The Bactrian Camel

March 24, 2009

Even though LACMA’s Chinese galleries have yet to be reinstalled, last month more than 150 students explored one of the department’s objects—Funerary Sculpture of a Bactrian Camel—through our distance learning program, which provides real-time, interactive videoconferences to kindergarten through twelfth-grade classrooms nationwide on topics drawn from various areas of the museum’s collection. Subsequently, I too found myself drawn to this popular mingqi (clay replicas of a person, animal, or other object that were made to go in the tomb of the deceased).

Funerary Sculpture of a Bactrian Camel, middle Tang dynasty, c. 700-800, William Randolph Hearst Collection

The camel was an import into China from the ancient kingdom of Bactria in present-day Afghanistan, a result of trade on the Silk Road. Able to store fat in two humps, thus needing less drinking water for long periods of time, the camel was the “fuel-efficient” mode of transport for its day. Changes in the camel’s behavior, possibly seen in the way the Bactrian Camel has its head thrown back and mouth wide open, were indicative of approaching sandstorms. These camels—strong and gentle—were invaluable for trading goods, some of which we can see packed on the back of the Bactrian Camel.

The distance learning students, who were all studying Mandarin, were engaged by the molded and modeled representation with its strong naturalism, lively pose, and fully packed saddle. High school art students from upstate New York creating their own ceramic vessels found inspiration in the colorful green, brown, and yellow color combination. Placed in a tomb, the Bactrian Camel provided the deceased—in this case a person of wealth and status—with luxury travel in the afterlife.

We looked at examples of other mingqi in comparison to the camel, including the very different Funerary Sculpture of a Chimera (Bixie) and the very similar Funerary Sculpture of a Horse. But the camel, with all its fine detail, won the day. In the context of my virtual and sometimes surreal experience of videoconferencing, it quietly calls out for me its own contemporary narrative about cultural exchange and globalization.

Toni Guglielmo, Education Coordinator, Distance Learning

Connecting with Art at Age Five

March 23, 2009

Ever since I took my five-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Danny, to see the Dan Flavin exhibition here at the age of three, she has been completely hooked. So when I told her that there was a sculpture made entirely of chocolate (Art of Two Germanys) and sculptures that she could touch and play with (Franz West), she started counting down the days until I could bring her again.

While we waited for Danny’s friend, Sasha (twelve), to be dropped off by her mom, my daughter and I played a game of hide and seek inside Chris Burden’s Urban Light. Once Sasha joined us, we played on Franz West’s pink and lavender outdoor sculptures (Danny dubbed them “Lips” and the “Purple Blob”). Both girls were having such a great time getting to actually sit on the work. Franz West has said that interacting with odd objects has an effect on the person doing the interacting, and that clearly was the case with Danny and Sasha. They were having such a great time giggling and making faces at one another—something that traditional artwork does not normally inspire.

Next, Danny led us through Tony Smith’s Smoke and headed into the Franz West show. Not only did we play with the Adaptives and sit on the chairs, but the guards pointed out a work with a bathing cap that we all tried on. I have to say that the guards seemed to be having as much fun as we were “breaking the rules” of traditional museum installations and encouraging us to touch certain works. When we went into the room with light fixtures, my daughter immediately thought of the Dan Flavin show that she loved so much and shouted, “The lights are back! The lights are back!” Who says five is too young for art history?

Finally, Danny marched Sasha and me over to BCAM, where she wanted to see the “Red Egg,” the “Blue Balloon Dog,” and, of course, the sculpture made out of chocolate. We ended in the monumental Richard Serra sculptures, where my daughter loves to “follow the path until we get dizzy” in Sequence, and “count the round rooms” in Band.

Michael Govan told me when I first arrived at LACMA that kids “get” contemporary art—a topic previously discussed at Unframed.  I don’t know if it is the size and scale, or if it is just that children take things at face value rather than looking for a hidden meaning, but he was certainly right about my daughter.

Melissa Bomes, Associate VP, Corporate Sponsorships & Marketing

Snapshot: Who’s at LACMA

March 20, 2009
Samuel, graduate student at UCLA, and Samantha, who works for a financial publisher in Baltimore and a music blog

Have you ever been inspired by art?
Samuel: I’m more of a literal appreciator of art, so I would say the works of Tolstoy actually got me really excited to visit Russia.

Has a piece of art ever made you laugh or cry?
Samantha: I was on a trip somewhere in the south, and it was a gallery that had very traditional art and I saw this giant painting of a Prussian battle. You could only see a tiny corner of it at a time because it was so big, so I walked along the bottom and saw a white horse and a dark horse. It reminded me of a reading that I’d done with a guy that I fell in love with and had to part ways with the year before. I actually had to sit down in the gallery and was weeping.

If you weren’t working at your current job, what job would you like to try?
Samantha: I would be a cellist. It’s why I write about music—because it’s as close as I can get for now.
Samuel: I would be a performer. I would act. I would tell jokes for a living. I would live as many lives as I could through the craft. My jokes aren’t funny enough for that, so I’m going with teacher instead. I get a built-in audience that way and they can’t leave and they can’t get a refund.

