The Telenovela in the Art Museum

January 9, 2014

It is perhaps in bad form to pick favorites in any exhibition. Like children, we sometimes tell ourselves, each work is special and unique in its own way. That said, I seem not to be able to help myself when it comes to the current show Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film, which I had the great pleasure to work on with LACMA curators Britt Salvesen and Rita Gonzalez and the energetic team from Fundación Televisa, led by curator Alfonso Morales. Among the 330-plus works in the show—all rich and gorgeous in their own right, to be sure—are four large color prints for which I have developed quite a fondness. Tucked in the southwest corner of the Art of the Americas Building, the enlarged film stills shot by photographer Ángel Corona Villa depict scenes from El amor tiene cara de mujer (Love Has a Woman’s Face), a film Figueroa made with director Tito Davison in 1973.

Ángel Corona Villa, still from El amor tiene cara de mujer, directed by Tito Davidson (1973), film version of the televnovela, 1973, printed 2007, © Televisa Foundation

Ángel Corona Villa, still from El amor tiene cara de mujer, directed by Tito Davidson (1973), film version of the televnovela, 1973, printed 2007, © Televisa Foundation

In part, my attraction to these objects is animated by a sort of perverse contrarianism. Made in the throes of the post–Golden Age period of Mexican cinema, which saw the waning of much of the creative energy that catapulted Mexican film to global attention in the 1940s, the work represents a divergence from the type of film most commonly associated with Figueroa’s oeuvre. While he was known for his epic black-and-white tableaux, sweeping landscapes, and narratives with heavily didactic political themes, El amor tiene cara de mujer looks markedly different from the stills and projections that precede it. This is why they stand out so starkly on the wall, and, I’m certain, part of the reason why I find them such intriguing images. The film expressed a bright, candy-colored sensibility that was a clear departure from his earlier cinematographic style.

Gabriel Figueroa, film still from Enemigos, directed by Chano Urueta, 1933, © Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive

Gabriel Figueroa, film still from Enemigos, directed by Chano Urueta, 1933, © Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive

The film’s subject matter was also quite a departure for Figueroa. Adapted from an Argentinean telenovela that had made a splash in Mexico in 1971, the film was a female-centered melodrama seemingly detached from the politicized iconography that had been such an essential part of Figueroa’s early career, and which he had developed in dialogue with the masters of Mexican muralism, such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.

Ángel Corona Villa, still from El amor tiene cara de mujer, directed by Tito Davidson (1973), film version of the televnovela, 1973, printed 2007, © Televisa Foundation

Ángel Corona Villa, still from El amor tiene cara de mujer, directed by Tito Davidson (1973), film version of the televnovela, 1973, printed 2007, © Televisa Foundation

Depicting a series of scenes in an upscale Mexico City boutique, the four stills are a tour-de-force portrait of the garish women’s fashions and demonstrative interior décor of the 1970s Mexican elite (or at least their telenovela surrogates). Say what you will about the outrageousness of the characters’ choice in clothes and furnishings—there is something truly visually seductive about the bravado of those gold and black patterns, the height and solidity of those coiffures, and the sheer abundance of the candles shoved into that golden candelabra. I challenge you not to find at least some joy in looking at these images.

Ángel Corona Villa, still from El amor tiene cara de mujer, directed by Tito Davidson (1973), film version of the televnovela, 1973, printed 2007, © Televisa Foundation

Ángel Corona Villa, still from El amor tiene cara de mujer, directed by Tito Davidson (1973), film version of the televnovela, 1973, printed 2007, © Televisa Foundation

These film stills also got me thinking about the place of the telenovela—and the soap opera more broadly—in the history of art and contemporary museum display. While there are marked differences between the Latin American telenovela and the American soap opera—for one, American soaps can last for decades, while the telenovela has a defined number of seasons—parallels between the two forms undoubtedly exist. Curiously, it seems that contemporary art and “the soaps” have more overlap that one might think.

