AT LACMA: MATERIAL ART FROM CHINA

By Sam Hall Kaplan

The visual arts these days can be almost anything beyond the recognized appearances as paintings and sculpture.  Embraced now is printmaking, ceramics, drawing, design, crafts, photography, video, filmmaking, and, yes, my past prime interest  of architecture.

Exploring and embracing as art even further the everyday world and more, with engaging and select stunning results, is an exhibit that opened recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, entitled “The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China.” It runs until Jan. 5, 2020.

Be prepared to be provoked, if not encouraged to look at everyday elements as grist for an artist, and for this reason alone the exhibition is noteworthy.

And so we have both usual and generic materials as plastic, furniture, cigarettes water, and gunpowder, too, used by Chinese contemporary artists as their preferred mediums to express themselves and comment on present day society. As noted in the introduction to the exhibit, “these signature materials transcend standard art forms to function as superagents that hold particular significance and strongly convey meaning.”

But, really, to understand and explain it, you really have to experience it, even if it means having to endure the traffic of the frustrating freeways and the dread PCH.

Of the 21 artists Chinese artists represented most well known and influential is Ai Weiwei, who recently had a captivating exhibition at the nearby Marciano Art Foundation last year.

The prime installation there was a response to the refugee crisis with boats, humans and zodiac figures crafted out of traditional kite-making materials: bamboo, sisal and silk. But what really remains with me is the image of a huge carpet of millions of sunflower seeds made of tiny porcelain sculptures that celebrate the 1,600 artisans it took two years to make, a statement of labor and love.

At LACMA, Weiwei is represented by two antique tables he had transformed into a balanced sculpture that of course turns what had been two pieces of furniture into a crafted art piece. This, of course, negated their original functions, and is a telling statement I feel about society’s value for traditional woodworking and contemporary art.

Actually more provocative is an untitled piece by Gu Dexin, consisting of an entire room decorated with abstracted composition of brightly colored and plastic scraps taken from a factory where he had worked for years no doubt at a dreary job. At home over the years he meticulously  melted the scraps into a variety of striking art forms celebrating space and place. Amazing.

Then there was a particularly striking art piece by Xu Bing, consisting of a large tiger skin carpet made entirely of cigarettes. It was ironically labeled a Tobacco Project, and, more ironically, crafted by him as an artist-in residence at Duke University, which was founded by the tobacco fortunes of the Duke family. Bing of course is a native of China, where widespread smoking is a major health, social and economic concern.

Another fascinating work of art really is rooted in the art of nature, specifically the silkworm. For more than 25 years Liang Shaoji has been using this fascinating insect to spin silk on a host of objects,  here on hollow metal chains hung from the gallery’s ceiling. According to the exhibit’s didactics, the artist’s “fascination with silk is rooted in the Chinese psyche,” which link the discovery of silk making with the creation of no less than the Chinese civilization,.

What is clearly apparent in this and most of the other art pieces in the exhibit is that they go beyond just making statements about “materiality,” as the curators comment, to the making of “matter,” as “the primary vehicle of philosophical, political, sociological, emotional and aesthetic expression.”   This is art, and provocatively much more. 

5.30.19

BEYOND THE PCH

Couldn’t make it to Paris this Spring?

If regrettably not, you should consider for compensation most definitely going to  “A Paris Love Story,” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, on stage May 24 through June 9th.

There the incomparable Hershey Felder as a story teller and pianist will be conducting a personal virtual tour of the romantic metropolis as he explores the life and music of the French composer Claude Debussy.

As I write for The Local and select websites, Felder is very much an original who in the past has fashioned staged portraits of such musical  notables as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Chopin, as well the more contemporary Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.

The productions with their staging and costumes might be a little hokey, but they also have been entertaining and informative, making the engaging Felder, fake beards or not, an international star, and box office favorite.

The theatrical Felder no doubt will find Debussy a particularly succulent subject, for the composer is considered the foremost musical expression of the Impressionist and Symbolist movements at the turn of the 19th and 2oth centuries.

Not only known for such major works as “Clair de Lune, ”Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” and La Mer, Debussy also had the reputation of being somewhat of a rake, with an active love life that was marked by a touch of tragedy.

 This should evidently prompt some staged histrionics, for which Felder is famed, and also make for a fun evening’s entertainment.

State of The City: Not So Good.

Embedded in the remark echoed by a parade of local politicians at the recent State of the City gathering in Malibu was the memorable plea made by Rodney King during the Los Angeles riots of 1992, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Most direct was those of the engaging State Senator Henry Stern, who declared he was concerned about the state of the city, “but not because of our competence, not because of our financial condition of our infrastructure, but because of relationships with each other.”

As I write in the Local and other select websites, Stern obviously was alluding to the growing chorus calling for the ouster of City Manager Reva Feldman, for failing to prepare the city for the anticipated Woolsey fire, for abandoning it in the heat of the fire, for absolving herself of any responsibility and for fumbling in the projected aftermath.

Her financial acumen also has been questioned, as well as her leadership abilities. Comments in the social media have been particularly scorching, while a petition for her removal has garnered 4,000 signatures. 

