Photography, Unveiled

October 9, 2008

On the opening night of A Story of Photography: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, I came across an installation convention I’d never before encountered. Four of the photographs in the exhibition were covered with gray velvet curtains. A sign beside them read, “These photographs are extremely sensitive to light. Please lift the curtain to view the work.” So, as someone raised the first veil, I peered under the fabric. Behind each were examples of particularly old, beautifully fragile photographs, already dimmed by the passage of time.

But the curtains did more than shelter these delicate works; they also encouraged an added level of engagement. It’s impossible to simply cast a quick glance. To look, one must stop. Pause. Lift curtain. Think a little bit more. Not to mention proximity to the objects—I can’t remember the last time I was invited to get that close to a photograph in a museum. And finally, the act of holding the curtain up for others, making eye contact to ensure the gathered crowd had finished looking, layered on a communal feeling that I’ve rarely experienced in a museum’s hallowed galleries. This intimate, personal encounter was only amplified when I asked Charlotte Cotton, head of the Photography Department, where one finds protective curtains for photographs. Her response? She actually purchased the fabric, carefully choosing a shade of gray that complements photography’s grayscale, and sewed the curtains herself.

Allison Agsten


The Art—and Audaciousness—of War

October 8, 2008

1918, Joseph Christian Leyendecker

Iconic, striking, colorful, surprising, propagandistic, bold, poignant, beautiful, inappropriate, funny, historic—these are some of the adjectives that popped into my head while looking at the amazing selection of posters from World Wars I and II featured in The Art of War, a small but choice exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum (through January 26). We are not used to seeing government-sponsored art promoting unity, sacrifice, patriotism, or America’s allies, so these images registered for me in startling, even funny, ways, especially given our current political and economic situation. The early posters were often by painter/illustrators and reproduced contemporary paintings created for the specific theme, such as J. C. Leyendecker’s Order Coal Now from 1918. The posters from World War II are stylistically more graphic (as in advertising), even cinematic. The World Cannot Exist Half Slave and Half Free is an astonishing image from 1942 that channels Simon Legree, Abraham Lincoln, and Hollywood-style horror.

1918, James Daugherty; images courtesy Norton Simon Museum

1918, James Daugherty; images courtesy Norton Simon Museum

One of my favorites is by a little-known modern artist, James Daugherty, who actually features significantly in my (in-progress) dissertation on Thomas Hart Benton. But it was Daugherty’s vividly colored image, not the name recognition, which drew me to his poster, THE SHIPS ARE COMING. Picture this: a fleet of half a dozen or so massive war ships are powering full steam ahead, churning through a teal-colored river that looks about to careen dramatically over, yet cling to, the curvature of the earth. Rising above this unknown beyond is a giant, blazing red-orange sun, molten and bubbling at the edges. Above it all? A screaming eagle. Yes, a screaming eagle—talons clawed, wings spread, blood red and orange-yellow tail feathers flared, beak wide open—a proto-Technicolor version of the one that swoops across every opening of The Colbert Report. I died laughing. I don’t know why, but that screaming eagle flying over “Colbert Nation” just never gets old. I always laugh. And here was 1918′s version!

Austen Bailly


The Exile Cinema of Edward Yang

October 7, 2008

Of the blows cinema suffered in 2007, a year when it lost Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, perhaps none hurt me more than the sudden passing of Edward Yang at the age of 59. After receiving his first-ever full U.S. release with the roundly praised and awarded Yi Yi (aka A One and a Two) in 2000, at the time of his death Yang had yet to produce a follow-up.

Yang was actually based in Los Angeles for a long time and is even buried here. Though born on mainland China, Yang’s life was split between Taiwan and the U.S.; his time here increased as he grew disillusioned with the film industry in his homeland. Though all of his works are rooted in the specificity of Taipei’s perpetual urban reinvention, he eventually returns to the city of his youth as if from exile. I hear that Yi Yi has not been released there to this day.

Yang’s parents remain in Seattle, where he studied to be an engineer and, anecdote has it, was initiated to the pleasure dome of cinema through the epic atmospherics of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Yang’s own films (he made seven features) are set amidst an equally dynamic environment, though high-rise-crowded vistas and poured concrete panoramas replace Herzog’s tropical luxuriance.

It’s no surprise that Gao Wendong’s new film Sweet Food City pays tribute to Yang. Set in an unvaryingly decrepit complex that encompasses cramped flats and ramshackle storefronts, it’s a picture-perfect microcosm for the megalopolises that Yang saw on the horizon.

I’m pleased we’re paying tribute at LACMA to this under-screened and increasingly prescient filmmaker, whom the world lost far too early.

Bernardo Rondeau


Obama and McCain on the Arts

October 7, 2008

A few bloggers have recently written about the arts policies (or lack thereof) of the presidential candidates. Obama has had a pretty substantial issue statement on his website for some time now; in the last few days, McCain, who had not formally addressed the issue, released a paragraph-length statement on the topic to the Salt Lake Tribune. For those of you who are thinking of the arts as the election approaches, take a look at the grid recently disseminated by the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, which succinctly sums up the positions of each candidate.

Allison Agsten


Hard Targets, New Media

October 6, 2008

In the summer of 2005, I produced CNN’s coverage of the King Tut show here at LACMA. I was at the museum for a few days interviewing curators, shooting footage, and coordinating our live shots that began very early in the morning, well before the museum was open. To be in the quiet, uninhabited galleries was nothing short of magical. I thought, “This is what it’s all about—having a personal communion with art.” So, I want to share that experience with you, what it’s like to be behind the scenes, and more specifically, to watch a show come to fruition—what the curator is experiencing, the artists are contemplating, etc.

Check in as I Twitter daily (or near daily) about the ins and outs of installing Contemporary Projects 11: Hard Targets—Masculinity and Sport (opening this Thursday) and take a look at our YouTube interviews with some of the artists. It’s a fun group to say the least. And for more on the exhibition and the museum projects series in general, Senior Curatorial Fellow Howard Fox enlightens us with a scholarly article available on LACMA Wiki. Even more to come soon.

In the meantime here’s what artist Shaun El C. Leonardo had to say about getting pummeled by a bunch of semi-pro football players in his upcoming opening-night performance piece for the show.

Allison Agsten


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