Art of the state

The largest show ever mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art looks at California culture.

California is as much a state of mind as it is a place on the map, seared into the psyche by a century of larger-than-life images at every level of popular culture. America's America, where people go to reinvent themselves, from Hollywood to Yosemite, from Disneyland to hippie communes, this last stop on the Western frontier has played a role in the collective cultural dream, fed by a century of artists, designers, and activists - all of whom have had their own idea of what the Golden State means to them.

Through February, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is taking nearly its entire exhibition space (five floors filled with more than 800 works, the largest show in its history) to examine two questions suggested by this century of images: Which California? And whose California?

Divided into five parts covering 20-year intervals, "Made In California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000" uses a thematic approach to identify key aspects of the state's evolving identity. This sociological as well as aesthetic approach to the exhibition links a wildly diverse array of images: orange-crate labels, Hollywood glamour shots and costumes, oil paintings, surfboards, protest posters, furniture, bathing suits, documentary footage, sculpture, newspaper clippings, and much more. It is a cultural cross-section of all that California has meant and could mean to people, a state that during the 20th century became the most culturally diverse in the nation.

"California's image is familiar around the world," says Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). "We wanted to create a show that would explore how the arts played a significant role in generating, shaping, and disseminating images of California," she says, particularly in this era of mass-media communication.

Two themes are central to the show: the physical landscape of the state and its ethnic and cultural character, most notably Hispanic and Asian.

Each section of the show sets up and contrasts easy, sunny, and familiar images of the state. Early visions of California pushed the utopic vision, one of abundant farmland and breathtaking ocean vistas. But Ms. Barron says, from its inception, state tourist-board boosterism was a small part of a much larger picture. "We don't avoid tough political issues," Barron says. "We show the complete range of images from utopic to dystopic."

Section I, entitled "Selling California," features lush oil landscapes ("California Poppy Field," Granville Redmond) alongside images that hint at the darker stories of this age - a photo of agricultural workers; a booklet with a block print entitled, "Coronado as Seen through Japanese Eyes."

"We all believe we know California," says LACMA president Andrea Rich. "Whether we live here or far away, we all have preconceptions. But this show helps us to see ourselves in new ways."

The self-explanatory second area, "Contested Eden," investigates the growing rift between California's dominant and insurgent cultures, as well as the impact of industrialization and urbanization. Oil fields, highways, bridges, and tunnels all become subject matter for artists who, a generation earlier, celebrated farmlands and seascapes.

"The image of California is challenged and complicated by all the new forces at work in the state," says Sheri Bernstein, a LACMA exhibition associate. At the same time that early modernism takes root in the Golden State, with its emphasis on usefulness and simplicity (rooms of period furniture show the impact of these theories on daily life), discontent grows among the disenfranchised segments of society. Posters of early strikes, lithographs of clashing dockworkers, Dorothea Lange's famous photos of migrant workers during the Depression - all show a different side of the growing state.

The Latin and Asian presence grows more pronounced in each section - from by Diego Rivera's master murals depicting a growing social consciousness among Latinos to photographs of the Japanese internment camps.

"All of this life permeates the works of art, whether high or low art," says research associate Eulogio Guzman, one of the legion who helped mount the show. This dynamic also serves to blur the lines between the two, which organizers hope will be a catalyst for discussion. "When you see these works in retrospect, you realize how many elements of life and art coexisted and each was shaped by the other," Mr. Guzman says.

Museum organizers know the approach is bound to create controversy. Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight scathingly dismissed the exhibition as "an amalgam of [mostly] flotsam."

Barron is well known in the art world for expanding the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in a museum. Indeed, thematic shows that cut across a broad cross-section of culture, elevating everyday ephemera to the level of "art," frequently draw criticism from purists, who object to the presence of toothbrushes or studded denim jackets alongside masterworks.

But this objection shortchanges the viewing public, and ultimately, the art itself, Barron says. "Made in California" aims to show that the interaction between popular culture and high art is a dynamic one that feeds the entire cultural experience. Art isn't created in a vacuum, Barron says. There's always a social context, whether it is willfully overlooked or celebrated, and "both have an enormous influence on the art of a time. Those are the things we are trying to explore with this exhibit."

Viewers may be surprised by the lack of famous names. "This is not a show of the century's greatest hits," Barron says. In fact, during the six years it took to mount the exhibition, Barron says, she received calls from major artists who wanted to know why their works were not included. The answer, she says, is that the themes were more important than the names.

That said, the show is still a visual treat, and includes important artists from every period of California's development - Richard Diebenkorn, Edward Ruscha, David Hockney, to name a few.

In rooms covering 1940 to 1980, "The California Home Front" and "Tremors in Paradise," a potpourri of familiar images contrast with each other to tell a more nuanced story of this time: the Barbie doll and Rock Hudson, evictions of Hispanic families from the slums of Bunker Hill and Black Panther posters, Watts Tower and Disneyland, surfboards, a jewel-encrusted futuristic car, and Ed Kienholz's "Back Seat Dodge."

The fifth section, "Many Californias," which will not open for another two weeks, looks at the ongoing role California plays in our national mythology.

"I thought I knew all about California," says LACMA president Rich. "This exhibit shows me I didn't."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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