject of many a horror film. Now an animatronic life-sized doll with a scary face and even more frightening dance moves might give you nightmares.…

“It uses facial recognition technology to seek out viewers in the gallery and stare at them with its terrifying green, masked face. … It is assumed that the doll follows people with its terrible eyes to make them feel uncomfortable if they are trying to view it as a sexual object.… The animatronic doll dances along to distorted versions of songs including Robin Thicke’s hit, Blurred Lines… However, the robot is far less glamorous as ‘she’ appears to be slightly grubby and has a mask capable of unnerving most adults.”

There are several videos of Female Figure on the web, including Vernissage TV and a MOCAtv mini-documentary.

A Pop-Up Bosque

Announced just this February, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s 24,000-sq. ft. green space next to the Broad looks to be complete in construction cam photos. The small planting (“bosque”) of century-old Barouni olive trees went up a lot faster than the long-delayed Broad (and because it’s still an active construction zone, the park isn’t open).

UPDATE. A new Broad press release says the park “will be completed in November 2014 in advance of the museum’s debut.” Since the museum opening is set for a still-approximate “Fall 2015,” it sounds like the park will be open before then.

Archibald Motley at LACMA

“Archibald Motley: Jazz-Age Modernist,” now at LACMA, could be mistaken for two shows. Motley came to attention in the 1920s with riveting portraits of persons of color (above, Woman Peeling Apples, 1924). Not long afterward Motley’s output shifted to the work he’s mainly known for: colorful, cartoonish crowd scenes of black nightlife in Paris and Chicago (below, Saturday Night, 1935). It’s possible to feel that Spike Lee had turned into Tyler Perry.

One key to Motley’s career arc is the “New Negro” movement. The African-American intellectual Alain Locke called for blacks to create literature and art presenting their race in a dignified manner. Motley’s early portraits exemply this and prove that “dignified” does not have to be boring. Below is Motley’s 1933 Self-Portrait (Myself at Work). It recalls the the New Objectivity of Germany (which, by the way, will have a LACMA show next fall). Germans of the period favored occupational portraits with a magic-realist slant. While the French developed surrealism, the New Objectivists—and Motley—understood the power of the Dutch proverb, “Be yourself, and you will be strange enough.”

The New Negro was often blackish. Harlem Renaissance literature explored the “talented tenth” of educated and affluent blacks, and the nuances of skin tone within the black community. Locke himself adopted a Barnabas Collins umbrella in sunlight, to preserve his light complexion.

Many of Motley’s female sitters are mixed-race, a fact that is underscored by Motley’s titles: Octaroon, Mulattress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape. Motley had some white and Native-American ancestry, and he married a white woman when this was illegal in most states. The artist’s wife is the subject of two impressive portraits from 1930, one nude and one dressed to the nines. Motley’s zaftig missus, of German ancestry, fills the space like Dr. Mayer-Hermann of Otto Dix’s New Ojectivity 1926 masterpiece. In the full-dress portrait, an out-sized fox stole destabilizes the composition, like seeing a beautiful woman make a phone call with a phablet a couple sizes too big.

With the comic nightlife scenes, Motley inverts the New Negro premise. Figures are reduced to ethnic caricatures and shown engaging in popular, “stereotypical” entertainments. A gallery text connects Motley to hokum, a jazz term for a lowbrow joke insinuated into serious music or art.

One example of hokum is Motley’s Card Players. It’s a Bronzeville send-up of Cézanne. But it’s not just an art-history joke; the still-life of cards and tobacco is perfect, as is the sense that the tabletop is not quite right. Motley has reinvented the most important and subtle elements of the Cézanne.

Saturday Night takes the Cézanne game with perspective to another level. The nightclub is a haunted shack where gravity is suspended. Dancer, waiters, and customers struggle to remain upright—a problem for the artist and just about everyone else in 1935.

Museum Without Walls

The mythic “Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art,” known only from mentions in East Coast media, makes another appearance in the New York Observer.

Ahmanson Gives LACMA a Frans Snyders

Earlier this year, LACMA had to close some of its European painting galleries after a ceiling leak. The museum has taken the opportunity to repaint and reinstall its 17th-century Flemish, Dutch, and French rooms. They’re reopened with a ginormous Frans Snyders, a gift of the Ahmanson Foundation.

