Bridges and Walls

Los Angeles



“Build bridges, not walls.” That was the mantra heard often at opening week events for Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, the Getty Foundation’s massive initiative to support exhibitions and research projects throughout Southern California that focus on Latin American and Latino art. Los Angeles’s art institutions appear to be united in the cause, and contributions to the effort have taken many forms. Perched in the hills atop Brentwood, the Getty Center itself offers a show of glittering pre-Hispanic artifacts, “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas,” among other exhibitions. Down in the San Fernando Valley, a Getty grant spurred a reexamination of Judith F. Baca’s epic mural, The Great Wall of Los Angeles (1976-). California State University, Northridge, is hosting an exhibition documenting how Baca led teams of young people in covering the concrete embankments of the Los Angeles River with depictions of historical struggles for justice.

So sprawling is PST that even its organizers struggle to define its full scope. Foundation representatives at the Getty’s opening day press conference tallied sixty, no, eighty exhibitions, eventually settling on the “more than seventy” noted in official press material. Through 2018, there will be hundreds of performances and talks, and dozens of scholarly publications. The scale of this activity reflects an ambition to do nothing less than permanently alter how art history is written and taught. The first edition of PST, Art in LA 1948-1980 (2011-12), made it impossible to exclude California artists from narratives of post-World War II culture. LA/LA ensures there will no longer be any excuse for critics or art historians to remain ignorant about Latin America. For this reason alone, the initiative must be regarded as among the most significant cultural events in the United States in the past decade.

Exemplary of this mission is “Found in Translation,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an essayistic show that charts a cross-border exchange of material culture. Architectural renderings, furniture pieces, advertisements, and graphic ephemera tell a story of how California architects and designers, beginning in the early twentieth century, created fantastic versions of the Spanish Baroque styles and pre-Hispanic forms they encountered in Mexico—or in depictions of Mexico. In turn, Mexican designers imported this California look, transforming it into a modern vernacular. The histories of the built landscapes in Los Angeles and Latin America blur together: you almost forget about the border. Yet PST’s essence may be located outside major institutions like LACMA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Getty. The small institutions awarded PST grants collectively survey the amazing diversity of Latin American art. The rich aesthetic world of Jewish-Mexican avant-garde writer and journalist Anita Brenner is surveyed at the Skirball Cultural Center; artists of Japanese descent from Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo are featured in “Transpacific Borderlands” at the Japanese American National Museum; and a survey of the contemporary art and vernacular culture of Salvador, Brazil, is presented at UCLA’s Fowler Museum.

If LA/LA is partly intended to correct the art historical canon, it’s tempting also to see it as a timely rejoinder to the racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House. Cultural bridges between the United States and Latin America facilitate a “Celebration Across Borders,” as the tagline for PST reads. There is indeed much to celebrate in the work that’s been done. But the care with which PST curators have researched and presented Latin American cultural history needs to be matched with sharp questions about how, exactly, culture can remedy social and political divisions. Vague rhetoric about cross-border harmony may not be enough: some of the strongest PST projects seem driven less by the desire to hold hands than by the need to confront enemies, and many of the participating artists, including Baca, seem as interested in drawing lines in the sand as they are in building bridges.

Downtown LA’s REDCAT hosts an exhibition detailing the circumstances around a key performance work by Argentinian artist León Ferrari (1920-2013). The curators spent four years reconstructing and translating Palabras Ajenas (The Words of Others, 1968/72), an eight-hour piece that had been only partially realized twice, once in London and once in Buenos Aires. (Crucial texts associated with the performance were apparently harbored by a curator now living in a remote area of the Dominican Republic.) In a brief, arresting excerpt presented at the Getty, seated actors read a script composed of found texts. Speeches by Lyndon Johnson justifying the Vietnam War and journalistic reports of combat were juxtaposed with various ravings by Hitler and Goebbels, as if all were part of a seamless conversation about a single topic. Enacted as part of an introductory program that included a speech about art’s healing power by a senior vice president of PST sponsor Bank of America, the short exchange opened a fissure in the Getty’s pristine corporate image.

This schizophrenic feeling recurs elsewhere. The Autry Museum of the American West presents the photo archives of La Raza, a radical Chicano magazine published in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Hung on temporary walls adorned with graphics exemplifying the magazine’s striking design, hundreds of black-and-white photographs of street protests, daily life in the community, and violent LAPD responses to activist movements bring an era of resistance into sharp focus. Yet just outside the galleries, the Autry’s permanent collection of cowboy art—much of it from the Gene Autry collection—reinforces a story of “how the West was won.”

This mythical narrative of California’s founding and Americanization—essentially the origin story of the slash in LA/LA—is confronted most directly by the Oaxacan artist collective Tlacolulokos, who created large-scale, site-specific paintings for the Los Angeles Public Library’s Downtown Central Library. Street art-style depictions of heavily tattooed men, women, and children wearing a mix of streetwear and traditional Zapotec dress stare out at visitors, or into their iPhones. The works hang in the library’s main atrium, directly below a series of murals completed in the 1920s by illustrator Dean Cornwell depicting the subjugation of Indigenous Californians by Spanish soldiers, missionaries, and white American settlers. This blunt refutation is not about celebrating difference and getting along: it’s about canceling the aesthetic force of white supremacist myths.

It’s impossible to contest the fundamental success of PST in giving overlooked or marginalized artists a prominent platform. At the same time, it’s true that expanding the canon by stamping overlooked work with the Getty imprimatur risks neutralizing the work. The Hammer Museum’s “Radical Women,” a major survey of more than one hundred female performance and Conceptual artists, discussed in Art in America‘s September issue, has introduced US audiences to pivotal figures, potentially bringing about a transformative effect comparable to that of “WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution” (2007), the landmark survey organized by LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art. But the well-earned fanfare that surrounds the show perhaps obscures the question of why “radical” art can receive its due from major institutions only when it can be safely historicized.

That said, historicizing is a start, and a commitment to scholarly rigor seems to be a common denominator of PST shows. By providing funding without asserting total creative control, the Getty has applied what feels like a truly collaborative approach to a large-scale exhibition. At a time when the international biennials that had previously dominated global attention seem to be floundering, weighed down by curatorial egos, obscure theses, and top-down organizational models, the horizontal PST approach may offer a way forward.