Getting things into shape

Times Staff Writer

PERHAPS IT is the polymorphic exuberance of Los Angeles sculptor Jorge Pardo that made him seem such a natural to reinvent L.A. County Museum of Art’s display of pre-Columbian art.

Pardo has spent his career so restlessly straddling the borders of sculpture, design and furniture that he has drawn humorous comparisons to IKEA and Martha Stewart. If you can’t afford his luminous, geometric outdoor installations in massive concrete, you can always hope for a lamp. His lush colors and dancing forms make their way into houses, interiors, chairs, even clocks. If you flip through the new Phaidon book “Jorge Pardo,” his innumerable mutations feel like a Disney “Fantasia” in which lamps float away as glowing butterflies. Plant-like shapes loom somewhere between Fred Flintstone and the Jetsons, with sprightly touches reminiscent of Picasso cohort Wilfredo Lam. Massive concrete geometric forms are illuminated with warm colors.

Now Pardo has fused sculpture and cabinetry, with wavy wooden cases that will cradle the midsummer reinstallation of LACMA’s pre-Columbian display, which curators term “Art of the Ancient Americas.”


The pieces LACMA has to choose from are themselves ravishing, like a clay warrior from western Mexico, or the small clay pyramids, which, according to a spec sheet, “may enclose earth-womb shrines and establish an axis with the heavens.” But Pardo’s massive display cases -- whose wooden ridges seem to roll with movement, with warm interiors glowing with bright Pardo tangerines, limes and lemony yellows -- will also intrigue the eye. Pardo admits that not everybody at the museum is happy about this work-in-progress and that the support of director Michael Govan, along with some “good arguments,” helped make the project move ahead.

Some questioned whether his cases would overshadow the pre-Columbian gods and incense burners inside. “I don’t think that’s possible,” Pardo, 45, said, striding around his enormous workshop in El Sereno, trailed by his lanky 4-month-old mutt, Dandelion, talking over the whirring machines. “These objects are so old, and so intrinsically interesting,” said the artist, dressed in jeans and an old shirt, his hair a curly mass over a soft, kind face. “I want to animate them in a different way.”

Perhaps to some American curators, the cabinets -- with their wavy jigsaws that seem to shimmer with movement -- would seem like a departure from the sober tradition of archaeological display. In Mexico, with the leading displays of such art, however, Pardo might seem a traditionalist. At the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, an Olmec caiman smiles toothily from a hot-pink pedestal. An angry “wrestler” glowers on a burnt-orange base bathed in emerald-green light. Grinning clay toy dogs with wheels on their paws sit in a display of bright pastel mint.

At Oaxaca’s Rufino Tamayo Museum, the subtle tan and reddish clays of ancient gods bask in a cerulean purplish-blue. The voluptuous color seduces the eye enveloping the ceramic in its own narcotic mystique. “It’s a Mexican tradition they embrace,” Pardo said. “Everything that is used to frame them signifies their importance.”

At LACMA under Govan, inviting artists to collaborate with museum design is becoming a tradition. Santa Monica-based John Baldessari recently worked with the 2X4 design firm on LACMA’s new logo, and in 2006, on the installation of the big Magritte show, and Govan has said he wants to recruit artists to illuminate “as many genres of art as possible. Govan said Pardo deftly uses color and form to transport the viewer of the pre-Columbian pieces into a unique visual experience. “He’s an amazing creative asset for Los Angeles,” Govan said. “We’re very excited about our work with him.”

LACMA spokeswomen declined to make pre-Columbian curator Virginia Fields available or discuss details of the Pardo work until just before the opening of the new galleries, which is set for late July.

Govan’s relationship with Pardo goes back to Pardo’s redesign of Manhattan’s DIA Center for the Arts first floor, unveiled in 2000 in buttery yellow, sky blue, orange and browns, with phantom-like abstract forms looming overhead.

Such insistent unpredictability befuddled some critics in the early days. Los Angeles art dealer Patrick Painter wrote in Artforum International in 1998 that Pardo’s “stripped-down simplicity is IKEA by way of Martha Stewart, with pretensions to the rigorous elegance of Eames and Neutra.”

At this point, many are content to give Pardo free rein. A Pardo one-man show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami earlier this year commingled his lamps, chairs and traditional sculpture.

“Jorge adopts the idea of taking the artwork off the pedestal and putting it in everyday space,” said Bonnie Clearwater, the museum director. “What happens when that sculpture looks like a table or a chair? How do you know it’s artwork?” she said. “It’s that philosophical questioning that has propelled him from the beginning of his career to the present. I love the fact that he gets under my skin with these questions, and I think that it’s brilliant that he’s doing this at L.A. County Museum of Art.”

Don’t box him in

IF PARDO has become known for resisting easy characterization, that tendency extends to his most basic self-definition as an artist.

