Once Upon a Time in a Library Below the Bing Center

March 15, 2010

With all the recent buzz surrounding the release of Tim Burton’s new adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, I’ve had fantasylands and fairy tales on the brain. Imagine my surprise when I uncovered beautifully printed fairy tales in our library’s special collections! A handful of our books are relics from the personal library of Paul Rodman Mabury, an early and influential supporter of the original Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art. You can tell a lot about a person from his library, and it’s clear that Mr. Mabury was interested in fairy tales.

Mabury’s books are my favorite fairy tale volumes here, but they’re not the only ones. Our collection ranges from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century and shows a remarkable range of styles in illustration, type design, and overall presentation. They run the gamut from fine arts press limited editions to mass-produced publications; this breadth of publication types over a century demonstrates the level to which fairy tales continue to inspire independent artistic visions as well as permeate popular culture.

Although fairy tales were originally disseminated by means of oral transmission, the first printed fairy tales began to appear in fifteenth-century Italy and quickly became a staple of the blossoming book trade industry with tales by authors like Straparola and Basile. As printed tales developed as both a genre and a commodity, they continued to reflect the societies in which they were printed. In fact, scholars continually argue the importance of the fairy tale in the burgeoning concepts of national identity and common cultural heritage. Despite plots and tale-types that transcend languages and borders, fairy tale authors and illustrators imbue their unique versions with recognizable traces of the times and societies of which each figure was a member.

For instance, the books of British artist Arthur Rackham reflect a popular Victorian sensibility, including strong Japanese influence, overwhelming fantastical and floral images, and decorative, color plates. The binding corresponds: Rackham’s fairy tale books were printed by fine arts presses and bound in vellum with gold leaf decoration. On the other hand, the newly reprinted edition of Kurt Schwitters’s “Merz” fairy tales reflects a modernist rejection of traditional storytelling and imagery with tales like “The Scarecrow,” told completely in typographic illustration and, as Jack Zipes notes, “bordering on the grotesque,” rather than conforming to traditionally sweet or childlike imagery of fairy lore.

David Hockney’s Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm is a combination of modern illustrations alongside an English translation of the Grimms’ German text. This modern vision of the Grimms’ fairy tales was handset and bound in a miniature edition with a keen eye toward recreating bibliographic and physical elements—letterpress printing, high-quality rag paper, colophon—in a traditional fashion.

The printed fairy tale in all of these forms is an artifact that represents more than “Red Riding Hood” or “The Little Mermaid”; these examples represent the significance of the book form in cultural phenomena like storytelling. Although oral tales retain properties of fluidity, these printed tales are moments of fixity—unique artistic visions that encapsulate specific cultural movements and sensibilities. It’s worth visiting the library to see them; I’d love to share them with you!

Maggie Hanson, Stacks Manager, Balch Research Library


On Robin Rhode

March 12, 2010

On Wednesday night, artist Robin Rhode kicked off his exhibition at LACMA with a performance. I was there with five of our high school interns as Robin burst through the doors of the Ahmanson Building, made his way quickly through the crowd, and began drawing on the wall with chalk. He grabbed a few audience members and involved them in pulling vigorously on the hastily sketched image of a rope. It looked as if they were miming a game of tug-of-war with an invisible opponent.

Robin picked Angela Hernandez, a senior at Fairfax High (and her skateboard), to be part of the piece along with a handful of other bystanders. Afterwards, I talked with Angela and the other interns about what they thought. Here’s what they had to say.

From left, high school interns Sequoyah Madison, Lexi Davis, Kelley Shim, Angela Hernandez and David Kamins in front of the wall drawing by Robin Rhode.

Angela Hernandez, Fairfax High School: I felt kind of shy. I don’t like to be the center of attention, so it was kind of weird and I didn’t really know what to do exactly. But as soon as he started to give us instructions and direction I was like, okay, this is cool. At first I thought he was being rude. But he has his intentions. I enjoyed it.

Kelley Shim, Beverly Hills High School: It was very unexpected. He really interacted with the drawing. You didn’t know exactly what he was doing, or what he might do next.

David Kamins, Hamilton High School: If an artist comes off as rude, I think he’s just trying to be very detailed. When he has other people in the work, he wants to make sure that they’re following his agenda and they’re going to produce the message he wants to get across to the audience.

Sequoyah Madison, Culver City High School: It makes you question reality. I liked the idea that you can just have a piece of chalk and get an idea across without showing your audience exactly what you’re thinking.

David: There was this ambiguity to it. Yes, there were instructions and you were told to pull on a rope, interact with an image on the wall. But what are we left with? The performance ended without any dénouement and people were sort of confused when it ended. I feel like that’s in the nature of performance art. There’s really no narrative. It’s ephemeral. It’s an interesting perspective you have to attain.

Angela: I don’t think art has to have a meaning. I’m sure it has one. But I think he’s given us a chance to think about it on our own. Art does that for people.

We also talked about the exhibition, including Robin’s Soap and Water (2007)—a bicycle cast out of soap lying next to a bucket of water.

Lexi Davis, Calabasas High School: I really liked the bicycle piece and I think it tied into the performance he did tonight. I was reading about him and he was saying that the piece isn’t permanent. You could just wash away the soap and it would be gone.  He never intended it to be there forever. And that was how his performance was too because the chalk could just be wiped away. You think of art as something that’s really permanent but his wasn’t at all.

David: You shouldn’t look at art based on the artist’s biography, but I liked seeing the artist tonight and getting a feeling for who he is. He has a personality.

A video of the performance is on view as part of the exhibition.