Where would you want to travel?
Samuel: I’d love to see more of the American Midwest and the plains. I’ve been to South Dakota and I’d love to see more rural Minnesota. I’d love to have an experience of communion with land. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles and I think it would be very edifying to maybe farm or something. The interior of America would be a lovely place to go.
Samantha: Maybe a motorcycle tour in Vienna, Poland, Romania, or Hungary—a lot of my favorite composers grew up in Hungary. Just to see what land and music are like when they come together.

Rachel Mullennix and Michael Storc


Rite of Passage, L.A. Style

March 18, 2009

Pulling into the parking lot at LACMA one morning I noticed the museum’s director, Michael Govan, placing a brand-new California license plate onto a tan-colored, 1989 BMW 325is. After the initial shock of watching him use hand tools in his impeccable suit wore off, I asked him about the car. He explained that he had recently had it shipped to Los Angeles from New York City and was considering having it custom painted. He noted that it was very similar to my own 1991 BMW 325i. “You drive that little black one, right?” As it turns out, Michael appreciates cars, and now that we had ours in common, he would, from time to time, update me on the progress of his. Turns out the custom paint was being created with art fabricator and artist Jack Brogan in an unassuming warehouse in Inglewood where, along with tricking out Michael’s car, Brogan has been collaborating with Robert Irwin on a series of highly polished and gorgeously colored large-scale paintings on honeycomb aluminum. Intrigued, I recently sat down with Michael to find out more…

MT: Let’s talk about your fabulous car.

MG: So hilarious that you’re here to talk to me about that.

MT: Who painted it?

MG: Jack Brogan—he’s a legend in Los Angeles. He was one of the key collaborators of the Southern California artists, who some people called finish-fetish artists, or conceptualist artists. In particular, he worked since the early 1960s with artists like Robert Irwin and Larry Bell. He often restores artworks; in his studio now is a Calder from San Diego, and a Larry Bell, and a Craig Kauffman. Whenever anything has to be done that is super precise, or requires unusually refined surfaces, you call Jack; he’s a genius at that. He is currently working with Robert Irwin on a series of new paintings that were just shown at Pace Gallery. The surfaces of the black painting I saw recently is so perfect that to see it is to look into another world. While it’s incredibly reflective, it’s very different from looking into a mirror.

MT: And how did you find him?

MG: The simple story is that I was sick of making car payments on new cars that I mostly didn’t love anyway, and since I only drive two miles to work every day, and occasional meetings, it seemed a waste to have a new car. I was toying with the idea of bringing my old car that was stuck in a garage in New York. I had to move it anyway, so I thought maybe I’d bring it out here.

John Bowsher, LACMA’s director of special art installations, who was with me in New York and had ridden in that car up to Dia:Beacon many times, said, “You can’t bring that color to L.A. It’s not an L.A color.” It was BMW’s ‘80s “Bronzit” beige color. I had never liked the color anyway. A few days later John said, “You’ve got to change it, and I got it all set up. I talked to Jack Brogan.” I had known Jack through his friendship and association with Irwin.

Anyway, I went over to Jack’s and he showed me all the work he was doing with Bob Irwin—we spent probably an hour and a half just talking about color, and paint color, and he showed me what he was doing with metal paint. Long story short, he said he’d be happy to work on the car for me, and work on the color.

John Bowsher, Jack Brogan, and Robert Irwin

John Bowsher, Jack Brogan, and Robert Irwin

MT: Had he done cars before?

MG: Yes. Even his Chevy Suburban, you’ll notice, has been subtly lowered, and all the trim has been removed. So it’s not screaming “custom” at you. The first thing he asked me, jokingly, was whether I wanted flames painted on it.

MT: You didn’t get the flames?

MG: I didn’t get the flames. He’s restored many, many cars. Have you ever read Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which is Lawrence Weschler’s biography on Robert Irwin? In it is a wonderful section that talks about the artist and car culture. Bob argues with an art critic about aesthetic practice by showing him the many aesthetic decisions that go into a car restoration. Bob, like several of his contemporaries in L.A., restored cars himself. It was all part of the artists’ scene that he and Jack inhabited in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Work in progress

Work in progress

MT: You told me once before that Jack said he didn’t do foreign cars.

MG: He doesn’t in general work with foreign cars, so at first he looked a little askance at my BMW. By the time we were done, he was driving it himself every day, and quite liked it. We picked the color, which is actually a deep blue, so when it’s in the California blue sky, you really see the blue. Most people would say that it’s black. But at night, blue-black is even darker than black. It’s a really, really beautiful color.

MT: Why did you choose this car in the first place?

