A Crash Course in Asian American Activism

CAM 01 Ext Sign Stand

A while ago I read in the LA Weekly that the Chinese American Museum was presenting an exhibit about the Asian American activist movement from the 60s through the 80s.  It caught my attention for two reasons.  First, I had no idea that Asian Americans played a significant part in that era’s counterculture.  Second, I didn’t even know we had a Chinese American Museum in LA.  So I figured it was time to learn more about both.

It was well worth taking the trip to Downtown.  The museum is in a historic building just off the plaza at El Pueblo de Los Angeles.  Before I even got to the exhibition about Asian American activism, I spent some time with two smaller shows on the ground floor.  Journeys and Origins deal with Chinese migration to the US and the formation of Chinese communities in LA.  These shows are small, but beautifully put together, with a rich collection of artifacts.

CAM 10 Imm Room

Exhibits on the first floor document Chinese migration to the US.

CAM 12 Imm Page

Documents and photos help tell the story.

CAM 14 Imm Chairs

Furniture, cookery, toys and textiles are featured.

CAM Imm Abacus

Does anyone under 40 even know what an abacus is?

Then I went upstairs to check out the main attraction, Roots, Asian American Movements in Los Angeles, 1968-80s.

CAM 20 Rts Title

This show was a real eye opener.  Like I said before, I had no idea Asian Americans were so much a part of the counterculture in the 60s and 70s.  In one respect what they accomplished is even more impressive than the Black and Latino movements, because the Asian community was so much more diverse.  Activists representing Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino and other cultures made a conscious effort to work together to push for change.  These groups did not have a shared history, and at times had been bitterly divided, but they realized they had a better chance of being heard if they spoke with one voice.

CAM 22 Rts Shirts

Silkscreened T-shirts were one way of spreading the message.

CAM 23 Rts Buttons

Activists worked to address a variety of issues.

CAM 24 Rts Records

Music was another way of reaching out.

CAM 26 Rts Gidra

Gidra published news, commentary and art from 1969 through 1974.

CAM 28 Rts X

Come-Unity promoted cooperation across racial boundaries.

In the 60s pop culture was exploding, and members of the movement recognized that mass media was a powerful tool for getting the word out.  The show includes records, magazines, posters and other artifacts from the era.  Staging concerts, printing posters and making T-shirts helped spread awareness beyond the community.  While these activists addressed issues that affected Asian Americans, they also reached out and forged bonds with the wider protest movement.  It was a time when boundaries were being erased, and people of all kinds were coming together to address the problems facing the country.  If only we could revive that spirit these days.

The show runs through June 11, 2017.  If you want more info, here’s the link.

Chinese American Museum

CAM 50 Rts Posts

Post-it notes left by museum visitors.

The Broad

Brd 10 Main

Last week I finally made it down to The Broad. I lucked out because some friends had an extra ticket and invited me along. I really recommend making a reservation. The lines for visitors who don’t have one are still super long.

The front of the building on Grand Ave.

The front of the building on Grand Ave.

Riding up the escalator to the galleries.

Riding up the escalator to the galleries.

I got there a little early and spent some time just checking out the building’s exterior. It’s gorgeous. The two design firms that worked on the project, Diller Scofidio + Rensler and Gensler, worked from a concept they call “vault and veil”. The vault is where the museum stores its collection, and instead of trying to hide it, which is the standard approach, they allowed the structure of the vault to play a major role in shaping the space. The veil is the building’s outer layer, a porous sheath that lets natural light filter into the galleries.

Jeff Koons, Tulips

Jeff Koons, Tulips

A room full of Warhol.

A room full of Warhol.

