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She's Trying to Reorient L.A.'s Compass

A MOCA curator looks to the Pacific Rim, instead of back East, for 'Flight Patterns.'

November 12, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Cornelia H. Butler came home to Los Angeles four years ago and settled right in, as a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. A native who did an internship at MOCA in her college days, she had an insider's understanding of the city and its art community. But after an absence of nearly a decade, she also had a fresh take.

It was easy enough to dismiss cliches that characterize L.A. as an intellectual desert or an evil jungle. But she was perplexed by common perceptions of the city's place in the world. During her childhood and youth, she often heard Angelenos refer to the East Coast as "back East," as if they lived on the edge of a universe fueled by a distant center of power. "Back East" isn't heard much now, but the mind-set that created the term hasn't changed, Butler says.

"Los Angeles always looks to Europe and New York, yet here we are, sitting right in the middle of a major part of the Pacific Rim. It seems to me that very few cultural institutions here ever look further west, to Asia or the Pacific, or even deal with that. I want to begin to do that, to contextualize the work I see here with artists working in this other region. I want to look the other way."

Her latest exhibition, "Flight Patterns"--which opens today at the Geffen Contemporary--does exactly that. Conceived as a new kind of landscape show, it consists of photographs, film, video, paintings and installations by 23 artists and groups based in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Southern California.

Mostly based on photography, the work ranges from formal compositions to conceptual explorations to visual commentaries on environmental and political issues. Yet all the participants bring a social point of view to landscape, Butler says. Unlike early photographers who extolled the glories of untrammeled nature, they explore inhabited landscapes and often focus on places that have been transformed by human intervention.

The single historic figure in the show, American photographer Paul Outerbridge, who died in 1958, is represented by color pictures of California and Mexico, intended as illustrations for travel articles but unpublished during his lifetime. Far from the romantic images usually associated with the genre, his relatively gritty pictures depict ordinary people at work and foreshadow current artists' interest in topography.

Among Los Angeles-based artists represented, Anthony Hernandez portrays bleak public fishing areas in black-and-white photographs, while Doug Aitken's multiscreen video, "blow debris," drifts through abandoned buildings, a rusty bus and parched terrain in a Southern California desert. Christina Fernandez pairs photographic portraits of Los Angeles sweatshops with stories about garment workers; Miles Coolidge documents migrant laborers' housing, made from recycled shipping containers.

Works by artists from other places around the Pacific Rim are also concerned with the intersection of people and the land. In a multilayered body of work, Simryn Gill--an artist of Indian heritage who was born in Singapore, raised in Malaysia and now lives in Australia--weaves strips of text from colonial literature into non-indigenous plants, then photographs her creations. A Canadian group called Igloolik Isuma Productions stages and films re-creations of the Inuit people's daily lives in an arctic region.

Butler graduated from Scripps College in 1984 and earned a master's degree in art history at UC Berkeley in 1987. She then held a series of curatorial positions, at the Des Moines Art Center, Artist's Space in New York and the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y.

The current show--called "Flight Patterns" in reference both to aerial views of landscape and to waves of migration--grew from Butler's aesthetic interests as well as her perception of L.A.'s one-way vision. While the project has taken shape over several years, it wouldn't have been realized without financial help from the Fellows of Contemporary Art, a 25-year-old local organization that underwrites exhibitions at nonprofit museums and galleries.

"When I came to MOCA, I became friendly with Tina Petra, who is a member of the Fellows' board, a collector and a great lady," Butler says. "The Fellows solicit applications and proposals from curators, so I came up with this idea. I had been wanting to do a landscape show for a while, but I really didn't want it to be limited to California. That seemed too regional, too provincial."

"The Fellows have always sponsored shows of Southern California art, but I told them I also wanted to involve artists in other regions where I knew there was a similar relationship to landscape and landscape-based work. It turned out that they were thinking of expanding their purview. So they saw this show as a way to move in that direction and went with me on it."

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