Game Market (1630s) must be the biggest Old Master painting acquired by a West Coast institution in recent years. It occupies its own wall and becomes the visual anchor of  the Flemish room. Snyders and his studio produced many variations on this theme, almost all in European collections. (Another, with a similar swan and deer, is in Chicago, and a vegan counterpart is at the Norton Simon Museum.) In the LACMA painting, a man at far right holds a boar’s head, symbol of gluttony. To the left is a table piled with feathered and furred game. In the detail below, a peacock gives a cat a side-eye.

Rubens esteemed Snyders’ ability to render livestock so much that he delegated him to paint the animals in some of his paintings (the documented instance is the eagle in Rubens’ Prometheus Bound, now in Philadelphia). Despite his ability to capture nature, Snyders took some license with kittens, giving them weirdly human arms. Or did 17th-century felines look like that?

LACMA is showing several paintings brought out from storage. Among them is a small, circular Frans Hals Laughing Child, a 1992 gift of Varya and Hans Cohn. Museums are normally expected to display every authentic Hals they’ve got, unless it’s a complete wreck. To my knowledge, Laughing Child has never been on view at LACMA. I took that as a vote of no confidence. The Cohn painting is now on view, as a Hals and next to the better-known Portrait of Pieter Tjarck.

Last year’s experiment in pomegranate pink—for a French gallery named for the Resnicks—has been discontinued. All the Northern Baroque rooms are now a pale shade of anti-oxidant blueberry.

Big Brother House

The East German secret police long operated this guardhouse outside the state news agency in East Berlin. After the fall of communism it became a canvas for graffiti and then was repurposed by artist Christof Zwiener as a site for artists’  installation. The Wende Museum brought the guardhouse to L.A., where it will ultimately reside at the Wende’s new home as a permanent loan. Until then it’s touring the Westside. In the photo above, it’s shown on Wilshire next to Berlin wall fragments (and with installation by Sonya Schönberger).

Currently the guardhouse is at 9300 Culver Blvd., Culver City (Oct. 19-Nov. 2) and has an installation by Friedrich Kunath. Then it moves to the El Segundo Museum of Art (Nov. 3-Nov.8) and finally the Armory, Culver City (Nov. 8-), where it will be “a permanent info box and mini-media center in the Wende Museum’s sculpture garden.”

Preview: The George Lucas Collection

“Did you hear about the George Lucas collection? Everyone who knows the slightest thing about art says it’s JUNK!”

That chatter was the backdrop to Lucas’ search for a home for his planned museum of narrative art. After San Francisco rejected an initial building proposal, the leaders of Los Angeles and Chicago began lobbying for it. Mayor Eric Garcetti had a hashtag (#WhyLucasInLA). The local art community was less enthusiastic, feeling that L.A. needed another pop culture attraction like Las Vegas needed another hooker (to paraphrase Dave Hickey). But no one knew much about the collection beyond from the fact that Lucas collected Norman Rockwell and intended to juxtapose magazine illustrators with today’s CGI and prop movie magicians. (Above, Rockwell’s The Gossips [1948], auctioned last December for $8.5 million. The anonymous buyer was George Lucas, it turns out.)

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art ultimately chose Chicago as its future home. It now has a new website with much information on the collection. Based on that, I’d say the skepticism was misplaced.

Let me begin by saying that the three things I can’t stand are (a) intolerance, (b) Norman Rockwell, and (c) Star Wars. I’m not the Lucas museum’s target audience.

Sure, there are numerous works by Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, and N.C. Wyeth; Gibson Girls and Vargas Girls. There is also Kelley Freas. At left is a Freas painting made for a 1960 cover of Mad magazine. Free of text, it becomes something else again. Imagine (if you need to imagine) that you know nothing of Mad or Alfred E. Newman. How many outsiders or thrift shop artists can rival Freas? That’s a good way of appreciating the Lucas collection: vernacular art, only better. And if you like that sort of thing, there’s plenty more where it came from, most by artists few have heard of. (Below, illustrations by Richard Sargent and Norman Saunders.)

One of the more interesting artists is Walter Tandy Murch, a steampunk Chardin who specialized in still-lifes of obsolete machines. Canadian-born, Murch studied under Arshile Gorky and had a show at Betty Parsons’ New York Gallery in 1941. His works appeared on the covers of Scientific American and Fortune magazines. Below is The Clock. Murch was the father of sound editor Walter Murch, who worked on several Lucas films.

