L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
My sister, who is on a Fulbright in Thailand and living in a small village in the Uttaradit Province, realized a week ago that she needed a haircut. This was nerve-wracking. There were cultural differences and language barriers involved, and nothing makes you crabbier than a haircut that isn’t right. She asked a woman named P’Oong, and said “My hair is not beautiful,” partly because it was truly how she felt, partly because it was something she knew how to say in Thai. P’Oong pulled back her hair and said, “Chai ka. Oh, but your face is beautiful and your eyes are the sea (ta-lay) and your smile is genuine (jingjai) and your body is catwalk.” Wrote my sister, “For the rest of my life, I will fly back to P’Oong to get my hair cut.”
Good curators are like good hairdressers, writes artist Meg Cranston in a smart 2011 essay for Bard’s Red Hook Journal for Curatorial Studies. “Younger curators in particular tend to see their job as a hermeneutic pursuit to uncover or properly define the themes illustrated by objects in the work,” she explains. This is the “curator as journalist” method, exhibition-assembling as a fact-finding, storytelling mission. But once the story is found and told, the objects are just placeholders, and “the exhibition doesn’t really matter.” Instead, curators should be far more superficial and image focused: like hairdressers, “the best ones make you look good, the worst ones ask how they should cut your hair.” The best curators have “the goal of creating a captivating appearance that eases the burden of received notions of truth.”
This is NOT easy. Those curators who ask artists what their work means and how it should hang and think hard about themes and ideas, might spend long hours over press releases and essays. They might work really, really hard like an academic does on a thesis. But I have read wrought over essays and seen shows that try to convey big ideas more often than I have seen shows that hit that right note and put art together in a way that seduces upon first sight.
I am thinking about curators right now in particular because the land art show “Ends of the Earth” opened at MOCA last weekend and the “Made in L.A.” show, L.A.’s first official city biennial, opens tomorrow. “Ends of the Earth” was curated by two of the smartest contemporary, scholarly art thinkers in this city: Philipp Kaiser, who came to this city in 2007 and will leave soon to become director of Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, and Miwon Kwan, who wrote One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity in 2002 and teaches at UCLA. The show has these great moments, like in the room where Italian artist Pino Pascali’s two blocks of packed earth are hung high sticking out from otherwise perfectly white walls or the little corridor hung with Keith Arnatt’s small photos of a hole revealed by the artist’s shadow and heads sticking out from under sand. But other rooms feel like text books. They require too much reading and figuring out.
“Made in L.A.” was put together by five curators — Malik Gaines, Cesar Garcia and Lauri Firstenberg from non-profit LAXArt and Ali Subotnick and Anne Ellegood of the Hammer Museum. They chose who would represent “underrepresented” L.A., then commissioned new work from the chosen ones. I have only caught glimpses so far, and am intensely curious to see how their vision of L.A. art looks all together.
But I wonder if the best curated exhibition in L.A. right now isn’t the small group show at Thomas Solomon Gallery. It’s a painting show, up through June 9, and while I am not fond of most post-60s abstraction, this show charmed me. I loved the way Analia Saban’s Study For Erosion fall apart in a perfectly orchestrated way, how N. Dash’s Healer — a primed canvas hung over a sheet of primed linen — wrinkles at the bottom and how Daniel Buren’s striped canvas looks as domestic as a newly pressed bedsheet and yet is powerful enough to hold down the room.