If your image of Aphrodite's birth is of a lithe strawberry blond demurely covering her nudity as she gracefully surfs to shore on a cockleshell, in the manner of Botticelli's famous Renaissance canvas of Venus, her Roman version, you might want to imagine again. One common source of the myth (there are a few) could not paint a more different picture.
The Titans, predecessors to the Olympian gods, were the children of Uranus, ruler of the sky and a terrible brute, and the Earth-mother Gaia. The young Titan Cronus, in a bloody and successful struggle for power against his savage father, took his scythe and, with a fearsome blow, severed Uranus' genitals. He threw them into the sea.
Matter was fertilized by divinity -- albeit in a sexually charged act of violence -- creating a bubbling froth of sea foam (aphros, in the Greek). Aphrodite, embodiment of celestial flesh, washed up on the shore.
This epic story of patricidal rage and castration hardly invokes Botticelli's limpid sensuality. For a fuller, definitely stranger, sometimes even horrifying but finally truer interpretation, a visit to the Getty Villa is in order.
"Aphrodite and the Gods of Love," which opens Wednesday, is a fine exhibition that restores the fullness -- as well as the occasionally creepy eccentricity -- of the marvelous mythological figure. Organized by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which has a large collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, it has been somewhat reconfigured for the Villa's smaller gallery spaces by Getty curator David Saunders.
A Utah-based artist has published a painting on his website that shows a grim President Obama holding a copy of the U.S. Constitution in flames. Apparently it's causing a bit of a stir. Here's the caption I would put on the illustration:
"A concerned President Obama, former constitutional law professor, points to the document's destruction."
That's close to being the exact opposite of the description illustrator Jon McNaughton put on his painting, since reports say he wants Obama to be soundly defeated for reelection in the fall. But mine certainly fits the picture that he painted.
The painting is junk (yes, junk) not because its style is realist or anti-Modern or the image is pandering or inflammatory (you should pardon the expression). The primary reason McNaughton's painting is a flop is simply that conflicting interpretations can be credibly applied to an image whose only function is to illustrate one idea. The artist has been quoted as saying that he "wanted to get the message across as clearly as I could." He failed.
A murmuring 18-channel video installation by Natalie Bookchin at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions is an affecting meditation on perceptions of race, specifically concerning African American men. The subject is socially, politically and emotionally fraught, and its charged complexity is prone to artistic treatments that are rote or sentimental. Bookchin deftly avoids those traps.
The video installation comes from a documentary tradition. Documentaries are always socially minded, and this work does not turn away from grim realities; they include statements and assumptions by and about fellow human beings -- black, white, Asian and Latino; male and female; young, middle-aged and old -- that can make you wince. But it is the opposite of sensationalist. Instead, the Los Angeles artist fashions a slowly unfolding, non-linear narrative that quietly haunts the imagination.
Absorbing the installation takes time, since the initial encounter is disorienting. The large rear gallery at LACE is dark, with 18 flat-screen monitors suspended in space around the room. At any given moment, most of the screens are also dark; intermittently they light up in dispersed groups of two, three or more with brief bursts of talking heads -- sometimes ranting, sometimes questioning, always earnest.
The recent decision at the Orange County Museum of Art to organize the first full retrospective of paintings by John McLaughlin (1898-1976), which is very good news indeed, happens to coincide with an ambitious exhibition at Blum & Poe chronicling a pivotal revolution in modern Japanese art. Anyone interested in McLaughlin -- among America's great 20th century artists and the first in Southern California -- should make a point of seeing the Culver City gallery's revealing "Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha" (to April 14). It was organized by independent curator Mika Yoshitake.
Mono-ha, roughly translated as "School of Things," is hardly known in the United States. But the art, which is mostly sculptural, transforms a profound Japanese aesthetic into a contemporary idiom that was also essential to the Californian's earlier work. McLaughlin lived in Japan, China and India for many years before moving to L.A. in 1946 and starting to paint, and he bought and sold Japanese prints for much of his life.
Mono-ha is characterized by artists making worldly refinements rather than withdrawing into tradition's cloistered realm. Materials are ordinary or industrial -- dirt, water, stone, paper; steel, lumber, concrete and glass. Nature and industry often collide. For the generation following World War II's devastating blow to national identity, the friction is unsurprising. By the '60s, the stresses of explosive reconstruction were felt.
UC Press, $49.95
David Park (1911-1960) was a first-rate painter who found himself in a tough spot in fall 1946. Clyfford Still, the imperious and voluble artist who would pioneer Abstract Expressionism, wanted to take over the advanced painting class that Park taught at San Francisco's California School of Fine Arts. The administration turned him down, and Still harbored a grudge for years.
Park went on to paint his way out of the dilemma, finding the means for a distinctive type of figuration that could be convincingly infused within muscular abstraction. In "David Park: A Painter's Life," Nancy Boas (Society of Six) draws on 20 years of interviews and research to tell the story of how Park came to spearhead Bay Area Figurative art, spawning Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown and others. This welcome volume is the first full biography of a Northern California artist.
-- Christopher Knight
"I hope that's not costing us a lot of money," said the man on a bicycle at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and 36th Street in Long Beach, as we waited for the light to change the other day. Down the block, the 340-ton granite boulder that will be the centerpiece of artist Michael Heizer's sculpture "Levitated Mass" sat in the middle of the road, suspended in an industrial sling within a massive, specially built transporter two-thirds the length of a football field. A crowded block-party swirled around it.
