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Wednesday, September 01, 2004

A Day in LA

Despite the fact that yesterday ended up being a wasted work day (or maybe because of it), the day turned out OK. I squeezed in visits to both the Getty Center and LACMA before my afternoon flight out of LAX.

Every time I go to the Getty Center I become overwhelmed by the place and can’t work up enough focus to look at the art. Yesterday was no exception.

After seeing James Wagner’s photos from a recent visit (scroll down to posts from and before August 18), I wanted to have a chance to get to know Robert Irwin’s Central Garden a bit more, and I jumped when I saw that the day’s schedule of events listed a docent tour of the garden while I was there. I’m ignorant about gardening and was hoping for some basic training in looking at how a garden is put together.

I lasted ten minutes.

Docents annoy the hell out of me (present company and a few select others excluded). Leading a group tour doesn’t take much. Prior to today, I thought that all you needed to do was follow five simple rules. I’ve now added a sixth rule to that list. I guess I had taken this one for granted. After today I realize that I need to make it explicit, as well.

6. Do lead your audience to look at something within the first two minutes of getting their attention. Don’t take more time than that to introduce the tour and present background information.
After ten minutes of standing on the Arrival Plaza (not even in Irwin’s garden) listening to a disquisition on the nature of the human-plant relationship, I walked away to wander the garden myself.

(For a taste of what the experience was like, read the following sentences aloud very slowly in a sonorous, affected, Anglo accent. “Humans and plants need each other. People breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. At the dawn of time in arid Africa, man looked for trees to show him where water sources were. The changing color of leaves signaled a coming change in the season. In putting my thoughts together for this talk I came across several quotes on how important gardening is to humans. I want to share these with you now.”)

I noticed one detail in the Garden on this visit that I don’t remember seeing before. The final flagstone at the bottom of Irwin’s path that zigzags down the hill contains an inscription that reads:

Ever present never twice the same
Ever changing never less than whole
Robert Irwin
December 1997
The mutability of Irwin’s garden contrasts with the stasis of Richard Meier’s travertine acropolis. The circular motifs and non-linear walkways of the garden compliment the sharp, regular angularity of Meier’s architectural forms. Their combination stuns.

Before I bailed out, I heard the docent refer to the Getty Center as “the architectural commission of the century.” She may have gotten that right. Perhaps I haven’t yet spent enough time at the site to become desensitized to Meier’s work, but after my visit today I’m not sure that I would ever be able to focus on looking at any of the art contained in these spaces he has created. The architecture so outperforms the artwork it houses that it makes the work of centuries of artists look weak.

After leaving the Getty, I was looking forward to seeing Beyond Geometry on display now at LACMA. I ended up being disappointed with the exhibition. The show does contains a few notable pieces. A small work composed of two grey canvases by Blinky Palermo, a fine Agnes Martin from the 1960s, a nice John McCracken, and the smaller-than-a-die sized piece by Cildo Meireles that the museum is using in publicity for the show all stand out. None of these works is available, though, on the exhibition’s extensive website. (Strike one.) Although some individual works impressed me, on the whole the exhibition is flat.

The show lacks curatorial focus and seems to be put together based on work that was available rather than work that allows a curatorial point of view to develop. It’s a show that feels like it ought to be about a movement, but it never quite defines the movement in a new way—or even in an old way. The show doesn’t really focus on time, place, process, material, concept, theory, or anything in a way that would allow the group of works contained in it to grow into something more than the sum of their parts. (Strike two.)

And what’s going on with the installation? Overall, the installation is so blasé that it even makes a blue Judd stack look like a set of shelves. (Strike three.)And when I followed the signs up the stairs to the continuation of the show on the second floor, expecting to see another several galleries of work, I was surprised to walk past three or four pieces before being dumped into the permanent collection. Why bother? Why not cut down the list of works to fit the show onto a single floor? (Strike four. Shall I stop now?)

But the visit to LACMA wasn’t a complete loss. In the downscale LACMA West building, I stumbled across a piece I hadn't seen before from the Atrabiliarios series by the Columbian artist Doris Salcedo. For this work she creates three small vitrines in the wall (each less than 6" by 12"). Within each cubby Salcedo has placed either one or two shoes. She has then covered the faces of the openings with pieces of cow bladder that are sutured to the wall with ugly, thick, black surgical thread.

At mass grave sites, the artist says, investigators and family members always find loose shoes. This piece references those who have disappeared and tells their stories through the objects of clothing they have left behind. Emotionally moving, conceptually rigorous, politically engaged, visually interesting, making use of materials in a novel way—this piece has everything I look for when I look at contemporary sculpture.

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