What is the Sound of Four Hands Closing?

December 19, 2011

It’s easy to describe Bruce Nauman’s For Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers). There it is, right in the title: two sets of hands displayed on a large, two-sided screen, palms facing out as two voices command different combinations of fingers and thumbs to close. Five fingers in a row, combinations of four fingers in a row, three fingers, and so on.

Bruce Nauman, For Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers), 2010, collection of the Los Angeles Museum of Art and Artis, Image courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York. © 2011 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It’s easy to describe what it is, sure, but it’s harder to describe what it does. That’s largely because, despite the work having a huge, imposing visual element, the sound of the video piece is dominating. The two voices instructing the hands are, more specifically, two sets of the same voice, each instructing the fingers to open and close in different intervals. For instance, while one voice speaks “third finger, fourth finger, thumb, first finger,” the other is saying “first finger, second finger, third finger,” and so forth. They speak over each other, at equal volume and tone.

The artwork occupies its own gallery on the first floor of BCAM, where the voices echo through the spacious room. On entering the other day, it sounded to me like cacophony. The longer I listened, however, the more musical it became. And by musical I’m thinking less of Beyoncé, more of Steve Reich, whose early works involved tape loops of the same voice played at slightly different speeds, causing them to fall out of phase before eventually synching back up again.  Nauman’s voices are not exactly the same as Reich’s loops, but a similar thing is happening—just when the dual instructions seem a barrage of confusion, they suddenly, coincidentally, powerfully, come together to say THUMB. It hits so abruptly and with such clarity that it has the power of a drum or cannon shot. At one point as I sat in front of the screens the voices hit onto a whole string of simultaneous commands—”first finger, second finger, third finger”—before jogging away from each other again.

I started listening for patterns, intentional or not. It became hypnotic (aided by the lulling images of the giant fingers in front of me, opening and closing, opening and closing, opening and closing). A colleague of mine equated it to a Gregorian chant. In a way, yes—the voice is deep and commanding—but the rhythm is all wrong. So I started thinking about the cadence of the voice. And suddenly I realized: it was a waltz! “SECOND fin-ger / THIRD fin-ger / FOURTH fin-ger / THUMB.”

Or, something approaching a waltz; it is plain speech, not song. I find that I, personally, tend to become enamored of sounds before visuals (if that isn’t apparent). That isn’t true for everyone, for sure. In the fifteen minutes I’d spent with For Beginners, it became more and more like a kind of music to me. That didn’t seem to be the case for the guard positioned in the gallery. She asked me if I liked the piece and I told her I thought it was great. She sort of winced, then asked if we could trade jobs for the day. I almost took her up on it.

Scott Tennent


This Weekend: Rodarte Collection on View, Chopin & Haydn, Eight Exhibitions

December 16, 2011

Earlier this year fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, aka Rodarte, debuted their “Fra Angelico Collection” in Florence, and soon after announced that they would giving the entire collection to LACMA as a promised gift. On Saturday, you can see these amazing gowns in a unique installation inside our Italian Renaissance galleries. The collection was inspired by paintings from this period, and the installation (on view through February 5) offers interesting resonances with the surrounding paintings.

Rodarte, Cantaloupe Pleated Silk, Draped Silk Georgette, and Taffeta Gown with Gold Ray Belt, promised gift of Rodarte (Kate and Laura Mulleavy), Maria Arena Bell, Susan Casden, Eva Chow, DNA Boutique, Allison Sarofan, Karyn Silver, Christine Suppes, Lizzie Tisch, Dasha Zukova, and an anonymous donor

The Rodarte collection joins eight other special exhibitions on view now. If you have family descending upon you this season, LACMA is a great destination for getting out of the house. The beautiful Monet/Lichtenstein: Rouen Cathedrals is on view in BCAM for just a couple more weeks, so now is the times to catch it if you haven’t yet.

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, the portal. Morning Sun, Blue Harmony, 1893, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France (Inv. RF2000). Photo courtesy of Réunion des Musées Nationaux by Thierry Le Mage/Art Resource, NY.

More shows’ closing dates are approaching in January as well, including Glenn Ligon: AMERICA and Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World. The latter was named one of the top ten exhibitions of the year by the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Knight (his lengthier rave review is here, and you can also read a wonderful profile of the exhibition’s curator, Ilona Katzew, which graced the front page of last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times Arts section).

José de la Mota, Allegory of the New World: Christ Delivering the New World to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Pope, 1721, Galeria Coloniart, Collection of Felipe Siegal, Anna and Andrés Siegel, Mexico City, photo © Jorge Pérez de Lara

If that weren’t enough, there are still five other exhibitions on view now, from the sunny California Design to the dark Five Car Stud. Check this overview of exhibitions on view to see what appeals (and don’t forget to look into some of the many smaller installations also on view now).

The rest of the year will be fairly quiet on talks, films, and concerts front, but we do have one last free concert before the year ends: cellist Ruslan Biryukov and pianist Armen Guzelimian will perform works by Chopin, Haydn, and Lalo on Sunday night as part of our free Sundays Live chamber music series.

Scott Tennent


A Korean Masterpiece, Restored

December 15, 2011

One of the largest traditional Korean paintings in the United States was unveiled last weekend in LACMA’s galleries of Korean art. This spectacular work, depicting the historical Buddha Seokgamoni (Shakyamuni) preaching at the Vulture Peak in India, was acquired in 1998, but was so damaged that it could not be displayed. Now, thanks to the generous financial support of CJ E&M America and other donors, the newly conserved painting is being presented for the first time in many years.

Buddha Seokgamoni Preaching to the Assembly on Vulture Peak, Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), 1755, Far Eastern Art Acquisition Fund

The painting was created in 1755, during the Joseon dynasty, and presents a visionary scene of the Buddha surrounded by a host of enlightened beings, including bodhisattvas, the Hindu Gods Indra and Brahma, and the Guardian Kings of the four cardinal directions. The scene is inspired by the Lotus Sutra, a pivotal text of Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism. The work is painted in ink and bold mineral colors on silk. When acquired, the painting had been cut into six irregular pieces and had suffered from extensive loss of pigment; during the conservation effort, the separated pieces were re-attached, losses patched, and missing areas of pigment inpainted.

Buddha Seokgamoni Preaching to the Assembly on Vulture Peak, Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), 1755, Far Eastern Art Acquisition Fund

Led by Korean conservator Prof. Park Chisun and her team (including LACMA conservators), the conservation project took over a year to complete. Using traditional tools (knives, brushes, paper, silk, dyes, and mineral pigments), this process resembled nothing more than a painstaking and delicate surgery. The entire project was filmed in detail, and is now the subject of a five-minute video displayed in the same gallery as the painting.

Conservators working in the Korean galleries earlier this year

On December 11 LACMA celebrated the unveiling of the Vulture Peak painting with the presentation of the rare Yeongsanjae ritual: a combination of Buddhist chanting, music, and dance. Listed as an endangered cultural form by UNESCO, the Yeongsanjae is rarely performed outside of Korea, and the LACMA performance attracted an enormous crowd of observers. We are grateful to the Buddhism Promotion Foundation in Seoul whose support made it possible to bring a group of monks and dancers from the Kuyang Temple in Incheon, Korea to LACMA to present this riveting performance, which commemorates the Buddha’s sermon at the Vulture Peak through music and movement.

Monks from the Kuyong Temple in Incheon perform the Yeongsanjae ritual

LACMA has one of the finest collections of Korean art, and the largest Korean galleries, of any museum in the United States, and it is our intention to be the leader in the presentation of Korean art and culture in America. The acquisition, conservation, and unveiling of the Vulture Peak painting is a symbol of this commitment, and we are grateful to both the generous Korean population in Los Angeles, and to our many corporate and foundation partners in Korea, who are making this possible.