My mind immediately wandered to the soap opera “performance art” of James Franco, who created the role of Robert James “Franco” Frank, a multimedia artist and, ahem, serial killer, for the American soap opera General Hospital in 2009 (appearing intermittently on the program through 2012). Coincidentally, Franco admitted that his interest in this character emerged after the performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, an artist whose work is featured in the Figueroa exhibition, paid a visit to his class at CalArts. Franco brought his character into the “real” art world in June 2010 with the event “Soap at MOCA: James Franco on General Hospital,” which saw the fictional Franco character displaying his art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Included in the project was a performance by artist Kalup Linzy, dressed in demonstrative drag with a cartoonish flowing wig and a sequined dress that, come to think of it, might have fit in quite well in El amor tiene cara de mujer.

This collapsing of fantasy and reality, the masquerade of the soap opera and the spectacle of contemporary art, was intended to raise questions about legitimacy and artistic taste that have a long history in performance art. By placing the soap opera within the context of the art museum, Franco was asking how the art museum confers value by its very existence—does something become art simply because it is placed in a museum? What is essentially a very basic (and by no means new) question reverberates quite broadly, and spurs me to ask: have we elevated El amor tiene cara de mujer to the lofty heights of “art,” by including it in an exhibition in a world-renowned museum?

venegas
Of course, Franco is not alone in creating a dialogue between the soap opera (and the telenovela) and the art museum. Andy Warhol’s 16mm film Soap Opera (1964), perhaps most notably, predated Franco’s performance by nearly half a century. There is also an established tradition of using the telenovela—a prominent part of many Latin American cultures, and often a major cultural export—within Mexican art and photography. The photographer Antonio Caballero created fascinating narrative studies produced for the still-photography serialized fotonovelas in the 1960s and 1970s, which are intriguing objects in their own right. His images, as was typical of the genre, produced a melodramatic iconography that mirrored what was being broadcast on telenovelas. More recently, artist Yvonne Venegas was asked by Mauricio Maillé, director of the Visual Arts Department at Televisa—who was an important participant in the Figueroa exhibition—to photograph the final season of the Mexican telenovela Rebelde. The resulting series and book project offers an intriguing look into the cult of telenovela stars, as well as the enduring visual language of the form, which evidently has held on to the vivid colorful palette captured by Figueroa four decades ago.

Ángel Corona Villa, still from El amor tiene cara de mujer, directed by Tito Davidson (1973), film version of the televnovela, 1973, printed 2007, © Televisa Foundation

Ángel Corona Villa, still from El amor tiene cara de mujer, directed by Tito Davidson (1973), film version of the televnovela, 1973, printed 2007, © Televisa Foundation

I suppose what I find so intriguing about these four film stills, when forced to account for my interest in them, is that they represent a conflict between competing ideas of taste and aesthetic worth. Often considered to represent the lowest point in Figueroa’s creative career, and the product of an entertainment form that is, more often than not, excluded from the refined atmosphere of the art museum, they seem oddly out of place, as if they don’t belong. In this way, the images are a prompt, asking the viewer what it is that they expect to see in an art museum. They also make us think about the creative and professional choices made by artists and filmmakers that do not fit the neat categories we create for them. Certainly not his best work, El amor tiene cara de mujer is nonetheless part of an interesting episode in Figueroa’s career. And to paraphrase a cheap tagline for a telenovela, this is an episode that is simply too good to miss.

Ryan Linkof, Ralph M. Parsons Fellow, Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography


Capturing Calder

January 8, 2014

People are often surprised to hear that a large-scale exhibition usually takes between two to five years to organize: years filled with a myriad of administrative and creative tasks, including negotiating loans, producing the catalogue, developing the installation design, and constructing and installing the exhibition. Our work culminates in the moment when we find ourselves alone in a finished exhibition: everything is perfectly in its place, the walls and pedestals are pristine, and, if all went as planned, the exhibition looks like what you had imagined.

