at The Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles
Reviewed by Nancy Kay Turner
The new kid on the block is the The Marciano Art Foundation, which showcases the art collection (some 1,500 pieces strong) that the brothers Paul and Maurice have collected since 1980. Instead of building a new structure, the Marciano brothers (of Guess fame) chose to buy and remodel the striking Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on Wilshire, which was designed by Millard Sheets.
The language and symbols of the Free Masons (seen on the front of the building) go back to the Middle Ages. It is a fraternal organization that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Paul Revere and other luminaries in American history all belonged to. There is an element of secrecy around the Masons (apparently there is a secret handshake and password). The outside of the imposing windowless building is made of marble and travertine that Sheets brought back from a quarry in Rome. During the renovation, wigs, scrims and other “exotic” ritual objects were discovered in the vault. The Marciano brothers wisely asked Los Angeles artist Jim Shaw to create an installation using these elements.
Like Alice In Wonderland’s topsy-turvy world, Shaw’s Wig Museum installation that takes up most of the first floor defies easy categorization. It is a sublime mash-up of satirical, allegorical, novelistic, cinematic, theatrical (if you count Artaud’s Theater of the Absurd) handmade, found, and altered objects, drawings, paintings, videos and installations. Like Alice after she was shrunk down to three inches tall, the viewer is dwarfed by the cavernous dark space, the giant, looming, flat painted (in the style of French satirist Daumier’s famous lithographic caricatures) cartoonish figures, the plethora of enormous painted scrims — some original, some not — and the small mysterious installations in rooms (more on this later).
It’s a positively Kafkesque, but intriguing experience (but intriguing) trying to relate these seemingly disparate elements. In the overall surrealistic installation (and it’s like an infinity of mirrors with installations within installations) there is a masterful, fully orchestrated blend of myth, magic, religion (while sending it up), and popular culture. Shaw’s juxtapositions are priceless as he uses humor to defuse possible heresies. In one part of the installation, God is in the sky in an original painted Masonic scrim to which Shaw adds a drawn large-scale old school Electrolux vacuum cleaner presumably to suction up all the dirt humans are interested in (perhaps things like porn, gossip, rumor and slander). Kudos to Shaw, as he manages to gleefully debunk both religious dogma and Jeff Koons, while referencing Daumier’s 19th century lithograph entitled “Garguantua” that parodies the greed of King Louis Philippe.
As you enter the space, you come across the eponymous Wig Museum which is a museum within the museum — again that infinity of mirrors. Ratty, flattened wigs found in the vault are mixed in with wildly inventive and hilarious Shaw creations. At the entrance of the small, glass enclosed Wig Museum in a specially designed case is the “French Aristocrat” wig. Extremely poufy, it is a manic hybrid between a Dolly Parton wig, Angelyne’s “hair” and a squid. On the other side, for the sake of symmetry, is the “British Judge” wig that evokes an unruly cocker spaniel mane of fur. Upon entering, one sees some of the actual staid, matted Masonic wigs laconically labeled “Masonic Elder, Masonic Nobleman, and Venerable Master,” looking like stern characters out of a Dickens novel. All the other wigs are handmade by Shaw – who clearly relished designing them. My favorites are his “Egyptian” wig that is replete with tight Mamie Eisenhower bangs, “Water” the extravagant blue and white swirls elaborate enough for Liberace and “The Oist Priestess” which approximates a wooly octopus covered in a nineteen-fifties black Persian Lamb overcoat like my mother had.
Around the corner on the floor is a vintage television, casually tossed into a cardboard box ready for the garage sale or the trash, which is playing loops in black and white entitled “Tales from the Wig Museum” (eerily like Vincent Price’s Tales from the Crypt.) There is a slightly creepy narrator — in a wig, of course — expounding on the history of wigs, wealth and language. Did you know having a “swollen head” came from the rich and powerful wearing big wigs (as did the expression “big wig”) that flaunted their wealth? Vaguely nostalgic, and reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, it is a perfect metaphor for this installation as the narrator solemnly intones “Judge them not as they may judge you back.”
Judgment is everywhere as the war between good and evil is highlighted in the many theatrical flats that are painted with fantastical images almost lifted from Hieronymus Bosch’s medieval imagery and Dante’s Inferno nine rings of hell.
