Words Without Pictures Book Launch

May 21, 2009

I am really excited to announce the book launch for LACMA’s Photography Department project, Words Without Pictures. For one year on the web site wordswithoutpictures.org, we asked an artist, educator, critic, art historian, or curator to write a short, un-illustrated, and opinionated essay about an aspect of photography that, in his or her view, was either emerging or in the process of being rephrased.


At 502 pages—all words and no pictures—the book is an impressive document, with contributions from artists and critics including James Welling, Sharon Lockhart, George Baker, Walead Beshty, Allen Ruppersberg, Allan McCollum, Charlie White, Mark Wyse, Shannon Ebner, John Divola, and many others. In addition to the book’s essays, conversations, and panel discussions, we also included a series of questions and answers about the contemporary state of photography. Here’s a quick glimpse at a few of them…


Q: What would you consider some of the most important changes that photography has undergone in the last few years?

A: Photography has always been based on new technologies and inventions have always brought change to the medium. The most surprising change is how many more people are working in photography and the ease of using the medium through digital technology. Photography is so prevalent and the communities around Flickr and other web sites have created a very large audience. It used to be you joined a photo club and you sat in a darkened room watching someone’s slide show of a trip. Now you sit in front of a computer screen and sort through thousands of photographs and blogs.


Q: Do you enjoy looking at photographs online?

A: I don’t look at photos online, not intentionally, that is. If you’re referring to art photos, I’d much rather look at them in person. I’m dismayed by the fact that my work is often consumed, at least upon first encounter, in jpeg form. The real thing sometimes disappoints. The illuminated screen offers a punchier image, a sexier image. And as the first image, it sets an impossible precedent. They are apples masquerading as oranges.


Q: What would you consider some of the most important changes that photography has undergone in the last few years?

A: I think the single most significant change has been the transformation of images into immaterial—digital—information that can spread like wildfire around the world. This change, together with the inclusion of cameras in mobile devices and the increase of cell phone use around the world, has had the unintended consequence of putting cameras in more people’s hands than ever before—soldiers (and torturers), protesters in Myanmar and China, ordinary people all around the world witnessing and documenting historical events and everyday life.

For much more discussion on photography, to meet some of the book’s authors, and to celebrate its release, please join us at LACMA’s Director’s Roundtable Garden Tuesday, May 26 at 7 pm. Hope to see you there.

Alex Klein, Ralph M. Parsons Curatorial Fellow, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department

Snapshot: Who’s at LACMA

May 20, 2009
Kristi, just completed her graduate degree in Art History

Kristi, just completed her graduate degree in Art History

What would you like to do with your degree?
I’d love to work in a museum, actually. I was thinking education.

What made you want to study art history?
I’ve always loved it. My mom’s an interior designer, so I grew up talking about aesthetic things, like is it beautiful? and form versus function. It was just a natural fit. It never felt like work to study art history, as opposed to math, which is a nightmare.

What’s your favorite museum?
I was really impressed when I was in Philadelphia a couple of years ago because the museum was set up in such a way that you felt like you were walking into a space where those objects really could be exhibited originally. Context is everything. The Asian room had Asian art, but displayed with architectural features and gravel walkways. All of these things made you feel like you had stepped out of Philadelphia and into Osaka.

Laurie, mother of 4-year-old twins, Sophia and Emmett

Laurie, mother of 4-year-old twins, Sophia and Emmett

Why did you come to the museum today?
Laurie: It was a beautiful day and we actually just got our NexGen memberships.

Do you like coming to museums?
Sophia: Yeah, we went to the tarpit museum [The Page Museum].
Emmett: I’ve been to the Hot Wheels museum [The Peterson Museum], and in one of the rooms they have all these toy cars.

Do you guys like to make art?
Emmett: Yep, we like painting.
Sophia: And I did clay!

Abraham, Robert, and Brittany, students

Abraham, Robert, and Brittany, students

Why did you come to the museum today?
Abraham: Just random.

If you were a piece of artwork, which one would you be and why?
Abraham: I was thinking maybe the minimalist art, something like that, where you just stare at it and you don’t have to think too much; you just take it in and observe, because maybe that’s what I like to do, just observe.

For your next trip, where would you want to travel to and why?
Abraham: Maybe somewhere in Japan, just to see a completely different culture.

What are you reading right now?
Abraham: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It just opens your eyes to different things and I’m not even done with it yet and it’s already changed my view on the world.

Behind the Scenes: South and Southeast Asian Art Department

May 19, 2009

If I had to depict a curatorial space in a movie, I would model my set after LACMA’s South and Southeast Asian (SSEA) art office. While the entire collections of many other departments are tucked away in storage, a number of the SSEA objects are kept in this enviable space.

There’s something unreal about crossing the threshold from the galleries to the office and suddenly, surprisingly, encountering form beside function—a majestic, patinaed thirteenth-century statue next to the business-ubiquitous copy machine…


In a closer look at the sculpture, you can clearly see a scarf resting in its hand. It is a Tibetan kata (honorific presentation scarf) that the department received from the co-chair of the Southern Asian Art Council, Dr. Ruth Hayward. It’s customary to honor visiting Buddhist monks and high officials by presenting them with these textiles. Curator Stephen Markel draped the kata over the Buddha’s hand out of respect, and also to help keep visitors from bumping into the projecting hand.

