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ART REVIEW : Caution: Bad Art Up Ahead : The Hollywood La Brea Gateway is an unfortunate piece of public sculpture whose biggest fault is its representation of women.

January 19, 1994|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Poor Hollywood. The neighborhood's already tarnished image wasn't helped by the 1992 riots, which further marred its eastern sections, nor by the rambunctious 1993 mayoral campaign, in which the winner made political hay by holding up the town as a civic symbol of L.A.'s decline.

And now this: The most depressingly awful work of public art in recent memory has lately been constructed, and at a highly visible locale.

On a palm-studded traffic island at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue stands a 30-foot-tall gazebo. Its latticed dome, capped by a tall spire, is held aloft by four life-size sculptural figures. Officially titled the Hollywood La Brea Gateway, the monument is plainly meant as a landmark to announce your arrival at the western edge of Tinseltown.

The La Brea Gateway is one of several street alterations along Hollywood Boulevard expected to be in place by spring. The Community Redevelopment Agency has been trying to spruce up the main downtown artery with bursts of tall and willowy palms, with clusters of theatrical street lights and with sparkly, light-reflective asphalt paving.

Also on the way (or already in place) are several commissioned works: a small information kiosk at the corner of Cherokee Avenue, designed by Kenny Schneider; an "arch of light" at Vine Street, by theatrical lighting designer Tom Ruzika; and a decorative crosswalk at Ivar Avenue, designed by Susan Stinsmuehlen-Amend, a glass artisan who is the lead artist for the entire Hollywood Boulevard project.

Meanwhile, back at the gazebo, the name "Hollywood" appears no fewer than eight times atop the structure--four of them in neon. Any doubt about where you might be is emphatically erased, while handily accommodated are tourist shutterbugs anxious for a souvenir that can be pictured from their favorite angle.

Say cheese.

Or, to be precise, say cheesecake. For the life-size figures holding up the gazebo's Hollywood-encrusted roof are curvaceous, silver-screen beauties of yore, sculpted in shiny stainless steel.

The nostalgia button is pushed straightaway by the structure's cartoonish reference to machine-age, Art Deco styling, as well as by its clumsy adaptation of a classical belvedere--a gazebo or summer house from which to view the surrounding scenery. Here, however, you're meant to gaze at the gazebo itself. The caryatids are its visual focus.

Who are these four, glossy glamour-girls from days gone by, on which the Heavenly Dome of Hollywood so lightly rests? Alas, you can't tell just by looking, so crudely sculpted are the figures.

Stylistically reminiscent of the bumpers on a '47 Cadillac, all four are essentially identical, as if each is but a slightly altered variation on a standard model. A helpful plaque below each one identifies the shining star above: Mae West (1893-1988), Dolores Del Rio (1904-1983), Anna May Wong (1907-1961), Dorothy Dandridge (1923-1967).

White, Latina, Asian American, African American--a generous guess would be that this ugly landmark was intended to stand as a tribute to women in Hollywood. Its supporting female players do claim lofty art-historical ancestors: the 5th-Century B.C. figures gracefully holding up the porch of the Erecthium on the ancient Greek Acropolis, for example, or those that once flanked a 6th-Century B.C. entryway at Delphi's sanctuary of Apollo.

Yet, even setting aside the coarseness of the La Brea Gateway's sculptural design, an iconic celebration of "women in Hollywood" is far from what is finally declared. It is not, after all, a Hattie McDaniel or a Margaret Dumont who is doing \o7 caryatid\f7 duty.

Instead, the four voluptuous variations on a glamour-girl theme celebrate the idea that the power in movies that goes to women is confined to sexual power. Multicultural sexism certainly counts as a new twist on an old theme, but you'd be hard pressed to describe it as an improvement.

From the terrazzo star on which the gazebo rests, to a little sculpted finial of Marilyn Monroe--her golden skirt billowing gaily around her head--with which its spire is ignominiously crowned, sex as a woman's historic gateway to Hollywood couldn't be more explicitly described. Or cheered.

The paucity of imaginative thinking evident in the project is plain from the very conception of the site as a neighborhood's gateway. Sculptural gateways have recently been springing up all over Los Angeles--or, at least they've been trying to.

The first came in 1987 with the ill-fated scheme for a West Coast Gateway, L.A.'s proposed answer to New York's Statue of Liberty. Then came the regional mass transit hub, dubbed Union Station Gateway Plaza, now under construction downtown.

Gateway Plaza includes several mediocre plans for public art, among them one expressly designated a Gateway to East L.A. And now, the La Brea Gateway will be matched at the strip's eastern end by an arch of lights: the Hollywood & Vine Gateway.

Clearly, the proliferating gateway-as-civic-symbol motif deserves a rest.

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