William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

An American Wing That Looks Like America

Can art museums represent America in all its E Pluribus Unum diversity? A room in LACMA’s Art of the Americas Building ought to advance that conversation. It’s a modest shoebox divided by a partition at one end. The main space has 12 representational works from the early and mid-20th century. It starts with George BellowsCliff Dwellers—the first major painting the old L.A. County Museum acquired—and runs through Marsden Hartley’s The Lost Felice. That much is typical. Less so is the fact that two of the 12 works are by African Americans, one is by an Asian, and two are by women. Compared to other museums, that counts as an impressive representation of minority (and even women) artists. The visitor who doesn’t read labels may notice that eight of the 12 objects depict Asians, blacks, or Latinos.

Wing Kwong Tse’s watercolor Chinese Family is an alternative American Gothic. That’s Granddad with the opium pipe. (Swears he’s going to quit…) Tse’s own family fled the Chinese revolution for Hawaii. He dropped out of USC to become an actor. The Hollywood of the 1920s offered only demeaning roles. Tse moved to San Francisco and became the Left Coast’s hippest Asian beatnik. He knew Allen Ginsberg, and his North Beach studio was above Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books.

Tse’s American scenesters look nothing like Grant Wood’s. Is it permissible to admire Tse’s eidetic skills as a watercolorist, or must Chinese Family be considered a DON’T in Barr’s Big Book of Modernism? LACMA bought the Tse watercolor not so long ago, in 2005, with funds by Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Crawford, Jr. It provokes in ways that a second-rate Hopper wouldn’t.

The installation mainstreams self-taught art with the school-taught kind. Clementine Hunter’s Camitte the Hair Fixer Is Doing Ceola’s Hair is on loan from the collection of Gordon W. Bailey. As Bailey told me, “Sans marginalizing categorization, Hunter’s magnificent painting is exhibited with other American masterworks.” I’ll bet, this is the only place to see a Hunter next to a Hartley.

For still another alternative vision see the luminous view of Watts Towers by the multi-talented Gloria Stuart, at bottom of post. Like Tse, Stuart knew a thing or two about the crazy actor’s life.

Beyond the room divider, a smaller space has six western landscapes. One is by a woman artist (Evelyn McCormick), and another by an Asian (Taneyuki Dan Harada). The latter’s Barracks—Tule Lake (1945) is an concentration camp landscape demonstrating the fat-tail influence of Cézanne for West Coast Japanese artists. There’s got to be a dissertation or two in that.

LACMA’s American collection is thin next to the long-established East Coast institutions. That makes its example all the more relevant. If LACMA can deliver diversity at a high level of quality and interest, then institutions with bigger collections can. All it takes is the will.

America’s Most Pervy

Days after the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2014″ opened, American Apparel ousted its CEO Dov Charney for “alleged misconduct” including sexual harassment. All of a sudden, American Apparel was a troubled brand and the outspoken Charney was the new Donald Sterling. That was awkward for the Hammer because it had partnered with American Apparel to create a generally well-received line of “Made in L.A.” clothing and gear, some designed by the biennial’s artists.

Who is Dov Charney? Jezebel has an instructive run-down on the “sketchy, scandalous history” of American Apparel’s “pervy madman CEO.” A few bullet points:

• Charney took business meetings wearing nothing but “a garment described as a ‘cock sock.’”

• Charney had a policy of not hiring those who weren’t good looking (“off-brand”). His directive for hiring black women: “none of the trashy kind… try to find some of these classy black girls, with nice hair, you know?”

• “Masturbation in front of women is underrated,” Charney told a Jane magazine journalist (he had masturbated during the interview).

• Here’s a distinction: Charney was sued by a barely legal sex partner and by Woody Allen. Charney had used an Annie Hall still on American Apparel billboards, without bothering to get permission.

The largest harassment lawsuit, for $260 million, was filed by former American Apparel employee Irene Morales, who said that Charney ”dragged her to the bedroom, threw her on the bed, got on top of her and forced her to perform another act of fellatio, nearly suffocating her in the process.”

Hey, did you know that “Made in L.A.” is the first biennial with more women artists than men?

If a screenwriter conceived Dov Charney and his cock sock for Horrible Bosses 3D, nobody would believe it. Is it possible, then, that Dov Charney is a performance-art sock puppet, a walking embodiment of white male privilege, created by… Joe Scanlan?

On second thought, I’m betting he’s an invention of the Yams Collective.

Neutra House to Go Iron Curtain Modern

Starting July 12, all the movable mid-century modern furnishings in the Neutra House, Silverlake, will be replaced with counterparts from behind the Iron Curtain. On view will be Eastern Bloc chairs, tables, lamps, phones, pictures, cooking utensils, and surveillance equipment, all from the Wende Museum collection. Nothing will be labeled, but gallery iPads will provide further information. “Competing Utopias,” organized by the Wende Museum and the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences, will run through Sept. 13.

Above is an exhibition poster by David Hartwell. Below, a selection of East German telephones.

