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Art review: Three inaugural shows at LACMA's Resnick Pavilion

September 23, 2010 | 12:00 pm

Resnick view

Three large and very different shows inaugurate the new Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The 45,000-square-foot space, which begins a series of special previews Thursday before opening to the general public with a free community-weekend Oct. 2-3, is a handsome addition to the museum's sprawling campus in Hancock Park.

The three shows are clearly meant to show off the new building's versatility as a congenial home for temporary exhibitions encompassing a wide variety of art. LACMA has been honing its emerging profile as the nation's leading encyclopedic museum, collecting and exhibiting art from all cultures and eras, that also gives pride of place to the work of contemporary artists.

So far the museum's ongoing expansion plan has focused on the latter, with the debut of the Broad Contemporary building 2½ years ago. Now, with the Resnick Pavilion opening just across the sidewalk, the encyclopedic aspect of the museum steps forward. These inaugural exhibitions don't cover the entire waterfront, but they do range far and wide.

One show presents sculptures and vessels from Mesoamerican antiquity. Another displays the evolution of aristocratic clothing over the course of 200 years, before and after Europe's Industrial Revolution. The third looks at an eccentric slice of  European painting, sculpture and decorative arts.

The exhibitions' varied types are one indicator of diversity. So is their relative nature. One show is majestic. Another seems destined to be a sleeper hit. And the third -- well, the high quality of some of its individual pieces prevents it from being a total train-wreck, but the show nonetheless ranks as a  serious misstep.

Olmec view

The majestic show is "Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico," which occupies the central space in the first show of its kind ever on the West Coast. The Olmec civilization, flourishing circa 1800-400 BC along Mexico's Gulf Coast in the vicinity of modern Veracruz, is the oldest in the Americas to have produced monumental art.

Visitors are greeted by an extraordinary 6-foot portrait head carved around 3,000 years ago from volcanic rock -- amazingly, without benefit of metal tools. Stone, sand and other abrasives were employed to render this apparent ruler's furrowed brow, almond eyes, broad nose and full, slightly parted lips. He wears a tight-fitting helmet (probably of leather) adorned with an animal pelt, plus decorative flares in his earlobes.

The back of the spherical head is as flat as a table top. Some scholars believe that colossal Olmec heads, of which 17 distinctive examples have been discovered, began as the functional bases of royal thrones. Upon the ruler's death, the throne's massive base would be tipped upright, like a funerary marker, and one side would be carved as a memorial portrait.

Omec bust 2 Underscoring this possible legacy, the show's two colossal heads rest on rust-colored Cor-Ten steel bases specially designed by Earthworks artist Michael Heizer, whose archaeologist father did pioneering studies of early Mesoamerican cultures. The pedestals' irregular geometry ties them to the rugged landscape and human manufacture.

The colossal head at the entry is at once fearsome and mesmerizing, its stare an epic gaze across time. The volcanic stone sculpture gets its power from the individuality of portraiture, which implies the fragility and temporal passage of human life, fused with the geological "eternity" of  Earth.  

Nearby, a sculpture of a mythic animal (a were-jaguar) possesses an equal measure of monumental authority. The fact that this deity is carved from a piece of dark green jadeite just a few inches high only confirms that "colossal" isn't necessarily a function of size.

Among nearly 200 objects, other highlights include a narrative ensemble of two monumental stone twins kneeling before a fierce feline; a small ceramic bowl whose painted decoration of interlocking fish seems startlingly modern; and, a wood bust in which a haunting, animistic form emerges from the tree limb from which the head was carved (think Edvard Munch's "The Scream").

LACMA curator Virginia Fields and her international colleagues loosely divided the show into three sections -- one introductory, one focused on Olmec nature-imagery and one on the major artistic production centers. The pavilion's open plan makes it hard to follow the exhibition narrative, but the abundance of natural light serves this work well.

By sharp contrast, linear narrative rules "Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915," the gorgeous show likely to be a sleeper hit. A wide corridor snakes through the length of the building, with skylights partly covered to filter illumination of fragile textiles.

