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In These United States of California

In mounting a massive millennial exhibition that attempts to weave together the region's

simultaneous histories, LACMA is putting its reputation on the line.

September 17, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

A couple of years ago during a chance encounter with Howard Fox, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I asked what he was working on at the moment. " 'Made in California,' 'Made in California,' 'Made in California,' " came the reply.

Like many of his colleagues at the museum, Fox was so steeped in plans for this fall's "Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000" that he scarcely had time to think of anything else. The mother of all the museum's collaborative efforts and its biggest show ever, the project was organized by Stephanie Barron, vice president of education and public programs and senior curator of modern and contemporary art, with 12 other curators, film and music specialists, an educator and a team of designers.

Speaking in terms of "cross-fertilization" and "multidisciplinary teamwork," Barron says the show is the product of many minds and that it has pushed the museum into new territory. The result is an enormous exhibition that will explore the relationship between the arts in California and the state's changing image over the past century. Beginning on the plaza level of the Hammer Building, then wending its way upstairs and across the bridge to the Anderson Building, where it will fill all three floors, the show will occupy 47,000 square feet of display space with about 800 artworks and 400 cultural artifacts.

Eight hundred artworks? Think Granville Redmond's Impressionistic painting of a poppy field, Phil Dike's sunny rendition of a heroic surfer, Ed Ruscha's suave take on the Hollywood sign at sunset, Carlos Almaraz's darkly passionate vision of suburban infernos, David Hockney's ever-cool love affair with L.A. swimming pools and Roger Minick's irreverent shot of a woman in a Yosemite head scarf taking in the view at Inspiration Point.

Four hundred cultural artifacts? Think vintage bathing costumes and zoot suits, barbecue equipment and car culture, movie posters and Life magazines, orange crate labels and a 1910 postcard depicting two giant strawberries on a flatbed railroad car, the original Barbie doll and a souvenir can of smog.

Assembling all this art and what the museum calls "material culture" from hundreds of sources and putting it into a cohesive form has been a daunting process. It has also been costly, although the budget of the show has not been disclosed. But after six years of work--from initial brainstorming to installation of the vast array of objects in five, 20-year segments--"Made in California" will go on public view this fall. Not all at once, however. The first four sections, covering 1900 to 1980, will be unveiled Oct. 22; the final section, 1980 to 2000, will open Nov. 12. The closing date is Feb. 25--except for the 1900-1920 section, which will run through March 18.

The museum is hoping for a home-grown blockbuster. But it's also a risky venture. Everyone has his own image of California, whether it's the Hollywood film industry or Silicon Valley, trendy restaurants or roadside fruit vendors, a day at the beach or a nightmare on the freeway, a peacefully bubbling melting pot or nasty eruptions of racial tension. While the curators have tried to include all of California's extreme identities, their choices will surely alienate as well as please the natives.

Another issue--of far more concern to the art crowd--is that "Made in California" is not a traditional art exhibition. Fine art will be in the spotlight, but in the context of California's image and history. While a few galleries will display artworks alone, each 20-year segment of the show will mix paintings, prints, sculpture, decorative art, costumes and photographs with cultural artifacts.

Adding to the unconventional mix, 24 media stations scattered throughout the show will present archival film footage, clips from Hollywood movies, poetry recordings and popular music. Three "lifestyle environments"--the Arts and Crafts Room, the Early Modernist Room and the Mid-Century Indoor-Outdoor Lifestyle Room--will be stocked with period furniture and decorative arts.

Mixing fine art and popular culture is hardly a revolutionary idea, but it is rarely done in a major art museum, and certainly not on such a grand scale. That the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is taking this approach for its most expansive exhibition to date--indeed, its millennial blowout--has raised questions among critics. Those who would have preferred a more conventional survey of California art are already grumbling that the artworks were selected to illustrate the theme and don't do justice to the state's artistic achievements. Others fear that visiting the show will be like walking through a politically correct, revisionist textbook.

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