California is as much a state of mind as it is a place on the
map, seared into the psyche by a century of larger-than-life images
at every level of popular culture. America's America, where people
go to reinvent themselves, from Hollywood to Yosemite, from
Disneyland to hippie communes, this last stop on the Western
frontier has played a role in the collective cultural dream, fed by
a century of artists, designers, and activists - all of whom have
had their own idea of what the Golden State means to them.
Through February, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is taking
nearly its entire exhibition space (five floors filled with more
than 800 works, the largest show in its history) to examine two
questions suggested by this century of images: Which California?
And whose California?
Divided into five parts covering 20-year intervals, "Made In
California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000" uses a thematic
approach to identify key aspects of the state's evolving identity.
This sociological as well as aesthetic approach to the exhibition
links a wildly diverse array of images: orange-crate labels,
Hollywood glamour shots and costumes, oil paintings, surfboards,
protest posters, furniture, bathing suits, documentary footage,
sculpture, newspaper clippings, and much more. It is a cultural
cross-section of all that California has meant and could mean to
people, a state that during the 20th century became the most
culturally diverse in the nation.
"California's image is familiar around the world," says Stephanie
Barron, senior curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los
Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). "We wanted to create a show
that would explore how the arts played a significant role in
generating, shaping, and disseminating images of California," she
says, particularly in this era of mass-media communication.
Two themes are central to the show: the physical landscape of the
state and its ethnic and cultural character, most notably Hispanic
Each section of the show sets up and contrasts easy, sunny, and
familiar images of the state. Early visions of California pushed the
utopic vision, one of abundant farmland and breathtaking ocean
vistas. But Ms. Barron says, from its inception, state tourist-
board boosterism was a small part of a much larger picture. "We
don't avoid tough political issues," Barron says. "We show the
complete range of images from utopic to dystopic."
Section I, entitled "Selling California," features lush oil
landscapes ("California Poppy Field," Granville Redmond) alongside
images that hint at the darker stories of this age - a photo of
agricultural workers; a booklet with a block print entitled,
"Coronado as Seen through Japanese Eyes."
"We all believe we know California," says LACMA president Andrea
Rich. "Whether we live here or far away, we all have
preconceptions. But this show helps us to see ourselves in new
The self-explanatory second area, "Contested Eden," investigates
the growing rift between California's dominant and insurgent
cultures, as well as the impact of industrialization and
urbanization. Oil fields, highways, bridges, and tunnels all become
subject matter for artists who, a generation earlier, celebrated
farmlands and seascapes.
"The image of California is challenged and complicated by all the
new forces at work in the state," says Sheri Bernstein, a LACMA
exhibition associate. At the same time that early modernism takes
root in the Golden State, with its emphasis on usefulness and
simplicity (rooms of period furniture show the impact of these
theories on daily life), discontent grows among the disenfranchised
segments of society. …