The seeds that Philippe Vergne planted shortly after taking his post as the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art one year ago have yielded three exhibitions, all opening this week.
After 12 months of rapid-fire rebuilding that included the hiring of a new chief curator and the addition of board members to what had been a financially troubled museum, Vergne on Thursday led a small group of media through shows opening Friday. He called "Sturtevant: Double Trouble" and "Kahlil Joseph: Double Conscience" at MOCA's Grand Avenue location and "William Pope.L: Trinket" at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo all very different exhibitions, but all "a continuation of what MOCA has done for many years, committing to very important artists, the kind of artists who change the way we look at art."
On the east side of the Grand Avenue museum, galleries have refinished floors, fresh white paint and new exhibition display text. To get to the Sturtevant and Joseph works, visitors at the Thursday preview first passed through a display of recent acquisitions, including an enormous, 3-D, bas relief-style collage by L.A. artist Elliott Hundley. The work has giant magnifying orbs providing windows into the veritable universe of text and tiny magazine cut-outs. Mirroring the genre, about 25 smaller collage works, all by the late assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, hung on the opposite wall.
"This was my first opportunity to sort of play with the new toy box, get in the collection, see what's there, play in our spaces, see what they do and what the work does together," MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth said. "It was enormous fun."
Joseph's double screen video installation, "m.A.A.d (2014)," was commissioned by and features the music of L.A. rapper Kendrick Lamar. It stitches together documentary-style footage from the streets of Compton, elements of magical realism, news footage from the L.A. riots as well as Lamar's home videos from that time. As Lamar's hip hop beats boomed throughout the gallery, viewers sat silently, taking in the film's tattooed, smiling, scarred and freckled faces.
"He's really occupying a kind of new terrain between music videos, contemporary art and film," Molesworth said of Joseph. "He moves somewhat effortlessly between these three categories."
The Sturtevant exhibition came to L.A. from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. MOCA, however, is the only U.S. museum that owns significant original Sturtevant work; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis owns a print. Both pieces were on display Thursday, the bronze enamel on canvas "Stella Lake City, 1969" and "Johns Target with Four Faces (study)" from 1986. The more than 40 art appropriation works in the retrospective included films and videos, Pop art-familiar paintings, sculptures, drawings and a performative piece that hadn't been part of the New York show.
In a side gallery, a male go-go dancer in a silver bikini bottom clutched a Sony Walkman and wriggled on a raised platform. The walls were covered with "Male and Female Genital Wallpaper." This was "Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform)," drawn from artist Felix Gonzalez Torres' 1991 work. The 45-minute performance will occur daily, at unannounced times.
MOMA's Peter Eleey, who organized the New York Sturtevant retrospective, was on hand Thursday to shed light on the artist's works.
"They seem to be pictures that are duplications, repetitions of other things in a familiar history of art, but she's in a sense short-circuiting not just the system that makes those artworks possible, but the broader political system in which all of this operates."
Of the go-go performance, he added: "I wish I could have fit it in New York but it makes much more sense here in the footlights of Los Angeles."
In the afternoon, at picnic tables outside the Geffen Contemporary, MOCA curator and Pope.L exhibition organizer Bennett Simpson didn't want to give away too much in his introductory talk before leading guests into what he called "a theatrical show." He did, however, drop a few hints: "There's this giant thing in the middle of the room, a giant thing that stands for this giant world that we inhabit in this country that we live in, the politics of this country, the aspirations and fears of this country -- and it's being blown around, torn up, lit in kind of unique and strange ways."
Inside, all sound was drowned out by the whooshing of four industrial fans blowing an enormous 55-by-16-foot American flag. It rippled and snapped, the edges sliced into strips, as if already fraying. Around it, seemingly sluggish performers crawled, slept or slithered on wooden barracks surrounding the flag -- a not-so-optimistic take, perhaps, on the effectiveness of democracy.
Video projections and individual photographs were tucked discretely into corners, and an entire gallery was filled with thousands of hand-painted, sprouting and rotting onions. "So much of Pope.L's work is about how things change," Bennett said.
"I wanted to build something that was faceted," Pope.L, in town for the artworks' installation, said of the show as a whole. "We say we live in a democracy; but actually, we live in several democracies. And that's what I was interested in."
Vergne's take on the exhibit's central work was especially optimistic.
"He added a star," Vergne said, nodding at the flag. "For me, that means you have to go beyond the border, think about the world in a broader way. I find it so moving."