Stephen Little, curator and department head, Chinese and Korean art


The Naked Truth

December 14, 2011

“Past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—William Faulkner

Black-on-black commentary is only slightly an inside story. For under the halo of “Negro Sunshine,” at the entrance to Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, I experienced moments of real cultural nostalgia. My mother and the dream book and the endless numbers racket, with its weird logic and odd asymmetrical poetry, were somehow lodged in Glenn Ligon’s magical series of numbered paintings. Apart from the unusually personal in Ligon’s piercing vision, conceptualism—that somewhat elusive creature—seems to find its most complete expression in his oeuvre. Ligon is prepared to stream unflinchingly through various media, extracting elegantly exquisite beauty swathed in a tireless drama of inventions. Here the iniquities of history are refracted and recast. The heroes and heroines are unknown, enfeebled, and lost in time. Irony is legible and graphic, taking the form of a children’s coloring book. He places specificity within our universal American culture and, in doing so, subjects all of us—black and white—to the same memories, more or less. Ligon’s mid-career retrospective directly confronts the not-so-paradoxical complexity of the black male—its frightening history, its Dionysian beauty, its sexuality, its homoeroticism, its fearless honesty, and its dubiously artful texture as America’s existential fall guy.

Installation view, Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Glenn Ligon, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

With a litany of literary heroes, Ligon transubstantiates and time travels, morphing in and out of his own modernity. In conceptualist garb, he is prepared to be the captive of the deep and harrowing effect of the “peculiar institution” of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. Sensitively exploring the alternate self, Ligon is metaphorically boxed as Henry Boxcar Brown. The Narratives series includes WANTED signs and tales in which Ligon himself is implicated. Somehow we are vicariously the searchers. He signals the debilitating psychodramatic manacles of Jim Crow that so tragically traumatized black consciousness. And yet in his own time—in the post-Stonewall, glamorous, ribald, loose, very gay, and irony-rich era—Ligon painstakingly constructs exquisite, modernist, gestural-infused tablet-like paintings of literary, despairing speech that I might have heard around the kitchen table, as though a refrain that hangs in the air as some haunting vestigial “other.” The mimetic chant, the clipped phrases repeated as unholy utterance like an echo in its stencil form, painted over and over again, resulting in a thick accumulation of oil stick caking downward and blurring to a blackness, a sort of shamanistic ending—black angst as blood memory. Or take the contentious Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, where AIDS, black beauty, and stereotyping vie for the naked truth. Ligon repositions Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos as if to capture the rapidly escaping asteroid of black memory, the increasing velocity of which will be flung from our earthly residence to the outer edges of a black emotional solar system.

Installation view, Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Glenn Ligon, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

And yet, of course, it’s art. Ligon is foremost a painter. And though his art is replete with those sticky questions of identity that reside in a fragile balance, he filters it through not-entirely-incompatible attractions of modernism and postmodernism, historical racism and a “post-racial” era. Add to that the crosscurrent of homosexuality, which I suggest is the bravest. I sense in Ligon’s work an inherent duality. He mitigates or sidesteps the rage of the hyper-hetero hip-hop gangsta rapper of his generation, who would readily diss the hyper-sexualized males of Notes on the Margin and A Feast of Scraps. The self-deprecation and the perceptual double edge in the brilliantly bold, neon-colored, profanity-rich “dirty talk” paintings of Richard Pryor’s comedy act, with their reference to “faggot,” shows the fearlessness of his art. Rejection and once again attraction, “gays stay home” yields a source of grandness with the dark indelible photo ink-jet images of Million Man March in Screen and Hands, which seem more universal than simply about a black movement. In my opinion, Glenn Ligon’s art achieves greatness for it possesses what throughout the ages was a quality that digs into our very emotional center—spiritual alienation.

Glenn Ligon, Mirror, 2002, collection of Mellody Hobson, courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles, © Glenn Ligon

And finally, I was most touched by a painting in the James Baldwin series, Mirror. Here the sparkling coal-dust encrusted night bleeds from the canvas. Its dark beauty, as if seen by candlelight, is faintly revealed a letter at a time. Some are captured, but most are lost. Ligon withholds meaning, the clear narrative. More a form of crystal gazing, I move into the interior of the imagination, a felt impulse where texture, blindness, and reach oblige surrender to the lush inscrutableness, which is so often art.

Hylan Booker


Chinese Art is Back

December 13, 2011

About half a year ago, Stephen Little (curator and head, Chinese and Korean Art) and I both arrived to the museum. Our first mission was to bring LACMA’s collection of Chinese art back on display. As of this past weekend, approximately forty objects are now on view. The reinstalled gallery is designed to tell the history of art in China, with each dynasty distinguished by examples that reflect the aesthetics, technology, and ideology of their time period. To achieve this goal, nothing is more illuminating than our best-known pieces.

