Reviews by Christopher Knight (C.K.), David Pagel (D.P.) and Leah Ollman (L.O.). Compiled by Grace Krilanovich.
Collection: MOCA’s First Thirty Years This is not just a promotional treasure-house show of about 500 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos and installations by more than 200 international artists in MOCA’s remarkable permanent collection. Installed chronologically, it also tells a story -- although one that’s rarely heard. The postwar rise of American art is paired with the simultaneous rise of Los Angeles, from shallow backwater to cultural powerhouse. At the Grand Avenue building, which spans 1939 to 1979, the distinctive emergence of a mature L.A. art is embedded within the larger postwar prominence of the United States, artistically dominated by New York. At the Geffen -- the story picks up in the year MOCA was born. Tying the Geffen start-date to MOCA’s own arrival on the scene audaciously asserts the museum’s instrumental role in the city’s art-life. The two-for-one double-header amply testifies why MOCA matters (C.K.). Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), 250 S. Grand Ave., LA; and Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., L.A. Mon. and Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thu., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; closed Tue.-Wed.; ends May 3. (213) 626-6222.
Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth African ceremonial costumes are a self-evident starting point for Cave’s 35 outfits. So is the wild playfulness and showy elaboration of Mardi Gras and carnival, not to mention glittery Haitian flags, chunky Southeast Asian embroidery and a high-fashion runway. The shapes usually do two things: make the figure larger than life while simultaneously obliterating the wearer’s face. Individual personality is erased, replaced by the unique formal qualities of the costumes’ scavenged materials. His work underscores the transforming possibility inherent in society’s most easily overlooked rejects (C.K.). Fowler Museum at UCLA, Sunset Boulevard and Westwood Plaza, Westwood. Wed, Fri.- Sun., noon-5 p.m.; Thu., noon-8 p.m.; closed Mon.-Tue.; ends May 30. (310) 825-4361.
A Record of Emotion: The Photographs of Frederick H. Evans Evans (1853-1943) had an impeccable instinct for form. His platinum prints -- whether portraits, landscapes or his most acclaimed studies of medieval cathedrals -- are pristine, tonally rich and consistently beautiful. He did favor respectful distance over raw intimacy, but when he ventured into personal terrain, that of pure encounter with place, person or the spiritual self, he produced some of the most profoundly moving photographs in the history of the medium (L.O.). Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, L.A. Tue.-Fri. and Sun., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Mon.; ends June 6. (310) 440-7300.
Rachel Whiteread Drawings As a sculptor Whiteread, 46, has pretty much taken a single, elegant idea and turned it around and around in innumerable ways, both expected and not. Using plaster, resin, concrete and other materials, she mostly makes casts of domestic objects or, more provocatively, casts of the empty space around them. Her drawings are not studies for the sculptures. Nor do they seem like fully resolved, independent works of art. Instead, they follow a ruminating mind moving parallel to the finished sculptures for which Whiteread is now so well known. The exhibition’s sole weakness is its size. With more than 120 drawings, it would have gained focused power with judicious editing (C.K.). Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Tue.-Wed., Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mon.; ends April 25. (310) 443-7000.
American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915 What is an American? With the national nervous breakdown unleashed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- trauma Americans have collectively been unable to resolve -- our identity remains a shambles. “American Stories” seems prompted by this deep unease. The show centers on 19th century art, the era when the question was still brand new and very much up for grabs. Lots of first-rate paintings keep company with dreadful Victorian morality plays. Mostly it regards the evolution of genre paintings, which show men and women at work and leisure, engaged in public and private life, plus a few portraits (C.K.). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Mon.-Tue., Thu., noon-8 p.m.; Fri., noon-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; closed Wed.; ends May 23. (323) 857-6000.
Changing the Focus: Latin American Photography 1990-2005 Anchored by familiar names (Alfredo Jaar, Vik Muniz, Gabriel Orozco) and leavened by lesser-knowns, this engrossing show is a moderately scaled sampling of an impossibly broad subject. Its 37 artists hail from 12 countries and two generations. Curator Idurre Alonso maps this broad terrain according to varieties of visual approach: documenting reality, theatricalizing it or creating an artificial alternative. Lines between the categories are porous. Substantive social issues drive most of the work, but some of the strongest images have a pared-down beauty, poetic in its power (L.O.). Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach. Wed., Fri.-Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Mon.-Tue.; ends May 2. (562) 437-1689.
Millard Sheets: The Early Years Sheets’ primary claim to fame came from his watercolors, the survey’s largest component. Look at the lovely calibrations of natural and artificial light in “San Dimas Station” (1933), where a streetlight and an overhead lamp compete with a dusky gray night at a train depot. But his best paintings are his tenement views, such as the oils “Chavez Ravine” and “New High Street” and the watercolor “Sunset Tenements,” all from around 1930. Multistory dwellings on hilly streets are festooned with laundry and circulating people, rendered in even tones across a luxurious, painterly surface. Scenic pleasure is always his guiding principle (C.K.). Pasadena Museum of Cal- ifornia Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena. Wed.-Sun., noon-5 p.m.; closed Mon.-Tue.; ends May 30. (626) 568-3665.
Diana Thater: Between Science and Magic Making a movie about movie magic is not the same as making some of that magic. This exhibition goes so far out of its way to extinguish the magic that you can’t help but wonder why it was brought up in the first place. The answer is that Thater’s brand of art is opposed to all forms of entertainment, which it sets itself apart from. Over the last 20 years, the relationship between art and entertainment has become increasingly cozy. This has forced fourth- and fifth-generation Conceptual artists like Thater to shore up the fiction that their own work is not a form of entertainment by evoking the pleasures of such amusements and simultaneously distancing themselves from them. Dreary seriousness is regularly served up as proof that art’s job is to pursue Truth and that nothing as silly as entertainment is to get in the way (D.P.). Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building G1, Santa Monica. Tue.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; closed Sun.-Mon.; ends April 17. (310) 586-6488.