Barbies, Punks, Surfers Parade in California Cultural Jamboree

"Chalice" (1987) by Beatrice Wood. The earthenware vessel is among the more than 100 works in the retrospective "Beatrice Wood: Career Woman -- Drawings, Paintings, Vessels and Objects" at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through March 3, 2012. Photographer: Bill Stengel/Santa Monica Museum of Art via Bloomberg

While globalization has fueled the proliferation of museums, galleries and art fairs around the world, New York remains the great magnet -- the proving ground.

In the U.S., when artists consider trading the East for the West Coast, a Big Apple chorus chimes: “If you leave New York, you’ll just die as an artist.”

Los Angeles disagrees, or at least wants to shift the attention 3,000 miles west. Arts groups in Southern California have mounted “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980,” a six-month, all-out offensive: the Civil Art War.

P.S.T. is, by turns, beautiful and bland, self-reflective and self-indulgent, revelatory and incomprehensible -- a power play of extravagant proportions.

“In recent decades, Los Angeles has shed its stereotype as the land of sunshine, palm trees, and movie stars to become an artistic powerhouse and an increasingly important international creative capital,” according to a P.S.T. press release.

If West wages war against East, yet never sets foot outside sunny California, will there actually be a shot heard around the world? I doubt it. Even before I began the insurmountable journey that is P.S.T., I felt assaulted by its overarching claims, which, with an enormous chip on its shoulder, resembles schoolyard taunting more than battle cry.

Over four days, I took in roughly 30 of P.S.T.’s 190 (and counting) staggered exhibitions featuring more than 1,300 artists at more than 60 cultural institutions, museums and galleries across the greater Los Angeles area and extending 100 miles north to Santa Barbara and 100 miles south to San Diego.

Subsidized Behemoth

I saw most of P.S.T.’s core, which includes shows at the U.C.L.A. Hammer Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (MCASD) and the Getty Research Institute, which spearheaded, sponsored and subsidized (almost $10 million in grants) this behemoth.

P.S.T.’s shows cover almost every theme imaginable. There are surfboards and Barbie dolls, feminist art, socio-political art and punk rock, hard-edged abstract paintings, Arts & Crafts bric-a-brac, assemblage, a gleaming Airstream trailer, an Academy Award statuette and big polished spheres of translucent polyester resin, as well as performance art, including a piece in which Paul McCarthy has unappetizing sex with food.

Bunnies, Comics

The jumble includes record-album covers, comic books, Playboy bunnies and pictures of gas stations; a numbing amount of text-and-photo-based Conceptual Art and far too much documentation (P.S.T. began as an archival project). Occasionally, it goes to disturbing extremes, as with Edward Kienholz’s interactive dirt-floor installation “Five Car Stud (1969-72) Revisited,” in which a group of good-ol’-boys, lit only by the headlights of five cars, castrate a black man.

The high points of P.S.T. include the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s retrospective of ceramicist Beatrice Wood; the Charles and Ray Eames house, a modernist masterpiece undergoing restoration; LACMA’s spirited “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way”; and the exhibition “Sympathetic Seeing: Ester McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design” at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture L.A. Schindler House.

Compelling also are the groupings of Melvin Edwards’s muscular, welded-steel sculptures in the Hammer’s “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980.” Employing machine parts, gears and chains, Edwards’s found-object sculptures writhe and evoke traps, masks, monuments, mounted trophy heads and acts of torture and lynching.

Light and Space

The most cohesive and sublime of P.S.T.’s offerings -- dare I say, the most “Californian” -- is “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface” at MCASD’s two venues in downtown San Diego and its original location in La Jolla.

Here, iridescent Minimalist works -- made of glass, acrylic, resin, mirrors and corralled portions of space, colored light and absolute darkness -- by Larry Bell, Peter Alexander, Robert Irwin, John McCracken, Bruce Nauman, Helen Pashgian and James Turrell, among others, compete with sunset views of the Pacific Ocean. Making light and space palpable, they succeed. Looking back and forth among sculptures and ocean vistas, it is difficult to know where art ends and nature begins.

“California is America, only more so,” wrote Wallace Stegner in 1959. P.S.T. is an exaggerated incarnation of what could have been an excellent exhibition, or set of exhibitions, if only someone had overseen this massive theater of operations. Even then, I don’t think it could have been victorious. As P.S.T. stands -- or, rather, sprawls across Southern California -- it feels more like a home scrimmage than an organized front.

“Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980” is at multiple venues, Southern California, through June 3, 2012. Information: Bank of America Corp. is a presenting sponsor.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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