Miracles & Mischief, Durant and Knechtel

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Miracles and Mischief at LACMA
Sam Durant at MOCA
Tom Knechtel at Otis College of Art and Design

The new exhibition at LACMA tells a fascinating story about Japanese theater, with its ancient traditions and eye-catching exotic costumes, masks, musical instruments and multi-panel screens. Called "Miracles and Mischief," it contains about 200 art objects gathered from various Japanese museums, temples, theaters and private collections. To do this exhibition justice, you will have to see it at least twice and not only because it's big or because it's chock full of beautiful objects. The problem with many of the splendid kimonos, some more than 400 years old, is that they require special museum care because of the old fabric's sensitivity to light. In a rather unusual arrangement, the Museum will remove most of the objects in mid-December so they can rest, so to speak, in the dark. In their place, equally intriguing objects will be presented until the exhibition closes in early February. The first hour that I spent at the exhibition, I didn't even try to read the wall texts and labels. I simply basked in the sensual pleasure of looking at luxurious fabrics with multi-colored embroidery, exotic silks decorated with such bold designs that would even make Russian avant-garde artists envious.

The exhibition of Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant at MOCA will probably require more than one visit for me, but not because the pleasures are plenty. Without reading the voluminous wall labels, I was not able to understand the artist's intentions or to connect emotionally with his artworks. I thought that, after almost a quarter century of living in America, I would have been able to relate to Sam Durant's art, which deals with complicated issues of American history and culture. His most impressive installation is made of a dozen large fiberglass tree trunks turned upside down with their roots sticking up in the air. Speakers hidden inside each trunk play different songs, including Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit." I know this haunting music, but I didn't recognize it when I heard it in the Museum, where it was overwhelmed by the noisy soundtracks in the adjacent galleries. Later, while reading the exhibition catalogue, I understood that this installation has to do with African-American culture. So, to enjoy this exhibition properly, one would be well-advised to do your homework first. As for myself, I stick to my old-fashion expectations that good art should first capture my attention and intrigue me on a visual level, which subsequently inspires an intellectual response.

The exhibition of Los Angeles-based painter Tom Knechtel, known for his remarkable draftsmanship, opened last weekend at Otis College of Art and Design. His art is definitely an acquired taste, though luckily, it doesn't require preliminary homework to enjoy. Subtitled "the little theater of Tom Knechtel," this traveling show presents numerous figurative paintings and drawings made by the artist in the last two and half decades. Obviously inspired by the phantasmagorical paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the artist weaves the exotic fabric of his art with images of human beings morphing into strange animals and no less strange objects sprouting limbs and genitals. Tom Knechtel's art is both generous and obsessive. It's easy to get overwhelmed by hundreds of subplots simultaneously vying for your attention. The most recent large-scale pastel drawings show the artist somehow calming down, concentrating only on one figure at a time, and, as a result, producing probably the most mature and confident works of his career.

To get more information about these exhibitions, and to read the text of this program at your leisure, go to kcrw.org, keyword Art Talk.

For more information:

"Miracles and Mischief: Noh and Kyogen Theater in Japan"
November 10 - February 2, 2002
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd., LA, CA 90036
(323) 857-6000

"Sam Durant"
ends January 19, 2003
Museum of Contemporary Art
250 South Grand, LA, CA
(213) 626-6222

"On Wanting to Grow Horns: the Little Theater of Tom Knechtel"
November 10 - February 15, 2003
Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design
9045 Lincoln Blvd., LA, CA
(310) 665-6905