Maira Kalman at Skirball, Coy Howard at SCI-Arc

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DnA is not a “journal of record;” regrettably, the show cannot cover every notable design event, new building or book or exhibit. Nor even can the DnA blog, but whenever…

DnA is not a “journal of record;” regrettably, the show cannot cover every notable design event, new building or book or exhibit. Nor even can the DnA blog, but whenever possible we will draw attention to a must-see or do design happening. One of these is Part II – Whispers and Echoes, the second of a two-part show of work by Coy Howard, the irascible architect-designer-maker-craftsman who has long taught at SCI-Arc and was part of the experimental group of architects, including Thom Mayne and Eric Owen Moss, when they were starting to make their mark in the early 1980s. According to the school, Howard’s second exhibition will “explore perennial issues of architectural experience in an installation of shrouded forms and Howard’s enigmatic writings on the definition of architecture. On view through January 9, 2011.”

Another is the current show at the Skirball Cultural Center of work by the brilliant artist, designer and children’s book creator, Maira Kalman. DnA’s contributor Olga Khazan recently went to see the show, which closes February 13, and wrote this review:

(In jacket) Maira Kalman's self-portrait in an Isaac Mizrahi jacketMaira Kalman doesn’t need much to create art, because she finds art in everything she sees. The artist and designer once said, “My dream is to walk around the world” with her essentials in tow: “A camera. A notebook. A traveling paint set.”

With those tools, Kalman is able to lose herself in a world of childlike wonder. She walks through the streets of New York City, snapping photos and collecting stray items – fodder for her whimsical works. An exhibit of her work, “Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” is now on view through February 13 at the Skirball Center. It’s a timeline of the 61- year-old artist’s life, told through her vivid illustrations, iconic cartoons and, among other things, an impressive collection of ladders.

Born in Tel-Aviv, Kalman was brought to America when she was four. She’s been drawing for more than 30 years in largely the same style: Cartoonish-looking people with big noses and pointy hats, ironic scenes from daily life and dogs depicted as nobility. Her style of art lends itself well to children’s books, of which she has authored 12, but also to wry illustrations for adults, which she creates for the “New Yorker” and for books like Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style.”

Most of her painted works are made with gouache, a type of watercolor, giving them the feel of a old-time Christmas card but with irreverent content. For example, “R. Esterbrook Pens,” a 1977 work, features a typewriter that types pies and breasts instead of letters. “Explanations/Observations,” from 2006, poses a series of questions to the viewer, such as “Will we die in a duel?” and “Will we eat egg salad sandwiches?” Another painting, which is also a “New Yorker” cover, riffs on New York City’s frequent parades by depicting a “Misery Day Parade” with people waving pennants that read “Uggh.”

But not all of Kalman’s works are so light-hearted. Some are daring and political, like the 2002 painting of two dark planes speeding toward the Twin Towers against a piercing blue background. Also on display is her famous “New Yorker” cover, “NewYorkistan,” in which each Big Apple hamlet is given its own Middle-East-themed name, such as “Kvetchnya,” “Turban sprawl” and “Pashmina.”

As the author of a politicallythemed blog for the New York Times, Kalman also shows a deep interest in America’s founding fathers, particularly Abraham Lincoln, of whom she once said, “How could you not love him once you get to know him?” She painted Lincoln as a handsome young man, but depicted some of the other early presidents as women with red lips and bouffant hairdos.

(spools) A glass case full of some of Kalman's favorite found objects.
(spools) A glass case full of some of Kalman's favorite found objects. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Kalman is rarely bored by anything, and she shows a fascination with everyday objects. A painting of a rubber band on a solid background became the foundation for her Rubber Band Society – a club for rubber band enthusiasts. (It has since disbanded, no pun intended).

In the center of the exhibit, glass cases hold sets of objects created by Kalman and her designer husband, the late Tibor Kalman. Among them are clocks with the numbers reversed and a paper weight that’s made to look like crumpled paper covered with the scrawled names of anti-depressant medications. And, perhaps because of their similarity to rubber bands, in a corner are a few neat rows of onion rings – another part of Kalman’s vast collection of objects.

At one point, a woman next to me looked at the onion rings and said, “Look at that. I could be an artist.” But that’s just the point. By seeing the world through Kalman’s eyes, we, too, can find the extraordinary in the ordinary.