Tag Archives: Long Beach Museum of Art

From Cult to Culture Reality Check: Three Artists at LBMA

Long Beach Museum of Art
2003 E. Ocean Blvd.
Long Beach, CA 90803

On Exhibit – Now through April 21, 2019

The publicity for LBMA’s current exhibition focuses on the artists and the titles of their individual presentations. There is no hint of how the museum’s space is apportioned. On opening night, I was startled at the amount of space given to LeRoy Grannis’s photographs of surfing as an instance of utopia. Filling the entire bottom floor with images of youthful joy was perhaps the right curatorial decision in terms of luring visitors to this group show, but the juxtaposition with the other two artists on the top floor might well mute the viewers’ afterglow. On one hand, “Cult to Culture” is unusually unfamiliar. I don’t recall seeing anything quite as emotionally committed to the subject of surfing. While there are a few photographs that reveal the extraordinary pleasure of becoming totally absorbed into the ocean’s churning incantations, the majority of them implore us to stop and meditate on the intimate vulnerability of this sport.

Upstairs, the dystopia that was held at bay while surfing moved from a fringe obsession to a major cultural trope confronts viewers without any caution lights. Sandow Birk’s large-scale works take on the inner contradictions of the manifest destiny that culminated in the apotheosis of the surfboard. If his “Monumental” works depict the textual subversions of the alleged ideals of the political experiment called the United States, Marie Thibeault’s four large canvases, supplemented by a score of preparatory drawings, reveal the complex consequences of an industrialized society on some of our most familiar emblems of nature. In Thibeault’s tug-of-war between the intertwined girders and stanchions of industrial largesse and the need of animals such birds to find their way out of this maze, the apertures are ever shrinking. It is easier to be a climate change denier than an apocalypse denier. For one thing, the preponderance of evidence in favor of systematic collapse is all too believable. Somehow, though, Thibeault’s reminders of our actual ground conditions suggest that we might yet reverse course. If not quite justifiable optimism, her work aligns itself with Birk’s to ask us to work towards a restoration of a world that only seemed imagined in Grannis’s photographs. Somehow we must renew the primacy of pleasure as the most feasible potential access to a future equilibrium, if we are to motivate ourselves to undertake a daunting metamorphosis. It is in this dialectical reconciliation that visitors to this important group show will be rewarded for their own thoughtful commitment to the imagination.

=
Riparian Chaos Detail

A Major Debut and a Pair of Retrospectives at LBMA

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Long Beach Museum of Art had an official opening last evening for one of the best exhibitions of the year, featuring three artists at various stages of their careers. Substantial selections of their work will be up for view for the remainder of the year, with their shows all simultaneously closing at the end of the first week of 2019. Two of the artists, Narcisso Martinez and Jane Brucker, already had had their shows available for public viewing in the previous two weeks, but last night – as the first storm of the rainy season sneaked up on Southern California — John Sonsini’s portaits of day laborers officially opened, too, and every gallery of the museum is now filled with work that deserves your immediate attention.

The youngest artist, in particular, confronts us with a fact that Marxist theory won’t let us ignore, no matter how much we might want to pretend otherwise: “One cannot tell from the taste of the oats the conditions under which it was grown.” Working with the very materials handled and hauled by hands who have done the labor to bring us the food we eat, Martinez portrays field workers caught in the nets of harvest’s toil. It is important to emphasize that Martinez does not sentimentalize their exploitation. Regardless of whether their faces are enclosed by an improvised “hazmat” suit of baseball cap and bandana, or whether we can see them eating their midday meal, sitting on the ground at the end of a row, these individuals radiate a defiant optimism.

Some of the work on exhibit at LBMA by Martinez has been shown at other venues in recent months. Three large portraits. done in charcoal, of women, including one of his mother, have been on view at a gallery at CSULB, where Martinez received his MFA last spring, as well as at the cultural center of Mexico’s embassy across the street from MacArthur Park two months ago. Using his signature canvas material of “reclaimed produce cardboard,” Martinez’s newest piece, “Always Fresh,” is on the scale of a mural (doing a quick foot shuffle, I estimate it to be just shy of 20 feet in length; as to its height, my guess is around six feet). Its central figure is framed within an oval, as if to imprint upon the viewer’s privilege of consumption a medallion commemorating the anonymity through which the pleasures of hunger are sated. On the right side of this oval, workers have paused to eat a meal themselves, while on the left they are at work sorting the gathered harvest.

One particular detail stands out in Martinez’s use of cardboard that foregrounds the elusiveness of the economic transmission. Flattened out, the cardboard boxes retain the gaps and slots that enable the loaded boxes to be lifted and stacked for shipping, as well as to provide some aeration for the bottom layers of produce. In their literal figuration, these openings also figuratively serve as lenses to our own aporias, the blank spaces of our knowledge of the working conditions of this absolutely necessary labor.

