Saturday, May 20, 2017

Sneak Peek @ Marciano Art Foundation's New Museum

With all the scaffolding finally down ($5k/week for over 1 year in rent I've been told) and the blessing of Los Angeles' Hancock Park neighbors, the Marciano Art Foundation (MAF) showcase has opened at the time of this writing.

The Millard Sheets - designed Scottish Rite Temple (1961), built to zoning limitations as a “clubhouse” like it’s neighbor the Wilshire Ebell, remains a singular mid-century “modern” masterpiece; inside there are still a number of Sheets' signature elements that have remained intact, including a really beautiful mosaic of a woodland scene.

There is an elegant, refined contemporary feel to the space -- not the warehouse feeling of the Geffen/Temporary Contemporary that opened MOCA -- that should serve the Marcianos' cultural, civic and philanthropic mission and vault L.A. (to whom they want to “give back”) deeper into the heart of the artworld's spotlight for years to come.

MAF is a fine example of gesamkunstwerk, a collective effort by artists, architects, collectors, curators and the general public conspiring to explore the past, present and future zeitgeists (is this even a word?) where in the past symbolism separated those who "know" and are "in" from those who don't and aren't. Cindy Sherman’s gigantic, almost ghostly image (of herself, of course!) commands the entrance, casting a most watchful eye instead of a typical museum ticket booth. Bewigged, as usual, she is regaled with the Odd Fellows' symbol of three golden links emblazoned on a uniform-esque Beverly Hill Baroque outfit. (Odd Fellowship is similar to the Masons as a civic group built upon ethical culture.) Is this all the MAF needs in terms of a security detail?

With four floors, including the Mez, there’s a total of 55,000 sq ft of exhibition space within seven galleries. A book store, operated by Artbook, is now open with the new catalog in stock; a cafe with limited menu is planned. 

I say Bravo to the Marciano brothers, founders of GUESS? brand of designer jeans and other "lifestyle" products. Maurice Marciano spoke on behalf of his brother/partner Paul, at the press briefing and introduced Kulipat Yantrassat, creative director and lead designer of wHY for the project. He stated that there were three goals to the effort to repurpose and renovate the very special building: 1/ to allow the artists to experiment, to create a vehicle that challenges them to make new work, 2/ to maintain the integrity of Sheets’ design, and 3/ with a bow to Robert Rauschenberg, to encourage collaboration among the artists and connect objects within the relatively recently acquired collection of 1500 works.  

Philipp Kaiser, curator of the inaugural exhibition Unpacking: The Marciano Collection, title of the inaugural exhibition, explained that from the get-go they invited participating artists to respond to the building, both to its former and future lives. The theoretical heart of Unpacking is sourced from an essay by German intellectual Walter Benjamin who, in 1931, wrote about the "chaotic potentiality inherent in unpacking and recontextualizing one’s collection of objects before they become tinged with ‘the mild boredom of order’." (In addition to Benjamin's treatise, I recommend reading Allen Weiss' newest title The Grain of the Clay: Reflecting on Ceramics and the Art of Collecting.)

As was well-publicized, many abandoned but still official Masonic costumes, wigs, photographs and other material found squirreled away in the building's many secret spaces now hold court in the Relic Room installed behind one of the stained glass dopeladler (two headed eagles) facing Wilshire Blvd. This display is curated by Susan L. Aberth, associate professor of Latin American Art at Bard College.

The idea of "artist as archaeologist" was at the foundation of the Foundation's inaugural installation; special emphasis is placed on "process and how it relates to the creation and execution of the work and the art object itself informed the opening exhibition".
 Artists vied for spaces in the new facility and some final touches were still underway when I was there.  While some of the works in the inaugural exhibition connect directly to the narrative of ancient symbolism, as does the Cindy Sherman piece, other works' theatricality reference the Mason's penchant for elaborate ritual, if not also incorporating some of these "found" objects, as does Jim Shaw's "The Wig Museum" installation.  

The former auditorium has been transformed into a huge gallery space and accommodates Shaw’s glorious pop-artish immersive environment, much like a stage set, which includes historic Masonic theatrical drapes and wigs, as well as his new work on scrims hanging from the extremely tall ceiling of what was the huge proscenium theatre audience chamber. One may wander at will through this fantastic forest of 2-D and 3-D images set up like so many paper doll cut-out scenarios. The effect allows, nay, insists on engagement. Bring a friend. Make up a story! (see below)

The Mez provides not only a view of the grand foyer, but leads to the former balcony from which one may view the Shaw installation as well as Adrian Villar Rojas Two Suns (II), a 17’ replica of Michelangelo’s David laid out in repose at what was the landing of the underbelly of the stage, now known as the “Black Box”. This provides yet an alternative view and create a new impression on the expansive work. (see images, below)

Other galleries feature artworks in a wide variety of media that do in fact seem to interact with each other (and demand more than the cursory look I could give them at the time). The artists are listed alphabetically in the sparse “guide” and include rooms featuring McCarthy/Murakami/Lawler, Kelley/Ruby, and Oehlen/Wool. The installations attempt to show “personal artistic relationships and reveal commonalities, admiration, and mutual respect within the art community”.