Mark Bradford, Corner of Desire and Piety

Mark Bradford, Corner of Desire and Piety

Mark Tansey, Forward Retreat

Mark Tansey, Forward Retreat

Chris Burden, Bateau de Guerre

Chris Burden, Bateau de Guerre

Looking at the works in Broad’s collection, it’s clear that the guy’s got a keen eye and an open mind. Unlike the super rich predators who’ve crowded into the art market looking for status symbols and investment opportunities, Broad is passionately interested in the ways that artists express themselves and interact with the world around them. Wandering through the galleries, I was struck by the depth and diversity of the works on view, but I was even more impressed by how engaging this innaugural show is. It can be tough just getting the general public to take a look at contemporary art. Believe it or not, some people don’t get excited about looking at massive hunks of sheet metal or walking into galleries filled with rotting vegetables. But the wide variety of pieces in this first show offer a range of experiences, and there’s something for everybody. If you’re an art scenester looking for challenging conceptual stuff, Mark Bradford takes over a wall to talk about post-Katrina economic realities in New Orleans. And if you’re a teen-age pop culture freak, you’ll probably want to whip out your phone and snap a few shots of Takashi Murakami’s giant psychedelic mushrooms. With works on display by Kara Walker, Joseph Beuys, Susan Rothenberg, Chris Burden, Ed Ruscha, Yayoi Kusama, Mark Tansey, Cady Noland and dozens of others, you’re sure to find something that will grab your attention.

Thomas Struth, Audience II (Galleria dell'Accademia) Florenz

Thomas Struth, Audience II (Galleria dell’Accademia) Florenz

Art you can read, from John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha.

Art you can read, from John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha.

Charles Ray, Fall '91

Charles Ray, Fall ’91

I’m really grateful to Eli Broad for pulling this whole thing together. Aside from the thrill of seeing so much amazing art gathered together in one place, I was excited to see crowds of visitors milling through the galleries. And these people weren’t just passively strolling from one room to the next. They were posing with the art, laughing at the art, and talking about the art. This really is a museum for the people.

If you haven’t gone yet, what are you waiting for?

The Broad

Park located at the side of the building.

Park located at the side of the building.

Remaking the May Co.

Construction of the new Academy Museum has begun.

Construction of the new Academy Museum has begun.

A while ago I was at LACMA, and as I walked down a flight of stairs on the west side of the campus I looked over at the May Co.. It had a big hole in it. Construction had started on the new museum for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

May Co. building with a section removed.

May Co. building with a section removed.

Looking through the May Co. to Fairfax.

Looking through the May Co. to Fairfax.

It’s taken a long time to get to this point. The project has been hampered by controversy, ranging from construction impacts on the community to issues with the design. Hopefully all that’s been resolved. At any rate, the May Co. is being taken apart so that it can be put back together again, this time with a massive annex that will contain a state of the art theatre.

A view of the site facing Fairfax.

A view of the site facing Fairfax.

The rear of the building.

The rear of the building.

The original May Co. building was designed by Albert C. Martin and Samuel Marx and it opened in 1939. For decades it was a major department store, but as malls began to draw more shoppers it went into decline. LACMA took it over 1994, but it seemed like they never used it much. In 2014 the Academy made a deal to lease the property with the goal of building a museum. After a long search, Renzo Piano was brought on as architect.

A view of the site facing Wilshire.

A view of the site facing Wilshire.

A view of the empty structure.

A view of the empty structure.

And a closer view of the interior.

And a closer view of the interior.

I’m glad things are moving forward. People have been talking for years about how LA should have a museum devoted to film, and it’s high time somebody made this happen. According to the Academy web site, “The Museum will provide interactive, immersive, and engaging exhibitions that will pull back the curtain on moviemaking and highlight the history and future of the arts and sciences of film.” Sounds good to me.

Heavy machinery and piles of debris.

Heavy machinery and piles of debris.

Check out the Academy’s web site to learn more.

Academy Museum

They’ve also got a cool timeline for the May Co., showing photos of the building through the years.

May Co. Building Timeline

I know it hasn’t been easy for the Academy to deal with all the challenges of creating a new museum, but it looks like they’re on their way. Let’s hope it’s smooth sailing from here on.

The corner of the building at Wilshire and Fairfax.

The corner of the building at Wilshire and Fairfax.

