Essential Arts: Peter Sellars is using coronavirus restrictions to reflect


It’s cocktail hour somewhere on Zoom, and a fine time to be reading about culture. I’m Carolina A. Miranda, staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, with your week’s dose of high art and sweet cumbia mixes.

Essential image

I’m taking a break from the SoCal art spaces to let you have a look at what’s going down in my house — er, I mean this magnificent Jan Steen canvas from the 17th century, “The Dissolute Household.” The painting is part of a permanent collection exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met” — and like most other museum shows, it was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.


The museum has placed the audio tour online. But, more significantly, it has a whole series of really intriguing audio pieces, for which they invited a diverse group of people to comment on the works. This includes a cinematographer discussing the ways in which Dutch paintings use light and scenery and a food stylist commenting on the nature of Dutch still lifes. Beautifully done and blessedly artspeak-free.

A bit of rebirth

Times classical music critic Mark Swed had a virtual sit-down with multi-hyphenate director Peter Sellars. “My feeling is truly we are in the midst of a new era trying to be reborn,” he said. “And yes, the labor pains are fierce.” Stay-at-home orders have forced this high-energy, highly social figure in the world of international opera and theater to reflect on “where you are and who you are.”

Peter Sellars, right, teaches a master class at SongFest in 2016.
Peter Sellars gives Kate Johnson a hug after a performance in 2016. The director, who is known for his warm hugs, jokes that he is now “deeply illegal.”
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Game time

Times video game maven Todd Martens looks into why the peaceable “Animal Crossing” has become the gaming phenomenon of the moment (a.k.a. the time of the coronavirus). “It’s not a game game,” says Tracy Fullerton, a professor and game developer who teaches at USC. “‘Animal Crossing’ is trying to invite people into an experience and not a competitive arena.”

One of its charms: You can visit a re-creation of Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art within the game. Plus, Jessica Gelt reports that the Getty Museum has launched an Animal Crossing Art Generator that allows you to choose from more than 79,000 pieces of art in their collection to add to the game. Geek. Out.


Related: The Museum of English Rural Life is seriously into “Animal Crossing,” as evidenced by its Twitter feed.

In the arts

The Times’ Makeda Easter has a fascinating story that brings to life a trove of documents recently acquired by the Huntington — specifically, a batch of papers connected with Dickinson & Shrewsbury, a salt works company in West Virginia that once employed slave labor. When it comes to this kind of labor, “we tend to imagine plantations — cotton, rice, sugar, agriculture,” says Huntington curator Olga Tsapina. But slave labor was also employed in dangerous salt mining operations.

Easter examined the documents at the museum, including a rare letter written by an enslaved man, then traveled to West Virginia (pre-stay-at-home restrictions) to meet with people connected to the company. “It’s not something you want to know about your ancestors,” says Nancy Bruns, a descendant of company namesake William Dickinson.

A letter written by John Stand, an enslaved man.
A letter written by John Stand, an enslaved man, is part of a trove of slavery-related documents at the Huntington Library.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

Since we’re on the subject of grim chapters: L.A.- based artist Pilar Castillo has created a hyper-real counterfeit U.S. passport that chronicles some of the country’s more unseemly historical episodes in its pages. This includes images of enslaved cotton pickers and Japanese American internment camps. “To make this kind of art in an era that is increasingly hostile toward immigrants, to confront these injustices — is empowering,” says Castillo.

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LACMA has begun demolition on four buildings in its east campus to make way for a $750-million building project designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Naturally this raises the question of where exactly the gallery plans are for this expensive public building. But as I note in a commentary this week: When it comes to LACMA, there has been nothing more on offer than faith in Zumthor’s vision.

Plus, a curious sidebar: One of the groups protesting the Zumthor design, the Citizens’ Brigade to Save LACMA, is holding an architectural competition to reimagine its east campus. John Walsh, former director of the Getty Museum, is serving as competition advisor. And on the jury are former LACMA curator J. Patrice Marandel and artist Lauren Bon (whose mother, Wallis Annenberg, endowed the LACMA directorship). The telenovela continues...

Turning to some lightness: Art critic Christopher Knight got a gander at a new documentary, “Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint,” about the late Swedish painter, known for prohibiting any viewing of her works in the two decades after her death (and for getting the U.S. art world agog in a recent traveling show organized by Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art).

“It’s more than worth a look,” says Knight of the new documentary, “not only for its careful illumination of the artist’s biography, plus an abundant representation of her luminous paintings, but for the way in which it exposes the obstacles af Klint and her legacy faced.”

Ashley Lee has been following the musical hijinks on the CW’s “Riverdale” and reports on a recent episode devoted to “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” How to present a tribute to a 1998 cult hit about botched gender confirmation surgery, in a show that is set in high school? You drop any reference to the surgery. “Hedwig’s picturesque wigs and glam-rock sound remain,” writes Lee, “and her lyrics now serve characters concerned with variety shows, college prospects and sinister videotapes.”