Two long-form video works captivated my attention. Ledge by Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin, is billed as a "unique sculptural theater" in a tent that fills the entire Lounge Gallery on the Second Floor. The multi-screen HD 49:24 minute experience is as much a "documentary" as it is a fictional account of what happened when they allow artists to go for it for 3 (in 2014) months in your some day to be refurbished space. Yes, there are wigs, loud music, drones and attitude. I've been told that recreational drugs are stronger these days.

Inferno by Yael Bartana, is provocative, cinematic epic set in Brazil with the “protagonist” being an exact replica of Solomon’s Temple (a bow to the Masons, again!) under construction in Sao Paolo by the evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in the summer of 2014. ($300 million cost!) Filled with referential rituals and chanting from the Yom Kippur liturgy, the multi-racial, multi-generational faithful make their pilgrimage to reinstall the “ark of the covenant” and the 7-branch menorah (flying in via helicopter) to the holy of the holies III. No spoiler here, but be careful what you wish for.

While the Marcianos have been involved in LA's contemporary art scene, particularly through MOCA, there is no doubt that through MAF, these "new" kids on the block have very interesting ideas to share about culture, philanthropy and creativity infused with ethical instruction aimed at spiritual and moral self-improvement.

Admission to MAF is free by reservation only!!!! Only 80 people/hour may enter; times are every 15 minutes. There will be no lines around the corner. Free parking underneath. 

Images from Jim Shaw's installation "The Wig Museum"

Frances Stark & Marc Chagall Make Mozart Magic at LA County Museum of Art

Image / Caption in Frances Stark's The Magic Flute
In advance of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s forthcoming exhibition, Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage (July 30, 2017 – January 7, 2018) LACMA premiered Frances Stark’s rendering of the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s score / Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto of The Magic Flute (2017). The approximately 110-minute animated film adaptation in two acts of the popular 1791 opera is about a prince and a bird catcher who cross paths and endure various tricks and trials in search of love. Stark, who is represented by Marc Foxx Gallery in Los Angeles, will take the film to the biannual events at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and then on to Venice.

In her introduction of the film before an SRO crowd, Stark made note of the fact that the piece was Mozart’s last one; he died 5 weeks afterwards at the age of 35, and, thus, for her, this premiere gave her pause. She seemed quite relieved and happy with the outcome. For the past 25 years, Stark’s unusual approach to lyricism and her signature economy of means are employed in full force in the film: “I’m trying to make The Magic Flute unfold for people very directly and joyously; it isn’t about clever redressing or anything, it’s really about the bare bones of the opera having the capacity to engage you, the original accessibility of the opera was based on its high-low conceit.”

The overture is played in its original form and recorded with a full orchestra. The remainder of the opera is more experimental and was recorded in smaller studio sessions with a full string section and solo wind and brass instruments assigned to play the vocal melodies.

While I love friends who love opera, I am not a natural opera lover for many of the same reasons I don’t read long novels. I am happy to report that Stark has created a novel way to guide the listener through the narrative without the distractions that come from stiffly staged performers, no matter how splendid the production designs. According to one press hand out: “Stark’s adaptation of The Magic Flute confronts notions of power, cultural capital, and institutions (i.e. the museum, the university, the opera) with an invitation to a more humanized experience of beauty, kinship, and art.”

According to one press release, “The audience is invited to experience the work as a ‘pedagogical opera.’ In other words, an opera that is closely read and/or taught. This artistic impulse reflects past breakthroughs in Stark’s work which have consistently reflected her attempts ‘to understand and manifest an erotics of pedagogy capable of voicing my poetics and challenging the art audience while also engaging youth.”

Let me unpack the experience in simpler terms. I agree that “the presentation demanded close viewing, a lot of reading, and listening.”

Image result for mayan feather god image
Quetzalcoatl ... hmmm!

There are no vocal parts
 Rather, vocalists have been substituted with instrumental soloists (local performers ages 10 – 19!) who play the respective character’s melodies. In the opening titles, the young musicians are shown lined up across the screen with their instruments in hand; text equates the instruments with the characters a la Peter and the Wolf. The overture was recorded with a full symphony orchestra; the balance of the score is performed by a 13-person string plus timpani section.

