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Museums

November 29, 2009

Reviews by Christopher Knight (C.K.) and Holly Myers (H.M.). Compiled by Grace Krilanovich.

Critics' Choices

Divine Demons: Wrathful Deities in Buddhist Art When one thinks of Buddhist art, one tends to conjure up images of tranquillity and bliss. This show presents a different picture, conjuring up a panoply of teeth-baring, arm-waving, serpent-stomping creatures that are there to step in when celestial composure is not enough (H.M.). Norton Simon Museum of Art, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Mon., Wed.-Thu., Sat.-Sun., noon-6 p.m.; Fri., noon-9 p.m.; closed Tue.; ends March 8. (626) 449-6840.

Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield This breathtaking exhibition demonstrates the extraordinary power Burchfield (1893-1967) was able to coax forth from the watercolor medium. A sheet of paper emerges as a membrane stretched between the outer world of nature and the inner world of the artist's emotional life. His story as an artist is the lifelong odyssey of reconciling the two -- of finding the means by which to bring them into harmony or its semblance(C.K.). Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Tue.-Wed., Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mon.; ends Jan. 3. (310) 443-7000.

Collection: MOCA's First Thirty Years This is not just a promotional treasure-house show of about 500 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos and installations by more than 200 international artists in MOCA's remarkable permanent collection. Installed chronologically, it also tells a story -- although one that's rarely heard. The postwar rise of American art is paired with the simultaneous rise of Los Angeles, from shallow backwater to cultural powerhouse. At the Grand Avenue building, which spans 1939 to 1979, the distinctive emergence of a mature L.A. art is embedded within the larger postwar prominence of the United States, artistically dominated by New York. At the Geffen -- the story picks up in the year MOCA was born. Tying the Geffen start-date to MOCA's own arrival on the scene audaciously asserts the museum's instrumental role in the city's art-life. The two-for-one double-header amply testifies why MOCA matters (C.K.). Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), 250 S. Grand Ave., LA; and Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., L.A. Mon. and Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thu., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; closed Tue.-Wed.; ends May 3. (213) 626-6222.

Continuing

Irving Penn: Small Trades Three important 20th century photographers made pictorial catalogs of working-class men and women. Eugene Atget and August Sander can partly be seen as erecting an image of enlightened humanism during a period deeply shadowed by the life-shattering brutalities of World War I. Irving Penn, a quintessential American in Paris after World War II, is considerably different. His great skill is not in peeling away outer layers to show us the person hidden within. After all he's a fashion photographer par excellence. His workers model. Emphasizing aesthetics within ordinariness, their surfaces thrum with meaning (C.K.). Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, L.A. Tue.-Fri. and Sun., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Mon.; ends Jan. 10. (310) 440-7300.

The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis Robert Crumb spent nearly five years thinking about and drawing 206 sheets to illuminate the first book of the Old Testament inside rectilinear panels whose wavy contours frame events with nervous visual energy. Engaging a master of the profane to tell a sacred story could have proven to be a wincing gimmick, but Crumb's too good an artist for that. He's not a believer in the divinity of the Bible's authorship, and that sense of human origins is conveyed by his distinctive drawing style. The invigorating result is the restoration of historical literary and artistic power to a world-changing narrative (C.K.). Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Tue.-Wed., Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mon.; ends Feb. 7. (310) 443-7000.

Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life The show attempts to put the best possible light on an artist of great promise ultimately unfulfilled. Meléndez was among the first students admitted to Madrid's new academy of fine arts, but several nasty administrative squabbles ended badly, and he was expelled. Gone were his chances for a royal appointment, so he had to make do with selling still life paintings on the open market. The still lifes carefully catalog nature's bounty and the kitchen's tools. Compositions are often self-consciously artful, as if he was champing at the bit for an expressive fluency that grand history painting might contain. You can feel his frustration with not getting the opportunity for greater things (C.K.). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Mon.-Tue., Thu., noon-8 p.m.; Fri., noon-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; closed Wed.; ends Jan. 3. (323) 857-6000.

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