Sex, Life and Lots of Art

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at081118a.jpg After being seen in London, Paris, and New York, the retrospective exhibition of works by 96-year-old Louise Bourgeois has finally arrived in LA -– to dazzle, to provoke, and to unsettle virtually everyone who walks through the galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art, hosting this exhibition until the end of January.

at081118b.jpg Born in France but living in New York since 1938, Louise Bourgeois is one of the most famous artists working today. Yes, she is still working -- the most recent piece in the exhibition is a large collage created only four months ago. It's made out of a gauzy underskirt, purposefully and specifically arranged in the shape of a vagina. Trust me, after seeing her drawings, sculptures, and installations spanning more than seven decades of artistic journey, you will lose your inhibitions and learn to call a spade a spade. I cannot think of any other artist who dares to deal with human sexuality in such a direct, sometimes even frightening way. And you will never see another exhibition with so many sad-looking, drooping phalluses and boobs: makes you feel somewhat melancholic and philosophical.

at081118c.jpgNot only does every review of the exhibition mention the painful story of the artist's childhood, but Louise Bourgeois herself talks about being consumed with rage when, as a child, she learned of her father's affair with her governess, an arrangement lasting for ten years with her mother's quiet compliance. You might want to check out the attractively designed exhibition catalogue full of fascinating information about the extraordinary life and career of this iconic artist.

at081118d.jpg Starting as a painter, Louise Bourgeois produced a series of competent, though not necessarily very memorable works, a few of which are included in this exhibition. Her drawings are another matter; whether geometric, web-like abstractions or based on Surrealist imagery, filled with erotic desire and fear, these drawings are highly original. My favorite one -- a mean fantasy in pink, composed of multiple images of sharp instruments -- evokes a Freudian fear of castration, something I probably should discuss with a friend of mine who's a shrink.

at081118e.jpg Louise Bourgeois has been known and respected for her work throughout her long career, but it's the last twenty-five years of art-making that made her famous. That's when she started to produce sculptures of spiders in various sizes, from small to gigantic, which turned out to be her most iconic works. Learning that she grew up in a family whose business revolved around the restoration of antique tapestries, I was able to understand the symbolic role of the spider spinning its thread in so many of her works, with their references to childhood, domesticity, and fear.

at081118f.jpgIt's intriguing to see back-to-back -- in the same museum, in the same galleries -- two exhibitions by two exceptional, fearless artists: Marlene Dumas and Louise Bourgeois. Both deal with the subjects of death and sex, often in a particularly eloquent and unsettling way. Both have the balls to go where angels -- and most men -- fear to tread. Now it's up to you decide if you have what it takes to confront the fierce imagination and uncompromising art of a woman who could be your great grandmother.

Recommended Reading:
"Dream Weaver" by Stephen Westfall
Art in America

"Daring and Disturbing" by Sanford Schwartz
The New York Review, October 23, 2008

Louise Bourgeois
On view at MOCA Grand Avenue
Through January 25, 2009

Banner image: Louise Bourgeois' Seven in Bed (detail), 2001; Fabric and stainless steel, 11 1/2 x 21 x 21 in; Courtesy Cheim and Read, Galerie Karsten Greve, and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Christopher Burke; Copyright Louise Bourgeois