Art in the time of the coronavirus

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the classical composition for the moment, writes Times classical music critic Mark Swed. Whether or not Beethoven meant those opening notes “to represent fate knocking on the door, as unreliable legend has it, we who are so suddenly and unexpectedly living behind closed doors can certainly identify with the feeling.” Swed draws our attention to a new recording of the symphony by Greek-born conductor Teodor Currentzis and his ensemble, Musica Aeterna, that “stands out, big time.”

Theater critic Charles McNulty goes back and reviews Joaquin Phoenix’s speech from the Academy Awards — the one about cows and becoming “very disconnected from the natural world.” In that speech, and the sarcastic social reaction to it, McNulty finds a truth that we’ve had plenty of time to dwell on while remaining at home: “No one wanted to think too much about a possible cause of the weirdness: the sheer frustration with our refusal to recognize the suffering we’re collectively inflicting.”

Joaquin Phoenix at the Academy Awards in February 2020
Joaquin Phoenix greets Jane Fonda backstage at the Academy Awards in February after picking up the best lead actor trophy for “Joker.”
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

New York Times theater critics Jesse Green and Ben Brantley pick their favorite cast albums for homebound listening.

Dorany Pineda, in the meantime, reports on how the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival is moving forward: with a virtual festival to be held from May 5-31. As a walk-up, they are streaming films from last year’s festival online until May 4. The festival will include events with live music and DJs. “Be sure to dance in your living rooms and don’t worry about the door fee,” says managing director Alexis de la Rocha. “LALIFF has you covered.”

In the Bay Area, performing arts leaders are trying to figure out in what form they may come back when restrictions begin to lift, and Charles Desmarais takes the pulse of San Francisco and Oakland galleries. “Everybody is distracted bailing water out of their sinking boat,” said Oliver Caldwell, co-owner of Caldwell Snyder Gallery.

In London, the Hastings Contemporary is offering virtual tours via robot. It’s an experiment that has been tried before: Open Space had an intriguing dispatch about homebound folks using robots to visit the de Young in San Francisco in 2018.

And in Minneapolis, the Hennepin Theatre Trust commissioned 11 Minnesota artists to create digital billboards that “send a positive message to people who are still on the highways.”

Plus, L.A.-based photographer Tod Seelie went to Las Vegas and got some downright dystopian shots of the city amid the pandemic.

The best arts online

Andrea Bocelli performed with only the accompaniment of an organist at Milan’s Duomo on Easter Sunday. The concert is still viewable online if you are looking for some spiritual weekend viewing.


Matt Cooper has been rounding up the daily guide to at-home entertainment, including a 2009 staging of “Madama Butterfly” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera (you have until Saturday at 3:30 p.m. to see it!) and a Second City comedy show hosted by “30 Rock” alum Jack McBrayer.

Bookmark The Times’ Things to Do: Arts & Culture page to keep up with Cooper’s daily missives.

With every gallery and museum on the planet churning out online content, I was curious why I hadn’t seen more ‘net art — that is, art created specifically to be viewed in a web browser. Thankfully a Zoom chat with New York art scribe Paddy Johnson turned me on to this online show featuring many, many GIFS, as well as video work by more than 80 artists organized by Faith Holland, Lorna Mills and Wade Wallerstein. (Warning: Contains naughty bits.)

Johnson reviews the show for the Art Newspaper. It is, she writes, “a much-needed break from the onslaught of soul crushing viewing rooms and virtual tours.”


Diane Rodriguez, the former associate director for the Center Theatre Group, died last week at the age of 68. In a special tribute, playwright Luis Valdez, who knew Rodriguez back when she got her start with Teatro Campesino in the early 1970s, describes her as “one of the most influential defenders of the American theater community in all its colors, works and vibrations.”

Brian Dennehy, the Tony Award-winning actor who incarnated macho heavies and defeated salesmen, appearing in film and in plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov and Arthur Miller, died at 81 in Connecticut. Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theater, described Dennehy as “a towering, fearless actor taking on the greatest dramatic roles of the 20th century.”

Virginia Savage McAlester, the architectural historian who produced the essential design guide “A Field Guide to American Houses,” died at 76 in Texas. “She appeared fragile,” writes critic Mark Lamster, “but her looks belied a tough constitution and intellect.”

In the news

— Japan’s legendary animation film company Studio Ghibli has released a series of stills that can be used as backgrounds in Zoom meetings, and I am here for it.
— Speaking of Zoom, Mark Morris is choreographing on it.
— Plus, more Zoom: The Oakland-based band Thao & the Get Down made a music video, and it’s the best use of the teleconferencing software I’ve seen.
What it’s like to end up with Dora Maar’s address book.
— I truly enjoyed this essay by sculptor Joseph Grigely, who is the son of a stone mason, about working with stone.
Mary Beard’s favorite objects in the British museum include bread and sculpture.
— Here’s a kooky story: Microsoft has deleted an ad starring Marina Abramovic after some social media sites re-upped a four-year-old conspiracy theory that claimed she was a Satanist.
— Because it’s a great time to invest in real estate, John Lautner’s Silver Lake residence is for sale for a cool $1.6 million.


And last but not least ...

A DJ saved my life last night. That’d be DJ Lengua (a.k.a. L.A. painter Eamon Ore-Giron) with this super cumbia mix from Colombia and Peru.