Pop Culture Past

VR 10 RR

Pop culture wasn’t meant to last. As the twentieth century kicked into high gear, products made for mass consumption were pumped out as fast as possible, generally with the idea that whatever the masses were dying to have one day would be tossed away the very next day. Permanence was considered passé. Forget about making things that would last forever. The idea was to make stuff that would last long enough to make a profit, and then jump on whatever trend came next. Studios threw out prints of old movies to free up storage space. Comic publishers tossed original art when their filing cabinets got too full. And developers bulldozed old buildings when they were past their prime.

But of course, people started falling in love with this stuff. In some cases it was just a sentimental attachment we felt for things we grew up with. In other cases we’d realize that this object we’d taken for granted was actually the product of careful, thoughtful design. And occasionally we’d come across something really beautiful. Some of this stuff was just too cool to throw away.

VR 55 VdK

You can find a staggering display of artifacts from our pop culture past at Valley Relics Museum. Curator Tommy Gelinas has been scouring the San Fernando Valley for twenty years looking for items that have something to say about the area’s history. The museum was set up as a non-profit in 2012, and in 2013 they opened their doors to the public.

Valley Relics is located in a business park in Chatsworth. It’s a small space, but it’s jam packed with objects ranging from the mundane to the bizarre. It’s kind of like if the Valley had an attic where people would put stuff they couldn’t use any more but couldn’t bear to part with. There are custom cars, video games, movie posters and plenty of neon.

VR 35 Ashtrays

But even though a lot of what they have on display belongs to the world of pop culture, Valley Relics has a broader mission. Here’s what they say on their web site.

Our endeavor is to collect, preserve, interpret, and present the history of The San Fernando Valley and surrounding areas in order to share with residents and visitors alike the stories of those who shaped the region and its role in the nation’s development.

So they’re not just trying to build a funhouse for nostalgia freaks. They’re really trying to tell the story of the Valley, and it’s high time somebody did. The massive plain that spreads toward the north from the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains generally gets short shrift when people talk about LA history, but you can’t really talk about the film or aerospace industries without talking about the Valley.

Of course cars played a huge part in the growth of the Valley. There were a couple of custom cars on display that caught my attention. One is the gaudy convertible driven by the owner of Nudie’s, the tailor that created one-of-a-kind outfits for country western luminaries.

VR 20 Car

The other is a humble VW decorated with a dizzying collage of images by artist Kent Bash. According to the text panel, the inside is supposed to be pretty cool, too, but it was hard to get a good look.

VR 25 VW

Music is a big part of the Valley’s history. It warmed my heart too see the sign from the Palomino glowing softly at the back of the building.

VR 45 Palomino

The club itself has been gone for years, but in its heyday it hosted many of the greatest stars of country music. Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson and many others played there. I only went a few times, but I will always remember catching the Collins Kids at the Palomino. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen in my life.

VR 40 Joni

Valley Relics is a young museum, and they have a lot of work to do. Right now it seems like the idea is to just display as much stuff as possible. The collection could be better organized, and it would help if there were more text to give visitors some background. Their biggest problem is lack of space. The day I was there I spoke to a guy who said they had tons of objects stored in a warehouse, and that they’re looking for a larger building. I hope they find some place a little closer to the center of the Valley. I’m sure plenty of people would dig the collection, but the location makes it kind of a long trip for most Angelenos.

Still, it’s definitely worth the trouble. Right now their hours are limited, only 10 am to 3 pm on Saturdays, but admission is free. If you do make the trip out there, and if you’re as impressed as I was, I’d urge you to put some money in the box for donations. Gelinas and company have gathered some amazing artifacts, and they’re telling a story that even people who live in this city don’t know much about. Right now they’re trying to take it to the next level. Let’s hope they can pull it off.

Here’s the link to the web site. You should check this place out.

Valley Relics

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Flags

Image from the booklet prepared for Trinket

Image from the booklet prepared for Trinket

Yesterday a friend and I went down to MOCA to check out Trinket, an exhibition by Chicago-based artist William Pope.L. The centerpiece is a giant American flag, which is being continually buffeted by the wind from four large fans. The space grows brighter and darker at intervals as rows of lights go through pre-programmed cycles. It’s a pretty interesting show that raises lots of complicated questions about this country. I can’t say I felt emotionally engaged, and this is a problem I have with a lot of conceptual art. But it was well worth the trip, and it was cool to see work by an artist who’s willing to really dig into this country’s psyche.

