La Jolla Art Museum Uses Grant for Good, Not-So Good

Building a museum collection isn’t what it used to be.

The quiet, dignified transfer of works of art from private collections to public institutions has dwindled in recent years. Incentives to give have been smothered by the escalation of art market prices and a 1986 tax law that reduced and complicated the deductibility of donated art.

Museums today must be more resourceful than ever to keep their collections growing. Responding, perhaps, to the search for acquisition funds, the Los Angeles-based Lannan Foundation last year initiated a grant program that awarded $50,000 each to three U.S. institutions.

The La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art received one grant. (The High Museum in Atlanta and the Hirshhorn in Washington received the others.


The grants are earmarked for the purchase of works by “emerging or under-recognized” artists.

The grant allowed the La Jolla Museum to add more than a dozen works to its collection. These works, and others by the same artists are on view at the museum through Aug. 6 in the show, “New Acquisitions: Gifts from the Lannan Foundation.”

In making its selections, the museum dipped briefly into painting, sculpture, video, photography and modest-sized installation work, spreading its purchases across a spectrum of expressive modes. Nearly half of the work bought was by local artists, a politic move on behalf of the museum but also an astute one, considering the integrity of most of the works chosen.

David Avalos, one of the most dynamic presences in the San Diego art community, injects a spirit of tough poetry into the museum’s collection, which had long focused on the spare symmetry of minimalist art. Love, violence and reverence converge in his concise assemblage, “Hubcap Milagro No. 6" (1986). Jagged tooth folds splay the dull gray heart at its center, revealing a red-streaked core or wound. Emerging like a proud emblem of passion from the top of the heart is a small object that reads simultaneously as lipstick, bullet and flame. Presented with the direct immediacy of an icon, “Hubcap Milagro” exudes an unyielding power, tinged with sacredness and fragility.


Local photographer Elizabeth Sisco, whose works unfortunately were not purchased, undermines the smugly superior attitudes of American businessmen toward Mexico in her 1984 work, “El Paso/Juarez.” She juxtaposes a statement from the American Chamber of Commerce listing the advantages of living in the United States while managing a Mexican plant with her own stark black-and-white images of the two border cities.

Rather than reinforcing one another, as is typical of images and their captions, Sisco’s photographs challenge the assumptions made by the industry official. When the text points out that an American family living near Mexico is afforded great cultural expansion, Sisco mocks the official’s words by illustrating what many Americans regard as Mexican culture: curio shops and black velvet paintings.

Also not purchased was Louis Hock’s insightful video, “The Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of Life Outside the Law.” Hock and Sisco are included to supplement the display of a weaker, collaborative photo-mural that was purchased with Lannan grant funds. The museum has aptly identified several of the city’s more capable artists, including Kenneth Capps and Raul Guerrero, but it has not consistently chosen their strongest works.

Thanks to the Lannan grant, works from several recent exhibitions have become part of the museum’s permanent collection, allowing the successes and failures of these shows to make a second round through the museum.


Nick Vaughn’s puerile constructions hardly deserve an encore, and William Leavitt’s work looks as uneven now as it did during the museum’s 1987 “LA2DA” exhibition.

James Drake’s installation, “Knife Table,” sends a searing message about the coarse egoism of violence but without the subtlety and richness of the rest of his work shown earlier this year in the museum’s downtown space.

Two works by Eric Snell, both Lannan acquisitions, capture well the flavor of Snell’s process-oriented art. Although the images themselves are unremarkable, Snell’s use of the elemental forces of magnetic attraction and fire to create them imbues them with added meaning.

Large-scale color photographs by Tina Barney add a refreshing dose of personal, narrative drama to the show, and likewise the collection. Like the turn-of-the-century French intimist painters, Barney monumentalizes the psychological nuances of upper-class family life. Whether focusing on the implicit communication and competition between mothers and daughters or the kaleidoscope of moods that encircles the daily breakfast table, Barney’s work leaves much to ponder in the familiar scenes of everyday life.


The sole video purchase in the show, Tony Oursler’s futuristic “Joy Ride,” is only moderately engaging, while Maurizio Pellegrin’s spare wall arrangement of 35 objects yields a mysterious, haunting power beyond its modest means. Each of the objects in “Distant Desires, Beyond the Garden"--including a single glove, a framed, fragmented photograph and outmoded carrying cases for either golf clubs or guns--is painted with black stripes and stenciled numbers. Mounted and identified thus, the objects assume the status of evidence, as if they were dispersed clues to an unknown crime.

Pellegrin’s installation, with many potential readings, shares a gallery with the large, pretentious, monochrome photographs of Barbara Ess. The hollow quality of Ess’ images clashes not only with the evocative tension of Pellegrin’s work but with the intelligence and independence that characterize the rest of the show.