Santa Monica Museum Invites You to the "Ant Farm"
Yesterday, in a rare show of civility, Republicans and Democrats were exchanging pleasantries at the White House during the unveiling of the official portraits of the former occupants, Bill and Hillary Clinton. In the published photo we see the Clinton's and the Bush's smiling to each other. Two, knee-length portraits, are placed on easels behind the former First Couple. The portraits are executed in the time-honored tradition of academic politeness, which makes such official portraits, whether painted in Russia, the US or in Iraq, look disconcertingly similar. Banality rules the day.
In the Los Angeles Times' coverage of the ceremony, there is an all-too-brief mentioning of the artist, whom Hillary Clinton thanks for his patience in dealing with the Clintons. That's all; there is nothing in the article about the artistic merits of the portraits or about the artist himself, but there is a lovely paragraph devoted to the description of the menu for the buffet luncheon. The New York Times, in covering the same event, pays special tribute to the artist, Simmie Knox, who happens to be the first African-American artist commissioned to paint a presidential portrait, which is worthy news indeed, but obviously not for the L.A. Times.
Here on the home front, The Santa Monica Museum of Art has a new travelling exhibition, "Ant Farm," which overflows with posters, TV monitors, press clips, photocopies etc. etc. plastered onto the walls and gathered in numerous display cases. If you have time and patience, you will learn about an irreverent group of young architects living in San Francisco between 1968 and 1978. Under the anonymous name "Ant Farm," the group brainstormed about futuristic projects, which were never built, published a do-it-yourself catalogue and staged environmental performances. Acquiring the reputation of underground artists, the group traveled around the country in their customized "media van" greeted by their fans as if they were a rock band. Their most famous project, is "Cadillac Ranch" which still can be seen along route 66 near Amarillo, Texas, where they buried 10 Cadillacs in single file. The cars look as if they nose-dived into the ground, with only their rear end sticking out into the air. A kind of weird, dumb Ballet-Mechanique; rusty and graceful at the same time. The exhibition at Santa Monica Museum also tells us about other well-known "Ant Farm" projects, which make you wish you were there at the time of the happenings. Now, 30 years later, looking at display cabinets filled with the yellowing paraphernalia, I felt like a trapped dinner guest expected to watch a slide show about a supposedly exciting vacation trip. On the positive side, this exhibition acquaints a new generation of museum goers with an interesting chapter of American art. The problem is that it doesn't provide enough visual stimulation to motivate visitors to peruse diligently through piles of information.
Susan Sontag, in her writing about art, insisted that an artist has a right to bore the audience. But what about a museum exhibition? Does it have the same right to bore the audience? In this respect, I side with the indomitable Pauline Kael who, according to film critic Sarah Kerr, "refused to praise art with high aspirations if it didn't first of all engage". The same, I believe, should apply to art exhibitions. At the Santa Monica Museum, the story of "Ant Farm" is laid out diligently, but does not capture the rambunctious spirit of these young artists.
"Ant Farm: 1968-1978"
Santa Monica Museum of Art
2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station
310 586 6488
Ends: August 14