Korean Simplicity, and Bling, at LACMA

Moon Jar, 18th century. Photo (c) National Museum of Korea

Korea’s National Treasure No. 1437 is a moon jar. Its form is one of the few uniquely Korean ones that is reasonably well-known to American audiences. We see it as “modern.” The surprise might be that a rough-hewn, undecorated ceramic rates national treasure status. The moon jar is pointedly imperfect, like the globe we live on.

The taste for simplicity is one thread of “Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910,” now at LACMA. It has about 150 objects spanning five centuries and media ranging from painting and sculpture to furniture, ceramics, ritual objects, books, costumes, hairpins, and a map (a 22-foot-long map of the Korean peninsula). Most are from the National Museum of Korea, Seoul, and many are the best of their kind. As you’d expect, there is gold and show-off virtuosity. Yet you may leave most impressed with the traditional Korean values of simplicity, authenticity,  and self-effacement.

Maybe that’s because we like to think that these are American values too. Of course they are, and they aren’t. No nation can be reduced to a sound bite. That said, a display of furnishings for aristocratic scholars at LACMA will remind many visitors of the Shakers and the Eameses (those two poles of abstemious practicality). A Joseon brush holder verges on a Shaker peg rack. A candlestick has the cursory curves of a Shaker candle stand, but is topped with a reflective iron butterfly with calligraphic inscription.

A 19th-century letter holder (left) invites comparison to John Frederick Peto’s letter racks and Melville’s Bartleby (“Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men?”). In their 20th-century leg splint (right), the Eameses deployed the technology of the military-industrical complex to mold plywood. The Korean letter holder uses bamboo, which bends without the rocket science.

Two 17th-century ritual ceramic vessels of an ox and elephant look like “folk art” at its most whimsical, but they were likely royal commissions for an ancestral shrine.

A late 19th-century Box with Ox-horn Decoration recalls another old-time American aesthetic. “American Fancy” was nominally the opposite of Puritanism, an embrace of complicated European pattern and decoration, turned out with native ingenuity. The Korean box exemplifies that spirit, being an attempt to encapsulate Chinese and Korean tradition with new materials. The motifs were painted in reverse on translucent slivers of ox horn and pasted on the box.

Box with Ox-horn Decoration. Photo (c) National Museum of Korea

Box with Ox-Horn Decoration. Photo (c) National Museum of Korea

The last room presents objects from the end of the Joseon period, influenced by photography and the West. One display case is a mini-Urban Light. The largest of six electric light covers from a Joseon palace represent lotus buds. The profiles of the others look back to moon jars. All are etched with a plum blossom, logo of the soon-to-be-extinguished dynasty.

Why Summer Tourists Should Head West

This summer millions of American and overseas visitors will flock to the big museums of the Eastern seaboard. There they will see unparalleled permanent collections and fewer intelligent loan exhibitions than are currently on view in Los Angeles. (Shown, Mike Kelley’s “The Territorial Hound,” part of the MOCA retrospective.)

L.A. has two sprawling shows that could serve as primers of contemporary art—MOCA’s “Mike Kelley” and the Hammer’s “Made in L.A.” Then there are three big exhibitions of classic modernism: “Calder and Abstraction” and “Expressionism in Germany and France” at LACMA and “The Scandalous Art of James Ensor” at the Getty Center. Two shows present hard-to-arrange loans of iconic treasures from centuries past: “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium” at the Getty Villa and “Chinese Paintings from Japanese Collections” at LACMA. A third such show, “Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910″ opens this Sunday. For a week–until “Chinese Paintings” closes on July 6—L.A. museums will have eight shows of international distinction running simultaneously.

In New York, the marquee attraction is “Jeff Koons,” opening tomorrow at the Whitney. (Left, Split Rocker.) It will join three big retrospectives of contemporary artists (Sigmar Polk and Lygia Clark at MoMA, Ai Weiwei at Brooklyn). There’s Italian Futurism at the Guggenheim and “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu Buddhist Sculpture” at the Met. Count the Met’s fashion show, on Charles James, and that’s seven major exhibitions in New York. IMHO, not only does L.A. have more first-rate exhibitions but they’re less predictable and more relevant.

In D.C., the National Gallery of Art has the predictable crowd-pleaser “Degas/Cassatt.” The Freer/Sackler has a mid-sized show on James McNeill Whistler and the Thames. The Hirshhorn is partly closed for construction.

There are fine small shows in Boston and Philadelphia, though not at this level of ambition. The summer’s biggest tourist magnet in Philadelphia is Vermeer’s worst(?) painting—the Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, below. (The singleton loan to see is in New York, Parmigianino’s Schiava Turca at the Frick Collection.)

Patrons of East Coast museums leave town when the tourists arrive. That’s probably why Eastern museums focus more on a fall-winter season. Maybe some of those summer tourists should try L.A. instead?

A Drive-Through LACMA?

The latest renderings for Peter Zumthor’s proposed museum campus stretch across Wilshire Blvd, avoiding an encroachment on the Tar Pits. The new design also gives more breathing space for the Pavilion for Japanese Art, which was previously all but surrounded by two pseudopods.

In Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s early conception for the Broad, cars and pedestrians entering the museum would face each other through glass. That idea was tabled. The new Zumthor concept would literally be a drive-through museum (one with its own subway stop).

Quantum Pataphysics at the Hammer

One slice of gallery 4 in the UCLA Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2014″ is about absurdist science with metaphysical dimensions. The artists are Channing Hansen and Devin Kenny, and they differ from each other by at least one standard deviation of the “Made in L.A.” artists.

Hansen teaches the history of science and chaos theory(!)  at Chinatown’s super-cool Mountain School of Arts. He creates “quantum paintings” that, in plain language, are Koogi sweaters woven by spiders on LSD and presented on painting stretchers. Though they look hippie-intuitive, every missed stitch has been dictated by an algorithm that Hansen hand-coded. At top is a small detail of Square Root of Distraction; at right, 42.

Hansen’s paintings fall into a class of philosophical textile art along with the Wertheim sisters’ Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. Knitters use one-dimensional yarn to create two- and three-dimensional reality. There is at least a superficial parallel to the string theory of physicists, a quixotic attempt to weave the tangible universe out of 11-dimensional strings.

Adjacent to the Hansens is a selection of hardware and software hacks by Devin Kenny. Turn Down for What is a digital clock powered by an energy drink. Aahs, sad feels is a chocolate fondue fountain dripping with magnets and homemade ferrofluid. Several works involve magnets, which our digital age has invested with the godlike power of creating and destroying 1s and 0s. Kenny’s Upper Echelon comes with a label warning pacemaker wearers to stand at least 5 cm. (2 inches) away.

Street Art After Deitch

What is the place of street art in museums, post-Jeffrey Deitch MOCA? Anyone interested in that conversation will want to see “Scratch” at the El Segundo Museum of Art. (Above, a wall by Eyeone, Gorgs, Kozem, Swank, Tanner, and Tempt.)

ESMoA calls itself as an art laboratory, a place where nutty professor-curators mix unstable reagents to see what happens. “Scratch” realizes that pitch more completely than any previous effort has.

The backstory is that street art collector Ed Sweeney approached the Getty Research Institute with the idea of assembling an album of L.A. street art. The result was the LA Liber Amicorum (the “Getty Black Book”). Completed in 2013, it garnered tons of publicity (much of it “news of the weird,” spanning written-from-press-release praise to conservative trolling.) “Scratch” gives the public its first opportunity to judge the LA Liber Amicorum on its own.

A fairly big asterisk: It’s a book. Only one page spread can be shown at a time. Galley iPads let you swipe though the whole book, but that has been possible for some time on the GRI site.

In “Scratch” the Black Book is really a pretext for six of its artists—Axis, Cre8, Defer, Eyeone, Fishe, and Miner—to co-curate (along with the GRI’s David Brafman) a collaborative installation. About 50 street and tattoo artists have inscribed, transformed, and annotated five of the six faces of ESMoA’s white cube. It’s billed as a “cathedral of urban art” although, to cover all bets, one wall has a mihrab.

The Donatello among the taggers is a mini-exhibition of European Renaissance books and manuscripts, plus a few ancient scarabs, cuneiform tablets, and cylinder seals. Some books are Renaissance “books of friends” paralleling the black books of today. Others are manuals of calligraphy (shown, a 1564 book of letter forms by Urban Wyss). The earliest object in the show appears to be a 1-inch high Sumerian cylinder seal dated 2900-2750 B.C. That’s five millennia of urban art, not bad for a small museum in El Segundo.

In all the juxtapositions work better than you might expect. The parallels between the ancients and the contemporary artists are more thought-provoking than gimmicky. Easing the segue are industrial-strength vitrines for the books. The one drawback is the lighting. Subdued enough to protect the rare books, it doesn’t quite do justice to the art on the walls.

Ivan Albright, the People’s Choice

Voters in the “Art Everywhere US” promotion—which will put a crowd-sourced selection of 58 images of American artworks on 50,000 billboards, bus shelters, and subway platforms this August—turned thumbs up to Ivan Albright’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (nominated by the Art Institute of Chicago) but thumbs down to Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting (below, nominated by LACMA). OK, I get that the critically praised Opie is edgy and that Marie Cassatt might be more Mr. and Mrs. America’s speed. But Ivan Albright??? Where did that come from?

A Pomegranate for LACMA

The Supreme Court recently ruled that Lynda and Stewart Resnick’s POM Wonderful brand can sue Coca-Cola over the latter’s imitation pomegranate juice, made mostly from apple and grape juices. I think it’s just a coincidence that LACMA is showing this newly acquired painting of a pomegranate with apples and grapes. It’s not in the pomegranate juice-tested Resnick Pavilion, nor even in the pomegranate-pink Resnick Gallery but rather in a 19th-century room in the Ahmanson Building’s European galleries. Still Life with Apples and a Pomegranate (c. 1865), by French realist Théodule-Augustin Ribot, was bought via the European Art Acquisition Fund.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy invoked another still life in his ruling: “a vignette of blueberries, grapes, and raspberries in front of a halved pomegranate and a halved apple” on the bogus pomegranate juice’s label.