Art

Surrealist Visions and California Chic

A mash-up of the installation views of In Wonderland (left) and California Design (right), both on view at LACMA's Resnick Pavilion.
A mash-up of the installation views of In Wonderland (left) and California Design (right), both on view at LACMA's Resnick Pavilion. (All photos by the author)

LOS ANGELES — A visiting friend from New York afforded me the chance to check out two shows currently on view at LACMA. They’re quite different — disturbing surrealism and cool California chic — but as they’re in the same Resnick Pavilion, we had to see both. It’s a great combination.

Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the US

Frida Kahlo's El suicidio de Roberta Hale (The Suicide of Roberta Hale)
Frida Kahlo's "El suicidio de Dorothy Hale (The Suicide of Dorothy Hale)" (1939)

Disney, well, Disney-fied it, but Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll’s surrealist fairytale, is actually quite terrifying. A mischievous smiling cat? A shrinking heroine and a mysterious rabbit she has to follow? The dreamscape of Carroll’s tale reads more like a nightmare most of the time.

And so it goes for the new LACMA show In Wonderland, an exhibition of female surrealists whose opening text makes direct reference to the eponymous tale:

“Female surrealist artists felt a kinship with Alice; they also experienced chaos and the irrational, and had their lives disrupted by people or events over which they had no control.”

The show features a number of works by female artists working in the United States and Latin America, particularly Mexico. There is, of course, the literal Alice: Alice Rahon’s jester-like “Autorretrato (Self-Portrait)” (1951) helps introduce the show, and Sylvia Fein’s “The Tea Party”  (1943) depicts Alice’s tea party without her guests, perhaps capturing the mood of World War II-era America. Coincidentally, Rahon’s painting is also known as “Alice in Wonderland.”

But the connection between works is not always clear, and I started to see the Alice in Wonderland construct as a helpful way to frame the show — a frame I quickly set aside.  Consider Bridget Tichenor’s “Líderes (Leaders)” (1967), a series of three colorful, masked figures who might fit in the Queen’s court but whose iconography more directly draws from Tichenor’s fascination with pre-Hispanic cultures and religious practices in her adopted country of Mexico.

Bridget Tichenor's Líderes (Leaders)
Bridget Tichenor's "Líderes (Leaders)" (1967)

The show is emotionally heavy and uncomfortable, with an installation structure of unevenly-spaced and awkwardly-angled gray walls that confused me multiple times. Had I seen this wall yet? Or was it the other wall? It worked quite effectively, especially after I came across multiple instances of similar themes, like the juggler or the doll.

Bodies and body parts played a prominent role in the show. There was Lee Miller’s “Untitled (Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy)” (c.1930), a diptych of a severed breast made to look like a meal. The doubling referenced “the idea that women were still perceived only as sexual attributes.” And Kati Horna’s “Oda a la necrofilia (Ode to Necrophilia)” (1963), a black-and-white fantasyscape depicting Horna’s friend, fellow artist Leonora Carrington, seducing a fictitious corpse represented by a blank mask.

There are moments of levity, thankfully. Gertrude Abercrombie’s “The Courtship” (1949) shows a woman dressed in elegant peach held up by a masked man in black and gray. And it’s refreshing to see more of Frida Kahlo’s work, with pieces like the emotionally charged “El suicidio de Dorothy Hale (The Suicide of Dorothy Hale)” (1939), which diverges from the usual roundup of self-portraits that she is best known for.

A recreated spread from a 1951 shoot for Los Angeles Times's Home magazine.
A recreated spread from a 1951 shoot for Los Angeles Times's Home magazine.

California Design 1930-1965

On the other side of the wall, visitors can catch California Design 1930-1965, part of the Pacific Standard Time festival happening right now in California. Even before Steve Jobs set up shop in Cupertino, California has long been a design mecca. This became especially true after World War II, when, according to the show’s text, a “newly prosperous population … turned [California] into America’s most important center for progressive architecture and furnishings.” It couldn’t have hurt, of course, that the state was still the Western frontier, ripe for experimentation.

The show is framed in four sections — Shaping, Making, Living and Selling — and it focuses on California’s role in changing contemporary life at home. There’s Raymond Loewy’s “Avanti,” a sports car that may still look slick but one that failed in the marketpace. And” Boom!,” a board game inspired by the atomic age (my only wish is that I could have seen it opened).

California’s beach culture of course has had (and continues to have) a lasting influence on global beach culture.  Consider the slick surfboard designs by Hobart “Hobie” Alter and Greg Noll, and the playsuits of California designers like DeDe Johnson and Louella Ballerino. These playsuits, “consisting of any combination of bathing suit, skirt, shorts, pants and top of the same fabric” influence how the rest of America would dress by the pool or beach.

Playsuits from the 1950s by designers DeDe Johnson, Louella Ballerino and Levis Strauss & Co.
Playsuits from the 1950s by designers DeDe Johnson, Louella Ballerino and Levis Strauss & Co.

The Eames, of course, have to make an appearance. Ray Eames’s “Cross Patch” textile backdrops the “Wave” chaise of Danny Ho Fong, a Chinese-born designer who was active in Los Angeles. And my favorite is a recreation of a cover in the Los Angeles Times Home section from 1951: the barbecue and lounge chairs are decidedly dated, but the idea of open air luxury that it promoted continues today.

One additional note: a few months ago, I reviewed the California Design iPad app, noting that it was a great way to experience the exhibition without being able to visit. I whipped out my iPad while visiting the show to see how much it could complement the works. As I suspected, it didn’t; with the works and placards in front of me, I found the app distracting. And as many of its features also require wifi, which was weak in the building, I couldn’t use most of the app anyway. It’s something to consider.

Both these shows are solid, and they offer a broad survey into two very different aesthetic traditions. I recommend blocking out at least a couple hours. Start with the heavier Alice in Wonderland then take a visual breather with California Design.

California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way” runs till June 3 and In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States runs till May 6. Both can be viewed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Resnick Pavilion (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Miracle Mile, Los Angeles).

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