Further galling her critics has been Feldman perversely promoting herself as both a hero and a victim of the disaster, while never admitting to, or apologizing for, any failures. Instead she has depended on the questionable support of recalcitrant councilmen Rick Mullen and Skylar Peak, and self-important residents and special interests that she has favored.

Sorry Henry, but any chance of a civil dialogue is going to have to await Feldman ceasing favoring back scratching friends, supporters and consultants. Also must end is her stonewalling any resident she perceives as not being an ally.

Answering emails would be a start and simply doing the job for which she is overpaid, while not incidentally padding the city payroll for others to do it for her. Though not likely, she could, of course, simply resign and give up her $300,000 a year job she has wrangled for herself, which is more than the salaries of the State’s governor and U.S. Senators.

As for Stern who defends her by default, he may be a promising young progressive, but as most politicians, when push comes to shove, is a protector of the status quo and not prone to probe hardened bureaucratic arteries.

That pose in effect allows one to stand and shout in a boat adrift in the waves of democracy but careful not to rock it so it tips. This is a problem among public office seekers.

As for County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Malibu Mayor Jefferson Wagner, likeable as they also are, they obviously have shortcomings in their relationships with the city manager. Kuehl with her political establishment network and show biz connections of old seems to know who butters her toast and the ever amiable mayor sometimes is just too amiable.

You would think that after Wagner’s home burned, same as the 1,000 plus other victims of the fire, he’d be angry and would demand accountability and, yes, an apology from the wayward first responders and Malibu’s bloated bureaucracy. 

Accountability in public service? There’s the rub.

So, can Malibu be mended?  Can the local bickering stop?

I’m optimistic. But first, frankly, the bull being shoveled out of City Hall has to end and that begins with the council taking back the governance of the city from defacto mayor Feldman.

Get that elephant out of City Hall, and maybe the dialogue might begin, hopefully before the next disaster hits Malibu.

5.18.19

TIME FOR CITIZEN BUDGET OVERSIGHT

Some good news, that is if the neophyte City Council and concerned citizens can assert themselves in the discretionary municipal budget review now going on at a paranoid City Hall.

That is a big “if” in the face of manipulative bureaucratic city manager Reva Feldman, who heretofore customarily scripted Malibu’s budgets to, yes, granted, serve the city, but also her personal political prerogatives. And she gives every indication of haughtily continuing to protect her job as de facto mayor of Malibu

As I write in The Local and other select websites, churning out budgets is the heart of public governance, theoretically directing where moneys are allocated for whatever priorities dictated by duly elected representatives, presumably acting on behalf of their constituencies. The bottom line is that budgets are the essence of what governments do.

Except in too many governments, in cities such as Malibu, the constituencies, out of ignorance or indifference, too often relinquish the budget process to a rapacious burgeoning bureaucracy. And their priorities unfortunately tend to be self-serving rather than public serving, such as padding their payroll and pensions, and cozying up to and coddling consultants and special interests for whatever nefarious reasons.

With that admittedly prejudicial view of government, I note Malibu’s City Hall these days is following up on the heartfelt recent pleas of the Woolsey Fire victims that prompted, if not shamed, the City Council to direct staff to revise the municipal budget. This is being done to allow permitting fees for rebuilding burn outs be waived by at least 75 per cent, which could save befallen homeowners up to $10,000.

That it had to take a determined, vocal contingent of victims to get a mostly mealy mouthed council and addled staff headed by a controlling city manager to act six months after the fire says something about the city’s callous, greedy governance.

To be sure, there has been a lot of hand wringing at City Hall over the fire. But according to many victims there has not been much shoulders-to-the wheel help from an inconstant staff, and an unrepentant hard assed Fire Department. Some of the experiences reported on social media have been harrowing.

What was the worst fire in Malibu’s history demands the foremost response by City Hall, financially, administratively and personally. And really so what if it would set a precedent, as an ever-cautious councilperson warned, and that the budget would be compromised.

It was calculated that cutting the fees would cost the city at least $2 million, and that if it wanted to maintain a desired undesignated “rainy day” reserve and balance the budget, it would have to cut some programs.

Various programs were mentioned, including postponing the solar  paneling of city hall, but typically the reworking of the budget details was bounced by Council back to staff, and that means back to the city manager’s desk, behind closed doors.

That is exactly where it should not be these days when her performance is being questioned by a growing contingent of concerned residents, and hopefully a consultant team hired by the city. She should not be given the opportunity to favor select people and programs in exchange for support, as she has baldly done in the past and is in position to continue.

Instead, I suggest the Council consider as other cities have instituting so called  “participatory budgeting,” a transparent process in which citizens participate in open decisions what  programs are to be funded or not.

That includes the cherry consultant contracts the city quietly awards and the generous travel expenses the city manager approves for herself and select councilpersons.

I suspect there is a lot of gravy hidden in Malibu’s budget that could be better used to ease the pain and suffering caused by the Woolsey Fire, rather than on some questionable junkets, and grants and contracts for arbitrary projects.

Too bold for a buttoned-up governance like slothful Malibu? Then in the interest of home grown democracy, how about some citizen input and oversight?

