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Like kids set loose in museum storage

Six artists take their inspiration from anthropology in a new show at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

By Hugh Hart
Special to The Times

March 2, 2005
What happens when six artists get to rummage through a collection of 33 million objects with the understanding that they can mix and match their favorite findings to create new works?

Left-brain logic goes out the window in favor of gut-instinct intuition that may or may not respect scholarly convention: A "cabinet of curiosities" is filled with fake Indian artifacts sculpted by a gifted con artist. A collection of African and South Seas tribal sculptures is presented as if the carved wooden figures are being held against their will. And a selection of tiny Eskimo carvings and Zuni fetish figurines are arrayed in a candy box like so many dainty marzipans.

These works are among the six art installations featured in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's "Conversations" project, designed to employ the languages of art and science to look anew at the museum's vast collection.

Vanda Vitali, vice president of public programs for the museum, said it was precisely this kind of outside-the-diorama thinking that she hoped for when she invited visual artists Kim Abeles, Lita Albuquerque, Tony Berlant, Paul McCarthy, Ed Moses and John Valadez to take part in the show, which runs through June 19. Phyllis Ginter provided sound design. "We essentially told the artists: 'You're to use our collection and create meanings that you see in the objects,' " Vitali said. The "conversation" really began, she added, when museum curators opened the doors, figuratively speaking, and guided the artists through the museum's eclectic assortment of specimens and artifacts.

"It's like going into a cave or being in the world's greatest thrift shop," Berlant said.

Anthropologist Margaret Hardin, the museum's division chief for history and anthropology and the "Conversations" lead curator, says the artists' quests resulted in some unpredictable requests. She was taken aback, for instance, when Berlant turned down the museum's world-class prehistoric Chumash Indian carvings in favor of a stash of fakes.

"Tony wanted to see our Chumash material and was surprised to not find any objects that had been made by this 20th century artist Arthur Sanger," Hardin said. "Of course, we didn't bring them out because we knew full well those were not prehistoric Chumash artifacts."

Sanger, in short, was a fraud. In the 1930s, he carved miniature stone fish, birds and animals, coated his handiwork with shoe polish to affect a faux burnished look and secretly "salted" them in Chumash excavation sites. After "discovering" the pieces during archeological digs he supervised, Sanger hoodwinked scholars, collectors and museum directors into believing his creations were genuine Chumash artifacts.

"I think of Sanger basically as a visionary trickster," says Berlant, an avid collector of Sanger's work. "It's fascinating to hold something in your hand and know it was made by somebody who lived along the coast perhaps 1,000 years ago. But I'm not an anthropologist. My response is more romantic and aesthetic than scientific. The fact that Sanger was not making a copy of something raises his work to a very high creative level."

Berlant sees his installation, "Five Artists," as a chance to mingle his own Sanger-crafted whales, pelicans and turtles with those belonging to the museum. "Once you see the pieces all together, the light goes on: These are one man's hand. At first I was dismayed to find that I had been deceived, but now I see these pieces have a very special place in the history of American folk art."

Like Berlant, painter and muralist Valadez grew up in Los Angeles and fondly remembers visiting the museum. In his marine-themed "Crustacea oceana," he tried to recapture the sense of wonder he experienced there as a kid. "I wanted to get the crab and lobster and shrimp out of their jars and put them in a different format where the public gets to see them new," he said.

Valadez included a "banquet" of plastic seafood, a prop submarine used in the 1958 movie "Run Silent, Run Deep," a small-scale replica of a bark canoe and a painting of his based on the 1957 B movie "Attack of the Crab Monsters." His nonlinear sensibility left some curators scratching their heads.

"The conversation — I call it a 'negotiation' — between myself and the institution has become really nice, but at times it was difficult," Valadez says. "Scientists like to keep things in boxes, sterile and clean.... As artists we put chunks together and hope the glue fits. You have academia and intuition at the extremes, but the dichotomy is breaking down. It has to, and I'm feeling really lucky to be a part of that."

Albuquerque's work, "OPHIODERMA teres" features an 11-foot fiberglass sculpture of a brittle star housed in a dark cube-like space. It was in the echinoderm department run by curator Gordon Hendler that Albuquerque found inspiration.

"I was fascinated when Gordon told me how some of these starfish live at the bottom of the ocean near the Arctic and the Antarctic where there's no life," Albuquerque says. "They develop crystalline lenses from the bones in their skeletons, which focuses light inside their body, and that enables them to see. I wanted to explore the whole notion of existing where there is no sunlight, so that when you look at the piece you don't know if you're looking at the bottom of the ocean, or you're looking at the cosmos, or if you're looking at a sculpture in a cube."

Albuquerque, like most of the artists, made many trips to the museum. But Moses, an abstract painter, found his subject the instant he turned a corner in the museum's basement. "I saw these tall African ... sculptures, tied up, and I was knocked out by the way they emanated this power in spite of the fact that they were all, what they called 'strapped in.' I called them 'bound and gagged.' "

The totems were bundled and tied to protect them from earthquakes, "and yet these pieces were still able to provoke real magical and spiritual connections," Moses said. "I knew what I was going to do right then and there: I'm going to bring those guys out of the basement and situate them just the way they're situated down below."

And so he did. "Bound and Gagged" uses rope, bubble wrap and chicken wire to display the objects much the way the museum holds them in storage.

In his artist's statement, McCarthy speaks of using the museum as "a resource center, a prop house." His untitled installation examines specimens — boat dioramas — in relation to process: "I seem to be dealing with the museum's intentions, processes and concerns in relationship to my own intentions, processes and concerns," his statement says.

For environmental artist Abeles, the curators proved as fascinating as the "props." As homage, she created "The Importance of Objects," a table-shaped video-installation crowned with what is essentially a curators' "greatest hits" collection, chosen by museum staffers. The scientists' prize pieces include a Navajo textile, a can opener crab, a mountain beaver skull, a stuffed black-throated magpie-jay, a tiny Diaulula greeleyi mollusk positioned under a magnifying camera lens, and a glass jar stuffed with terebellid medusa worms.

Abeles says the more she learned about the curators and their deeply felt preserve-and-cherish sensibility, the more she wanted to present their perspectives. "I didn't want to pick out something and say, 'Here's my plan.' After hearing the curators talk about their collections in this very personalized way, I became interested in how they even got this kind of job, because it's a really strange profession if you think about it: to care-take these things with the type of sensitivity they all have toward their objects — to me that is very profound and beautiful."

'Conversations'

Where: The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: June 19

Price: $9, adults; $6.50, students and seniors; $2, children 5 to 12

Contact: (213) 763-DINO; www.nhm.org