Jim Shaw's Wig Museum at Marciano Art Foundation

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The Marciano Art Foundation, opening to the public this weekend, is not a museum but it does contain one. The Wig Museum, a gigantic site-specific installation conceived by one of LA's most original artists, Jim Shaw. It takes up all of a huge gallery in the 1961 Scottish Rite Masonic Temple that brothers Maurice and Paul Marciano purchased to house their art collections.

Old Masonic Relics from Scottish Rite Masonic Temple

Located on Wilshire Boulevard in Hancock Park, clad in travertine, adorned with mosaic murals and carved figures representing important figures in Freemasonic history, it was designed by artist Millard Sheets. The Marcianos, known for their Guess fashion empire, with MAF deputy director Jamie G. Manne, hired Kulapat Yantrasast and his firm wHY knowing he would retain the best parts of that eccentricity while carving out pristine white galleries to showcase institutional scale art.

Jim Shaw, Jim Shaw: The Wig Museum, Installation view, 2017
Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer
Courtesy of Marciano Art Foundation

The ground floor of MAF, in what used to be a 2,000-seat theater for Masonic pageants, is dedicated to rotating special exhibitions. Guest curator Philipp Kaiser, formerly with MOCA, organized this special exhibition of work by Shaw, a perfect fit due to the artist's previous long-standing fascination with Masons as well as other secret societies and religious sects. (Shaw has spent decades compiling his own comprehensive collection of related paraphernalia.) When the Marcianos took over the building, it still contained the costumes, masks and scenic backdrops used by the Masons in pageants. Much of it remains on view in a dedicated gallery of the building.

Jim Shaw, "Wig Museum detail," 2017

Shaw was able to incorporate some of the Masons backdrops into his installation as well as using his own repurposed theater scenery. You walk into and around his towering two and three dimensional sculptures, intricately painted or drawn by him. A master draftsman, Shaw easily borrows from illustration as well as fine art so some pieces recall the work of Maurice Sendak or comic strip characters. Superman plays a prominent role. One wall drawing offers a view of the hero's crotch but closer inspection shows the tight black shorts to be a cavern in which large colored gems glow in the dark: the family jewels. It is not the only phallic reference in a show that ponders the significance and interconnectedness of power, lust and religious structures. An immense rendering of a vacuum cleaner emerges as the phallus of a divine being with the face of George Washington standing in the clouds of heaven. The vacuum hose snakes around the rafters of the space attached to an Electrolux canister. He is sucking up souls.

Jim Shaw, "Wig Museum detail," 2017

Within all of that, an electric sign announces the Wig Museum. An open pavilion displays some of the old, used wigs worn by Masons to play characters like "venerable master." But there are also wigs designed by Shaw that are by turns astonishing and hilarious, each a sculpture unto itself. (All were made for him by Yvonne Tull.) A brown Afro wig with protruding pink crystals labeled "earth" has partners constructed to resemble the elements of wind and fire. (Subtextual thoughts of the funk rock band come to mind, of course.) All are mounted on stands and labeled as exhibits as they would be in any museum.

(front)Paul McCarthy, "White Snow, Balloon Dog," 2013;
(back) "Pollyanna (adjusted to fit)," 2007/2008/2012
Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer
Courtesy of Marciano Art Foundation

A rear wall is covered in a red spider web. An opening leads to a darkened chamber with towering crystals where three garden gnomes are hunkered over a soft light. These are just a few of the memorable details of a show that rewards time and attention as opposed to selfie-opps. Despite Shaw's long and significant presence in the LA, where he attended Cal Arts in the 1970s, this is his first solo presentation at a LA institution though his 2015 survey at New York's New Museum was widely acclaimed.

But what about the rest of MAF? The upper floors are devoted to a portion of the Marcianos own collections. The mezzanine is the site of a mural by Alex Israel that is both simple and impactful: a white wall with realistic paintings of LA's most distinctive vegetation: Joshua Tree, banana leaves, fan palms, but widely spaced with other iconic images: parking meter, signs for valet parking and real estate, even a pay phone. It is LA's hybrid landscape condensed to a haiku. (Israel also was the one to suggest buying the building to Maurice Marciano, who saw the wisdom of it.)

Works pictured include Alex Israel, "Valet Parking," 2013;
David Hammons, "Untitled," 2007 and "Untitled, 2010
Photograph by Robert Wedemeyer
Courtesy of Marciano Art Foundation

Kaiser borrowed from Walter Benjamin's essay Unpacking My Library as inspiration for selecting the Marcianos' first show: Unpacking: The Marciano Collection. Most of the big names of recent contemporary art are on view and often smartly placed. Takashi Murakami's sculptures and paintings are presented with a "stretch" photograph of Murakami work by Louise Lawler. The late Mike Kelley's astute meditations on Superman mythology are shown with spray-painted abstractions and challenging sculptures by the brazenly talented Sterling Ruby, who once worked as his studio assistant. A hilarious turquoise plastic balloon dog by Paul McCarthy riffs on the ubiquitous Jeff Koons, whose work is not in the show. In the uppermost gallery, where a balcony offers jaw-dropping views over verdant Hancock Park to the distant mountains, there are memorable and incisive pieces by Analia Saban and Glenn Ligon. With 114 works by 47 artists, there is plenty to like and to dislike. Most of it was produced in the last ten years, however, so the overall impression at the Marciano is one of snappy, instantaneity, a quality that museums can rarely offer.

Architectural shot of the museum
Photograph by Yoshiro Makino
Courtesy of wHY and Marciano Art Foundation

In its droll manner, Shaw's Wig Museum draws attention to the larger question of what might be the purpose of a museum being built today. Many are concerned that this growing trend towards the establishment of art institutions dedicated to the collections of individuals is jeopardizing the willingness of the one-percenters to support with art or funds to existing publicly funded museums. This was a supercharged question during the establishment of The Broad downtown, which has proved itself to be a great hit with the public. But how can any existing museum hope to exhibit even a fraction of these collections? Much of the most significant contemporary art ranges in scale from very large to monumental. Even dedicated galleries at a pre-existing museum could not absorb the numbers and scale to keep such work on view.

A more pressing issue, I think, concerns the depth and commitment of arts philanthropy. Joining non-profit The Mistake Room, two additional art spaces are set to open in downtown LA: The Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, born of the wreckage of the defunct Santa Monica Museum of Art, and The Main Museum initially funded by preservationist developer Tom Gilmore and his company. Unlike the Marciano, which is privately funded and open free to the public, these other venues will need financial support from culturally-minded people and businesses already donating to the Hammer, MOCA and LACMA as well as the Huntington, the Getty and other museums in the area. When I asked Hammer director Ann Philbin whether this was of concern for her institution, she protested that, on the contrary, the base of art philanthropy simply will expand. Let's hope she is right.

Unpacking is on view through December 24. The Wig Museum is on view through September 17. For timed reservations and free tickets, go to marcianoartfoundation.org.