MG: I bought the car in 1994, when it was already five years old, in Long Island. I had actually just seen it on the street in East Hampton, and took down the number; I loved the square shape of that BMW. It turned out it was owned by the girlfriend of a guy who is the “car doctor” of eastern Long Island, Ryan Pilla. He is the “car doctor” to auto enthusiasts, car collectors, and celebrities. He offers car racing vacations, he races motorcycles, cars, and he takes care of Jerry Seinfeld’s car collection, among others.

MT: Did you really install woofers and a sound system?

MG: Well the problem was that the wires had rotted out. So we needed new speakers, and I didn’t want to change the look of the stock speakers, so in order to get any quality sound we had to put in the amp and the sub-woofer.

MT: That’s so L.A.

MG: It doesn’t sound as good as a new car, but it sounds really good for a little car like that. And I put in the performance chip.

MT: What’s that?

MG: These are some of the first cars that have computer-controlled electronic ignition, so you get fifteen more horsepower if you reprogram the ignition; I did it myself for fun.

MT: You did it yourself?

MG: Yeah. It was kind of cool: you had to replace the chip from underneath the glove box; I read all of the instructions. It was my little Saturday morning project. I was half-sure it was going to blow up when I turned the ignition, but it worked. Jack hasn’t driven it since the performance chip, and he’s got a little touch-up to do.

MT: Are you just ecstatic now for having brought it out, because you can drive it more now that you’re in Los Angeles?

MG: Right, now it’s exciting. And I bought a bicycle too so that I can ride that to work when the car is in the shop, as old cars can be. Actually Bob Irwin said that I had finally moved to Los Angeles. I had gone through my rite of passage: I had customized my car. I customized it in just that way where most people don’t quite know that it’s not stock. It’s more fun. It’s an ’89, so it’s a super boxy car. Today almost every single car on the road is curved or chiseled, so it stands out.

MT: I want to go back to your discussion about the color. What was that like?

MG: Jack was working on his and Bob’s dark paintings, so we were talking about the nature of dark colors; I definitely wanted it dark. I thought that the body shape looked better when it was dark; everything pulled together with the tires and the trim. It had a light tan interior that I thought was ok, so we just cleaned it up a little bit.

The greens, reds, and blues of the paintings were really deep and dark. I loved the blue because it held the sky somehow, the L.A. sky. We started looking in that family of colors. Jack came up with something new and special for the car. Bob Irwin said that he liked the color so much he might use it for a painting. We’ll see.

MT: Was Bob satisfied with the end result?

MG: I think he was, yes. He was skeptical at first since he has such high standards in these matters. But I think he was quite surprised and impressed.


1989 BMW 325is

MT: Did you go to see Jack specifically with the intention of asking him for the car color?

MG: Jack already knew that I was coming because of John, and I knew him through Bob. He didn’t paint it himself; he mixed the color, and ended up having someone else paint it. And they did a great job. It’s almost “cherry,” as Bob Irwin would say. Perfect.

Marietta Torriente de León, Major Donor Event Planner

New Acquisitions in Spanish Colonial Art

March 17, 2009

When we opened our new Latin American art galleries last summer, our pre-Columbian collection drew much attention, and rightly so—LACMA boasts a rich collection and Jorge Pardo’s daring installation reinvigorated the discussion about the display of art. But what you may not have heard as much about is something the museum is doing for the first time in its history—devoting galleries to Spanish colonial art. This is a first not only for LACMA, but also for many mainstream museums across the country that have traditionally showcased pre-Columbian art, but very rarely art of the viceroyalties.

Among our recent acquisitions is a group of six works by the eighteenth-century painter Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, one of the most sophisticated and accomplished artists of the time (eighteenth-century Mexican painting also happens to be an area I find especially fascinating). Morlete’s paintings are based on engravings of the original series of paintings, Ports de France, by the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet. Vernet’s series comprised fifteen paintings, which were completed between 1753 and 1765, and commissioned for Louis XV of France.

Morlete’s works bear the royal Spanish coat of arms, and it is likely they were commissioned by viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa (r. 1771-1779). One such set, for example, is listed in the viceroy’s death inventory, which also includes two views of Mexico City—an intriguing local addenda.

View of the Port of Sète (El puerto de Sète), Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, 1771

Some may find the subject of Morlete’s set somewhat surprising. What motivated a Mexican or New Spanish artist to paint a set of French ports? But this is precisely what makes the set so compelling; it tells us much about the working methods of Spanish colonial masters, and how they were aware of the most current European artistic trends.

View of the City and Port of Bayonne (Vista de la villa y puerto de Bayona), Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, 1771

After all six paintings (the set is broken down and the location of many of the paintings is unknown) are cleaned and the yellow varnish removed we will be able to appreciate more fully Morlete’s luminous palette. Down the line I plan to organize a small exhibition and bring together several of Vernet’s paintings and the prints after them which Morlete surely saw. This will be an exciting exercise where the collaboration of a curator and a team of painting conservators will yield much new information about the history of painting in New Spain. Stay tuned.

Ilona Katzew, Curator of Latin American Art

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