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THE CREME DE L.A. CREME | Art

A Rich Texture of Cultural Options

L.A. offers unusual museums (some with gardens), vivid outdoor murals and hip Chinatown galleries.

August 10, 2000|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Democrats are known for espousing commitments to social equality. So, for Democratic conventioneers, any list of essential art sites in Los Angeles would ordinarily begin with "America Tropical," the volatile mural on downtown's Olvera Street painted in 1932 by Mexican master David Alfaro Siqueiros. The painting shows a Mexican Indian peasant lashed to a cross, likening the European conquest of the Americas to the Christian crucifixion as the brutal death of one civilization makes way for the new life of another.

However, as that signal masterpiece remains hidden behind a protective plywood wall in a conservation process more than five years behind schedule, it's necessary to look elsewhere. Two other murals, partly inspired by the Siqueiros, are worth searching out. Willie Herron's "The Wall That Cracked Open" (1972), painted on a wall in an alley in East L.A. and recently restored, is a powerful scream of anguish over local gang warfare; and Judy Baca's "The Great Wall of Los Angeles" (1976-1983), painted with the help of scores of kids, unfurls an almost cinematic political history of California along a half-mile of the Tujunga Wash flood channel in North Hollywood.

The Getty Center will already be on everyone's to-do list, so it's fortunate that Robert Irwin's Central Garden is presently a summer floral riot, while the special exhibition galleries house an unusually interesting show of stained glass windows dating from the German Renaissance, designed by the likes of Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

Across town in San Marino, the local ancestor to the Getty's mix of horticulture and art culture is the sprawling Huntington Library, Art Galleries and Gardens, where a collection strong in English painting--including Gainsborough's picture-postcard favorite, "Blue Boy"--is surrounded by enough dazzling gardens (cactus, Japanese, Shakespeare, rose, even Australian) to successfully represent in miniature its founding Anglophile's expansive (and expensive) vision of global empire.

Fifteen minutes away in adjacent Pasadena is the best collection of European painting and sculpture, from early Renaissance to early Modern, in the western United States. And the best collection of Indian and Southeast Asian sculpture too. The Norton Simon Museum is housed in a once-awkward building renovated last year to sensuous near-perfection by architect Frank O. Gehry, who here demonstrates that titanium-paneled curves and computer-generated forms are not the only way to make a memorable art museum space.

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Finally, now that Los Angeles is among the most important global centers for the production of new art, visits to some of the 80-plus galleries around town are worth considering. Several of the city's younger, cooler galleries (Acme, Karyn Lovegrove, Marc Foxx, Tilton & Roberts, etc.) are currently clustered at Wilshire Boulevard, just west of Fairfax Avenue and the older, decidedly uncool Los Angeles County Museum of Art (with contemporary art, contrasting context is helpful).

And for the newer than new, there's the boomlet of art galleries in downtown's Chinatown (China Art Objects, Goldman Tevis, Inmo, Black Dragon Society, Acuna-Hansen), most tucked between the furniture shops and restaurants along the pedestrian shopping arcade at Chun King Road.

Hours there can be more erratic than at more established galleries, but Friday and Saturday afternoons are the best bet.

Addresses, exhibits, hours: Page 20.

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"For authentic Mexican food and a colorful evening, I recommend Gardens of Taxco in West L.A. For great Greek salad and a diverse menu, Jan's diner on Beverly Boulevard is the perfect place for lunch. Ask for Catalina, and she'll make you feel right at home."

SALOMON HUERTA

Painter

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