California, Dreamed

People who try to get their arms around California inevitably have trouble. The place is too large, diverse, and complex; it isn't really one place at all, except maybe in the minds of outsiders. So it's not surprising that Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000, the monumentally ambitious and grandly titled show that runs through February 25 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), would run into equally monumental difficulties. Even as cultural history, which is what it's intended to be, it struggles.

From high art to kitsch, almost everything is represented somewhere: Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, and David Park paintings; reproductions of Diego Rivera murals; Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins photographs; Arts and Crafts "bungalows" and furniture; Frank Gehry architectural designs; Chicano street paintings; pottery, lamps, and glassware; rock-band psychedelics, bathing suits, orange-crate labels, glitzed-up car bodies, Barbie dolls, film clips, protest posters, movie placards, promotional postcards, magazine covers--all of it loosely organized not by form but by 20-year periods. As such this huge show itself becomes an artifact of our cultural confusion. "Think of the giant flea market at the Rose Bowl," said Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, "albeit sifted and sorted and endowed with pretensions."

And yet even in this confusion, Made in California raises important questions, not only about California but also about our common national culture and its institutions. In a time when a proposed new $678-million Guggenheim Museum in downtown New York is to include a skating rink and basketball courts, when the original Guggenheim has given itself over to a suck-up show of Armani designs that one critic called "the world's longest store window," and when Las Vegas casinos are hanging Renoirs and Monets, where are the lines between high art and pop culture or between the museum as depository of great works and the museum as a marketing operation and center of popular entertainment? In a time when aesthetic and cultural standards are under assault everywhere, often in the name of diversity and democracy, it is no longer clear where art ends and social argument begins. While political and constitutional principles necessarily apply to all Americans, to what extent do we also require a common culture in order to remain a single nation?

Put for the moment, take the LACMA show on its own terms, as social history. Its underlying theme is as American, and in some respects universal, as it is Californian: the dialectic between a mythic Arcadian image (with the New World, and particularly the West, as an Edenic virgin land) on the one hand and the industrialized agriculture, natural disasters, immigrant-crowded cities, and growing diversification of people and culture within it on the other. The Arcadian image, of course, was not made in California: It was envisioned by Europeans long before they'd ever set eyes on the real place--imagined somewhere else and thereafter reflected and remade here. It was then appropriated and exploited by the railroads, by auto club magazines, and, most of all, by real estate developers pushing what we all now know as the California dream. In the early days, every orange crate and nearly every painting produced there was a promotion of sylvan California. The art produced in and about California in the first decades of the twentieth century--Maurice Braun's evocative Moonrise over San Diego Bay, or the paintings of William Wendt or Guy Rose--was nearly devoid of human figures. French impressionists filled their work with people and contemporary life; California impressionists rarely did. And for the better part of a century, Indians, Hispanics, and Asians were either patronized, ignored, or demonized--as in Opium Fiend, Arnold Genthe's 1905 soft-focus photograph of a Chinese man. This was "the new Eden of the Saxon home-seeker."

In the show's section on the decades before World War II, the dialectical scheme--Arcadian paradise versus industrialized dystopia--seems to work fairly well. Despite the fact that California was an urban state almost from its beginning, images of the darker side of this world rarely appear before the 1930s--at least not in this show. There are photographs of disasters like the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, but the real lives of the state's agricultural workers and its nonwhite immigrants, the battles over the plunder of water from the Owens Valley, and the violent repression of organized labor following the dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times in 1910 are not represented. Even a work like William Coulter's 1907 painting San Francisco Burning is as much a seascape as a depiction of gritty reality. Ashcan realism apparently remained stuck on the other coast.

Yet almost from the start, the curators' politically correct agenda seems to honor work not for its aesthetic power but largely for its social realism. The show includes moving evocations of the internment of the Japanese in World War II; lots of 1960s posters for Huey Newton's Black Panthers and César Chávez's United Farm Workers, some gorgeously designed; Dorothea Lange and Otto Hagel photos of Depression-era migrants and unemployed factory workers; and plenty of pictures, installations, California-noir film clips, and posters showing the dark side of the California ideal of the postwar era. But where are the union posters and flyers from the first decades of the century, the representations of the white-on-white urban strife in Los Angeles or of the railroad octopus that was strangling farmers? Where, alongside the racism, are the posters and cartoons boosting the affirmative side of the progressive politics that remade the state in those years? Were they left out merely to accommodate this tendentious curatorial scheme?

