“Possible Worlds,” a new installation of objects from the collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, adheres to a now familiar format, blurring the line between curating and art making. Artists Mario Ybarra Jr. and Karla Diaz (of the artists’ collaborative Slanguage) created the installation as part of a residency at Watts House Project, an artist-driven urban revitalization initiative near Simon Rodia’s iconic Watts Towers. A more complicated back story is hard to imagine, and the danger of course, is that the show relies too heavily on a context well outside the museum walls. However, it ends up being less about Watts or community art than a reflection on how they might influence the museum.
Ybarra and Diaz have selected works that envision other realities, whether idyllic or dystopian. Roughly focused around themes of home, identity and spirituality, the show offers a different take on LACMA’s collection, eschewing chronology and geographical proximity for a more impressionistic scheme.
Arranged salon-style on the walls, the diverse works spark intriguing, often diffuse connections. Sometimes they’re superficial: just because a 19th century Korean mask has the same impish quality as an etching of dancers by 17th century French artist Jacques Callot doesn’t mean they have anything in common beyond a generic, if jaunty, humanity. But such juxtapositions do question whether the traditional art historical focus on nation, genre and artistic school is perhaps more divisive than necessary.
The show’s centerpiece is a wrought iron fence with an arched entryway that Ybarra created with Slanguage specifically for the exhibition. Decorated with curling vegetal motifs, it forms a little sanctuary in the center of the room, populated with a delicate terra cotta sculpture of a boy’s head — “Chester,” by California artist Sargent Claude Johnson from 1930 — and a ceramic dog-shaped vessel from Mexico dated 200 BC to AD 500. Despite these works’ obvious differences, they form a familiar tableau: a boy and his dog in the front yard. It’s a simple concept of home that happens to span eras, nations and racial divides. Johnson was a prominent African American artist influenced by Mexican art. Watts, historically an African American community, is now predominantly Latino.
The walls also hold some lovely juxtapositions. One example: an ornate Christian processional banner from 15th century Europe is flanked on one side by a swirling polka dot abstraction by Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama and on the other by Jasper Johns’ 1968 lithograph of a black number zero. A seemingly random combination, seen together they offer three distinct takes on spirituality. The detailed crucifixion and luxurious velvet of the banner speak of tradition and pageantry. Just as complex, Kusama’s obsessive, all-over repetition expresses an unmoored, ecstatic transcendence. And although Johns probably didn’t intend his work to take on spiritual tones, in this context it acquires a Zen-like elemental quality.
If there is one misstep, it is the inclusion of Chris Burden’s “L.A.P.D. Uniform” from 1993. Three police uniforms, complete with guns and billy clubs, line one corner of the show like a menacing row of paper dolls, or another kind of fence. Though it’s important to recognize the historically troubled relationship between the LAPD and communities of color, the gesture feels too easy and one-dimensional next to the richness of the rest of the exhibition.
What emerges overall from this motley installation is an affirmation of common ground in the midst of extreme diversity. While the show focuses on works that envision other worlds, it is itself a vision of a “possible world” in which there is more than one way of framing our shared cultural heritage.
-- Sharon Mizota
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through Sept. 25. Closed Wednesdays. www.lacma.org