The gap between labor, in which the dispossessed give of themselves with little remuneration, and those who come into possession of the harvest, is emphasized by the presentation of fruits and vegetables in the form of small canvases with images of various kinds of apples, as well as very small canvases (perhaps two inches by two inches) of blueberries. There is no sense that a flngerprint of any sort can be found on this produce. “Always Fresh,” in this case, is meant to ironically mimic the marketing erasure of those who make the most profit from the delivery of the food.

In this exhibition, we are fortunate to be given a chance to witness the emergence of a major new artist. At some point in the next decade, you will find Martinez’s work being exhibited alongside the work of such L.A.-based artists as Mark Bradford, whose “Pickett’s Charge” at the Hirschhorn is one of the most outstanding large-scale pieces I have seen in recent years.

Downstairs from Martinez’s single-room exhibition, another artist has several rooms of portraits of day-laborers, each still young enough to suggest that something unexpected might still occur in their lives, and old enough for the artist to detect the particular vulnerability that has already been wounded beyond any hope of ever being healed. With strident brushstrokes and a generous mesh of colors suitable for day laborers’ clothing, John Sonsini’s depictions of men isolated on an archipelago of economic and emotional dependency sustain our curiosity without ever becoming egregiously voyeuristic. However minimal the resources that these men might be able to call upon for help in getting through their lives with some measure of self-respect, the portraits deflect the uselessness of any temptation to feel sorry for them or to change the conditions of their lives without first making accommodations for the need for our lives to alter to a similar degree.

In Sonsini’s paintings, one absorbs the immediacy of their compositional duration: something has woken up and gazed out at a world previously asleep. The choice to remain in one world or the other seems to be weighing not only on the minds of those depicted, but in the extended trajectory of each enfolded blur of color grasped, then set aside for further meditation.

The retrospective of Jane Brucker’s work offers us a different meditation. She is quietly insistent on the temporality of preservation. One long table top, at least as long as Martinez’s mural contains a panoply of ordinary possessions delicately juxtaposed, as if in a procession towards some equally humble monument, some supplication with a whispered “amen.” Thread spools, chess pieces, eyeglass lenses without the temples, rosary beads, tiny cases of lipstick, forks and spoons that would only seem large if held by the hand of a two-year-old: all these things and much besides spreads out with one intent – to slow us down. Brucker’s exhibition, entitled “Fragile Thoughts,” reveals how little hold we have on that which can stir the strongest feelings in those who survive us.

Her “Memorial Project,” deservedly receives a very large room in which we are asked to ponder how what we are wearing as we visit the museum might well be turned into a work of art. Bruker has taken shirts and other clothes that form – and inform – the front part of the human body, the part where the heart and our breath is thought of in the most intimate fashion – and made that cloth that which embraces the canvas of the “painting.” There were one or two, in particular, that were palpably still extensions of the people who wore it. One sleeve of a shirt was folded in a manner that left its buttons in an open position so as to suggest a chevron. In looking at it, I could almost hear a voice recite John Keats’s poem, “This living hand,….”

All of this work is awaiting your perusal, the sooner the better. Perhaps I will see you there, for I certainly intend to visit it more than once in the coming months.

Long Beach Museum of Art
2300 E. Ocean Blvd.
Long Beach, CA 90803

(562) 439-2119

Open Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday

Terry Braunstein – “Who Is She?” — Long Beach Museum of Art

SUBTLE TRIUMPH: The Fortitude of Who Is She?

The book cover image of feminist collage artist Terry Braunstein’s Who Is She? is of a female gymnast with her hands joined together over her head, which is largely hidden within a slightly tilted bucket. The woman is fully clothed: shoes, stockings, knicker-style pants ballooned by some mysteriously yeasty fabric, are all complemented by a full-size, pull-over jersey that extends from her hips to just shy of her wrists. Her neck, too, is covered. The only visible skin is the lower third of the face: chin, lips and part of the cheeks; and the wrists and hands. The uplifted arms do not seem to signify some ultimate triumph as such, but hint more of a contumacious refusal to accept the negation of the bucket. Obliteration of identity is unacceptable in Braunstein’s cosmos. Resistance is on-going, the image suggests, and the apex of the joined hands is a quiet warning to anyone who would suppose otherwise.

The covered face, however, might also suggest another metamorphosis. Women in particular are judged by their faces, and in this case the bucket might be more of a disguise than it first appears to be. A bucket is a work item that is usually associated with subservience; it carries water, and is passive in that task. It merely contains. In contrast, what the viewer doesn’t know are thoughts contained in the hidden head. Indeed, the image is more renitent than might first appear: if the figure can’t see out, it only intensifies what is seen within, and to that extent there is an overtone of a sibyl, in which the bucket operates as a metonym for the cave of her vatic habitation. The process of appropriation in collage art engenders reversals such as this, and the upside down bucket, therefore, might also suggest the upended expectations of a woman’s visionary powers.

