Field Trip #1: Los Angeles

Molly Lowe, Hammer Projects.
Molly Lowe, Hammer Projects.

Sara Estes’s job has her hopscotching around the country nearly nonstop, and she manages to squeeze in some art at every stop. While she cannot discuss her top-secret job, she can discuss the art.

Her first Field Trip column takes us to Los Angeles.

La La Land, City of Angels, Best Coast, whatever you want to call it, it’s a bit overwhelming to be a Los Angeles virgin with only a handful hours to explore the city’s art. Before the trip, my friend Vero raved about how amazing the city was and gave me a laundry list of recommendations: go to The Dresden in Los Feliz, must eat Japanese food, get a drink at Club Tee Gee in Atwater, go to some other place in Koreatown that I’ve forgotten the name of. My friend Luke gave me more spots: Leo’s Taco Truck, the Getty, Amoeba Music, Griffith Observatory, MOCA LA. And my friend Hans told me I had to go to see a crazy art-filled eyeglasses store called Gentle Monster. With only a sliver of down time on my trip, the deluge of must-sees kind of made my head spin, but also made it seem like the most gem-filled city on earth. Walking down Sunset Boulevard for the first time, Elliott Smith’s “Angeles” on repeat in my headphones, I struggled to figure out which museums I would tackle during this short trip. I settled for three: The Broad, Hammer Museum, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology.  

The Broad is LA’s youngest, hottest museum that, as it turns out, rhymes with “mode” NOT “flawed” — which I’ll never manage to say correctly. The Jasper Johns six-decade retrospective, “something resembling truth,” was cool for the first fifteen-ish minutes, until I realized I wasn’t really all that crazy about Jasper Johns. Why? The repeated flag motif kind of makes me want to puke? I suppose I’m that nauseated by American politics these days. Flag after flag, no matter how subverted, gave me a pulsing existential headache. The bulls-eyes weren’t much better. Not to mention, it seemed like all Johns’s work was gray. Though I know that’s not technically true, it felt that way to me: every painting in every room was muddy and gray. I found myself walking through gallery after gallery hoping that it was the last one. That is not my typical reaction to comprehensive exhibitions; I’m a very slow-paced, patient art viewer—but not with this show. That said, for all the forgettable gray paintings, there were two wonderfully bleak ones that stood out. In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O’Hara (1961) is a somber breakup painting with the title of the poem in block letters at the bottom edge. Johns made it after the dissolution of his seven-year relationship with Robert Rauschenberg. The painting is still a flag composition but a severely frustrated and drained flag—which I appreciated. The second great gray painting was Field Painting, the one with a bright red light affixed from the top; it was different from all the rest.

The Braod Museum, Basquiat and Jasper Johns.
At the Broad Museum, works by Basquiat and Jasper Johns.

While I can’t emphatically recommend the Johns show unless you’re a superfan, the permanent collection was a nonstop funhouse. First, you take an escalator through a tunnel-like structure that looks like an intestine (in a good way) and gets spit out in front of two monumental El Anatsui pieces undulating along the vast wall and you have to try with all your might not to touch them.

There are the staples: Koons inflatables, Ellsworth Kelly color-fields, a room of Lichtensteins—I’ve seen enough of those bros at this point. I was more drawn to what I’d never seen. Like Robert Therrien’s dreamy Under the Table—an enormous set of table and chairs you can walk under. It makes you feel like a shrunken kid. Another highlight was Mark Tansey’s monochrome oil painting Wake based on James Joyce’s book Finnegan’s Wake. Dozens of faces are hidden in the waves and table scene, including the authors. Tansey’s blue is, maybe, the bluest blue I’ve ever seen—photographs will never do it justice. Finally, I walked away with a new favorite Basquiat painting: a chef named Joe making fried eggs.

I went to the Hammer mostly for Molly Lowe. Lowe’s work is all about the dystopian aspects of social media and technology, which appeals to me because I am a bit of a curmudgeon regarding social media as it exists today. I’m hopeful that cool platforms will exist in the future, but until then, hell if I’m participating in the manipulative, addictive empires we have today. Bleh.

Barbara Kruger. Video stills.
Barbara Kruger and others, The Globe Shrinks, video stills, 2010, at the Hammer Museum.