Super titles take center stage
There is no attempt to design a production with sets, costumes, props, lighting, etc. It’s a visual desert, but that makes way for Stark to accomplish what she set out to do (see aforementioned paragraph). In addition to the instrumental soloist, each “character’s” libretto, adapted by Stark into English, is set in distinct fonts and colors that are pulsed to keeps pace with the music. This does not overwhelm the listener with a) language that one doesn’t understand and b) the seemingly endless repetition of phrases. For example, in the case of the three female spirits who come upon the protagonist Tamino in the opening act, their individual lines are represented by one of three tones of violet cursive style font. When they sing as a trio, three lines are seen on the screen. Nothing else. Call – response phrases among characters are more likely included in a single frame than presented via a lot of switching. Thus, the editing is key to keeping pace with the score. While I found the approach helpful, as it provided a synopsis of what was transpiring in the narrative, the conceit became boring after a while.

Visually sparse
 Familiar images reminiscent of Stark’s graphic vocabulary enjoyed in the mid-career exhibition (see below) often prompted scene breaks, and unfortunately, more often than not, the screen was blank. One press release advised, “Her unique balance of light-hearted jest and philosophical inquiry ventures into the bawdy while remaining elegant, often probing prickly issues of race, class, and gender with joyous and agonizing sincerity.”

Lyrically accessible to a contemporary audience unschooled in the pomp and circumstance of grand opera
 The lyrics have also been updated through Stark’s creation of an “amalgam libretto” derived from the study of numerous translations.

For the project Stark collaborated with a set of artists from disparate parts of the music world. Conductor Danko Drusko, a Ph.D. student at the time of the production, adapted the entirety of Mozart’s score. He also oversaw each rehearsal and conducted the players during each recording session. The legendary producer and arranger H.B. Barnum recorded and mixed the music; cellist and mezzo-soprano instructor Ameena Maria Khawaja organized the audition and the student players throughout the entire process; and percussionist and film composer Greg Ellis added rhythmic effects and finalized the soundtrack.

Stark has collaborated with a writers, dropouts, virtual partners in online video platforms. More recently, she worked with Bobby Jesus on the video installation Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater B/W Reading the Book of David And/Or Paying Attention is Free (2015). Her recent works demonstrate novel ways of storytelling, with sexual overtones, poetic verve, and comic timing. My Best Thing (2011). She began working on The Magic Flute following the opening of her critically praised mid-career survey UH-OH: Frances Stark 1991–2015 (2015–16) at UCLA’s Hammer Museum – which I truly loved — and receiving the 2015 Absolut Art Award. It was also developed in the wake of a highly publicized withdrawal of the entire class of MFA students at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design amid administrative changes. While she had resigned from her position several months prior, she felt that the university “flaunted an egregious disregard for the fundamental human endeavor we cherish as Art. She remarked, “I believe what is at stake here is not confined to the academy but involves the entire fractured cultural landscape of Los Angeles, the fragile role of the individual artist, and the un-commodifiable human voice itself.”

I think Stark is on to something that can build audiences from the next generation of opera lovers.

Chagall: Fantasies for the stage!
LA Country Museum Art Makes the Most of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”: Frances Stark’s Film and Chagall’s Designs communicates the moving and celebratory power of music and art, and spotlights this important aspect of the artist’s career by the presentation of his vibrant costumes and set designs—some of which have never been exhibited before. In addition to his pieces for The Magic Flute (1967), the exhibition will include works from the ballets Aleko by Tchaikovsky (1942), The Firebird by Stravinsky (1945), Daphnis and Chloé by Ravel (1958). In addition, the exhibition features a selection of iconic paintings depicting musicians and lyrical scenes, numerous sketches of his theatrical productions, and documentary footage of original performances.

According to Stephanie Barron, LACMA’s senior curator and department head of Modern Art, music and dance played in Marc Chagall’s artistic practice, which is deeply linked to his Russian birthplace and upbringing. A significant source of inspiration and a central theme throughout his extensive oeuvre, music permeated Chagall’s engagement with modernism, from his early canvases in the 1910s to his first creations for the stage in the 1920s and his monumental set designs of the 1940s–1960s.

The exhibition is organized in collaboration with The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts where it will be on display, January 24–June 11, 2017, and was initiated by the Philharmonie de Paris – Musée de la musique, and La Piscine – Musée d’art et d’industrie André Diligent, Roubaix, with the support of the Chagall estate.

Originally published 5/11/17  The Theatre Times