Saturday, June 13, 2009


I promised some art talk today, based on our visit, last night, to the Los Angeles County Museum, so here goes:

First, there was the big current exhibition, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples.

It's a spectacular exhibit, beautifully installed, but I need to say right off that I enjoyed for different reasons than those I had expected. First, I saw it more as a decorative arts show than a fine arts show. You might get a sense of what I mean from the installation shot, above. The Romans were great admirers of their Greek predecessors, and much of the sculptural work is derived from those sources. Hard to explain, but it doesn't quite have the edge and vigor of original art work. It's beautifully crafted, much of it--and the Romans clearly produced some superb craftsmen. And yet, for me, there's an element of--what? genius? originality? personal vision?--that hits me in the gut when I'm confronted with a brilliant and inimitable work of art. So I settled for enjoying it all as a wonderful display of arts decoratifs, and really, what's wrong with that? From the sculptural interior and garden furnishings to the often magnificent wall paintings that graced the opulent villas of the wealthy artistocrats of the period (we're talking, for the most part, 1st century BC and the 1st century AD; the eruption of Vesuvius was in 79AD,) we get a fine overview of the out-of-town life of privileged Romans in Pompeii, Herculanium, and neighboring areas.

And this was the second aspect of the exhibition that I found particularly rich in both intellectual and emotional impact. It's impossible, I think, to walk through this exhibition without imagining the people whose portraits--either in stone or paint--gaze down at us from two millenia ago. Here's a bust of Julius Caesar; we contemplate his features with the awed realization that this what the man looked like. There's a lovely glass bowl or a silver drinking chalice; we can almost feel the two hands that cupped it in our own. They seem, despite the intervening centuries, so strangely close.

Thus, for me at least, the exhibition was provoked a profound and moving reflection on the passage of time and the imponderable question of mortality. The people who lived among these objects, "possessed" them, valued, or in some cases worshipped them, were overtaken by the sudden sweep of death in the midst of life. Yet curiously you can easily get the impression that they live on in the stillness and silence of a museum exhibition far from where they lived and died. Is it because of the incompletion of their lives that their spirits seem unable to abandon the artifacts with which they were surrounded? Or is this just fanciful projection on my part?

Perhaps the latter. No matter, it was this feeling that brought the exhibition to life and gave it the charge it might have lacked, as I suggest, as "art."

I did, though, get the familiar art kick from an ancillary exhibition that has received far less publicity--Eleanor Antin's Classical Frieze. The pun is, surely, wryly intended, because the end product of Antin's work is a series of large-scale, freeze-frame photographic images culled from carefully staged tableaux vivants--witty riffs, if I may put it thus, on the Age of Enlightenment's Neoclassical Romanticization of Classicism. Two of the images are included in the Pompeii show, and another two in a separate, adjacent gallery--too easily missed!--along with a marvelous video documentation of Antin's process.

Choosing sites that evoke the opulence of those Roman villas, Antin coordinates the skills of actors, costumiers, set and prop designers, and make-up artists to recreate deliciously decadent scenes that poke mischievous fun not only at those ancient Romans but also at the excesses of our own times. Here's "Petronius" ...

... a tongue-in-cheek celebration of wealth, excess, over-the-top eroticism and sensuality and unabashed hedonism, all in the context of a ritual suicide (center right: sorry, not a great picture) that suggests the spiritual rot at the heart of luxury.

I actually loved this work, completed by Antin, appropriately, in pretty much the span of the Bush years. Her vivacity and her sense of fun combine with a painter's feel for color, texture and composition to create images of endless visual interest with the kind of transparency of intention that needs no interpretation or explanation. Though small in the number of works included, her exhibition is one of the more delightful experiences you'd expect to find around Los Angeles this year.

One of the special pleasures of having hung up my critic's cap, some years ago, is being able to write freely about friends. It has been a while since I spent time with Eleanor Antin--though I'd like to think we are kind of old friends. It's a bit different, though, with Marsha Barron, whose work we saw later in an exhibition at LACMA's Art Rental Gallery, in the company of two other artists. Marsha is a friend, and a regular at our artists' group meetings, and we're lucky to enjoy a couple of her drawings in our own home. Her contribution to the show--a row of small drawings with charcoal and low-key pastel colors--is a tribute to the power of modest means and an intensely personal vision. And by "modest" I don't mean small in any way--despite the scale to which she restricts herself in this series. By "modest" I mean clean and unpretentious, consciously not-arty, honest, without flourish or excess. Here's a poem I wrote about Marsha's drawing, some years ago. It still feels right:

The line proceeds directly
from the heart, through the hand,
to the white surface of the paper,
with all its swkward pauses,
its hestiations, its sudden jolts
and turns, uncharted passages
through anger, fear, and pain;
or then, long, elegant moments
of inexplocable clarity. A spindly,
long-stemmed thing succeeds
in not quite being a flower;
a chunky, volumetric shape,
in not quite being a vase:
objects that never were, nor
will be, but in the mind's eye,
now here, on paper, startling
in outline, an inner darkness
translated with fierce precision
into the real world of here-I-am.

Enough for one day. More art, I expect, tomorrow...


mandt said...

Antin's kitsch classicism even out does the excesses of Victoriana! Brava! Well done.....

ganesh statue said...

Good Victoriana!

hele said...

what a absolutely wonderful post. i feel awash with sensations and discoveries.

and the poem captured my imagination and reminded me of drawings have loved.

magical. thank you.

hele said...

and then i read this post straight after yours about modern day American icons in the Museum of American History.

how well these two posts compliment each other: