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MARGARITA NIETO

"MADE IN CALIFORNIA":

NOT OUR CALIFORNIA


California emerges in the consciousness of the west as a myth for its name. Its origin comes from a romance of chivalry, the name of a mythical island inhabited by female warriors and ruled by a queen, Queen Califas. California begins as an island of the imagination, a space born of the imagination which became real through its inhabitants and conflictive intercourse with other beings, with things, with ideas.



Granville Redmond, "California
Poppy Field," o/c,
40 1/4 x 60 1/4", n.d.








Redlands Orange Growers'
Association, "Rose Brand Oranges,"
crate label, 10 x 11", c. 1910.
This mythical origin and subsequent reality come to mind when viewing Made in California, the enormous exhibition organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Needles to say, this is an ambitious project whose objective consists in presenting an overview of what was “made in California” during the last century. Presented in five parts, 1900-1920: Selling California; 1920-1940: Contested Eden; 1940-1960: The California Home Front; 1960-1980: Tremors in Paradise; and 1980-2000: Many Californias, and occupying galleries in the Hammer and Anderson Building as well as LACMA West, it is a dazzling, daunting and puzzling exhibition of paintings, works on paper, sculpture, photographs, decorative arts, clothing, and various and sundry items which can be variously classified as objets de vertu, memorabilia, kitsch or tchotkes, depending on your point of view. These sundries range from fruit crate labels to tourist brochures to miscellaneous souvenirs, all of which begin to disappear from the galleries as the exhibition moves toward the mid-century and beyond.

The exhibition’s concept is a response to two basic questions: “Which California?” and “Whose California?” The response begins in the first section with three “mythologies” as modes of “the selling of California,” evidence of a subverted “Eden.” There is, according to the explanation for this theme, an apparent mandate to sell the image of the Golden State through the romantic mythologies of a “Spanish” (i.e. exotic) California, an “Indian” (read “noble savage”) past and a “neoclassical” ideal, that is, a quest for an Arcadian paradise that is a recapitulation of the Roman and Greek tradition. All of this is conveyed through images ranging from representative paintings of the period by such artists as George Inness, Granville Redmond, William Wendt, and Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel. Their works, however, hang alongside and next to the aforementioned paraphernalia. To be certain, the installation does create a kind of historical context, but unfortunately it simultaneously trivializes and even denigrates these painters’ works.

Beyond the immediate confusion, a series of puzzling questions arise: How and why are these concepts “mythologies?” What do we mean by “mythology?” Are we referring to the study of myth, a body of myths? Are these references to Northrup Fry, Roland Barthes, or is this a phenomenological examination of the meaning of the things and concepts which surround us?

For instance, in broad Barthian terms, the California Missions, real architectural structures that they are, are also a concept and word embodying meaning. They were and are a problematic construct, venerated but also implying land ownership, exploitation, and so on--a meaningful if ambiguous keystone of the state’s historical reality. As are the “Indians.” If “Indian” culture, that is the indigenous peoples of the state we now refer to as Native Americans, is a “mythology” then where do the roles of Berkeley anthropologists Theodora and Alfred Kroeber fit in? Their work on California Indians is a seminal element of modern ethnography, not a mythology at all. The baskets and photographs used as examples of this “mythology” represent art forms, material representations of a culture. As presented here confusion is fostered between genuine cultural artifact and tourist souvenir. What are we reading here, or perhaps misreading here? Carey McWilliams versus Helen Hunt Jackson, and/or Ramona versus Ishi?

The third “mythology” involves a new Arcadia, exemplified by the development of Venice and its canals, the bohemian and pastoral communities of which Carmel is an excellent example, and the formation of clubs like the San Francisco Bohemian Club. These materialized an escapist longing, according to the exhibition notes and catalogue, to return to a paradisiacal view of ancient Western tradition. This tendency was also, incidentally, basic to Latin American Modernism, as exemplified by the architecture of the Palermo and Recoleto quarters of Buenos Aires, or the development of the garden edens in the southern area of Mexico City. Read Rubén Darío, and look at the paintings of Julio Ruelas. The Arcadian vision was hardly exclusive to California.

All of this articulates a view of an isolated California, a decontextualized California. Instead of conveying California as a space aware of the other, of the world and of the circumstances surrounding it, these works decribe an identity seen as within a void. California was never and is not an island. California is not a separate unit without a world view.


San Francisco-Oakland Bay
Bridge Celebration, Official Program,
booklet, 10 x 8 1/2", 1930s.

One possible response to that decontextualization is of course, Hollywood. Hollywood creates a reality without borders, generating images and culture from within, and bringing images and culture from afar. But how is Hollywood, that mecca of imagery represented here? By posters, stills, film clips in the information areas, costumes, and a few thematic paintings, but not a single work of art that illuminates the tinseltown phenomenon.

