Can you get too much of Elvis? “Elvis Who?” was held in November at the Old Town Music Hall. Photo by Gloria Plascencia
It took the Germans to come in and get it done. Eva Sweeney designed it, her brother Bernhard Zuenkeler curated it, and Eva’s husband Brian Sweeney put up the bucks. That’s a simplification, of course, and Brian isn’t German, but it does summarize the core of imagination, will power, and financial heft that has given the South Bay its most innovative art venue, the El Segundo Museum of Art.
That name is slightly misleading, because even before last January’s grand opening the Sweeneys and Zuenkeler were referring to the space on Main Street as an “art laboratory.” If it was vague as to what being an “art laboratory” entailed, we had our first inkling of it last February when, on a cold, windy, and damp morning Michael Sistig’s “Anti-Ark” installation was unveiled on the beach below Vista del Mar and Grand, in El Segundo. Based on three of Sistig’s paintings, and making a statement about global warming, “Anti-Ark” consisted of four large shipping containers placed as if they’d been washed ashore. On one of them lay an emaciated polar bear, clearly out of his element, and on another there perched a siren, the kind that lured sailors, promising pleasure but delivering death.
“Anti-Ark” had been presented in conjunction with “Desire,” ESMoA’sinaugural exhibition that focused on nature. The work, culled from the Sweeney’s personal collection, included works from well known artists such as Courbet, Feininger, Kiefer, and Corot. The latter’s “Civita Castellana” was on view at the Getty when I visited there last month. What that says is, we’ve got some classy stuff here.
Michael Sistig and his “Anti-Ark” installation on the shores of El Segundo. Photo by Gloria Plascencia
“Truth” opened in Mayand showcased the (mostly undraped) human figure. For the run of the exhibition the floor was covered in red hot vinyl while lacy, diaphanous full-length curtains hung from the ceiling, effectively partitioning the museum into three areas or groupings. The artists ranged from Dürer to Klimt, Muybridge to Mapplethorpe.
Bernhard Zuenkeler and Brian Sweeney check things out prior to the May opening of “Truth.” Photo by Gloria Plascencia
Of the curatorial decision behind the layout and placement of the work, Zuenkeler said at the time that “I did it more in an intuitive way and not in an art historical way.” About the nudity, some of it explicit, he added: “There are only two kinds of people, open-minded and close-minded people.”
Body painter Trina Merry and models (soon to become living works of art). Photo by Gloria Plascencia
To complement the exhibition, the museum brought in body painter Trina Merry and several of her models, or recruits, to create various tableaux vivant settings. The men and women, wearing only the skin that God gave them and the paints that Merry gave them, presented what may well have been the most memorable one-day art event of 2013.
The third show, “Fame,” a collaboration with the Wende Museum, focused largely on the era before and just after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, and the subsequent reunification of the two Germanys, East and West, that had been separated since 1945. “Fame” looked at the fleeting nature of celebrity, and how people once seemingly entrenched in the spotlight will eventually fade away altogether or be remembered much differently. This should be good news for those who wish to throttle Miley Cyrus or Lindsay Lohan: Time will step in and do the job for you. Even formerly revered figures, like Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, eventually shrink into mere footnotes.
As the Wende’s Justinian Jampol put it, “Museums are often about remembering… This is a show that’s also about forgetting, [about] who’s been forgotten along the way.”
To complement “Fame,” ESMoA presented “Elvis Who?” an Elvis Presley-impersonation contestthat saw 12 contenders shake, rattle, and roll on stage at the Old Town Music Hall. A full house of Elvis fans couldn’t get enough of this glorious mayhem.
The current show, if we can call it that, is a work-in-progress called “Sting,” and the opening reception took some visitors by surprise. Expecting to see art on the walls, they were met with a large pile of what seemed like construction material: stacks of supplies and collected objects that hadn’t yet found their use or their new identity. Subverting and inverting the usual notion of an art opening, where the completed product is on view, we were looking at something that resembled the dawn of creation – the starting gate as opposed to the finish line.
Since that date, the five artists-in-residence, all from Cuba, have been putting their visions and their talents to good use, and we are encouraged to stop in and see what’s been shaping up. We’ll have until January 19.
There’s more coming up in the year ahead, beginning with “Silence” on Feb. 2, running through May 4. It will highlight works of a more abstract nature, whereas “Scratch,” on the boards for summer, is devoted to or centered around artful graffiti.
One more thing sets ESMoA apart from other local art venues, and that’s what it gives back to the community. Life-drawing classes and yoga classes and “cooking art history” classes and movie nights have all been held within the confines of the venue. Last year, 3,000 students, from kindergarten through their senior year in high school, were brought in from El Segundo schools to view the art, and the programs designed to do this in 2014 will even be expanded. It was a great first year, but I think we’re just looking at the start of something really big and impressive.
The El Segundo Museum of Art is located at 208 Main Street, El Segundo. (424) 277-1020 or go to ESMoA.org.