One of the most celebrated early Chinese artworks from LACMA’s collection is a cauldron called ding from the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC). This ding is from a set that would include more vessels of different shapes and sizes. Called mingqi in Chinese, meaning “spirit objects,” such sets were used during burial rituals and ceremonies conducted for ancestors, and demonstrate the importance of ancestral worship in the early times of Chinese civilization.

Lidded Ritual Food Cauldron (Ding) with Interlaced Dragon, China, Shanxi Province, ancient state of Jin, middle Eastern Zhou dynasty, about 500–450 BC, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eric Lidow

Equally famous is a seated Buddha carved of marble. The Buddha has been part of LACMA’s Chinese art display since the 1940s as a long-term loan, until officially entering the museum’s permanent collection in 2007. With a serene face and gracefully proportioned body, the Buddha exemplifies the highest achievement of Buddhist art in China.

Probably Shakyamuni (Shijamouni), the Historical Buddha, China, middle Tang dynasty, about 700–800 AD, gift of Ruth Trubner in memory of Henry Trubner and purchased with funds provided by Kelly and Robert Day, H. Tony and Marti Oppenheimer and the Oppenheimer Brothers Foundation, David Bohnett and Tom Gregory, Ric and Suzanne Kayne, Richard Merkin, M.D., Lenore and Richard Wayne, Sharon and Robert Blumenfield, Edgerton Foundation, Myron Laskin, Mary and Robert Looker, Nancy and Dick Riordan, and Mr. and Mrs. Hazelle Hickman

While showcasing these masterpieces of different time periods and medium, I also wanted to convey the continuity of art making in China. Chinese culture has always valued and revered history and tradition. Imitating the past is considered the necessary first step of learning and is a source for creativity. Archaism is a reoccurring theme over centuries.

On display is a longquan-ware vase in the shape of a cong, not far different from a jade cong of the Neolithic period. Cong refers to the geometric shape that combines a circle and a square. The circle symbolizes heaven and the square symbolizes earth in early civilization. Together they present the dual-system of yin and yang that is still important in Chinese philosophy and ideology today.

Vase (Ping) in the Form of an Archaic Jade Ritual Tube (Cong), China, Zhejiang Province, Southern Song dynasty, 1127–1279, gift of Carol Holmes

Square Tube (Cong) with Masks, China, Neolithic period, Liangzhu culture, about 2600–2400 BC, gift of Carol Holmes

A jade disk from the middle Ming dynasty (1368–1644) is decorated with dragons on one side and raised bosses with spirals on the other. Its design—the donut-like shape and the raised spirals—is also inspired by a Neolithic piece.

Perforated Disk (Bi) with Dragons, China, late Ming dynasty, about 1550–1644, gift of the Marcia Israel

Perforated Disk (Bi) with Relief Spirals, China, late Eastern Zhou dynasty, 481–221 BC, gift of Carl Holmes

We are very glad to have LACMA’s outstanding Chinese collection back in the galleries. More treasures will be put on display in the rotations in the coming months.

 Christina Yu Yu, Assistant Curator, Chinese Art


Virgin of Guadalupe at LACMA

December 12, 2011

La Virgen de Guadalupe is the most significant icon of Mexico and Mexican identity—and she is loved like no other. She embodies two cultures coming together and is called the Queen of the Americas.

In 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, a recently converted Indian at the hill of Tepeyac, which was the site of the destroyed Aztec temple of the goddess Tonatzin. The Basilica of Guadalupe, which was built on the site of her apparition, is one of four Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world.

Take a look at this painting in LACMA’s permanent collection by artist Manuel de Arellano. There is a barely legible inscription above the signature—Tocada al original (after the original) which means that the artist based his painting on the original in the Basilica. You can learn more about the painting from an Unframed post curator Ilona Katzew wrote upon the painting’s acquisition in 2009; you can also download this image in high resolution from our free image library.

Manuel de Arellano, Virgin of Guadalupe and the Apparitions to Juan Diego, 1691, purchased with funds provided by the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of Mexican Art Deaccession Fund

Here is another image of la Virgen from LACMA’s collection (also previously written about in detail on Unframed), currently on view in Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World.

