Golden State Shines

By Cheng, Scarlet | The World and I, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Golden State Shines


Cheng, Scarlet, The World and I


Avibrant exhibit spotlights California's contribution to the visual arts during the past century, in subjects ranging from migrant workers to the Hispanic moralists through the anything-goes, mass-culture kitsch of today.

California. Its name simultaneously conjures up images of sunshine (surfers, pop culture, New Age spiritualism) and noir ( earthquakes, race riots, and serial murderers). More than a state of the Union, it is a state of mind. Perhaps no other territory has the same kind of mystique in the public imagination.

To capture this shifting image and the underlying reality, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has mounted an exhibition that commemorates both the 150th anniversary of California's statehood and the year 2000. The museum's most ambitious show ever in terms of the number of objects and space allotted, Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900--2000 contains some eight hundred pieces supported by four hundred documents. It is divided into five sections, each covering twenty years and occupying a floor of the museum.

Arguably the leading art museum in California, LACMA has taken its mission with much seriousness and deliberation--in this case, five years of deliberation. Before organizing such a show, the staff had to devise a point of view--one that is now elucidated in the wall texts, brochure, and exhibition catalog. In the last, the show's chief organizer, Stephanie Barron, writes:

"Museums have shown a growing interest in new strategies of interpretation. Exhibitions have begun to appear that locate works of art in relation to social and historical conditions; explore issues of audience and reception; consider the roles of the art market, curatorial taste, and collecting practices; invite artists to interpret or curate works by other artists; examine the intersection of art, politics, and national identity; and present permanent collections through thematic lenses."

These considerations shaped the exhibition, and Barron adds, tellingly, that "questions of cultural or historical relevance took precedence over issues of aesthetic innovation." As a result, some notable artists have been omitted and lesser ones included because their "statements" were thought more relevant to the chosen themes. "The overriding aim of Made in California is to situate art making within the broader context of image making," writes Barron, "and, more specifically, the creation of California's image in the twentieth century."

This is therefore not simply an art exhibition but a review--indeed, a deconstruction--of California's social and cultural history. That is the rationale for including booklets, magazine articles, posters, fashion, furniture and furnishings, and even news footage (such as excerpts from the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on Hollywood in the early 1950s). It is all part of an increasingly prevalent curatorial approach to exhibition making in an age in which-- as LACMA describes itself in its publicity--an art museum "serves as a leader and convener ... for the exchange of ideas and cultivation of new perspectives on the interaction of art and society."

Eden Beckons

In the show's first section, works from the beginning of the twentieth century present California as the land of golden dreams. Here beckon open spaces bathed in sunlight and bounty. It is a romanticized world with a certain Hispanic charm inherited from the legacy of Spanish rule. The exhibition opens with the stated theme "Selling Eden," which refers to promotion of California as the garden of America. This image was popularly conveyed through such items as tourist postcards, travel posters and brochures, and labels on fruit crates. Crate labels often showed examples of the perfect fruit bred there, with backgrounds of idyllic groves or other picturesque landscapes. Sometimes the images were purposely exaggerated, as in a 1910 postcard showing two giant strawberries on an open-bed railcar. …

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