As a matter of fact, Shaw has a sign in black and white (of course) that announces “The international House of Pain” (in the same font and style as The international House of Pancakes), and in case you missed the point, underneath is a sign the reads “Good/Evil.” One can see God in the sky with the end of a vacuum cleaner coming straight for you to cleanse you of your sins. All this fire and brimstone is tongue-in-cheek for Shaw — although very real for the Masons. In light of the recent events in Charlottesville, this installation becomes ever more relevant as the eternal struggle between good and evil is ever more apparent.
Nearby is an enigmatic installation behind a beautifully painted, moody and evocative scrim. The image on the translucent scrim is of a small town gas station with a teenage boy walking. Superimposed on the scrim, and clearly added by Shaw, is a blood-red spider web that covers everything. One enters through a small mysterious doorway in the scrim into an inner room and encounters what looks like a strange “nativity scene.” Three large lawn gnomes are huddled around in wonder looking at a green glowing human-like but not quite human form — possibly radioactive — embedded in a soft looking blanket. On either side of this strange “baby” are bright neon Kryptonite-looking crystal jutting out from the ground. It’s as if three dwarfs from Snow White meet Superman (he shows up on flats/and paintings) as an infant in a re-telling of Joseph Campbell’s The Heroes Journey. Spooky and kitschy, it is memorable and unforgettable in a Disneyland kind of way.
There is another section of paintings, installations, and small rooms that deal more with art history and attitudes towards art. They include an installation that has what looks like a genuine art correspondence course for a Mark Shaw of Midland, Michigan. One wonders if this is a relative of Jim Shaw’s or a coincidence that the student-artist has the same last name (though it really doesn’t matter). The course is presented intact, including typed letters from December13, 1954 explaining the course and justifying the grade (B). Close to 24 advertisements, all about 11” x 8 ½,” are covered over with tracing paper. Both the student and the teacher have drawn on each image — though the teacher’s handwritten notes and drawings are really corrections and critiques. Actual typed correspondence is shown under a glass case. Incidentally, these are gorgeous to look at. Like Andy Warhol’s paint-by-number paintings, these become a critique of pompous art schools and the artists they turn out. It is a bittersweet installation that makes you wonder what became of Mark Shaw of Midland, Michigan.
Myriad large and complex paintings dot the walls of another cul-de-sac, embedded with bits and pieces of painting history weaving a dense narrative. The complicated layering of multiple allusions makes you wish you had paid more attention in all your history, philosophy and art history classes. Shaw even sends up his own possible hypocrisy by painting himself (post modern artist) as a cartoonish chicken who is laying eggs labeled “family,” “good guy,” “3 houses,” “anti-materialistic,” “compleat (sic) set of Ad Reinhardt comics,” “Thrift store paintings” and a singular egg labeled “making a triptych of 7 deadly sins.” Though often gut wrenchingly funny, Shaw is intensely serious in his investigation and critique of religious, political, educational institutions. It is impossible to see this all in one visit. It is highly recommended to see it twice or more (I did).
After wandering dazedly out of this wonderland installation, one goes up to the mezzanine where there is an Alex Israel mural that wraps around the whole floor. It is beautifully painted, lots of negative space sparsely inhabited by parking meters, native flora and fauna and signs. This painted mural functions like a palette cleanser. It allows the viewer a space to decompress after viewing the challenging and difficult material that is jammed into Shaw’s installations. Not to be missed here is the original library filled with amusing politically incorrect busts amid eccentric books and tchotchkes.
Upstairs on the third floor is a traditional white-walled art gallery filled mostly with abstract paintings (most notably Mark Grotjahn’s very expensive paintings), many of them from artists I had not seen before. The sculptures seem stronger and more evocative than the paintings, especially “Petrified Petrol Pump no. 2, 2010,” by Allora and Calzadilla. It is made out of white limestone and reminds one of Rachel Whitehead’s negative space sculptures. This is a spectacular first exhibit that bodes well for The Marciano Art Foundation and is a marvelous addition to the ever-burgeoning Los Angeles art scene. Don’t miss it.
Nancy Kay Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.