"ECSTASY: In and About Altered States." An exhibition named for the psychedelic drug favored by ravers. Lots of mind-bending artworks, including a room with giant mushrooms spinning upside down on the ceiling, a gallery furnished with benches that slide across the floor and a strobe-lighted curtain of falling water that looks like a screen of static crystals.
Paul Schimmel is at it again, and he thinks he's onto something.
"People are going to love this show," he said. "There's great art in it, and it's going to blow their minds."
Schimmel has organized dozens of exhibitions during his 15-year tenure as chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. As head of a freewheeling curatorial team, he takes on artists' retrospectives and art historical investigations, while his colleagues pursue similarly challenging projects. But every so often he comes up with something really big -- a multiartist theme show so provocative and ambitious that it can't be ignored.
First came "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s," a 1992 exhibition focusing on the dark side of contemporary life. With a title that recalled the Charles Manson murders and artworks that expanded upon "a dominant myth of L.A. as a haven for cultism of all kinds," as the curator put it, the show packed in a young crowd and grabbed lots of attention in the media.
"Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979," a landmark historical survey presented in 1998, tracked the work of about 150 artists and collectives for whom public performances and the creative process were far more important than well-crafted objects. "Public Offerings," in 2001, explored the phenomenon of youthful creative energy in an overheated art world where stars are created before they leave art school.
And now there's "Ecstasy," opening next Sunday at the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo -- and reopening the building, shuttered for renovations since January. Budgeted in "the high six figures," Schimmel said, and better known in art circles as "The Drug Show" or, more pointedly, "Paul's Drug Show," it will fill 60,000 square feet of exhibition space with installations, paintings, sculptures, videos and photographs by 30 artists from Los Angeles to Helsinki, Finland, and Tokyo. Some of the artists' works represent altered states of mind that they have experienced under the influence of drugs or hypnosis; others simulate those experiences in works that explore heightened consciousness and play with viewers' perceptions.
"This is not pharmacology. This is art," Schimmel said, looking over photographs of the work during an interview in his office with project coordinator Gloria Sutton. But the exhibition acknowledges drug culture's role in the creation of art much more directly than is usual in the halls of high culture.
"Narcotourism," a series of printed text panels and postcards by Francis Alys, a Belgian artist who lives in Mexico City, tracks his experience of walking around Copenhagen under the influence of a different narcotic on each day of a weeklong visit. "Halcion Sleep," a 26-minute video by Canadian artist Rodney Graham, documents his rainy night ride through Vancouver, Canada, in the back seat of a car after taking a sleeping pill.
"It's a metaphor for time-based, often highly reductive, early video that kind of puts you to sleep," Schimmel said of Graham's work. "You are supposed to drift off with him. It's a very funny thing. As he is falling asleep, the lights of the city are beginning to get brighter. Things run rather counter."
ALL the works in "Ecstasy" were made during the last 17 years, but the show is grounded in early 20th century Modernist precedents. Utopian idealists, including Russian painter Kasimir Malevich and Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, were interested in the concept of art as a transcendent experience in a social realm, Schimmel said. Later movements, including Surrealism, Light and Space art and experiential performance and installation, expanded upon the idea.
Still, Schimmel didn't conceive of "Ecstasy" as a historical survey.
"Most things start because you are looking at something else," he said, reflecting on the origin of the exhibition. "In the latter part of the '90s, I was working with Charlie Ray and Sigmar Polke. In each of their oeuvres there were very important pieces that had to do with trying to find an equivalency between a state of mind and a work of art."
Ray, a Los Angeles-based artist, is represented in the show by a simple wood table holding ordinary objects that rotate at an almost imperceptibly slow speed and a life-size photographic portrait depicting the artist under the influence of LSD. The image is mounted in a convex frame and hung on a convex wall in an installation meant to tweak viewers' spatial perceptions. Polke, a German artist not in "Ecstasy," has investigated mind-altering drugs as a creative tool, photographed an opium den in Pakistan and made images of psychotropic mushrooms.