Alexander Calder, "Calder and Abstraction" at LACMA.

It is difficult to aptly articulate that feeling when you realize that your work has finally manifested into a tangible reality. I remember the first time I experienced it: walking together through Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective before its opening, when it was still an immaculate exhibition space, senior curator and department head of Modern Art Stephanie Barron advised me to savor this precious time when the show is flawless and entirely your own. There is truly an incomparable magic in the air, almost like being the first person to explore an uninhabited island (even though you helped build that island and have been basically living there for the past month!). Stephanie confessed that this is the best part about being a curator, and I couldn’t agree more.

Alexander Calder, "Calder and Abstraction" at LACMA.

Being alone in Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, I was again awestruck and very proud of what the LACMA, Gehry Partners, and the Calder Foundation teams had accomplished; the exhibition turned out to be exactly how Stephanie and Frank envisioned it during the months in which we pored over the model and tweaked the design.

Since exhibitions close after a few months, we always consider how to effectively represent the exhibition for the public and archival purposes. How can we capture the experience and emotional response that curators have in the completed space? We started by commissioning the Los Angeles–based photographer Fredrik Nilsen to photograph the exhibition before its opening. I spent two days with Fredrik, his assistant Colin Bloomfield, and expert art handler Matt Castle documenting the installation. Guided by Frank’s design of singular and intimate moments mixed with long views of monumental works drawing us through the exhibition, we tested every angle and were continually surprised by how each perspective unveiled new aspects of Calder’s genius and ability to imbue his sculptures with a palpable vitality; the works truly have a life of their own.

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While taking the photograph above, we had been shifting around quite a bit trying to find the best angle, but nothing had really clicked. All of a sudden we all froze as a shadow of Black Mobile with Hole appeared on the white wall next to La Demoiselle. We then sprang into action to photograph it, hoping to capture for the public the unexpected accidents that make Calder’s work so compelling. That moment of surprise elucidated what Jean-Paul Sartre so aptly described in his 1946 essay on Calder: “His mobiles are at once . . . the tangible symbol of . . . that great, vague Nature that squanders pollen and suddenly causes a thousand butterflies to take wing, that Nature of which we shall never know whether it is the blind sequence of causes and effects or the timid, endlessly deferred, rumpled and ruffled unfolding of an Idea.”

During the shoot, we were thinking, in the back of our minds, about the photograph that we would choose to reproduce into a 20-foot photomural to be placed on the wall facing Sixth Street and Levitated Mass. In the last hours of the shoot, Fredrik switched to his Hasselblad camera. He turned and photographed Laocöon, La Grande vitesse, and Three Segments. He then looked at me, smiled, and said, “I think we got it. That’s our shot.” If you drive past LACMA on Sixth Street, I think you’ll agree that he was completely right.

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Our hope is that these photographs not only accurately document the exhibition but, more importantly, encapsulate the exuberance and elegance in Calder’s sculpture and Stephanie and Frank’s unique approach. Perhaps the images will reveal how we felt walking through the completed exhibition for the first time.

Lauren Bergman, Assistant Curator, Modern Art


From the Art and Technology Archives: Tony Smith

January 6, 2014

Building on the excitement of LACMA’s announcement last month of its new Art + Technology Lab, I thought it would be interesting to look back at one of the projects from LACMA’s original Art and Technology Program (A & T), which ran from 1967 to 1971.

Cover of A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 1967–71

Cover of A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 1967–71

For the first A & T, curator Maurice Tuchman invited 64 artists to be matched with companies working in “coastal” industries such as aerospace, scientific research, manufacturing, and cinema/television. One of the 23 artists to be paired successfully with a corporation was Tony Smith—a figure familiar to many LACMA visitors for his monumental sculpture Smoke that graces the atrium of the Ahmanson Building (and was the subject of Liz Glynn’s performance The Myth of Pure Form last month).