There is some wonderful stuff in this show, especially for the years between 1920 and 1980, the decades of the great California breakout, when Hollywood generated a new kind of romance that seemed to turn the Edenic on its head. In evoking glamour, sophistication, opulence, and sensuality, the movies were selling what appeared to be a different image. Yet the new was hardly disconnected from the old. It was the warmth and sunshine, the space and newness, that allowed you to remake yourself, that produced the beautiful bodies and the opportunity for the new life and the styles--in clothes, cars, furniture, and architectural forms, all amply represented in this show--that came with it.

Inevitably, those things would lend themselves not only to caricature, satire, and campy celebration--as in Judy Chicago's Car Hood, or Larry Fuente's outlandishly decorated Derby Racer--and to happy innovations with new materials and styles, but also to grainy explorations of suburban homogenization, seedy commercial strips, environmental degradation, racist violence, and impending disaster: the boulders perched perilously over the fragile ranch houses in Joe Deal's Fault Zone photographs; Carlos Almarez's garish but powerful painting of a burning tract house; Ester Hernández's take-off screen print Sun Mad Raisins ("unnaturally grown with insecticides, miticides, herbicides, fungicides"). But where can you go--artistically, culturally, politically--from here?

For anyone who believes that many of our cultural waves first break in California and then roll east, the most disturbing part of this show--and the least satisfying--is the last. It's called "Many Californias," covers the years since 1980, and is almost unrelievedly dreary. The title's reference is obvious: Although non-Hispanic whites will continue for another generation to be California's largest minority, the Golden State no longer has any ethnic majority--a demographic fact that foreshadows similar patterns in other parts of the country. As a consequence of its changing population, says Howard N. Fox, LACMA's curator of contemporary art, in a catalog essay, "multiple views of the state began to emerge."

The multiple views, of course, had been there from the beginning. Yet oddly enough, the LACMA show ends by reducing these diverse perspectives to a narrow spectrum whose paradigmatic images are the cover of Mike Davis's apocalyptic 1998 book Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Catherine Opie's self-portrait photograph of her mutilated back, and a set of photos of various Babel towers of Los Angeles billboards. The subtext of this drama of images is that over the course of little more than a century, California has indeed sunk from Edenic purity to urban disaster--from unified, if oversimplified, celebration of unspoiled nature to visual and perhaps social chaos, thereby ironically reinforcing the power of the whites-only Arcadian image of a century ago. Despite Los Angeles's promotion of itself as a multicultural metropolis, Fox says, the city is no melting pot. Rather, "Los Angeles is regularly balkanized and rebalkanized into a myriad of shifting enclaves based on race, nationality and ethnic identity."

Maybe yes, but, given the rising rate of intermarriage and acculturation, maybe no. In any case, the last section of this huge exhibition leaves you longing for the happy solidity of the first part--or indeed for any examples of passable art that strives for something beyond grungy commentary on yesterday's news. Where are the state's emerging artists? Where are Gerald Tsuruda's gorgeous photos of the Central Valley rice fields? Where are Nathan Oliveira or Christopher Brown? Where are Roy DeForest's happy (and Edenic) Funk Art animal send-ups? Is there really no one celebrating California's new people and faces or reimagining the beauty of the land?

What's even more surprising is the absence of the computer, which needless to say has produced a radically new way of perceiving the world. If Hollywood, the great California-based dream factory of the half-century after 1920, was the prototypical cultural form of its time, then surely Silicon Valley--its technology, styles, images, and culture--is an equally powerful force in our perception of the contemporary world. Yet Silicon Valley is totally absent from this show: no digital art, no computer graphics, no Photoshop, no Web page icons, not even a computer or a mouse. How that new state-of-the-art culture would be presented and organized is itself a challenge for the curatorial imagination. But next to it, nearly everything in the last section of the LACMA show--the homoerotic paintings, the little ethnic-protest installations, the photos of barbed-wire border fences--is a backward-looking footnote.

California's demographics, politics, and social patterns all have major implications for the nation's future; and the politics of the past generation--from the tax revolt of 1978 (Proposition 13) to the virulent immigrant-bashing of 1994 (Proposition 187) and the administration of former Governor Pete Wilson--has, for the most part, been depressingly regressive. But Made in California hews far too closely to that political story. Like its technology, California's art and cultural energy--even the art that is specifically "about" California--has been so much better than its politics. It has not been its reflection. A great art institution ought to be the first to make that clear. ¤

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