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FROM THIS EPISODE

Operatic, Mysterious and Monstrous

There are a number of ambitious exhibitions currently being presented by major Southern California museums, and I hope to review at least some of them in the coming weeks. But today I want to tell you about two stealth shows in smaller museums, which, much to my surprise, I happened upon in the last few days.

The travelling show of the sculptural designs by Isamu Noguchi, one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th Century, was organized by the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, and after travelling through Europe and a stop in New York, has finally arrived in Los Angeles to the Japanese American National Museum. It's been only a year and a half since this small museum presented another knock-out Noguchi exhibition, devoted to his ceramic sculptures, and if you missed it, I feel sorry for you. This new exhibition focuses on the artist's collaboration as a set designer with choreographers Martha Graham and George Balanchine, as well as his achievements as a landscape architect and furniture and lamp designer. The illegitimate son of an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi was born here in Los Angeles and soon was brought by his independent minded mother to Japan to immerse him in Japanese culture. Then in his early teens, he was sent back to America to learn about the country of his birth. All his life, Noguchi felt that he didn't belong to any particular place: in Japan he was perceived as an American artist and in America as Japanese. As a private person, he never fully resolved this internal conflict, yet this duality formed and fuelled his creative process for nearly sixty years.

It should come as no surprise that his art and his life would prove irresistible for another globe trotting, visionary artist---Robert Wilson---the well-known American theater director and set designer. This Noguchi exhibition was conceived and designed by Robert Wilson as a four-act opera, each gallery telling its own distinct story full of dramatic surprises. If you liked the recent presentations by the Los Angeles Opera of Madam Butterfly and Parsifal, both designed by Wilson, you will be astonished by how much more generous---to the point of being passionate---Wilson is in channeling the spirit of Noguchi, an artist he obviously deeply admires.

Across town in another little museum that could, I had an encounter with a mysterious sea monster, whose gigantic, glowing tentacles weave through the cavernous space of the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Guest curator Joshua Decter, with the help of the international architectural design firm Servo, have pulled off a tour de force multi-media presentation, combining digital files from several dozen artists, architects and designers. I spent about an hour circling the enticing beast, marveling at the ingenious display of various images on screens placed at the mouth-like openings at the end of each of its tentacles. Steven Spielberg, with his multi-million dollar budgets, couldn't even touch such a level of ingenuity and creativity. Additional still and moving images are also projected on the walls, some silent and some accompanied by soundtracks. Some images run for only a few seconds, others for hours. I recognized the works of many artists, including Los Angeles-based Catherine Opie, Raymond Pettibon and Mark Bradford. To my surprise, the L.A. Times critic found this exhibition, titled "Dark Places," to be rather disappointing, which I cannot for the life of me understand. I found it to be a deeply satisfying experience, allowing me the chance to experience creative energy, not in a business-as-usual, didactic presentation, but in a fresh and amusing new way. These are two exhibitions that you definitely want to see, and you may even want to see more than once.

Isamu Noguchi-Sculptural Design
Through May 14
Japanese American National Museum
369 East 1st Street
Los Angeles
Tel. 213-625-0414

Dark Places
Through April 22
Santa Monica Museum of Art
2525 Michigan Avenue
Bergamot Station
Santa Monica
Tel. 310-586-6488

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