The challenge in apprehending Braunstein’s message is not so much in the reception as in the translation of one’s understanding of it into an adequate paraphrase; for that is all one can hope to achieve: a paraphrase. Braunstein’s images give commands to the Impossible, and have no patience with anything less than instantaneous obedience. A woman hoisting one of Rene Magritte’s rocks (“The Castle of the Pyrenees”) above her head and totting “onward” is made to seem a matter of willpower alone. It’s not a question of existence precedes essence, in Braunstein’s cosmology. In an existential paradox, there is an essence of willpower that supersedes all opposition, and the quiet magnificence of Braunstein’s heroines is hypnotic.

The stalwart capacity of Braunstein’s anonymous protagonists is especially striking, given the harrowing circumstances they often find themselves embedded in. The “Nuclear Summer” series, in particular, serves as a reminder that we are hardly in a much better position in regard to the intercontinental missiles than we were back in the mid-1980s; and Braunstein’s “Women in a columned room with a terrorist” (dated 2012) recoils with a humbling urgency: somehow one must dare to live as if one’s paradise were inviolate, even as the daily trauma only accelerates. If this is a form of self-denial, then one indeed knows what it would mean to escape from the spiked coffin of social conformity. Braunstein’s heroines are prepared to flee, but their calm composure whispers, “Not unless you come with me. I will not leave you here alone.”

Although the show’s catalogue book, published by Thistle and Weed Press in South Pasadena, California, contains many of the show’s best images and contains two fine essays on Braunstein’s work, it falls short of capturing the best of her work. “Buddha in drawer,” for instance, is not reproduced in the show’s catalogue nor is her collaboration with Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, “Dancing with Kerouac,” given sufficient attention. The “Buddha” collage, in particular is haunting in its quest: the woman slides between the slightly separated jointed ends of a large drawer; the Buddha figure meditates in a corner. There is no special pleading; the protagonist knows and risk and accepts the possibility to being pinned forever in a liminal state. So, too, does the artist cut that precisely between the entrance of the image and the final sep of its choreography of juxtapositions.

Braunstein’s technical deftness verges on the casualness of a windshield wiper in a heavy storm. The road is so visible that we are almost grateful for the storm in allowing us to see it washed free of anything that would cause us to skid. As the decades have gone by and Braunstein has continued to summon the imperceptible and blend it with the incongruous, her work has contributed to the critical dialogue between what needs to be done and how much that need to alter the world might prove to be beyond our affirmation’s strength. In that sundering weakness, Braunstein’s images renew our fortitude.

If you make the trip to Long Beach to catch this show, you’ll get a rare treat: another show is also up that is worth the time spent driving here. Barbara Strasen’s “Layer by Layer” has some of the most appealing and delightful imagery I’ve had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with recently. Perhaps the highest tribute I could pay to Strasen’s exhibit is that it would easily qualify as part of the “Magical Mystery Tours” that Josine Ianco-Starrels used to organize back in the 1980s for the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park. It’s not that one shouldn’t relax in front of a work of art. It’s almost a given that one is supposed to be in a heightened state of alertness: the whole point is to question the ratio of feeling cantilevered across the work of art to the base line of its own audacious trajectory. On the other hand, if it doesn’t at some point invite you to relax and absorb – slowly absorb – its permeated secrets, then it is also playing a game with one-sided rules. Strasen’s lenticular panels exude a contagious spectrum of shifting perspectives. The afterglow will carry you to your next destination, without even being asked.

DETAILS: Terry Braunstein’s Who Is She? opened on November 20, 2015, and will continue to be on exhibit until February 14 (2016). Long Beach Museum of Art. The show’s catalogue is published by Thistle & Weed Press in South Pasadena.A long-time resident of Long Beach, Braunstein has frequently shown her collages at LBMA; she is hardly a “local” artist, however. She has had solo exhibitions in Spain and Italy as well as in New York City and Washington, D.C., and been included in several important group shows at the LA County Museum of Art and the Armand Hammer. Her honors include a Visual Artist’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1985.

Bill Mohr’s prose, commentary, and poems have appeared in dozens of magazines, including the Los Angeles Review of Books, Antioch Review, Blue Mesa Review, Caliban (On-line), Santa Monica Review, and ZYZZYVA. Individual collections of his poetry include Hidden Proofs (1982) and Bittersweet Kaleidoscope (2006). Bonobos Editores in Mexico published a bilingual edition of his poetry, Pruebas Ocultas, in 2015. His account of West Coast poetry, Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2011. Mohr has a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, San Diego, and is currently an Associate Professor at CSU Long Beach.