Miguel González, Virgin of Guadalupe and Her Apparitions to Juan Diego, c. 1698, purchased with funds provided by the Bernard and Edith Lewin Collection of Mexican Art Deaccession Fund

Mexican author Carlos Fuentes says that a Mexican can give up the church, but not la Virgen de Guadalupe. She has inspired unions, soccer teams, politicians, and truckers. Ask anyone who is a Guadalupano/a—whether they are religious or not, they will say that she inspires compassion, love, and a belief that differing cultures can come together. Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua writes, “She is like my race—a synthesis of the old world and the new, of the religion and culture of the two races in our psyche, the conquerors and the conquered.” Food for thought for the next time you see her on a key chain or on someone’s arm—maybe it’s not just kitsch.

Alicia Vogl Saenz, senior education coordinator


This Week at LACMA: Korean Masterpiece on View, Reinstalled Chinese Collection, LA Print Edition 2, Awaara, and More

December 10, 2011

If you’ve been in our Korean galleries for much of the last year, you’ve seen conservators working in the gallery on the restoration of an eighteenth-century masterpiece, Buddha Seokgamoni (Shakyamuni) Preaching to the Assembly on Vulture Peak. The painting was acquired by LACMA in 1998 but has never been on view due to its fragile state. Today, the conservation effort is complete and the painting is now officially on view. On Sunday afternoon, monks from the Kuyangsa Temple in Incheon, South Korea, will perform a ritual involving chanting, music, and dance, in celebration of the painting going on view—a unique (and free) event worth catching. For more about the restoration of the painting, check out this video:

Also opening this weekend is a reinstallation of approximately forty objects from our Chinese collection. The Chinese collection has been off view for quite some time, so we are thrilled to bring them back into a permanent gallery. The initial rotation selects some of the best objects from our collection, including another depiction of Shakyamuni—a large sculpture from the middle Tang dynasty, about 700–800 AD.

Probably Shakyamuni (Shijiamouni), the Historical Buddha, China, middle Tang dynasty, about 700–800 AD, gift of Ruth Trubner in memory of Henry Trubner and purchased with funds provided by Kelly and Robert Day, H. Tony and Marti Oppenheimer and the Oppenheimer Brothers Foundation, David Bohnett and Tom Gregory, Ric and Suzanne Kayne, Richard Merkin, M.D., Lenore and Richard Wayne, Sharon and Robert Blumenfield, Edgerton Foundation, Myron Laskin, Mary and Robert Looker, Nancy and Dick Riordan, and Mr. and Mrs. Hazelle Hickman

Keeping to the East, make sure to stop into the Pavilion for Japanese Art to see a new installation of The Night Festival of Tsushima Shrine, an Edo-period screen (about 1624–44) that depicts a summer festival at an ancient Shinto shrine near Nagoya.

Night Festival of Tsushima Shrine (Detail), Japan, early Edo period, Kan’ei era, 1624–44, Ink, color, gold, and silver and gold leaf on paper, Gift of Camilla Chandler Frost, David and Margaret Barry, Lenore and Richard Wayne, Leslie Prince Salzman, Friends of Heritage Preservation, Gwen and Peter Norton, and the East Asian Art Council, in honor of Robert T. Singer

If you’re looking for something more contemporary, or you’ve got holiday shopping in mind this weekend, come to L.A. Print on Saturday afternoon. The event is a showcase for Los Angeles printmakers, including presentations and artist talks all day (here’s the full schedule) and a variety of prints available for purchase—a great idea for the art-collector on your holiday shopping list (or, of course, for your own collection!).

Saturday night, Hindi director Raj Kapoor’s 1951 film Awaara (The Vagabond) screens in the Bing Theater. Kapoor also stars as the title character, a down-on-his-luck street urchin who is unaware of his upper-class origins. At the time of its release, Awaara was a worldwide hit and launched Kapoor to superstar heights, not to mention took Bollywood itself to a new level.

Sunday afternoon in Art Catalogues you can hear artists Stephen Prina and Steve Roden their new books as well as broader topics of painting, music, and more. Later in the evening, you can head to the Bing Theater to hear the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra perform Bruckner’s String Quartet in F Minor and other works.

And, of course, there are also eight special exhibitions on view right now, from Spanish colonial Mexico and Peru to mid-century California to Glenn Ligon’s America.

Scott Tennent


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