After hitting MOCA, my friend and I went next door to check out the Japanese American National Museum. We spent some time in the galleries that document the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. In a way, it was as though this show was the perfect follow up to the one we’d just seen. Both exhibitions make you think long and hard about this country, and some of the darker aspects of our history.

Then we decided to get some lunch. And this was the scene that caught my eye as we started walking down Central.

Man sleeping on Central Ave.

Man sleeping on Central Ave.

A man sleeping on the sidewalk, almost completely covered by an American flag blanket. An odd coincidence, given the shows we’d just seen, bringing up even more questions about where this country’s going.*

If you’re interested in taking a look at William Pope.L’s work, here’s the link for the show at MOCA.

Trinket

And if you haven’t seen the exhibition at the JANM, I urge you to make the trip down there. Even though the internment happened decades ago, the issues the show raises are absolutely relevant to what’s going on in this country now.

Japanese American National Museum

*
Later it occurred to me that the guy on the sidewalk might actually be a part of the show at MOCA. Even if that’s true, it’s a cool way to bring art out of the gallery and into the street.

Midnight at Wilshire and Fairfax

W&F 1 Scaf

Last week I went to one of the screenings in UCLA’s preservation festival. I think I left around eleven, and then caught the bus on Wilshire. I got off at Fairfax, where I have to transfer. It took a while for the next bus to show up, so I took some photos while I was waiting. It seemed like there was a lot of stuff going on….

Night time is when the MTA crews show up to work on the Purple Line extension. You don’t see them during the day. Just metal plates lying all over the street. But at night these guys set up their barriers and their lights and go to work.

MTA crews work on the Purple Line at night.

MTA crews work on the Purple Line at night.

Just across the street, the old May Co. building is surrounded by scaffolding. It seems that the Academy is finally starting the process of transforming this dinosaur of a department store into a new museum devoted to film. I have no idea when it’ll be completed, but I’m glad to see that work has begun.

Scaffolding set up on the west side of the May Co. building.

Scaffolding set up on the west side of the May Co. building.

I was standing there on Fairfax snapping photos, when a few runners went speeding past. At first I thought it was just some people who lived in the neighborhood out for some exercise. But then another group ran by, and then another, and then it was a steady stream of people racing down Fairfax. My guess is that a couple hundred people went by, but it could have been more.

Runners stampeding down Fairfax toward Wilshire.

Runners stampeding down Fairfax toward Wilshire.

More runners heading down Fairfax.

More runners heading down Fairfax.

As usual, there was a homeless guy camped out in one of the recessed areas along the side of the May Co. building.

A homeless man taking shelter for the night.

A homeless man taking shelter for the night.

And of course there’s Johnie’s, blazing away in the darkness. The banks of lights that surround the building are slowly going out, but those that are left let you know that this classic coffee shop has not gone away. The place has been closed for years, but the flashing lights seem to be insisting that it’s still open for business. That it’s still alive.

Johnie's refuses to die.

Johnie’s refuses to die.

Time to Move On

LAC 0B Tunnel

You may already know that LACMA is planning a major overhaul. I think it’s a good idea. The original design has been pretty badly compromised, and the campus is kind of a mess. The biggest mistake was the addition of the Anderson Building, but there are other changes that contributed to the general feeling of chaos. So, yeah, it’s time to hit reset. Peter Zumthor’s design for the new campus is pretty interesting. You never know how these things will work out in the long run, but I’m ready to climb on board. (I do have serious reservations about the plan for funding it, but that’s another story.)

I have to admit, though, I’ve got a fondness for this funky collection of buildings that don’t really fit together. There’s a lot about the current set-up that I’ll miss. So even though we’re probably still a long way away from starting construction, I thought I’d take a trip down to the old place and snap some photos.