Though he is Cuban-born and grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, “I wouldn’t define myself as a Hispanic or Latino artist,” he said. “I’m an American artist.” As an artist, his ethnicity is “kind of second- or third-tier information; I’ve never wanted to be associated with this kind of typecasting. It closes you down in a lot of important ways, to be cast in an ethnic type. If you don’t want to be in it, you fall into it by default, and that’s kind of disturbing.”

“The funny thing is, culturally I’m incredibly Latin,” he added. “I’m totally fluent in Spanish. But I think that’s American. That’s the thing about this country -- that you get people like me over and over again.”

Pardo’s family immigrated when he was 6. He grew up in a working-class home in Chicago, fueled in part, he jokes, by the life-sustaining, adrenaline-jolting elixir known as Cuban coffee. “Cubans give cafe con leche to kids when they’re, like, 4,” he said. Still, “I don’t necessarily believe that because I come from a certain place that I’m expected to represent it,” he said. “I’m from Cuba. I have a strange relationship with the American dream.”

His version of that dream was nurtured at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in the mid-1980s. Rising up through the gallery scene, he was asked to create an experimental Mount Washington house as a five-week exhibit for the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1998. The design puzzle is now a 3,200-square-foot home, which he shares with his wife, Veronica Gonzalez, author of the 2007 novel “twin time: or, how death befell me,” who has similarly cosmopolitan roots, in Mexico City and Athens, Ohio. They have a 6-year-old daughter, Penelope, and two dogs: Blinker, whom they found in Tijuana, and Dandelion, an abandoned puppy they rescued outside Merida, Mexico, where Pardo is refitting an old hacienda. The couple is at the annual Art Basel fair in Switzerland, where Pardo will lecture and show a clock and some of his three-dimensional portraits.

Pardo doesn’t deny the echoes of the pre-fab modernism some see in his work, but he finds the “celebratory nature of modern retro movement a little strange,” especially the current love affair with what is currently termed “midcentury modern.” “The more-dirty parts of these objects are kind of cleaned up by fetishizing them,” he said. “They’re not looking at the history these objects represent. It was horrible to be black or to be a woman in the ‘50s, or Latino,” he said. “All these conservatives were thriving in the ‘50s. Nostalgia trivializes these aspects.”

Yet he clearly loves some of the modernist lines and shapes popularized in the 1950s. His luminous, large outdoor sculptures -- such as the massive, warmly lit concrete geometric “Guadalajara Light Piece” for the Solares Foundation in Guadalajara -- have a direct relationship with smaller pieces, like lamps. The smaller pieces allow him to quickly explore ideas that may eventually become large sculptures -- or may simply remain lamps.

“Artists traditionally make drawings to sharpen use of form or color. The lamps are like drawings,” he explained. “The smaller things inform the larger ones. They’re small trials. When it works well, everything kind of communicates with one another.”

His use of color is more than just a language; it’s a way of seducing the eye, including his own. “Color is something that I use as a lure,” he said. “You kind of need this artifice to attract and engage the work. It kind of keeps people there, and you start to unfold the other elements of the pieces.” His bright colors, he said, are “not used as a litmus test for seriousness. I happen to like these colors, and I use them because there is a certain amount of pleasure to using them.”

The reinstallation of the pre- Columbian exhibit will unveil a much more ambitious display of LACMA’s arsenal, which includes some strong pieces from western Mexico. It will be unveiled in the “Art of the Americas” hall, a rebaptism of the Anderson building that is a next step in the reorganization of the museum. Pardo collaborated with LACMA’s Fields, and of course, Govan. “I love working with Michael,” Pardo said. “He’s a director who has a lot of hands-on with the artists. In Europe there’s more of a tradition of that.”

Pardo said Govan was “very deferential” to Fields, whose background is in archaeology. “We really had to work with her and show her that we were as serious about what we do as what she does,” he said. “Archaeologists aren’t trained aesthetically. They’re trained historically.”

Pardo balanced such concerns with his attempt “to showcase these objects in a different environment, an environment that is more dynamic.” One immediate objection was “that ‘these are not the colors you show these things in,’ ” he said. “ ‘This is not a serious way of showing these.’ There were a lot of negotiations.”

Connecting with the past

PARDO HAS always prayed to different gods. In the end, he was himself seduced by the serpent rattle from Teotihuacan, the jadeite masks, the vessels of supernatural beings who could be tapped as mighty intermediaries to sacred powers.

“I don’t think those objects are that different than what I’m trying to do,” he said. “They’re made with the same empathy with form.” Pardo was intrigued by their mystery: Some seem tied to ritual, others utilitarian, and in some cases, “someone had given this thing tremendous consideration for reasons that we will probably never know,” he said. “People used them to do things,” Pardo said, suggesting mischievously: “They could have been like IKEA.”