This was Day 8 of the circuitous, 11-day journey that began in a Riverside stone quarry and ended, 22 cities later, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There, over the course of the next few months, the two-story-high rock will be positioned atop a deep, 456-foot-long trench of structurally reinforced concrete running along 6th Street. The trench was mostly completed last fall. When the sculpture is finished in late spring or early summer, a viewer will be able to enter the sloping trench and pass beneath the giant boulder balanced above.
Did eager anticipation for that day spark the flame of public imagination, drawing international media and tens of thousands of visitors during the rock's 105-mile journey? No. But the spectacle is worth considering. It tells us about the distinctive intersection between art and the public today.
This post has been corrected. See note below for details.
Italian artist Alighiero Boetti (1940–1994) once made a sculpture that consists of a small, 30-inch-tall black box lined in reflective metal and topped with glass. Inside is a wired light bulb. According to plan, a hidden timer randomly illuminates the bulb once a year for just 11 seconds.
Imagine what it would be like to come into the room where "Annual Lamp" is housed, only to be told that the bulb had just turned off. Missed it! Just another 30 million-plus seconds within which to hope to be present to empirically confirm the event.
I can't say from my own experience whether or not the light actually turns on, because I've never seen the bulb light up. (The 1966 sculpture is in a German collection -- although at the moment it's in London at the Tate Modern for a big Boetti retrospective.) But that might not matter. For what I do know is this: Waiting for the illumination promised from any work of art resides at the core of Boetti's savvy sculpture.
Illumination does come, whether or not the bulb suddenly burns bright, if only in the clarified nature of expectations in the ordinary art-viewing experience. That, we tend to take for granted.
Consciousness is complicated. At the UCLA Fowler Museum, a modest exhibition of a very different body of Boetti's work materializes another dimension of it.
The art collection at the J. Paul Getty Museum regularly adds exceptional works, such as an exceedingly rare, early Italian Renaissance portrait drawing -- which might be an even rarer early Renaissance artist's self-portrait drawing -- by Piero del Pollaiuolo (circa 1443–96). The Getty snagged it at a January auction.
Still, the museum's collection has always seemed to lag more than it should, given the Getty's huge financial resources. Turnover in the museum director's office might be part of the reason why.
Three directors have overseen the museum since the Getty Center opened in December 1997, and the plum job has been vacant for the last two years. That will change in September, when Timothy Potts arrives to assume the directorship. Currently in England at Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum, Potts was formerly director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas -- a longtime Getty collecting rival. Among his acquisitions there was an exceptional Roman bronze head of an athlete, once mistakenly thought to be part of a Venetian Baroque sculpture.
What might the appointment mean for the future of the Getty's permanent collection? In Sunday Calendar's Art & Books, I'll consider some of the possibilities. Read the Critic's Notebook here.
[Update: An earlier version of this post misstated the location of the Fitzwilliam Museum.]
Photo: Roman, Head of an Athlete (Apoxyomenos), circa 2nd–1st century B.C.; probably after Lysippos (Greek, circa 365–310 B.C.), cast bronze; Credit: Kimbell Art Museum
The massive transporter hauling the 340-ton boulder wrapped in plastic that eventually will be the centerpiece of Michael Heizer's outdoor sculpture "Levitated Mass" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is parked until Wednesday night in a commercial strip of Bixby Knolls, a Long Beach neighborhood just up Atlantic Avenue from the 405 Freeway.
The massive transporter takes up the center two lanes of the four-lane street. The boulder hits the road at 10 p.m., headed for Vermont Avenue north of Carson Street.
Meanwhile a block party, extended until 7 p.m., is under way.
At lunchtime there was a DJ, a live band, food trucks, a taco stand, a booth selling T-shirts ("Bixby Knolls Got Rocked"), street artists spray-painting on cardboard sheets, several TV cameras, many still cameras, lots of cellphone cameras, a makeshift table display labeled "Pop Art" (stacked cans of Rockstar Energy Drink), some buskers, dogs on leashes (including mine), pontificating actors from a local theater, plenty of security guards, plenty of slowly moving traffic (although no actual traffic jams) and a steady stream of hundreds -- no, probably a few thousand -- looky-loos filing along the crowded sidewalks.
The boulder, quietly suspended within the transporter's industrial cradle amid the hubbub, seemed positively petite.
When Thomas Hart Benton's murals depicting Missouri state history for the Capitol building in Jefferson City were unveiled in 1937, deep in the dark days of the Great Depression, a clamor arose over the artist's inclusion of corrupt Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast. Within a few years, Pendergast would be locked away in Leavenworth -- something about failure to pay taxes on bribes received -- but Benton was adamant in defending his mural's depiction.
Facts were facts, truth was beauty. Everything in the mural had happened in Missouri history, Benton insisted, and if he had been hired to paint a mural for Illinois he would have included Al Capone.
Pretty much the same defense is now coming from Missouri Republican Steve Tilley, speaker of the House, who recently chose conservative radio shock-jock Rush Limbaugh to be immortalized in a bronze sculpture inside the state Capitol. Limbaugh is currently bleeding advertisers in the wake of a three-day diatribe demeaning a law student as a "slut" and a "prostitute" for her position on women's healthcare. The broadcaster lives in Palm Beach, Fla., but was born in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
“It’s not the 'Hall of Universally Loved Missourians,’” Tilley told the Kansas City Star in defense of his decision, now the subject of a petition drive to halt the move. “It’s the Hall of Famous Missourians.”