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SUNSHINE & NOIR'S
EXCLUSIONARY
CANON

BETTY BROWN


David Hockney, "Beverly Hills
Housewife," a/c, 72 x 144", 1966/67

A few years ago I gave a lecture entitled Sunshine and Noir. I used clips from such films as Beach Blanket Bingo and Clueless, The Big Sleep and Bladerunner to show how the Hollywood movie machine continues to present the infinitely diverse lived experiences of Los Angeles as two opposed stereotypes: The often adolescent sensuality of the daytime beach, and the dark underbelly of nighttime crime. I argued that these two tropes reduce L.A. to simple-minded but enduring bipolar oppositions: The Disney/white bread/mindless but inoffensive good of Southern California paradise vs. the Chandler/ Mosely/intellectual/artsy and troubling bad of our velvet hell. Such reductions represent nothing more than limited thought surfing (or should I say "skateboarding?") across well-traveled popular culture grooves.

Can't we do better? I asked. Can't we represent the infinite play (yes, I'm being intentionally post structuralist here) of multicultural signifiers through which we navigate as we drive, read, watch, eat and love our ways through China Town, Little Tokyo, Watts, Beverly Hills, Venice Beach, the Valley, etc., etc.? There are over 200 languages spoken in our city. Dozens of ethnic communities. Neighborhoods of wealth. Barrios of abject poverty. The brazen young. The elderly. The television execs. The hopeless. Can't we get past the old--and very limiting--stories (called by post structuralists "master narratives") and talk about the multitudinous truths of our existences?

Well, whether we can or not, apparently some Europeans continue to see us as reflections of our film selves. They continue to slouch through the quagmire of the same dated dualities. I have in mind the Sunshine & Noir exhibition currently installed at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art, which was originated by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art of Humlebaek, Denmark, the first European-curated historical survey of L.A. art.


Opening the handsome catalogue, curator Lars Nittve's essay begins with a sumptuous description of Los Angeles. I am seduced by the sensuous flow of his text. I settle into the comfort of my craftsman couch (what was it Matisse said about art being like a comfortable chair?) and ready myself for what promises to be a good read. . .

But on the fourth page of Nittve's essay I stiffen into anger. He writes "The long and the short of it is that the European perspective is a very limited one, mainly encompassing the "official" Anglo art scene. . .I am the first to deplore this while at the same time facing the fact that an exhibition is the art of the possible."

Whoa! Am I reading this correctly? Is Nittve saying that he "deplores" the fact that Europeans already know "mainly" the Anglo (i.e., Euro-American) artists of Los Angeles, but since an exhibition is "the art of the possible," he has chosen to focus his show on those very artists? I read and re-read the paragraph, and cannot get away from what he seems to be saying.

What kind of curatorial double-speak is this? I realize my whole body has tensed up. I am angry.

Listen Lars, I want to yell, curators have free will! The essence of their job is choice. They don't have to reproduce the limitations of the past. They can use their curatorial selections to expand, enhance, even correct past perceptions.

After I exhaust myself in this exercise of mental outrage, I realize that Nittve must be very aware of what I want to yell at him. That's why he wrote the words I'm focused on. It's his attempt at an explanation, an apologia. But it doesn't wash. Reproducing a canon that needs to be apologized for is a serious weakness.


Kim Dingle, "Priss Room
Installation" (detail), mixed
media, 1994-95.

 

Wallace Berman, "Untitled",
verifax collage, 115 x 122 cm,
1966. Photo courtesy L.A.
Louver Gallery.

 

Edward Kienholz, "Walter Hopps
Hopps Hopps", mixed media
assemblage, 87 x 42", 1959.

The term "canon" comes from the Old English for "rule" and was originally employed to designate the law or body of laws of a church. By extension, according to Webster, it has come to mean an official list, as of books. In visual art a canon is the list of artistic geniuses who comprise the esteemed geneology of art history. You know who they are: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, etc., etc. There are grand canons with wide scatter shot (covering, for example, all of Europe and America), as well as lesser canons with a more local aim (applying to, say, a specific region or a single city). Artistic canons have come under increasing fire in the critical writing of the last two decades.

Nanette Salomon introduces her incisive The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission with this statement:
"As canons within academic desciplines go, the art historical canon is among the most virulent, the most virilent, and ultimately the most vulnerable. The simplest analysis of the selection of works included in the history of Western European art 'at its best' at once reveals that selection's ideologically motivated constitutiton. The omission of whole categories of art and artists has resulted in an unrepresentative and distorting notion of who has contributed to 'universal' ideas expressed through creativity and aesthetic effort." (Salomon's 1991 article is published in The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited by UCLA's Donald Preziosi and published this year by Oxford University press).

Salomon goes on to trace how the "current official selection of great works of art" is largely based on H.W. Janson's The History of Art which is, in turn, "ultimately and fundamentally" derived from the writing of sixteenth-century Florentine artist and academic Giorgio Vasari. Salomon then analyzes how Vasari and, after him Janson, excluded women from the canon. While Salomon's text focuses on issues of gender and sexuality as they pertain to omission from the canon, other scholars--among them Lucy Lippard and bell hooks--have called our attention to the exclusion of people of color.

I am struck as I review the list of artists in this catalogue by the omission of Judy Chicago, Betye Saar, and the whole of the Chicano muralists. It appears the canon that curator Nittve chose to reproduce was not only "Anglo" but also very male and very resistant--blind?--to the political challenges of art produced in the context of feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, and other actions of human liberation.


One day in October I take my Contemporary Art Seminar to view Sunshine & Noir. We schedule the visit to coincide with a public docent tour. The docent, a middle-aged white woman, is enthusiastic and articulate. She takes us on a one-hour walk through the show, speaking of general themes and pausing to talk in some depth about a dozen or so selected works. She mentions Ferus Gallery. She shows off works by Edward Ruscha, David Hockney, Wallace Berman, Edward Kienholz. We spend some time in the installation by Jason Rhoades, which includes a digitalized map of certain sites in Los Angeles superimposed over a very large and very offensive female pin-up.

The docent finishes the tour in front of Kim Dingle's Priss Room Installation, a nightmarish recreation of a nursery inhabited by two very naughty little girls. The docent is fascinated by Dingle's work as one is fascinated by a freak show. Dingle's is the only woman whose art our docent focuses on during the tour. She does not discuss a single work by a person of color.

At the end of our tour, I look at my twenty or so students. There is a handful of Asian students who look mystified. They have seen nothing that reflects or validates their lives in L.A. An Afican American woman, who is majoring in sociology rather than art, looks confused and alienated. A Chincana just looks pissed. Like me, she's a "counter," and she's noticed Carlos Almaraz' and Gronk's, Judith Baca's, and Patssi Valdez' noticeable absences. We dialogue about the show for awhile, but she departs, still unsettled.


I reflect on what John Stuart Mill wrote over a century ago: "Everything which is appears natural. The subjugation of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural." It may have seemed "natural" to Nittve to reproduce the "Anglo" canon of L.A. art in Sunshine & Noir. The canon was, after all, what his European audience expected and valued. But in doing so, in perpetuating art historical "sins of omission," Nittve created an exhibition that perplexed and ultimately exluded the majority of my group of university students.