Visual art with a pop-cultural bent (or is it pop culture with a visual art bent?) has turned into a running theme on the Los Angeles scene.
The latest is “American Icons,” a photography show that not only focuses on pop cultural heroes, but will take place starting Thursday in that most populist of venues, the outdoor commons of a shopping mall – the Americana at Brand in Glendale.
Daniel Miller, who owns Duncan Miller Gallery, says he first conceived of the exhibition of 21 images of star performers and a boxing great, Muhammad Ali, as a regular show for his usual space on Venice Boulevard. The concept was to emphasize images of icons – among them Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Dizzy Gillespie and Marilyn Monroe -- that were generally not pictures so familiar as to have become iconic themselves.
“Most of the shots are very unlikely,” Miller said – including Phil Stern’s 1959 portrait of John Wayne in Acapulco, in which Duke, as he was nicknamed from childhood, sports very tight short shorts that anticipated Daisy Duke by more than a decade and a half.
Miller decided, however, that a pop cultural subject deserved a truly populist venue. Hence, the shopping mall.
“The biggest problem the gallery business has had is that everybody in it remembers the good old days, when it was this little temple and people would come in,” Miller said. “I think you can’t go wrong bringing art to the people.”
He contacted management at the Americana at Brand, and they OK’d the exhibition, which will run Thursday through Saturday on the Americana’s large, grassy central courtyard.
Julie Jauregui, general manager of the Americana, said cultural organizations such as the Skirball Cultural Center, Peterson Automotive Museum and Pasadena Pops have sponsored events there, but there hadn’t been a fine art or photography exhibition until now.
She said the mall’s average daily draw ranges from 49,000 to 55,000 visitors over the course of a year, and Miller thinks the show has a chance to be seen by 100,000 people or more over the three days.
To make it work, he said, he had to address technical issues such as finding specialized printers capable of making photo reproductions that would be of gallery quality while withstanding the outdoor environment. He said commercial sign makers had the answers for creating prints that wouldn’t fade in the sun, while laminating them onto special backings to prevent shrinking or warping if the weather gets moist or hot.
The photographers, or the estates of the ones no longer living, signed off on reproducing their work in that manner, Miller said, and setting it up on metal stands on the grass, rather than on gallery walls.
He tested the reproductions’ hardiness by tossing one of them, Murray Garrett’s shot of Frank Sinatra holding his arms aloft during a 1953 recording session, into the bed of his pickup truck and driving around with it during a recent rainstorm (the trip, he said, took him past the Capitol Records building in Hollywood, where the picture was taken). He said it survived that test, as well as a few days’ baking in the sun.
In an anomaly for a mall, nothing will be for sale at the show, although regular silver gelatin prints made by the photographers will be sold at Duncan Miller Gallery. The exhibition may be populist, but the pricing is aimed at collectors, about $700 to $4,000, depending on the image and the size.
If all goes well at the mall this week, Miller said, he aims to book the show into other outdoor public spaces around L.A.
“Icons” joins L.A.'s other art-meets-pop-culture exhibitions.
The Museum of Contemporary Art had its “Art in the Streets” blockbuster on graffiti and street art last year, and is now offering another big survey show grounded in a pop cultural movement -- “Blues for Smoke,” about how blues music and its sensibility has influenced visual art since the 1950s.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s retrospective on movie director Stanley Kubrick opens Nov. 1 -- another step along the path it embarked upon last year with a Tim Burton retrospective seen by more than 360,000 viewers. And the Annenberg Center for Photography reports that it set a venue attendance record with “Who Shot Rock & Roll,” a touring exhibition on the work of major pop music photographers that drew 66,000 viewers before it closed last weekend.