‘Made in California’: Inconclusive and Proud of It


After slogging through California myth and history for almost five hours, perplexity sucking harder at their feet with every step, my out-of-towner companions were unanimous:

“Too long,” they said. “Too long.”

I could, like, relate. Sensing what was in store, I’d put off the trek for as long as I dared. To do justice to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000” exhibition, LACMA’s personal best in terms of sheer immensity, you have to have the legs of a linebacker and the sacrum of a flamenco dancer.

It occurred to me, limping to the car afterward, that my companions’ verdict on the exhibition is apropos of a great deal else about California.


Its geographical length (almost 900 miles, by my reckoning, from Smith River in the north to Palm City in the south) is too long to nourish much kinship among the inhabitants of its various reaches. Its roll of residents, 34 million immigrating and procreating toward 50 million, is too long. Its history of breakneck social transformation and environmental degradation--too long.

Geography and demography can be quantified; they’re part of California’s reality. “Made in California,” however, is primarily concerned with the state’s image, which has always been at odds, often purposely, with its reality. The exhibition’s 800-some paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations, videos, bits of clothing and pieces of furniture fill five full galleries at LACMA in an attempt to trace how that image has evolved over the past century.

“Made in California” has been puzzling people and tiring them out since October, and it will continue doing so until late February. The exhibition has drawn its share of critical fire for the quality and relevance of its pieces, and its pop-culture approach.

Yet, in perhaps an unintended way, it delivers an impression of California that seems perfectly valid to someone (me) who came here four years ago and has been trying ever since to assemble an orderly notion of “California.”

The exhibition is divided into five sections, each covering two decades. Bear with me here:

The first (1900-1920) treats the selling of California as a kind of untrampled Eden to careworn Midwesterners. The second (1920-1940) depicts the state’s increasing industrialization and urbanization and, with the onset of the Great Depression, the plight of its hitherto invisible working people (these are incongruously concurrent with the rise of Hollywood as the glamour capital of the American mind). The third section (1940-1960) is concerned with California as a racially prejudiced wartime dynamo and postwar lifestyle trendsetter. The fourth (1960-1980) considers the state’s association with the Vietnam War-era counterculture, feminism and various nonconformisms. The fifth and mercifully last (1980-2000) focuses on California’s expanding ethnic diversity and the increasing integration of the state’s image into a globalist mind-set.


This sausage-link approach has its benefits in terms of comprehensibility. It also, however, leaves the impression that its component segments have almost nothing to do with one another, that one didn’t grow logically from the one before, or presage the one to come.

Initially, I took this as a failing. Then, hobbling back to the car, I realized this impression mirrored almost exactly my own sense of California as a place where history has less relevance than anywhere I’ve ever lived, where life is ever a headlong rush to the next thing.

The exhibition’s focus on image made me wonder if any modern place has been so effectively mythologized. The image of California stubbornly foremost in my mind, after four years of assaying some of the state’s more troubling realities, is one of lithe, bronze people, honey-gold sunlight and oranges growing on the trees.

It was a mild shock to encounter at “Made in California” a reminder that the Beach Boys’ recording of “Surfin’ Safari” and the bloody Watts riot occurred only three years apart on the same bit of earth.

The LACMA exhibition seems to delight in braiding misleading images with reality and juxtaposing disconnected works of art with non-art. It left me wondering whether California is even knowable in any meaningful sense.

Not any more, however, than California itself has.

“Made in California” succeeds precisely because it doesn’t make linear sense, with its rainstorm of bright images falling on a human landscape of avarice and strife. It doesn’t presume to deliver a coherent story of incoherence.

The exhibition hints at three peculiar truths about California: first, that stability is never the goal here; second, that perception always trumps reality; and third, that we might all leave tomorrow (if the land doesn’t shrug us off first).