Tony Smith, Smoke, 1967, fabricated 2005, made possible by the Belldegrun Family’s gift to LACMA in honor of Rebecka Belldegrun’s birthday

Tony Smith, Smoke, 1967, fabricated 2005, made possible by the Belldegrun Family’s gift to LACMA in honor of Rebecka Belldegrun’s birthday

Smith initially expressed his interest in doing an inflatable soft sculpture he described as “a type of structure in which all of the compressive elements would be made of air or gas in compression.” When that proved to be unfeasible, then-associate curator Jane Livingston suggested Smith work with the Container Corporation of America, a manufacturer of paperboard products including folding cartons, paper bags, and fiber cans.

The Container Corporation turned out to be a good fit for the artist. Smith was already in the habit of making models for his large-scale sculptures by gluing together hundreds of maquette modules. These individual paperboard components were typically tetrahedrons (four-sided forms with triangular faces) or octahedrons (eight-sided forms with triangular faces).

Tony Smith next to a model composed of tetrahedrons and octahedrons (with additional maquette modules in the foreground) [Photographer: Malcolm Lubliner]

Tony Smith next to a model composed of tetrahedrons and octahedrons (with additional maquette modules in the foreground), photo by Malcolm Lubliner

In most of Smith’s sculptures prior to his A & T project, the component-nature of a sculpture’s composition became invisible once the work was fabricated in steel at a large scale; the individual modules disappeared into the gestalt of the sculpture’s overall form (as, for example, in Smoke). But working with the Container Corporation, which could die-cut corrugated cardboard, Smith realized that he could replicate his method of working on models at a monumental scale. In August 1969, the company made Smith two sample corrugated units (one tetrahedron and one octahedron), each two feet on a side. After he approved of the samples, the company cut hundreds of small paperboard modules that Smith used to design a model for a cave-like sculpture—its shape inspired by bat caves he had seen in Aruba—to be executed for the A & T exhibition at the U.S. Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan.

Smith’s model, constructed of four-inch paper modules, for his work at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, photo by Hans Namuth

Smith’s model, constructed of four-inch paper modules, for his work at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, photo by Hans Namuth

For Expo ’70, palletized flats of precut cardboard manufactured by the Container Corporation were shipped to Japan, where William Lloyd, a manager of design for the Container Corporation, was tasked with overseeing the construction of the full-size sculpture. Over a period of five weeks, some 2,500 modular components were folded, taped, and joined together. The completed sculpture was a massive cave-like structure that viewers were able to enter and exit.

Construction in progress for Tony Smith’s sculpture at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, photo by Tami Komai

Construction in progress for Tony Smith’s sculpture at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, photo by Tami Komai

Construction in progress for Tony Smith’s sculpture at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, photo by Tami Komai

Construction in progress for Tony Smith’s sculpture at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, photo by Tami Komai

Interior view of Smith’s sculpture at Expo ’70, photo © Museum Associates/Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Interior view of Smith’s sculpture at Expo ’70, photo © Museum Associates/Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Smith was one of the fortunate artists in the original A & T to be matched with a sympathetic and compatible corporation—some of the participating artists did not find suitable corporate partners, and still others who did match with companies were unable to realize the works they proposed for various technical or logistical reasons. The new Art + Technology initiative, while taking inspiration from the spirit of innovation of the original A & T program, is different in structure. Rather than be matched with individual companies, participants will have the opportunity to work in residence at LACMA’s new Art + Technology Lab housed in the Balch Research Library: more details can be found in the Request for Proposals (opens PDF). Artists have until January 27, 2014, to submit applications.

Jennifer King, Wallis Annenberg Curatorial Fellow, Modern Art


This Weekend at LACMA: Andell Family Sundays and Sundays Live Return, Free Guided Tours, and More!