Amy Heibel


Win an Allison Smith Scarf Today

March 11, 2010

Allison Smith, Scarf (detail)

Yesterday we gave you some insight into artist Allison Smith’s limited-edition print and scarf, both designed in conjunction with American Stories. Today? We just want to give you the scarf! We just passed the 27,000 follower mark over on twitter, which seems just substantial/arbitrary enough to reward our twitter followers with a chance to win a prize. Follow us on twitter, where we’ll pose a little American Stories trivia question today. At the end of the day we’ll randomly select from the correct answers and reward you with an Allison Smith scarf! (And if you don’t win, don’t follow us on twitter, or just plain old like the scarf, you can find more info on it here.)


Allison Smith’s Limited American Stories Editions

March 10, 2010

Allison Smith, Untitled 2010 (detail), edition with Lapis Press and LACMA

Artist studios often reflect the processes and working habits of the artists who inhabit them, but it is with less frequency that these spaces serve multiple functions that involve histories outside the familiar one of quiet, solitary artistic production. So I was pleasantly surprised when I visited artist Allison Smith in Oakland, California, to find not only a studio but also a general store and meeting space that she calls SMITHS. As she describes on her website, “SMITHS is a project inspired by the history of general stores as intimate public spaces of exchange.” It is in this place, named after the artist but more generally after smith (or maker), where Allison and I first discussed her doing a project for LACMA.

Smith grew up in Virginia, perhaps the epicenter of historical reenactment, around re-enactors, whose relentless quest for authenticity in the fabrication of appropriate costumes and other forms of material culture inspired in her a deep concern for what it means to recreate objects from a particular historical moment and what it means to “perform” history.

As part of the Artist Editions program here at LACMA, led by Director of Special Projects Erin Wright, we invited Smith to create two new editions to coincide with American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915, both of which can be found in the shop located inside the exhibition. In addition to her collaboration with Los Angeles-based designer Gregory Parkinson, a scarf inspired by designs and textures from costumes and textiles depicted in the paintings in the exhibition’s paintings, Smith created a print with Lapis Press.

The print design was inspired by a quilt that Smith saw at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, known for its impressive collection of American folk art and quilts. The quilt, made by a convalescing Civil War veteran, was a gift of Florence Peto, who as it turned out wrote a lengthy description of it in her 1949 book American Quilts and Coverlets. Peto wrote: “Toward the close of the Civil War a wounded, discharged Union soldier decided to make a quilt to soothe his shattered nerves; he did not quite get away from it all for his quilt has silhouette figures of armed soldiers on horseback and afoot marching grimly around an intermediate border; in the central group foot soldiers surrounded women who appear to be offering refreshment on trays.”

Consistent with her past work, the limited-edition giclee print that she created for LACMA starts with a historical reference point, in this case the use of craft, whether stitchwork or knitting, for convalescing soldiers—a past tradition that challenges our modern definitions of masculinity and war. Secondarily, it is a hybrid of the handmade and the digital, in her words, made “using unique scanning technology, updating the tradition of ‘cheater cloth,’ or printed material meant to look like several different fabrics, usually calicos, appliquéd or patch-worked together.” Here patchwork and appliqué describe techniques for stitching together disparate materials, but these terms are equally descriptive of the ways in which Smith brings together historical craft forms to expose our most pressing contemporary preoccupations.

Rita Gonzalez, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art


The Conscious Brain

March 8, 2010

Image courtesy of Hanna Damasio / Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center, USC

Wednesday night I attended a synapse-crackling lecture by Antonio Damasio at REDCAT titled “Art and the Conscious Brain.” Dr. Damasio is the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, and is known as an international leader in neuroscience. And on top of all that impressiveness, he focuses on the elements of consciousness that speak to the most personal in our daily lives: creativity, emotions, memory, decision-making, and communication.

Dr. Damasio admitted that he accepted the invitation to speak at REDCAT in a moment of weakness, for to scratch the surface on the subject of art and the brain could take weeks of lectures and more. However, he succeeded in delivering a lecture about the brain, mind, and consciousness that even I could understand—and I know as much about neuroscience as I know how to drive the space shuttle to Jupiter.

One subject that set my brain alight was the element of consciousness that Dr. Damasio described as “Cognitive Expansion,” which is “expanded memory, imagination, reasoning/intuition, problem solving, language, planning, and navigating the future.” During the Q&A I asked Dr. Damasio if he saw any room for expansion of cognitive expansion—a sort of super-intuition, if you will, or hyper-memory and computer-speed problem solving—or if he sees mankind’s creation of intelligent machines that mimic our daily processes, like computers and smart phones, as causing our cognitive space to collapse in on itself. In answer, Dr. Damasio said that one of his concerns is that we have created machines that process very quickly, and though they are doing the work that we would normally have to do, we don’t just sit back and have some tea while they chug away—we follow along with them and in turn have become more adept at multitasking and processing multiple sources of information. The potential downside of this is that each action we process should elicit a feeling, and the more actions we undertake at once, the less cognitive room there is for those feelings to fully form, thus our emotional state could be compromised in the process.

So what does this all have with do with art? According to Dr. Damasio, one explanation for art is that it’s a side effect of the brain’s compensation for a loss of balance in socio-cultural homeostasis—or, the ability to maintain stability throughout all social and cultural stresses. Putting two and two together and after processing all that the brilliant Dr. Damasio had to say, it pleases me that art and creativity keep our minds on track, and I think that art may well give the brain what it needs to do some exciting cognitive expanding.

Sarah Bay Williams


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