Smoking Art in Downtown LA

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Mark Twain once famously said, "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." Last Saturday, while enjoying long, happy hours in the museums and galleries of Downtown LA, I couldn't help but think of these words.

Everyone who's kept up with the LA art scene over the last couple of years knows that MOCA has been going through difficult times. And yet, all of a sudden, there I was, having a great time seeing not just one, but three of their current exhibitions in the main building on Grand Avenue and at the Geffen Contemporary.

Kerry James Marshall: Blue Water Silver Moon (Mermaid)
Acrylic and collage on linen (1991)
Image courtesy of the artist

The very title of the new, sprawling exhibition, "Blues for Smoke," made me expect a rather lightweight, not very challenging show celebrating American popular culture. I was wrong. At the entrance, you are greeted by two major works by Jean-Michel Basquiat that, from the very beginning, evoke the atmosphere of a bluesy, smoke-filled club. This exhibition is chock-full of first-rate paintings, sculptures, and photographs, installed with particular flair and, all together, telling a captivating story of the profound influence of the blues on contemporary American art and culture. To do full justice to this exhibition, one needs to spend well more than an hour there – I definitely plan to return.

Taryn Simon: Chapter I
A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII (2012)

The second exhibition at the Geffen, by American photographer Taryn Simon, also intrigued me – especially as I had recently happened to hear her give a passionate talk about her artistic practice. The very title of her show, "A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII," already indicates the complex issues of various forms of injustice suffered by human beings. Traveling around the world, Taryn Simon has been able to persuade authorities to allow her access to places and people as varied as victims of genocide in Bosnia and the impoverished populations of India. Though I was taken by the cool beauty and intellectual vigor of her photographic projects, I missed the passion and emotional connection I had experienced by hearing her talk the day before.

(L) Lee Bontecou: Installation, "Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962"
Lee Bontecou: Untitled, Welded steel, canvas, black fabric, soot, and wire (1959)
© Lee Bontecou

And here is the third MOCA show, this one titled "Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962." It opened several weeks ago and has already been very well reviewed. There are dozens of extraordinary examples of post-World War II artworks by international artists challenging – if not literally destroying – what we think of as traditional painting. The show was organized by Paul Schimmel, MOCA's former chief curator, and it reminds us of the exceptional legacy of his tenure at the museum for the last quarter-century.

After seeing these three exhibitions at MOCA, I headed for the nearby Chinatown. A little bit more than a decade ago, a bunch of adventurous galleries opened there, making Chinatown a destination for art lovers. But, over the last few years, that scene had mostly fizzled, so I didn't expect too much. The next thing I know, I am spending the rest of the afternoon there: perusing interesting shows, talking with the dealers, and having a really good time.

Laura Sharp Wilson: Mirror, Mirror
Acrylic and graphite on Unryu paper mounted on aluminum (2011)
Image courtesy Sam Lee Gallery

At Sam Lee Gallery there is a strong show of drawings by the Boston-based artist Mary O'Malley and of Salt Lake City-based artist Laura Sharp Wilson, whose meticulously rendered works on Japanese handmade paper have an unusual balance between chaos and resolution.

Ik-Joong Kang: Things I Know (2012)
Installation at Sabina Lee Gallery
Photo by Edward Goldman

At the nearby Sabina Lee Gallery, I watched the dealer put the final touches on the ambitious installation from the Korean artist Ik-Joong Kang, consisting of five thousand colorful wooden blocks covering a tall, curving wall, each bearing only one letter. Together, they comprise a sort of diary of the artist's thoughts and experiences. On the floor, there is a sculptural installation of more than a hundred small ceramic bowls, emanating ambient sounds from the speakers hidden inside them.

(L) Gary Baseman: installation at KK Los Angeles
(R) Gary Baseman: Cat Woman (2012)
Images courtesy of the artist


My visit to Chinatown ended on a high note when I discovered a Halloween-inspired, delightfully spooky exhibition by well-known LA artist Gary Baseman. His is the first show at the newly opened KK Los Angeles gallery and it draws from the artist's extensive collection of vintage photographs of people in masks. Some are left as is, but many have been painted over to particularly phantasmagorical effect.

So, paraphrasing Mark Twain, let me say that reports of the demise of the Downtown art scene have been greatly exaggerated.

Banner image: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta; Acrylic, oil paintstick, and paper collage on canvas, five panels (1983) © 2012 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat