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Art review: 'The Artist's Museum' @ MOCA

October 31, 2010 |  2:30 pm

Robbie Conal Contra Diction 87-88 For most of the past two years, ever since the Museum of Contemporary Art's near-death experience from an extended period of fiscal mismanagement, its exhibition program has been in limbo. To keep costs in check while the battered endowment is rebuilt, the museum has emphasized shows largely assembled from its impressive permanent collection.

The effort has the benefit of getting a lot of art out of storage and on public view. MOCA has long since outgrown its modest Grand Avenue building, where permanent collection gallery space is limited. Its larger Geffen Contemporary building in Little Tokyo is not equipped with the necessary climate controls that would make incisive long-term displays feasible.

The latest in MOCA's reshuffled collection series is "The Artist's Museum," which opened Sunday at both downtown venues. What's most effective about the show is the same as what's least effective.

A survey of work by 146 artists based in L.A. since the museum opened in 1980, it's a temporary simulacrum of what could -- and should -- be a stable, long-term presentation in dedicated museum galleries. It's good, if no surprise, to have common knowledge confirmed that an impressive display could be assembled only from paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, video and installation art made by L.A. artists.

That speaks to the strength of the city's artistic life, partly fueled by MOCA's own role in the scene. But it's not much of a premise for a coherent short-term exhibition. Knowing that the show is temporary (it runs until Jan. 31) even puts the museum's space crunch front and center once more.

"The Artist's Museum" takes its name from MOCA's 1979 founding. Then, an ad-hoc group of about 150 artists came together as the idea for a museum began to percolate, and a committee of 15 was formed to help shepherd the civic project into existence over the next two years. Today, MOCA's board of trustees includes four artists -- virtually unheard of for major American art museums.

The show is divided into two parts. One outshines the other.

Florian Maier Aichen Above June Lake 2005 The traditional rooms at Grand Avenue look great. They hold primarily two-dimensional works, beginning with a lively lobby commission from Jim Isermann. It brings the building's exterior color scheme indoors, with a twist.

X-shaped vinyl decals of hot pink and dark green (the latter is nearly black) cover the walls, turning incongruously red where the lines cross. The sobriety of Russian Constructivism merges with the playfulness of Good & Plenty candy, sending a jolt.

The show concludes with Doug Aitken's multi-room, eight-channel video projection, "Electric Earth," which follows a lone, jittery man through deserted Los Angeles overnight, as if propelled by an unseen power source. In between, works are displayed as they would be in a smart permanent collection, so that individual objects converse with one another.

One gallery holds camera works by five artists. Judy Fiskin's Super-8 lamentation on the waning of film-based imagery in an emerging digital universe is linked to the passage of older, stucco-era L.A. Cindy Bernard's photographs of the vision-blocking interiors of ordinary security envelopes -- the kind consumer bills come in -- coax a menacing tone from abstract patterns and sleek business logos.

Andrea Bowers' funereal grid of photocopies of cryptic pictures and text about social marginalization based on gender hangs next to something different yet similar: John Divola's lush color landscape prints of remote desert shacks. And a large-scale satellite photograph of a mountain ski resort has been digitally manipulated by Florian Maier-Aichen, now suggesting some toxic virus or cancerous tissue seen through a microscope.

The juxtaposition of these five artists' works is inspired. Visually, it's a long way from Fiskin to Maier-Aichen, but deep conceptual connections emerge.

Sam Durant, Abandoned House #4 1995 Another room focuses on urban infrastructure. A failed Utopia lurks within Sam Durant's  vandalized models of pristine Midcentury Modern houses. Catherine Opie's foreign-legion-style expedition to photograph ancient Egypt's monumental ruins is actually an exquisite group of pictures of San Fernando Valley freeways. Underground city life, hiding in plain sight, is implied by homoerotic commercial images suspended by Richard Hawkins beneath a Cézanne-style card table.

Yet another gallery brings together graffiti, low-brow and street art by Robbie Conal, Robert Williams and others, enthusiasms of new MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch. (Whether any of the show's artists have work in Deitch's own sprawling private collection, assembled during his years as a SoHo art dealer, is unknown, since he's declined to provide transparency on those holdings. Isermann, one of two to receive a special commission for the show, is the only L.A.-based artist Deitch Projects represented in New York.) One room also shows work by MOCA's original artist advisory council.

The Geffen, which features sculpture and installation art, is more scattered and less cohesive than Grand Avenue. Perhaps the formal restriction to sculpture blunts provocative connections.

Mike Kelley is the only artist I picked out with work in both halves of the show -- fittingly,  given his international stature, which coincides almost exactly with MOCA's own time line. The spine at the Geffen is his great "Pay for Your Pleasure," a corridor lined with 42 monumental painted portrait heads of artists, writers and thinkers who invoked destruction as a creative philosophy. This hall of "great men," including Mondrian and Thoreau, leads to an actual colored-pencil drawing by convicted serial murderer William Bonin, a.k.a. the Freeway Killer. The shocking juxtaposition throws the differences between art and life into vivid relief.

Devo The show's low point comes nearby, in an installation of pioneer music videos and publicity stills of the otherwise swell nerd-rock band Devo, from a concept originated in Ohio by art students Gerard Casale and Bob Lewis. Devo's Top 40 hit "Whip It" was influential on MTV in 1981.

The band's postmodern concept of de-evolution, or the backward slide of civilization, does seem unfortunately fitting here. Inspired by Deitch's faith in pop culture crossovers as not just commonplace but somehow artistically significant, a quartet of video monitors is backed by walls covered in a grid of 270 souvenir "energy domes," the famous round-ziggurat red hat worn by band members.

The museum-designed installation, meant to look like art, actually looks like a cheesy record-store display. Contradicting the show's theme, it's a lamentable example of a tendency for curators to usurp the artist's role.

"The Artist's Museum," developed from an idea by MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, was organized by associate curator Rebecca Morse (with input from Deitch, staffers Alma Ruiz and Bennett Simpson and former publications director Lisa Gabrielle Mark). In the wake of MOCA's troubles, it plainly means to re-engage a local core constituency. Whether it will, only time can tell.

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

The Artist's Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave.; Geffen Contemporary, 152 N. Central Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Jan. 31. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday. www.moca.org

Photos: Robbie Conal, "Contra Diction," 1987-88; Florian Maier-Aichen, "Above June Lake," 2005; Sam Durant, "Abandoned House #4," 1995; Credit: MOCA; Devo installation. Credit: Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times

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