WHAT I TOLD THE MALIBU CONSULTANTS


In its information gathering efforts, Management Partners, the firm retained by Malibu to evaluate the responses to the Woolsey Fire by city manager Reva Feldman and the city government, asked that the interviews be confidential. 

While acceding to the request concerning THEIR comments, I nevertheless replied that in the interest of transparency in public matters I felt free to reveal MY comments made in my extended interview.

As to the question that Management Partners having a conflict of interest as reported in The Local, employing as it does former city managers and underwriting their professional association in which city manager Feldman is active: I felt as an experienced journalist I would take the firm as its face value, and judge its effort by the anticipated report and recommendations.

Meanwhile, as I write in The Local and other select websites, there were no surprises in the interview, because actually the questions asked had been raised and answered in my commentaries since the disastrous fire of six months ago that remains a haunting memory for many.

Concerning history, I noted before the fire the city had been repeatedly urged by myself in print and others that emergency precautions be instituted in the wake of the deadly fires elsewhere in the State and the continuing hazardous conditions. But little was done, by a blithe, neophyte city manager harboring a defensive bunker mentality, which unfortunately persists.

Then when the fire roared into Malibu, the city not surprisingly proved woefully inept; its mandatory evacuation was a near disaster; it failed to advocate for the city in the county’s chain of command, and egregiously shut down its Emergency Control Center for 16 critical hours in the heat of the disaster.  It also impeded and speciously reprimanded residents who stayed to fight the fire.

I repeated my opinion in the interview that at her bloated salary Feldman was not being paid to make excuses, and then further to not apologize for the city’s blatant failures, while incredulously publicly praising herself and staff.

I added that her fumbling has continued in the Woolsey aftermath; that the Rebuild effort is a muddle; that in its critical launch period she went to Paris on vacation, only to return to contrive for herself a dubious award as city manager of the year, and then request a raise. That’s chutzpah.

In concluding the interview, I was asked what three recommendations I would make to improve the city’s governance in the wake of the fire and in anticipation of the next disaster.

I answered that the first would be the restructuring of city government to create councilmanic districts to improve communications, encourage civic involvement and organize emergency services.

 Second, I would reboot the city’s bureaucracy, to be more responsive to residents and efficient, scrutinize its consultant contracts, and consider establishing an oversight process and hiring an ombudsmen.

But I added that the city politic was depressed by the fire, divided and demographically skewed, and that it only would begin to heal itself when Reva Feldman resigned or was fired. That was my third recommendation.

I know that is a tough call, but there is cause, and let’s face it, the Woolsey fire disaster demands it, and no less than the future of Malibu depends on it.

5.2.19

BEYOND THE PCH: DANCE

Contemporary Dance continues to top my cultural check list as a theatrical experience, combining as it does music, movement and drama, using the stage as a tableau to make an audience feel alive.

It has been a particular pleasure of mine ever since witnessing its emergence from formal classical ballet, to exploratory modern, to the more expressive contemporary, first as a wide  eyed teenager at New York City’s performing arts high schools and one dollar a seat concerts, a long, long time ago, later as a guest at Jacob’s Pillow, the renown center for dance in rural Massachusetts, and wherever my travels have taken me.

.And now in L.A. , where dance has been emerging in recent years as a prime cultural attraction, to be enjoyed downtown at the Music Center, in Westwood, at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, and  most recently at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the Cal State east L.A. campus, with an offshoot in the city’s arts district  which is finally living up to its name.

Any list of a place in L.A. to experience dance also must include  the Heidi Duckler Company that performs, indeed celebrates, dance in non-traditional settings, be it vacant lots, laundromats, gas stations and who knows where next.

But most engaging for me recently this has been a most diverse schedule of dance performances at the very accessible Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

As readers of my cultural commentaries in The Local and other select websites in Malibu and beyond might have noted, in the first few months of this year I have attended several performances at the Wallis.

These have included the very edgy dance company Ate9, under the artistic director and choreographer Danielle Agami.  Always presenting the unexpected, the program featured live vocals of Spanish indie pop singer Lourdes Hernandez, also known as Russian Red, and in another piece percussionist Glenn Kotche playing on stage, while the dancers performed.

Then a month ago was a rare U.S. performance of Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company, “malpaso” in English meaning misstep, which is what the company was labeled when it broke away from the originally state sponsored theater.

But the company has persevered to become renown, blending as it does a variety of modern dance styles, featured a repertoire of favored old and challenging new.  Of particular delight for me their performance of Fielding Sixes by the late, great choreographer Merce Cummingham.

Upcoming next weekend, May 10th and 11th, appearing will be the ever challenging Jacob Jonas Dance Company, which has been in-residence at the Wallis.

Known for its distinctive mix of contemporary ballet, breakdance and acrobatic movement, the company’s final appearance  features the premiere of “There’s Been a Study,” directed and choreographed by Jonas to an original score by rock vocalist and pianist Nicole Miglisa piece.

Adding a most definitely political dimension to its program, the Jonas Company also will perform “To the Dollar,” described as a physical representation of a speech about equal pay for women by Presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren.  This I have to see, and no less in decidedly affluent Beverly Hills.  It should be memorable.