Abandoning the New York chip on my shoulder, I headed towards sunny Los Angeles ready to take in whatever the city threw my way. I had never been to the City of Angels, and the coincidence of Pacific Standard Time with the annual College Art Association (CAA) conference provided the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about the history of art and design in the region, while exploring the contemporary L.A. art scene.
Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930–65 is the first major exhibition of mid-century modern design in California. From the first Barbie Dream House to the Studebaker Avanti car to a full reconstruction of the Eames House living room, the show examines the objects, environments, and attitudes that defined West Coast style and living at mid-century. A large curved metal armature, designed by architects Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung weaves through the exhibition, creating intimate enclaves within the open-plan galleries while permitting visitors sightlines through the successive galleries. Framed by this structure are myriad seemingly disparate objects—a shiny Airstream trailer, the Eameses’ molded plywood LCW chair, Ruth Asawa’s abstract wire sculptures—that collectively define a modernism that is lighter, brighter, and more relaxed than its staid European counterparts.
In association with the exhibition, I attended a panel discussion with graphic designer Lou Danziger, architect Ray Kappe, and designer Gere Kavanaugh (all three have work in the show), who collectively looked back on Los Angeles as a land of opportunity, a working environment uninhibited by the past and brimming with artists and designers full of idealistic visions of the future. This idealism and sense of hope was palpable in the exhibition, but I wondered to what extent it remained today.
My friend Donielle invited me to a preview tour of Miss You, an exhibition of work by the Brazilian street artists Os Gemeos, led by the artists and MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch for the Contemporaries, a premier membership group for young people in the arts. For the exhibition, the identical twin brothers created an immersive fantasy world with paintings, light installations, textiles, and an interactive video. Every inch of the gallery was transformed. The red walls bled into the floors and ceilings, creating a womb-like environment from which amoebic light-heads emerged and illuminated the room. Along the perimeter of the space hung portraits of the yellow-skinned inhabitants of the brothers’ fantasy world. They described the characters like family members, noting things about their personalities and lifestyles not shown in the paintings. The artists’ real family was part of the exhibition as well. They assisted with the installation of the exhibition, and a series of small textiles on the second floor was created by the brothers’ mother especially for Miss You.
During the tour, Deitch discussed tensions inherent to exhibiting street art in a museum or gallery setting (a challenge he has faced many times, most recently in his Art in the Streets exhibition at MOCA). In most instances, museums represent street art with fragments or severely decontextualized recreations of original murals or graffiti works. For street artists, the entire urban environment is fair game, so the fragments often sit uncomfortably in the governed gallery environment. The success of Miss You lay in the complete control that Os Gemeos were given over the gallery space.
The next stop on my trip was Chris Burden’s Metropolis II, on view at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA. The large kinetic sculpture is made up of approximately 1,200 miniature Hot Wheels cars that speed through a dense network of buildings at 240 scale miles per hour. Burden estimates that every hour, 100,000 cars pass through the city along the curving, tiered, multilane highways. The frenetic, noisy, crowded city is familiar (was I back in New York?) but not identifiable. It is a hybrid city with an Eiffel Tower lookalike, a mosque, a cathedral, and towers created with the Eames’ House of Cards—all connected by a network of monorail trains. As the museum neared closing time, huge crowds gravitated toward Burden’s work on their way out. The flashes of iPhones and digital cameras added to the delightful frenzy of the environment.
It was not until later, undistracted by the whirring of toy cars but conscious of the gridlock of real cars around me, that I wondered about the implications of Metropolis II. Is Burden’s a utopian or dystopian vision? Metropolis II is supremely regimented; the driverless cars never crash and the train is always on time. This particular future could not have felt more distant than during my trip to L.A., where my driver’s-license-less self depended on perpetually late buses and grumpy taxi drivers.
A number of young people who I encountered throughout my trip assured me that I didn’t need a car to get around L.A., calling my attention to the bike movement sweeping the city. Their enthusiastic idealism reminded me of the energy described by Danziger, Kappe, and Kavanaugh as characterizing the design community 50 years earlier. Is L.A. still the golden land of opportunity for young people in the arts? My friend and LA culture blogger Kyle explains, “The energy of the art world in Los Angeles is very untamed…it is limitless, endless, without judgment, and full of opportunity for creation and collaboration…the idea of the wild, wild West exists.” In a city known for its superficiality, I was taken aback by the openness of the art scene. There is room for experimentation and whimsy in the creation, presentation, and consumption of art in L.A., a quality that I find is all too distant in the New York art establishment.