So there was Lowe’s show, and then there was Unspeakable, a video exhibit with work by Charles Atlas, Barbara Kruger, and Kara Walker. Kruger’s The Globe Shrinks (2010) was the best thing in the whole damn museum. Disorienting, sincere, tense, provocative—stark text mixed with a four-channel video compilation that filled the four walls of the gallery floor-to-ceiling. It was a kind of microcosm of socializing, the inherent kindness and brutality. Vignettes featuring bad jokes, road rage, religious zealots, a conversation between narcissists. By showing, not preaching, Kruger prods viewers to make their daily interactions a little kinder and less self-serving. It’s a good message that get across if you’re patient and actually watch the whole thing. Kara Walker’s video was as chilling and disturbing as one would expect from a Kara Walker anything. The marionette narrative is a story of slavery, rape, abuse, and murder. Everything about her aesthetic was a nod to Harlem Renaissance superstar Aaron Douglas. Atlas’s video fell pancake-flat in comparison to the punctum (stealing Roland Barthes’s photo term, does it apply to video, too? sure, why not) of Kruger and Walker. In Atlas’s video, Lady Bunny, a drag queen with a gargantuan blonde wig rambles about politics and then sings a very long disco song. It also had something to do with sunsets. I love the sun and drag as much as the next person, but the work had zero depth and tried too hard to “make a statement.”

Speaking of boring, so was the third and final exhibition, Stories of Almost Everyone. It was far too monotonous to be as large as it was, which was very large. Purported to “explore the narrative of objects,” the show was basically a jingle bell here, a pile of glass shards there, socks on the floor there, et cetera. In other words: normal shit lying around a big room. And each thing had a placard that told a brief, mostly non-compelling story about the object. Cool, one question though: who cares? Not I. However, kudos to the curator on the good (if misleading) exhibition title.

Hammer Museum, Stories of Almost Everyone, Los Angeles
Kasper Bosmans, George IV Kilt Hose, 2017, in “Stories of Almost Everyone” at the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

So about seven years ago, I read Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of WonderLawrence Weschler’s phenomenal book about L.A.’s uber-quirky Museum of Jurassic Technology and its founder, David Wilson. Weschler, my long-standing nonfiction writer crush, uses Wilson’s operation to discuss the entire history of museums; it’s wildly fascinating and mandatory reading for anyone working in the museum field. That said, the book put the Museum of Jurassic Technology on my bucket list. And boy, did it deliver. There’s nothing like it in the world.

The two-story dimly lit (and I mean, like, extremely dark in there) house is a museum about museums. It is ambiguous, murky, and takes risks other museums never would. The exhibits may or may not be rooted in scientific fact, but are nonetheless enthralling—like a history of knots and string figures, decaying dice, microminiatures, stereofloral radiographs, and other curious concepts. The best exhibit of all is Geoffrey Sonnabend’s Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter, which suggests memory is just a big construct humankind created “to buffer ourselves against the intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and the irretrievability of its moments and events.” I zenned out as I watched the video explain how what I think I remember about my life may be all fake. Hello darkness, my old friend.

Exterior view of Museum of Jurassic Technology, and an exhibit of string. Los Angeles
The quirky Museum of Jurassic Technology and an exhibit about string.

Another beautiful exhibit is No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mt. Wilson Observatory. If nothing else, based on the museum’s name and all its exhibitions, it’s undeniable that Mr. Wilson sure knows how to choose a perfectly alluring title. In the end, the museum’s greatest achievement is blurring the lines between what we know, what we might know, and what we may never know. You walk out of there feeling a little less certain and lot more open to the mystical possibilities of the world around you.  

After the long and grueling work days, I did manage to find the Dresden (the hype was well-deserved), have a transformative sushi experience (best I’ve had in my life), and chip away at few other recommendations my friends threw my way. It’s simply not possible to get the full flavor of L.A. in a few days, but what little I got to indulge in was delightful. I go back for another week at the end of May; here’s hoping I can see a lot more the second time around. And wow, I went this whole column without mentioning the soul-crushing traffic.

Sara Estes is a writer and editor living in Nashville. Her writing has been featured in The Los Angeles Review, The Bitter Southerner, Hyperallergic, Oxford American, BookPage, Filling Station, Number, Chapter 16, Empty Mirror, The Tennessean, Nashville Scene, and more.

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