In the wake of World War II, the cultural center of the earth moved west from Europe across the pond to New York City. In the following decades, the Big Apple cast a long shadow, obscuring everything, including the Golden State on the North American continent’s opposite side.
As a result, the popular perception of Los Angeles has been one of a sun-kissed bastion devoid of content, attributable mainly to the superficial glitter of the entertainment industry that dominated its environs.
This distance from the Big Apple brought with it additional difficulty for local art practitioners trying to secure wider recognition, and doubly so for artists of color.
About 10 years ago, factions within and outside the vast enclave of the J. Paul Getty Trust became concerned that documents and artifacts concerning the area’s historical record were becoming lost, and a major push was undertaken to rectify this situation.
The Getty is comprised of four major entities: the research institute; the museum, perhaps its most well-known component, with facilities in Malibu and in Brentwood, overlooking the 405 freeway; the conservation institute; and the foundation, which awards grants. Once the decision was made to take on this daunting task, the foundation utilized the coffers of what has been described as the world’s wealthiest arts institution to pursue the visual documentation of the myriad genres and subcultures represented within the region, along with traditionally marginalized and underrepresented groups.
Individual establishments were selected to focus their attentions on a specific niche or area of interest. As the venture progressed, it became obvious that there was more than just an archival project for collection and categorization. During the course of identifying and saving these items, the staff at the various museums and organizations recognized the wonderful stories behind the accumulated pieces.
Over the course of several years and countless hours of painstaking work, and at the expenditure of an estimated $10 million, the presentation has now become reality.
Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty, sums up the cumulative result of this undertaking: “Pacific Standard Time is a story of collaboration between the (arts) organizations across Southern California.”
A brief perusal of the events covered in the Pacific Standard Time catalog is mind-boggling, with more than 60 major cultural institutions from Santa Barbara to San Diego, and from the ocean to the Inland Empire participating. Interested parties are advised to check out the official website at http://www.pacificstandardtime.org/ to select venues of interest in terms of particular themes, geographic locations and so forth. In the meantime, a brief overview of a few of the exhibits follows:
Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., showing until Jan. 8, 2012.
This exhibition, concentrating on African American artists from the postwar era, was conceived and organized by Professor Kellie Jones (the daughter of iconic author and poet Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones), now on faculty at Columbia University.
The exhibition grew from the instigation of the Hammer’s former chief curator, Gary Garrels, who in 2007 encouraged Jones to expand on the research she’d compiled on the visual arts over the course of many years. Jones and her assistant, Naima J. Keith, collaborated on the provocative title.
Needless to say, the art produced during this time frame was infused by fallout from the Civil Rights Movement. Among those represented are Betye Saar’s three-dimensional assemblages, which incorporate stereotyped (and often offensive) African American figures from the advertising of yesteryear; the fastidiously rendered drawings and paintings of social realist Charles Wilbert White; and the provocative, politically charged imagery of David Hammons, whose “America the Beautiful” (1968) has been utilized prominently in the publicity for the show.
Jones noted that the preparation for the exhibit alone helped give the careers of many of the artists represented a new and welcome boost, in that it prompted renewed interest in the artists. That, along with the 2007 auction of items from the Golden State Mutual Insurance Art Collection, put the spotlight on the value of African American art.
This caused slightly more difficulty obtaining pieces, due to the fact that the curators had to seek out the purchasers of the works to be displayed, rather than simply going directly to the artists.
Jones encourages potential visitors to the Hammer to use this exhibit as an opportunity to expose themselves to viewpoints not necessarily in keeping with the status quo.
Jones believes that this Westwood presentation will give both seasoned art aficionados and museum neophytes a chance to “…open their eyes to other perspectives on the history of the 1960s and ’70s.”
Jones is finalizing a book on these pioneering artists, with its anticipated completion date in 2012.
L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, at the Billy Wilder Theater, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., showing through Dec. 17. Screenings held Wednesdays through the weekends.
Situated within the same complex as the Hammer, the Wilder Theater hosts a major retrospective of a specific era at the renowned UCLA film department.
Along with its cross-town rival USC, UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television gives Los Angeles two of the world’s most prestigious motion picture programs.
Jan-Christopher Horak, the curator of “L.A. Rebellion,” says that the filmmakers included in his symposium remember UCLA as being much more welcoming to students of color in terms of grants and funding.
In contrast to USC, where student projects were underwritten by the school, at UCLA the filmmakers were required to act as their own producers, meaning they had to secure funding for their efforts themselves.
“In the end, however, they retained the rights to their work,” he notes, while their cross-town counterparts relinquished ownership to their alma mater.
During this period, Horak recalls, if Blacks were seen at all, it was in the context of stereotypes manifested by the “blaxploitation” films popular during the 1970s.
But many students of color who flocked to Westwood wanted “to visualize the real life experiences in their communities,” explains Horak. In this sense, collectively, the 50-odd works that make up this exhibition might be seen as a concerted effort to provide an alternative view from the commercial offerings produced during this period.
One of the ways that distinguished this group of film students was the exploration of subjects outside the normal experience of conventional Americana.
The topic of hair, a loaded issue that is part and parcel of Black ideology, is given close scrutiny decades before Chris Rock’s HBO opus.
Another interesting component of the UCLA program was the standard of gender parity that existed. Carroll Parrott Blue, Julie Dash, Barbara McCullough, and others were able to explore ethnic and gender specific themes in works such as “A Different Image,” “Define,” and “Shipley Street.”
Identity and Affirmation: African American Post War Photography, at the Cal State University Northridge (CSUN) Institute for Arts and Media, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge; Oct. 23 through Dec. 10.
This archive now contains some 1 million negatives dating back to 1940. Of these, some 750,000 are images by Black photographers, and, according to Professor Emeritus Kent Kirkton, chief curator, it’s “by far the largest collection of African American photography in the country.”
Major focal points of this collection are images made by the photojournalists Harry Adams and Guy Crowder. Adams was one of the few to cover the Watts Uprising, social events, and one memorable span in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. staged the largest civil rights rally in the City of Angels up to that point.
During the course of his career, Crowder photographed six presidents and virtually every African American celebrity among the multitude that passed through Los Angeles from 1960 onward.
Trouble in Paradise: Music and Los Angeles 1945-1975, at the Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, from Feb. 22 to April 2, 2012.
Perhaps no title in the Pacific Standard Time itinerary is more to the point than that the one on the marquee at the downtown Grammy Museum. The rise of independent R & B record labels during the 1950s shaped and informed the culture about the city’s African American community during that time.
The images on display in this exhibit include graphics, point-of-purchase paraphernalia, and other appendages of capitalism meant to generate that mantra of popular music–record sales.
But the intertwining of politics, social upheaval, and musical expression, particularly during the 1960s, served to reflect the social metamorphosis under way, especially in California, which functioned as a petri dish for lifestyle and moral change for the rest of the country during the 20th century.
Professor Josh Kun of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the primary curator of this exhibit, states flatly, “It would be a mistake to think that the commercial music industry and the world of radical politics were mutually exclusive.”
If Southern California is indeed a paradise, it is a flawed one, with turmoil and dysfunction as part and parcel of its existence, and that is perhaps fitting for a place where so many people come to escape their pasts and start all over. Its proximity to the sea may only add to the neurosis these newcomers bring with them, because the ocean symbolically represents the end of the line.