Pasadena Two Ways

I notice with writers whom I admire that over a period of years they write one book many times, and that they maintain a hold on my imagination because with each addition to their oeuvre they reveal another aspect of a truth; and slowly, in the aggregate, one book upon another, understanding builds itself into my mind and my heart until I feel what the writer tells and the story becomes a part of me.

As a means of communication, curating has things common with writing, and among the shared qualities is that interesting curators often curate again and again a single exhibition, they employ different ways of grouping artists and exhibiting solo artists to make their case.

Michael Duncan is an example of a curator who over a period of years has explored an alternative to the prevailing single single line diagram of art history, and particularly of Los Angeles art history.

In, L.A. RAW, Duncan doesn’t so much propose an opposition as argue in favor of openness in our understanding of what he terms the “multiple pathways” of art history. He makes really good and clear connections among artists that we have dismissed as slightly outre and beside the point, and artists whom we revere. Examples of the first group would be Rico Lebrun, Howard Warshaw, William Brice, Charles White and Charles Garabedian (along with others), among the second, and more accepted group, are some who only recently have been resurrected as well as a few who have long been stars, John Altoon, Llyn Foulks, Wallace Berman, Kim Jones, Judy Chicago, Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy.

Lest  you fear a didactic exhibition that feels labored, the compelling and persuasive curatorial thesis becomes apparent way after the power of the work convinces you of the value of this show. Much of it made me physically uncomfortable, and unlike its cleaner cousin, Modernism, figural works can be disgusting as easily as beautiful – both of these aspects of human nature are represented here in alluring, disturbing, vibrant real-time.

page 102 in catalogue L.A. RAW - Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, from Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy by MIchael Duncan. Roberto Chavez, Nude with Yellow Scarf, 1961

I am excited to have seen an originator of the “goth princess,” in a painting by Howard Warshaw. “Untitled (woman),” was painted in 1944, and I have no idea what the artist was doing but the image will stay with me for a long time. She looks like a model for the ghostly daughter in the movie Beetlejuice. I saw five or six paintings that might have inspired Norwegian or German Death Metal bands but were painted in the 1940s and 1950s. I saw a weird three-part sculpture that looks like three boxes with basins sunk in the surface. Are these bassinets? Baptismal fonts? Bowls for sacrificial rights? I do not know, but inside each basin is a wooden baby wriggling as though in a bath.

page 144 in L.A. RAW - Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy by Michael Duncan. Hans Burkhart kneeling with My Lai, 1968

There is more for you to discover, and Pasadena is not that far away – certainly not too far to go for the weird and the wonderful.

A quick note – without re-parking one may visit the Pacific Asia Museum, which “Oriental” mansion is full of bits from the history of the Pasadena Art Museum. You might be a little familiar with that history? The favorite thing for me? A sequence of films from openings over the 1960s and early 1970s. Part way through, I almost squealed – there (in my mind’s eye I recall it being wheeled across a gallery by an installation guy, but probably my memory lies) in plain view was Duchamp’s Large Glass….. BEFORE IT WAS BROKEN. Aaaaaaaagh. The holy grail! The Virgin of the art world! A ride on the old school Matterhorn! I was ecstatic. I went pale and then I became flushed with excitement and I waited long enough to watch it again and again. The Bride Stripped Bare, Even, without a crack.

Oh! Say hello to the guards while you are there. Guards and other support staff in museums embody a nice transition between the potentially intimidating, idealized nature of art and the humans that we all are. (By the way, a friend tells me that at the Hermitage, Russian grandmas serve as guards, and I imagine them in thick ankled stockings, by turns coddling and bullying the visitors the way a grandmother might. Sweet way to close my day.)

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