By contrast, the existence of politicial borders are a different kind of California reality: the national border with Mexico, and yes, the state borders with Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. The border concept is only represented, however, in isolated manifestations. The extended context of the Pacific Rim and the vast ocean which washes our shores are not really considered. California may have been regarded as a mythic island early in the century, but its history narrates an involvement with a greater whole. That awareness is deleted from this exhibition. (I remember as a small child arguing that the “Far East” was really the far west; if the east coast was east, how could Japan and China which lay across the ocean in the opposite direction, where the sun set, be east?)



Millard Sheets, "Angel's Flight,"
o/c, 50 1/4 x 40", 1931.









Edward Kienhollz, “Back
Seat Dodge ‘38”, mixed media,
66 x 240 x 144”, 1964.









Richard Diebenkorn, "Freeway and
Aqueduct," o/c, 23 1/4 x 28", 1957.
The second section, Contested Eden, again offers a muddle of ideas and concepts. Significant works by Millard Sheets (Angels Flight) Edward Biberman’s Sepulveda Dam, Fletcher Martin’s Trouble in Frisco, and Barse Miller’s Apparition Over Los Angeles, are installation and explained in wall texts so as to reduce them to historical thematic statements that have been stripped of their aesthetic contributions to the painterly discourse of their time. There is an attempt at multicultural inclusion--works by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Alfredo Ramos Martínez, are hung as a group in side galleries, thus fragmenting the idea of a whole and implying a marginal contribution by these artists. Another key thread is the influence of Asian aesthetic ideas which develops from the early part of the century well into the thirties. This occured only around the influence Stanton Macdonald Wright, a fact made apparent in works such as Tokio Ueyama’s 1924 painting Cove, Monterey Bay, as well as woodcuts by both Catherine Hammel Gearhart and Bertha Lum.

In all of this, we grope for a structure. Is this cultural history, art history or what? What makes these works art? Why do they merit our attention? The answer is not easily forthcoming.

Perhaps this is a strange commentary in a postmodern world. Consider that Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim Museum, recently said at a press conference that a museum can be both “a theme park and a cultural institution.” If that is the purpose behind this exhibition, so be it. But then why do the advertisements, the objects, the travel posters and the tchotkes magically disappear from the galleries after the fortieds and fifties? The galleries dedicated to 1960-1980: Temors in Paradise (and presumably 1980-2000: Many Californias as well, though I cannot be certain, as this section of the exhibition opened after press time) are hung with highly evocative California art. Properly in the foreground are John Baldessari, Ken Price, David Hockney, as well as key individual works such as Richard Diebenkorn’s Freeway and Acqueduct (1957), Lee Friedlander’s Los Angeles, California (1965, gelatin-silver print), screen prints by Ed Ruscha (Standard Oil [1966], and Hollywood [1968]), Ed Kienholz’ installation works Back Seat Dodge ‘38 (1964) and Illegal Operation (1962), which are separated thematically (“car,” “protest”), and Michael McMillan’s Central Meridian: The Garage (1981). There are fine three-dimensional works by Larry Bell, Peter Alexander (Cloud Box), Ken Price, and Robert Irwin among others. With the notable exception of the placement of a Manuel Neri figure next to two mannequins modeling bathing suits by Rudi Gernreich, these galleries resemble a serious exhibition, and that is in stark contrast to those dedicated to the first six decades of the century. Unfortunately a re-creation of San Diego’s Chicano Park murals as well as of Gilbert ‘Magú’ Luján’s ofrenda, Tribute to Mesoamerica, are placed in a side gallery, for the second time relegating Hispanic art to a role at the edge of the entire project.

So the fin-de-siecle sections emphasize ART much more than IMAGE and IDENTITY. Is this an indirect way of stating that California only begins producing real art after this period? That is exactly the impression given the inclusion/exclusion of cultural objects from one time period to another. In so doing this exhibition only perpetuates that long-established idea, that idée fixe, that California has no real art history during the first half of the last century. What is substituted instead, and apologetically in its tone at that, is a popular cultural overview.

So which California and whose California? Whose art, what image, whose identity? If something is to be gained from this effort, it may be the continuation of that long, ongoing dialogue. Yet this exhibition was supposedly committed to if not put an end to that debate once and for all, to at least revise the historical and aesthetic context of art produced in California during the twentieth century. To that end, the Museum held early advisory meetings to hear from art historians, writers, critics, academicians, and artists. Despite that, the bottom line is that the exhibition continues to perpetuate clichéd ideas, from the mercantile image of a paradise for sale, to the idea that the last century was a simple formula of product (Selling California), conflict (Contested California and Tremors in Paradise), and synthesis (Many Californias). And perhaps that is true. Perhaps California was/is a commodity, a marketable trinket, particularly for those who have come here from outside the state. Perhaps that is their view, their identity, their image of California. But for those of us who know the state from within, know its history and its culture, what is “made in California” embodies the legacy of a dream: for the artists who have lived and worked here have dreamt their Californias. Their art embodies our image, our identity. Their dreamt California is our California. Sadly, that California has been neglected here.