Essential Arts: Desert X stirs controversy by staging its next show in Saudi Arabia

Desert X is going to launch a Saudi version of the biennial in 2020. Seen here: an installation by Sterling Ruby outside of Palm Springs in the 2019 edition of the show.
(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

No week can be without artistic controversy — and this week offers one over a popular desert biennial and another over the Nobel Prize for literature. I’m Carolina A. Miranda, staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, with everything that’s simmering:

Desert X in Saudi Arabia

Desert X, the Coachella Valley art biennial, is headed to Saudi Arabia for its 2020 iteration, and the move has generated an outcry, especially in light of columnist Jamal Khashoggi‘s brutal assassination last year. The Times’ Deborah Vankin reports that three biennial board members have resigned in protest: artist Ed Ruscha, curator Yael Lipschutz and fashion designer Tristan Milanovich.

Lipschutz told Vankin that staging an exhibition in Saudi Arabia was “completely unethical.” And in an interview with the Desert Sun, Ruscha compared it to “inviting Hitler to a tea party.”

In the galleries

Times art critic Christopher Knight reviews the Hammer Museum’s retrospective on L.A. painter Lari Pittman (whom I profiled last month). Writes Knight: “Rather than one-dimensional agitprop, Pittman’s paintings offer complex states of agitated being. (Trauma is never fully assuaged.) At once sweet, sour and spicy, the flavor is Pachamama — ancient Andean goddess of immovable mountains, who also delivers earthquakes.”


Also on Knight’s docket: an exhibition of work by Philip Guston at Hauser & Wirth, which includes the artist’s scathing pen-and-ink drawings of Richard Nixon from the 1970s. “Today, in 2019,” writes Knight, “as presidential scandals erupt and an impeachment inquiry unfolds, be prepared for flashbacks.”

He also reports on an exhibition by Sayre Gomez at François Ghebaly Gallery, a “disconcerting show” that is “spot-on for the anxieties of life today,” as well as an immersive installation by Ernesto Neto at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. “The Amazon rainforest of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru is aflame from a greedy mix of agribusiness and climate change,” says Knight. “But in Neto’s art, a thoughtful space for absorbing the nutrients of social interaction unfurls.”

At Karma International L.A., contributor David Pagel checks out paintings of car wrecks by Alex Becerra that are “violent collisions of images,” as well as “thoughtful meditations on the way we make sense of modern life.”

Pagel also reports on L.A. painter Tomory Dodge’s “fresh and jaunty” abstractions at Philip Martin Gallery and a show by Dona Nelson at Michael Benevento Gallery that “scares off viewers who want abstract paintings — especially abstract paintings made by women — to be safe.”

The Times’ Makeda Easter charts the historical phenomena that shaped the work on view in “Where the Sea Remembers,” a show of contemporary art inspired by Vietnam at the Mistake Room. “The year 2007 — when Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization — is an important point of context for the exhibition,” she writes. “It marks a peak in the country’s efforts to open its economy, soften its borders.”


Contributor Sharon Mizota took a renegade tour of the Getty Center with a group called Bad Ass Bitches. “It is all about looking critically at traditional art history through the lens of female empowerment,” she writes.

Classical notes

Who will replace Plácido Domingo as general director at L.A. Opera? No one, reports The Times’ Jessica Gelt. “L.A. Opera’s board of directors announced that it will consolidate the role of general director with the duties of company president and chief executive officer Christopher Koelsch, whose title will remain the same.”

There are new faces in classical music around Southern California: American conductor Michael Christie began his tenure at the New West Symphony in Thousand Oaks, and Venezuelan Rafael Payare took over the baton at the San Diego Symphony. “Both orchestras are embracing the mission of refreshing the modern concert experience for a new generation,” writes Times classical music critic Mark Swed.

Swed also writes about performances by the L.A. Phil that reflect how director Gustavo Dudamel has refused to accept the singular “America” into his vocabulary — “only Américas or Americas.” The shows featured work by U.S. composers such as Barber, Gershwin, Previn and Copland alongside works by the Mexican Carlos Chávez and a new composition by Argentine composer Esteban Benzecry.

On the stage

At South Coast Repertory, Adam Bock’s “The Canadians” is receiving its world premiere under the direction of Jaime Castañeda.

The first half plays “like a Canadian version of ‘The Office,’” writes Times theater critic Charles McNulty, and the second is “a queer version of ‘The Love Boat.’” But “something real takes over,” says McNulty, “a quiet truth about the way strangers can enter our lives, even for a short time, and permanently extend their horizons.”

At the Hollywood Pantages, the national tour of “Anastasia” has landed. “Every backdrop is eye candy, saturated with luscious color,” writes Margaret Gray. But the narrative, based on the myth that the daughter of Czar Nicholas II survived the 1918 assassination of the Romanov family, needs work: “Even the best song in the world can be exasperating if it doesn’t seem to be taking the story anywhere.”

Santa Barbara Ensemble Theatre Company’s high-tech, modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” a play at whose heart lies a sexual assault, makes a “chillingly effective” connection with the present, reports Philip Brandes.

Bekah Brunstetter‘s “Miss Lilly Gets Boned,” about the romantic travails of a 35-year-old virgin, got its West Coast premiere courtesy of Rogue Machine. And the results are mixed, writes F. Kathleen Foley, with action that “vaults from the twee to the dire.”

Lastly, The Times’ Ashley Lee has a report on how projection design, an area of theater that often goes unrecognized (it’s not traditional scenic or lighting design), is remaking works on stage. These special effects, which include projected animations, have “unlocked new storytelling possibilities for theatermakers,” she writes.

Ready for the weekend

Daryl H. Miller has the week’s guide to what’s doing in small theaters, including a haunted house version of “Macbeth.”

My weekly arts Datebook features a show at the MAK Center that provides a feminine lens through which to examine the work of Modernist architect R.M. Schindler.

And Matt Cooper rounds up nine great things to do in L.A. this week, including performances by soprano Renée Fleming and Dove Cameron in “The Light in the Piazza.”

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In other news...

Architectural Digest, which was founded in L.A., is celebrating its 100th year of publication.
— Times design writer Lisa Boone wraps up the San Fernando Valley’s best architecture in one four-hour tour.
— “It’s smart, surgical, sprawling and slightly soulless.” Critic Michael Kimmelman pays the newly revamped Museum of Modern Art a visit.
— Critic Wesley Morris says black theater is having a moment — and it’s thanks to Tyler Perry.
— How a new version of “Porgy and Bess” raises old questions about race and opera.
Argentine feminists remake the tango.
— The Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian novelist Peter Handke this week.
— The prizes are an attempt for the Nobel to reestablish credibility in the wake of a #MeToo scandal, but “it’s only been half successful,” writes former Times book editor Carolyn Kellogg in the Chicago Tribune. “These winners are a home run and a big miss. Handke is a disaster.”
— The Kennedy Center is displaying paintings by George W. Bush, and it’s “unfortunate,” writes Philip Kennicott.

And last but not least...

Fred Armisen, art aficionado.