All that glitters is not gold--but at least it glitters, a friend is fond of saying. So it is at the new Santa Monica Museum of Art, where Liza Lou's head-turning "Kitchen" (1991-95) and "Back Yard" (1995-97) glitter up a storm, thanks to millions--or is it billions?--of tiny multicolored beads encrusting every surface of these wonderfully outlandish sculptures.
Together with "Beck & Al Hansen: Playing With Matches," a modest but absorbing show of collages by the celebrated young pop musician and his late grandfather, who was a stalwart of the international Fluxus art movement, Lou's sculptures inaugurate the museum's new home in one of the refurbished warehouses on the southwest side of Bergamot Station. A year behind schedule, in part because of much-publicized legal squabbles among principals in the Bergamot Station partnership, the building renovation isn't quite complete. Offices and a bookstore await construction.
However, the industrially chic gallery space is very much ready, with polished concrete floors, exposed steel trusses, copious skylights, modular wall system, etc. So on with the show(s).
The new building opens today, 10 years after the old museum opened in quarters on Santa Monica's Main Street. The inaugural exhibitions honor three diverse artists, but they might also be seen as homages to three of the museum's longtime supporters: collectors Peter and Eileen Norton, who own Lou's "Kitchen"; and trustee Tom Patchett, former Bergamot Station business partner, whose collection has Fluxus art as a focus.
Lou's "Kitchen" and "Back Yard" offer standard suburban vignettes of domestic bliss--cherry pie baking in the oven, a picnic with corn on the cob set on the table out back--but with a critically important difference. Modern suburbia was constructed as a shining promise for postwar Americans, but most observers today would regard the sales pitch as a dream curdled and unfulfilled. Lou, in her eye-dazzling pair of sculptures, has set about to keep the promise. Her vision of domestic bliss is, well, blissful.
It takes a bit of getting used to. The "Kitchen" is nothing if not garish, a manic exercise in horror vacuii that finds every surface, nook and cranny patterned and beaded to within an inch of its life. The "Back Yard" is a riot of bizarre flora (including a full-size tree), 600 square feet of Munchkinland in which an island of brick-trimmed patio serenely floats.
Indoors, "Kitchen" has checkerboard floor tiles, a plaid cloth on the table and diamond-patterned wallpaper, each in a chunky color scheme of green, blue, white and rosy pink. The wallpaper is further elaborated with multiple patterns--spatulas and bacon, steam irons framed by baroque scrolls and cascading roses. Even the appliances are lushly decorated, with abstract designs on the fridge and Barbie-doll blonds cavorting around the stove (inside and out).
What sets the room spinning are the wooden chair, cupboards and cabinets. The grain of the wood is rendered in impossibly beautiful swirls of brown, racing through a dusky rainbow from chocolate to golden. The whole environment feels ecstatic, with a pulsing energy that pointedly recalls the flickering cypress trees and tumbling stars in Van Gogh's "Starry Night." On the counter near the sink, a yellow bottle of Joy detergent finally seems, in all its beaded splendor, like really, truly, authentic joy.
Outdoors, the lawn is a Sargasso Sea of dew-kissed grass, waiting for the idle mower to do its weekend work. The flower beds lining three sides of the open yard create a visual fence, over which the eye leaps to settle into the secular communion of lunch on a sun-dappled afternoon. A fat fly alighted on the handle of the gleaming barbecue might, in a traditional work of art, be read as a humble warning of eventual mortality and decay; but, not here, not in this Edenic place, where everything is forever bright, shiny and in the full bloom of newness.
Surreptitiously, the garish, sparkly color that keys the sculptures' wild visual overload seduces you. The work is over-the-top, for sure, but that just makes you long to enter it, to pull up a chair at the kitchen table or pick a small bouquet from the garden.
Perhaps the most magical moment comes in catching sight of the pinkish sequined shirt hanging on the laundry line at the rear of "Back Yard." Suddenly you realize: You could put it on! It's the only object that's usable, the only one that could pass as well in our ordinary world as in Lou's fantastical one.
Stylistically, Lou employs a cartoon language--lingua franca of '90s art--to render domestic subjects in a medium traditionally associated with women's labor. Not the least of her achievements has been the utter transformation of this mainstream set of feminist associations, established for art more than 20 years ago. "Kitchen" and "Back Yard" are not exhausted critiques of an inevitably repressive status quo; instead, they irradiate it with playful glamour, making good on the failed promises of our post-industrial culture.
In the museum's smaller rear gallery, "Playing With Matches: Beck & Al Hansen" does double duty. One focus is on the work of the elder artist (Al Hansen died in 1995, at age 68), based in New York and Germany, whose participation in a wide variety of Happenings and performance works since the 1960s made him a kind of wandering minstrel for the modern era. The other focus is on pop music sensation Beck, and how the soulful brand of hip-hop sampling evident in 1996's multi-platinum-selling ode to L.A., "Odelay," connects to the mixed-media sensibility of his grandfather.
A hippy, busty Venus is the most frequently encountered image in Hansen's art. Some of his sweeties are made from discarded wrappers from Hershey's chocolate, carefully scissored to emphasize the feminine pun contained in the "her-she" name. Other venuses are made from clumps of grungy cigarette butts or collaged bits of used, unrolled cigarette papers--Parliaments, Marlboro Lights and Benson & Hedges being the favored brands--suggesting the dreamy residue of countless post-coital smokes.
Libidinal energy was a common engine driving the Fluxus effort to bust up bourgeois routines of art and life. So was the refusal of traditional mediums like painting and sculpture, in favor of fleeting, performance-oriented activities and diaristic collages made from trash. The show includes a sizable number of pages taken from 27 sketchbooks Hansen made (and scrupulously numbered) over the years, which feature collages made from news clippings, receipts, letters, porn, snapshots and such, usually linked asymmetrically on blank backgrounds. They're like little Robert Motherwells, except with down-home soul rather than airy pretentiousness.
The CD liner to Beck's "Odelay" contains a collage of images by Al Hansen, Manuel Ocampo and Zorim Osborne, which in part attests to the 27-year-old's artistic ancestry. Not much of his visual work is in the show (like Al, Beck keeps fat sketchbooks filled with collages), but the lineage is clear: A Beck collage of bundled matchsticks encircled by masking tape, for example, directly recalls such Hansen pieces as "Matches Museum," in which rows of wooden matches suggest the hot flame of passion that precedes the inevitability of death.
The Santa Monica Museum's two inaugural shows are certainly dissimilar, but if anything unites them it's the pungent flavor of the homemade they share. In very different ways, Liza Lou and Beck and Al Hansen explicitly refuse the established hierarchies of art, accessible only to the professional and the academic specialist.
* Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., (310) 586-6488, through July 5. Closed Mondays.