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Peter Clothier

Peter Clothier

Posted: October 1, 2010 06:24 PM

Big Day at LACMA

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We're back down at the beach this weekend after a two-week stint in the big city. It was actually an easier and friendlier return than we had feared. The house was welcoming and efficient: this time, for a change, we found no malfunctions. The lights worked. The fountain played. The fish swam, happy to see us back...

And we edged our way gingerly back into the world of art and culture. Last weekend, as I noted in The Buddha Diaries, there was a round of galleries with some interesting shows. Then, Thursday, a big press conference at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to introduce the new Resnick Exhibition Pavilion. Designed by the Italian architect, Renzo Piano, and surrounded by an artist-designed palm garden by Robert Irwin, it replaces one of those vast, hideous LA parking structures that we all love to hate. A low-profile, seemingly rather modest single story structure from outside, the pavilion creates a wide open space for what LACMA boasts is "an acre of art."

In his short address at the press conference, the architect described it nicely as a "tolerant space" which seeks to capitalize on one of our chief attributes in this part of the world: light.

Piano is a known maestro in the use of natural light, and the quality he has achieved in the Resnick Exhibition Pavilion is reminiscent of the exquisite serenity of light in the Louis Kahn-designed Kendall Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The three concurrent inaugural installations -- more in a moment -- are designed to highlight the flexibility (well, "tolerance") of the space, but a wide central swath allows an unobstructed experience of this calm, even distribution of light from the banks of skylights overhead. Art objects of all kinds are hungry for light -- even though some have to be protected from it -- and spring to life when exposed to it in the most appropriate way. Thus, in the central area, a spectacular collection of ancient objects from the Mesoamerican past is allowed to shimmer with renewed vitality even in the context of the contemporary world.

(My own photo: excuse poor quality)

As noted, the acre of space is for the present divided into three separate and very different exhibition spaces. The central "aisle" is devoted to "Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico," which in fact features masterworks from roughly 1400 to 400 BC, ranging from the massive stone portrait heads of rulers...

... to quite tiny sculptural objects of both ritual and utilitarian significance...

Documented with a rich resource of historical information, the exhibition is a fine example of what a museum like LACMA should be doing at its best, bringing the past to life and allowing us the opportunity to experience that particular moment in human history through the objects that its people made and left behind them.

Confronted with these ancient products of the human imagination, fabricated by human hands no different from my own, I feel both a physical and spiritual connection with those who strove, so many centuries ago, to come to terms with the mystery of their own humanity -- and learn that much more about my own. Impossible to stand before those massive, silent presences without a profound emotional response that reaches into the complex depths of consciousness.

To western side of this central corridor is "Eye for the Sensual: Selections from the Resnick Collection," a fitting tribute of gratitude to Lynda and Stewart Resnick, whose generous gift supported the construction of the Pavilion. Installed in rococo splendor...

(My photo: as above)

... complete with Versailles-sized mirrors, rich wallpapers, chandeliers and fine furniture, the huge collection of paintings and sculptures vies valiantly with the effusion of decorative arts. I have to say that I am not a big fan of (mostly French) art of the period, but my eye was tickled by a couple of sensual extravagances like this Boucher painting...

... and by a naughtily charming Fragonard painting of two pubescent girls with their dogs (no image available in the LACMA press package.)

The area to the east of the Olmec show is devoted to the third installation, "Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915," another exhilarating example of museum work at its best. Beautifully installed along a winding corridor, as though but recently resurrected from their packing crates, these eye-popping exemplars of stitchery and design are at one level a sheer aesthetic pleasure for the eye, on the other a social and economic history of Europe in its heyday. If the Olmec show invites us into the world of Mesoamerica, long before the arrival of Columbus and the European colonizers, "Fashioning Fashion" allows us a glimpse--no, the offer of a prolonged and detailed investigation--of those Europeans and their culture of glorious, even wasteful extravagance.

The exhibition includes a multitude of truly beguiling dresses and magnificently wrought textiles...

But I'm particularly glad that the curators chose to include the support systems for many of the costumes--the bustles and crinolines, petticoats...


... and corsets--since these, it seemed to me, evoked not only the artifice that supported these very beautiful and glamorous garments but also the underlying systems of monarchies and the increasingly wealthy bourgeois classes that predominated.


"Clothes make the man," wrote Mark Twain, echoing the old adage. "Naked people," he added with a twinkle, "have little or no influence on society." What, I wonder, would the Sun King have looked like without his peacock's display of couture, fancy accessories and wigs?

All in all, it is gratifying indeed to have this wonderful new exhibition space on the still-developing LACMA campus. Located at the center of our sprawling mass of cities, it is well placed to be the "town square" for all of Los Angeles that it aspires to be.