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PST, A to Z: ‘Under the Big Black Sun,’ ‘Naked Hollywood’ at MOCA

December 29, 2011 |  9:00 am

Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.

Weegee_Acc_18871_1993_web
One huge, black hole of a show, “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981” at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary charts the flowering of pluralism in 1970s art — how in that turbulent era, art overflowed its traditional bounds and ran in any number of directions. Of course, the starting point for something new is more often than not the destruction of something old, and while “UBBS” is a celebration of pluralism, it also lives up to its name, full of acts of negation, derision and subversion.

With more than 400 objects on view, it's also nearly impossible to summarize. (Christopher Knight does a yeoman’s job in his review.) Such is the nature of true diversity, although I was dismayed to see works by African American artists Betye Saar and John Outterbridge alone in a cul-de-sac at the back of the galleries. Traditional notions of art history may have been chucked out the window, but some outdated boundaries are apparently more recalcitrant than others.

Big-Black-Sun-081_webStill, artists were clearly out to dismantle, or at least expose, such borders. In her 1977 video “The East Is Red, the West Is Bending,” Martha Rosler reads the user’s manual for a consumer wok, managing through her deadpan delivery to convey the cocktail of exoticism and sexism that comes with globalization. Ilene Segalove’s collage series “Meet the Turk (Meet the Jerk)” from 1975 dissects images of a mustachioed model from Camel cigarette ads. Cutting out and cataloging his clothes, props and companions, she deftly (and humorously) defuses his masculine mystique.

Other artists took the idea of negation more literally. Christopher Williams’ 1981 series of re-photographed images of John F. Kennedy show only the back of his head (which is still eminently recognizable, by the way). In his 1978 gubernatorial campaign, Lowell Darling declared that if elected, he would hire his competitor Jerry Brown to run the state. (Brown won.) And in 1977, Ed Ruscha painted the back of the Hollywood sign with the sun going down behind it. It doesn’t get more “negative” than that.

Although they may have blossomed in myriad directions in the 1970s, such strategies were similar to those of tabloid photographer Weegee, the subject of a concurrent show at MOCA Grand Avenue, “Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles.” Born Usher Fellig in Ukraine in 1899, Weegee got his moniker from the Ouija board, due to his uncanny ability to be early on the scene of grisly crimes in New York. In 1947, he decamped for L.A. and turned his lens on Hollywood, portraying its glittery celebrity culture with a sardonic edge. His images reveled in bringing the screen idols of the day down a notch or three, mercilessly distorting their perfect visages and photographing them from the least flattering angles.

Weegee_Acc_3002_1993_webIn the book that resulted from his L.A. sojourn, “Naked Hollywood,” Weegee juxtaposed an image of a horse’s behind (that of Roy Rogers' famous steed Trigger) with a shot of sex symbol Jane Russell’s analogous body part as she leaned out of a car. In other spreads, he photographed Francis the Talking Mule — an actual mule — out “clubbing,” or waited for that golden moment when a star was about to put a forkful of food in her mouth. When he photographed them from the front, he used bendable plastic lenses to distort celebrities’ faces, making Elizabeth Taylor look like Tweety Bird, or reducing Joan Crawford to only a single, staring eye.

He was almost equally unkind to the fans — although to his credit, he found them equally interesting. He called an image of hands holding an autograph book “Bible,” and in the series titled “An American Tragedy,” dispassionately charted a failed autograph seeker’s emotions from elation to tearful distress.

In other words, Weegee documented the golden age of Hollywood in the round, with all its blemishes. His street scenes are crammed with commercial signage — he was especially interested in all the ads for colonics, which he described as “nature spelled backwards.” He trained his camera on jail cells full of drunks, tired showgirls relaxing backstage, and naked mannequins in shop windows, whose plight he likened to Hollywood’s extras: “speechless, nameless, and always getting nothing for all their work and effort.” He clearly had an eye for the little guy (or naked doll, as it were).

But unlike the “UBBS” artists who hoped for big structural changes, Weegee’s relationship to Hollywood was more ambivalent, more like that of Andy Warhol, whose portrait he snapped in 1967. Weegee worked as a consultant and a bit player in the industry — there were two movies based on his books — and clearly encouraged his own cult of personality, posing with the starlets he photographed and mugging for the camera. His name is painted on his camera bag in large letters, like a circus sign.

There’s also something a bit juvenile about his brand of humor — rear ends, cartoonish faces and naked dancing girls. It’s worth noting that he never intended his photographs to be seen in an art gallery — they were perhaps more like the “they’re just like us!” images in today’s tabloids (only much, much more amusing) or the rapid-fire satire of “The Simpsons.” However, despite its blunt critique of the Hollywood star system, a pervasive sense of fun is what “Naked Hollywood” is ultimately about.

-- Sharon Mizota

The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., L.A. (213) 626-6222, through Feb. 13. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. www.moca.org

Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., L.A. (213) 626-6222, through Feb. 27. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. www.moca.org

Photos, from top: Weegee, "Hollywood Premiere," about 1951, International Center of Photography, Bequest of Wilma Wilcox, 1993, © Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images.

Installation view of "Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981" at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, photo by Brian Forrest, from MOCA.

Weegee, [Marilyn Monroe], about 1960, International Center of Photography, Bequest of Wilma Wilcox, 1993, © Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

 

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