The museum was originally designed by William Pereira, and in its first state there was a real sense of space and light. Now the plaza seems claustrophobic. Just to give a sense of Pereira’s orginal concept, take a look at the photo below.

LAC 05 Plz Wom

On the left side you can see the Ahmanson Building, which has been there since the beginning. Back in the 60s you walked up a broad set of stairs onto a wide plaza that was surrounded on three sides by structures like this. It was a fantastic space, and a quintessential example of LA architecture. Now I move the camera to the right….

LAC 10 And Rt

…and you can see the Anderson Building, which was built in the 80s. It was great to have more gallery space, but the building always seemed like a massive intrusion. And if you look at the central plaza…

LAC 25 Plaza Brg

…you can see that the columns and the bridge and the canopy intrude even further. Nowadays this space just seems really odd and awkward. It doesn’t work at all.

But there are still things to enjoy about the plaza. Like Jesús Rafael Soto’s Penetrable.

Penetrable by Jesús Rafael Soto

Penetrable by Jesús Rafael Soto

I love this installation, and kids love wandering through it. I know museums aren’t always a big favorite with children, so I think it’s great that Soto’s work is right out on the plaza, almost like it’s saying, “Come on in and play.”

Another one of the original Pereira buildings houses the Bing Theatre, which I’ll really miss.

LAC 32 Bing Lobby 2

LACMA used to have incredible film programming. They did amazing retrospectives on Marlon Brando, William Wyler, Erich von Stroheim, FW Murnau and others. My friend Brian and I used to joke that there were times we were going there so often it seemed like we were living at LACMA.

LAC 40 Cafe Red

I’ll miss the cafe, too. I’ve spent lots of time there, either taking a break from the galleries or waiting for a movie to begin. Occasionally I’d take a cup of coffee outside…

LAC 27 Red Tbl

…and find a quiet place somewhere. In spite of all the people milling around the campus, it’s not too hard to get away from the crowds.

Inside the Ahmanson Building, Tony Smith’s Smoke rises up through the atrium. It’s a cool piece, but it probably needs more room to breathe. Maybe when the new museum is built they’ll create a better space for it.

Smoke by Tony Smith

Smoke by Tony Smith

Same as above.

Same as above.

Same as above.

Same as above.

I’m glad that LACMA draws as many people as it does, but sometimes I miss the good old days, before the blockbuster exhibitions, when it was just you and the janitorial staff. Still, some of the galleries are less crowded than others. The spaces where they display contemporary American art are often pretty busy, but if you just head upstairs…

LAC 80 Gallery

…you’ll find the older European art. I used to mainly look at painting from the last couple of centuries, but lately I’m getting into the older stuff. Like these Dutch landscapes.

Beach with a Weyschuit Pulled up on Shore by Willem van de Velde, the Younger

Beach with a Weyschuit Pulled up on Shore by Willem van de Velde, the Younger

Landscape with Dunes by Jacob van Ruisdael

Landscape with Dunes by Jacob van Ruisdael

One of the great things about LACMA is that when you’ve maxed out on the art, you can leave the galleries and head for the park just behind the museum.

A view of the park from the museum plaza.

A view of the park from the museum plaza.

Another view of the park looking toward the west.

Another view of the park looking toward the west.

And since I’m talking about change, I might as well mention the May Co. building right next door.

LAC 95 May

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is planning to build a museum devoted to film on this site. The plan is to restore the May Co., and to construct a new wing behind it, which will be designed by Renzo Piano. Not sure when work will start, but you can click on the link below for more info.

Academy Museum

This last shot is a view of Fairfax looking down towards Wilshire.

LAC 97 May Side

It’s interesting that with all the activity happening at LACMA and the May Co., just across the street you have Johnie’s, a classic coffee shop from the fifties designed by Armét & Davis, that’s been neglected for years. Closed since 2000, the City of LA recently declared it a historic landmark, but nobody seems to know what’s going to happen to it. The MTA is currently working on the Purple Line extension, and supposedly there will be a subway stop at Wilshire and Fairfax by 2023. Is it too much to hope that Johnie’s will be open again by then?