January 3, 2014

It’s the new year: start it off on the right foot with a visit to LACMA. On Friday and Saturday, enjoy tours of our collection and select exhibitions including a look at the Renaissance rivalry between Florence and Venice artists, a survey of ceramics from Korea, a detailed walkthrough of See the Light—Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, and an overview of one of our most popular galleries, the Art of the Pacific. For a complete listing of tour times, visit our online calendar. But of course, we always encourage you to chart your own path and discover for yourself exhibitions like Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film (closing February 2), David Hockney: Seven Yorkshire Landscapes Videos, 2011 (closing January 20), and Masterworks of Expressionist Cinema: The Golem and its Avatars.

Mario Ybarra, Jr. and Juan Capistran, Stick 'em Up . . . (Slanguage Bandito), 2003, © Juan Capistran and Mario Ybarra, Jr.

Mario Ybarra, Jr. and Juan Capistran, Stick ’em Up . . . (Slanguage Bandito), 2003, © Juan Capistran and Mario Ybarra, Jr.

On Sunday, the free guided tours continue with a detailed look at the imaginative Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic and a review of LACMA’s modern Mexican silver collection. Families will be pleased to find the return of Andell Family Sundays beginning at 12:30 pm. This month children and parents will explore the use photography and light in art. Later, at 4 pm, artist Kori Newkirk stops by Art Catalogues for a book signing and raffle to celebrate the launch of his latest book. Complete the weekend with the return of Sundays Live, this week featuring for the first time at the Bing Theater pianist Vadim Monastyrski. The concert begins at 6 pm and is free and open to the public. Welcome, 2014.

Roberto Ayala


Bojagi: The Korean Wrapping Cloth

January 2, 2014

Korean wrapping cloths (known as bojagi in Korean) are celebrated for both their form and function. As wrapping cloths, bojagi were used ubiquitously in premodern Korea to wrap items for transport or storage, to cover food, and even to protect precious goods. Designs range from embroidered symbolic depictions of nature to patchworks of random scraps of cloth in an array of colors. Popularly used by all classes of Korean society, these square- or rectangle-shaped textiles were made from various materials such as silk, ramie (a linen- or silk-like fabric made from ramie, a perennial plant from the nettle family native to eastern Asia), gossamer, and cotton. Although historical records like the Samguk sagi (Annals of the Three Kingdoms) indicate the use of bojagi as early as the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.–A.D. 668), extant examples are largely from the Joseon period (1392–1910).

Covering Cloth (Bojagi), Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), late 19th–early 20th century, Costume Council Fund

Covering Cloth (Bojagi), Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), late 19th–early 20th century, Costume Council Fund

Exclusively produced by women, the colorfully creative and whimsical nature of these textiles extols the artistic virtues of Korean women in a society long dominated by the Confucian hierarchy and male intellectual pursuits. Records indicate that making bojagi was a source of bonding and expression for Korean women who sewed their creations to be given as heirloom mementos to their daughters and daughters-in-law.

This craftwork is recognized as an art by Dr. Kumja Paik Kim, curator emeritus of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, who will be giving a lecture on the role of bojagi and their creators  in the Korean galleries at LACMA on Tuesday, January 14.

Wrapping Cloth (Bojagi), Korea, late 20th century, Costume Council Fund

Wrapping Cloth (Bojagi), Korea, late 20th century, Costume Council Fund

In addition, on Sunday, January 19, Korean-born artist Youngmin Lee, who expresses her knowledge of the traditional craft of bojagi in her modern creations, will give a one-hour demonstration of bojagi-making, and will offer a workshop for people of all ages to create a bojagi their own in the Boone Children’s Gallery on Monday, January 20.

We hope you’ll join us in these illuminating events.

Wrapping Cloth (Bojagi), Korea, late 20th century, gift of Janet Francine Cobert

Wrapping Cloth (Bojagi), Korea, late 20th century, gift of Janet Francine Cobert

Virginia Moon, Assistant Curator of Korean Art


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