LACMA’s “See the Light—Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection” is the second big survey of the Vernon collection, acquired in 2008. The first show, in 2008-9, displayed 70 works out of the 3,600 acquired. With 220 photos, “See the Light” better shows off the collection’s strengths and draws connections between modern art, science, and technology.
Leonard Vernon, an L.A. real estate developer, said in 1999:
“I don’t know how to describe it or explain it. But from Day One, absolutely, we didn’t have to talk to each other. We would drive the dealers crazy. They would show us 24 prints or so, and I would know, and Marjorie would know, right away which one we were going to get serious about.”
The Vernons were into beauty before it was (cooly) uncool. ”Almost everything appealed to us,” said Leonard, “except that we were not interested in the work of a photographer who could see nothing beautiful in the world.”
At left is Henry Fox Talbot’s Lace. At the top of this post is an Edward Steichen Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon. Steichen made many images of the famous modern dancer at the famous ancient site. I’m not aware of a better example than the Vernon print.
Big names alternate with lesser-known ones like William Edward Dassonville. His Ships (1925, below) straddles Pictorialism and Precisionism and demonstrates how arbitrary historical categories can be.
“See the Light” proposes that developments in vision science motivated broad changes in photographic art. This claim is as plausible as it is hard to nail down. A timeline on the gallery walls records scientific developments ranging from the invention of photography to the invention of PhotoShop, and embracing the uncertainty principle, the Turing machine, and other deep thoughts. The cellphone audio tour supplies narration from Caltech Big Bang theorists and others.
The art ends with its own big bang: David Hockney’s Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos. Not part of the Vernon collection, it takes their beautiful-mind empiricism into a new century. Should you have a holiday visitor, not sure about art, the Hockney wouldn’t be a bad suggestion.
Adjacent to Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos is a dark room fitted out as a camera obscura (Google translation: “dark room”). The knowledgeable will understand it as a nod to the ever-controversial Hockney-Falco thesis. Hockney’s 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters proposes that European artists from van Eyck and Lorenzo Lotto onward secretly used optical devices to achieve a perspectival accuracy impossible by eyeballing. The book draws on the research of physicist Charles M. Falco. The thesis has been vigorously disputed by other physicists and art historians.
The LACMA camera obscura is a walk-in counterpart to the Abelardo Morell photos now at the Getty. Morell projects urban landmarks onto the walls of darkened apartments. The subject here is Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass. The great boulder is shown upside-down, counter-levitated, in the cleverest didactic display you’ll see this season.