The Lucas is also collecting comic strip and comic book art, an area generally underserved by museums. The LMNA website has a broad and smart sampling, from Al Capp to Robert Crumb; Walt Kelly (bottom of post), Charles Schultz, Winsor McCay, Basil Wolverton, and David Levine. The quality is first-rate—though it’s impossible to judge the quantity from a selection on a website.

There is also a trove of children’s book art (John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham, Beatrix Potter) of a quality worthy of the Morgan library’s collection.

The anchor of the film collection is material from Lucas’ own movies and the Industrial Light & Magic effects firm. Going by the website, however, it lags when it comes to the history of non-Lucas cinema. There are Cinema 101 stills and animation cels (Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, Battleship Potemkin, Oswald the Rabbit, Citizen Kane), but these are not all that hard to come by on a high-end fanboy budget. One of the prizes, outside the Star Wars franchise, is Syd Mead’s gouache sketches for Blade Runner.

There’s also a fair of amount of so-called fine art: painting, sculpture, photography, and architecture from the 19th century to just about now. But that’s where the mission gets confused.

The roster of big names is eclectic to say the least: an Ingres wash drawing of Napoleon; watercolors by Winslow Homer and Degas; paintings by Renoir, Frederic Remington, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Thomas Hart Benton, and Guy Pene Du Bois; photos by Bernice Abbott, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, W. Eugene Smith, and Alfred Steiglitz; documentation of the architecture of Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas; Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Roxy Paine, and Hiroshi Sugimoto.

Above is the Renoir, Les Enfants au Bord de la Mer (c. 1894), no better than something Armand Hammer would have bought. Is it “narrative”? Obviously narrative art covers a lot of territory, and almost anything this side of a Judd might qualify. What’s missing is a sense of why these artists and works have been collected and not others.

That paradox multiplies with the collection of “digital art.” The thesis must be that movie CGI deserves to be shown next to every other kind of art made digitally. But the latter embraces an ever-expanding share of contemporary art, from David Hockney’s iPad drawings (shown, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011-5 May) to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s 3D-printed Mathematical Model 009, Surface of Revolution With Constant Negative Curvature (2006).

The Lucas collection doesn’t need “serious” art to lend legitimacy. Judging from the website, it has already carved out an important and counter-intuitive mission: to champion the many phases of our visual culture that art museums ignore.

Rubens, Martin Luther, and the “Fat Monk” Meme

Martin Luther was a big guy, Chris Farley big. The founder of Protestantism makes a surprise guest shot in the Getty Center’s “Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist.” In Rubens’ newly restored oil sketch of The Victory of Truth Over Heresy, (above) Luther is the distinctly Rubenesque man clawing the ground at lower left. Above him is a leaner but also notorious Protestant, John Calvin. In the tapestry made from Rubens’ design (detail below right), Luther becomes more of a caricature. The tapestry presents Luther and Calvin as Disney villains being crushed by Time and Truth. A century after the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther remained an outlaw to good Catholics, including Rubens.

Wine, women, and wursts: It’s said that Germans related better to Luther than to the pencil-neck saints of Rome. Luther’s scandalous marriage—for he had been a Catholic priest—set the precedent for Protestant ministers to marry. Luther’s resolute features were well-known via the many painted and woodcut portraits produced by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his studio. Cranach portrayed Luther in youth, old age, and even on his deathbed.

Rubens’ small paintings and big tapestries in the Getty show were created in service of a doctrinal controversy that had split Christianity. The Roman church said that the communion wafers and wine at its services miraculously turned into the flesh and blood of Christ. This was based on Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, translated as Hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body which is for you.”) The Latin words appear on the banderole at the top of Rubens’ painting and tapestry.

Ironically, Luther was one of the few Protestants who accepted Roman orthodoxy on the Eucharist. Unable to convince his own followers, Luther chalked words on the table. The words were Hoc est corpus meum.

Another irony is that Rubens’ Luther resembles the rotund, over-imbibing monks that later become a staple of anti-Catholic propaganda—and in our own time, of wine and spirit marketing.

Samurai and Starchitects

LACMA’s show of Samurai armor, opening this Sunday in the Resnick Pavilion, starts with three galloping equestrians under a Kurosawa-red “sky.” The cinematic installation, by Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architecture and Design, is the antithesis of the white cube.

Below is the same show at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum last summer—also in a Renzo Piano building.