Buddha Shakyamuni, c. 13th century, Art Museum Council Fund

Buddha Shakyamuni, c. 13th century, Art Museum Council Fund

The SSEA department really lives with its art. Here’s an eighteenth-century door frame. It no longer frames a door—rather, notices on emergency exits and procedures along with instructions for the aforementioned copier.

Door Frame,18th century, the Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, gift of Joan Palevsky

Door Frame,18th century, the Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, gift of Joan Palevsky

Treasures line the walls, including the area surrounding the conference table. For me, meetings become instantly enjoyable just by virtue of attending them in this space. In fact, I recently sat here to discuss the upcoming Indian Comics exhibition with the SSEA team and, though I’d been here many times before, I was just as in awe as ever.

Shivalinga, 17-18th century, gift of Ramesh and Urmil Kapoor

Shivalinga, 17-18th century, gift of Ramesh and Urmil Kapoor

Allison Agsten

Eleanor Antin’s Classical Frieze

May 18, 2009

Last Monday I had the pleasure of walking through art, literary, and cinematic histories with Eleanor Antin. The pioneering feminist artist was at the museum to install Classical Frieze, a video documenting three photographic series that occupied roughly eight years of her artistic output since 2000, as well as a sampling of those photographs. The occasion of Pompeii and the Roman Villa prompted discussions between the Contemporary Art curators and Antin about the prospect of showing selections from her forays into Roman history. Ironically, as Antin recounted to Artforum’s Brian Sholis back in 2008, it turns out that her path to Pompeii began on her southbound journey home from LACMA about ten years ago:

One day after my retrospective exhibition at LACMA in 1999, I was driving the scenic route down to La Jolla, and looking down at the town glittering in the sun, I suddenly had a vision that La Jolla was Pompeii. Pompeii was a very wealthy town, too; it was the place where rich people went in the summer to escape mosquito-plagued Rome. It was the place to which older senators retired if they survived Roman politics. People living there enjoyed the affluent life while on the verge of annihilation. You don’t even need to consider our current political situation to see a connection: The cliffs are eroding, we’re on a major fault line, the wildfires get worse and worse, there are water shortages. California is overbuilt and disintegrating. So we don’t have a volcano, but it could be just as bad.

Eleanor Antin, "The Golden Death," from the series "The Last Days of Pompeii," 2001

Eleanor Antin, "The Golden Death," from the series "The Last Days of Pompeii," 2001

Antin considers the photographs from the three related series (Last Days of Pompeii, Roman Allegories, and Helen’s Odyssey) “still movies,” as each involve the entire apparatus of a studio production and often replicate the bathos of Hollywood’s own historical epics, but with a much more sardonic bite. The video is a document of the involved choreography perfectly illustrating how (in art historian Amelia Jones’ words) Antin “engages the past by flirting with the fake.” You can see Antin describe these “still movies” in her own words in this scene from Art21, about Helen’s Odyssey:

In fact, Antin’s flirty engagement with the past goes back to her earliest series, The Angels of Mercy (1977), a meditation on the theatrical underpinnings of so-called documentary photography in which she cast herself and friends in a historical time swap supposedly set on the battlegrounds of the Crimean War. But as generally is the case in Antin’s oeuvre, there are multiple adaptations of style and genre at work. So to go back to that origin story for the Roman trilogy, you can imagine Antin driving through a landscape of postmodern architectural variations on the neo-classical in that blinding La Jolla sunshine and immediately making the mental leap to the decadence of Thomas Couture and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, not to mention that of Gore Vidal and Federico Fellini. And yet summoning all of these performative excesses together, Antin still manages to find wit and warmth amidst her evocation of our times (as modern day Romans) “living the good life on the verge of annihilation.”

Rita Gonzalez, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art

LACMA Oddities, the Quiz

May 14, 2009

Just as many of the objects in LACMA’s collection are steeped in history and lore, so is the museum itself. Here’s a little quiz to test your knowledge of our past. Thanks to the Collections Information Department and their Archives Project for unearthing these tantalizing tidbits.

1. Name two local artists hired in 1965 to help install the Ahmanson galleries (Hint: these artists are included in our Collections Online browse of Southern California artists featured in LACMA’s collection.)

2. Artist Claes Oldenburg said he was fascinated with the idea of working at this corporation because he “wanted to know what people who have been making animals without genitalia for thirty years are like.” To what corporation was Oldenburg referring? (Hint: Oldenberg partnered with this company for LACMA’s 1970 Art and Technology project.)

3. Speaking of Art and Technology, some artists were met with hostility at their partner corporations. For instance, when John Chamberlain asked for staff feedback at his host company, Rand Corporation, some employees didn’t hold back in expressing their opinion of the artist. Staff comments included “Drop dead”; “Why don’t you leave?”; “You’re fired”; and “You have a beautiful sense of color and a warped, trashy idea of what beauty and talent is.” While some of the indifference (or worse) directed toward certain artists may have been unwarranted, certain artists like George Brecht pushed the limits. Name two rather far-fetched projects conceived by Brecht with institutions JPL and Rand in mind.

4. Name the famous actress who was arrested for shoplifting $86 worth of merchandise from the May Company department store (now LACMA West) in 1966.

5. What industry award was won by the film Burn Hollywood Burn (not to be confused with our new Matta, Burn, Baby, Burn)—a film shot at the neighboring La Brea Tar Pits and starring Ryan O’Neal, Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan, Eric Idle, Whoopi Goldberg, and Coolio?

Renee Montgomery

Answers after the jump . . .

Read the rest of this entry »


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