Fashion view

The first room lines up nine off-white dresses whose changing silhouettes tell fascinating stories. An English dress (circa 1765) at the far left features wide panniers that distend the wearer's hips by a few feet on each side. Since no one could physically stand next to her, the woman becomes an august, isolated object to be ogled and admired.

At the far right, the 1908-09 silhouette has radically changed. No longer frontal, a gentle, sideways S-curve is formed by a padded bust and a modest bustle in the back. A woman's body, in keeping with Machine Age art nouveau style, is now a supple component of organic nature.

Round the corner and a Paul Poiret columnar dress made just one year later registers with the sharp surprise it must have generated in 1910. Gone is the hourglass figure, with its implied architecture inside the garment. Now the form is a serene classical column, inside of which a woman's body freely moves.

Fashion panniers For the first time in the sequence, the designer also claims credit by name.

LACMA's 2007 acquisition of an astounding collection of costumes and accessories forms the show's basis. Curators Sharon Takeda and Kaye Spilker have taken what could have been an unwieldy closet and given it welcome coherence.

The introductory timeline of silhouettes, which continues to men's clothing, is followed by sections devoted to textiles (sumptuously hand-woven, then later produced by machines); tailoring (the expense of handwork now applied to crafting a garment's elaborate structure); and finally trims (sumptuous ornament and accessories). About 75 full costumes are on view, plus scores of accessories.

Revelations await. Take a pair of women's black leather fetish boots; lined in crimson silk, they turn undressing into a drawn-out tease when 40 pairs of eyelets must be slowly unlaced from the top of the thigh to the tip of the toe. Or the gilded embroidery on a Portuguese royal ball gown that isn't its only sign of obscene wealth: So is a 12-foot train, which demands help from servants to wear.

The clever installation -- heavy but dramatic, with white mannequins emerging from dark gray, sometimes mirrored shipping crates -- is by Italian opera designers Pier-Luigi Pizzi and Massimo Pizzi Gasparon. So is the design of the third, decidedly more problematic show.

"Eye for the Sensual: Selections from the Resnick Collection," organized by LACMA's Patrice Marandel and Resnick curator Bernard Jazzar, surveys 42 paintings, 48 sculptures and numerous decorative works owned by the generous local couple who underwrote construction of the pavilion bearing their name. The installation designers have fashioned palatial period rooms whose bizarre epoch isn't Baroque France but Gilded Age Beverly Hills.

Resnick terracotta The collection's strength is French Rococo frippery, most famously a 1783 portrait of Marie-Antoinette. Painter Elisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun slyly juxtaposes the queen with a lush, pink rose. There are fine, bawdy boudoir pictures by Nicolas Lancret, Jean François de Troy, François Boucher and Jean Honoré Fragonard, plus small, muscular terra-cotta sculptures and erotic reliefs by lesser known artists.
 
Indeed, toss in other nudes ranging from the16th to the 19th centuries, and this exhibition shows more skin than you'd see at the Playboy mansion on a Saturday night.

But to what end? The collector is always the primary subject of a vanity show, and LACMA is of course trolling for a major art gift. (A spokesman says nothing has been committed.) This is at least the fourth show of a trustee's uncommitted private collection I've seen at the museum and, except for a few items, so far none of them has ended up in the permanent collection.

-- Christopher Knight

Follow me @twitter.com/KnightLAT

"Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico," Oct 2-Jan. 9; "Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915," Oct. 2-April 3; "Eye for the Sensual: Selections from the Resnick Collection," Oct. 2-Jan. 2; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000; closed Wednesday. www.lacma.org

Photos, from top: French Rococo paintings and sculptures from the Resnick Collection, credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times; Olmec sculpture show being installed, Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times; Olmec wood bust, LACMA; 'Fashioning Fashion' entry, Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times; English dress with panniers, circa 1765, LACMA; Resnick collection terra-cotta sculptures, Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times; Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, 'Marie Antoinette, Queen of France,' 1783, LACMA.

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