Pacific Standard Time explored the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the past nine months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota saw all of them and shared her thoughts about her 10-month project.
It is done. The exhibition marathon that was Pacific Standard Time -- the Getty-sponsored initiative that flooded the Southland with myriad local histories of contemporary art -- officially ended in March, although a few of the shows remained open into the early days of June. More important for me, the blog project, PST: A to Z, is finally complete. Over nine months, I saw all 69 of the “official” PST exhibitions (listed here), wrote 48 posts and put 2,395 miles on my car.
If only that were the end of the story. Summing up the experience feels even more overwhelming than my to-do list did last fall. In its sheer ambition, scope and variety, PST was nearly as gangly, rich and surprising as the region itself, encompassing everything from cheeky conceptual art to ethereal Light and Space installations; from blunt street photography to sparkly enamelware; from abstract, experimental animation to feminist entrepreneurship, and from anonymous queer erotica to sinuous hand-carved furniture.
And did I mention there was a lot of painting and sculpture too?
It all began in late August of last year, when a smattering of shows quickly gave way to an avalanche of openings. Through December, I saw three or four (sometimes five) exhibitions a week and struggled to describe and analyze what I saw before starting all over again the following week. It was exhausting and exhilarating: a long, self-guided tour through L.A. art history. Sure, some shows were better than others, but throughout I felt extremely privileged to be able -- indeed, required -- to see them all.
At times it felt like I was participating in some kind of experimental instructional program, and, like school, it did require some discipline. I attended a few openings but found them too distracting -- I was too busy chatting and wondering who was going to show up to pay close attention to the art. I also started making written notes, which I never used to do. There was just too much information to absorb. I’m sorry to say I got a few things wrong in the crush of those early days, and I was quickly and enthusiastically corrected -- PST was not just celebratory; it was momentous, and there was a genuine concern with setting the record straight.
The project’s chief pleasure was getting to see the purview of history expand before one’s eyes. I became acquainted with the work of many artists and movements that had been left out of the dominant history of L.A. art. Many of these artists were people of color, among them Mexican American modernist painters, Chinese American graphic designers, African American filmmakers and Japanese American artist-activists. PST could be faulted for presenting work by these groups in separate, ethnic-specific exhibitions. (Although, to be fair, the larger surveys were more integrated than such shows usually are.)
Still, it was instructive to think about how racial prejudice at the time kept this work out of the mainstream, and whether that is still the case for a new generation of artists today.
Separate exhibitions featuring the work of female and queer artists provided similar occasions for reflection. Though it rankles to realize we are not yet at the point where such divisions no longer matter, it’s important to acknowledge their histories and how they have shaped the L.A. art scene. Multiculturalism is much dismissed and even reviled these days, but it is largely responsible for the varied, uneven and complicated world that PST attempted to reflect. That’s not a bad thing.
A friend visiting from New York in the spring complained that the only remaining PST shows were the “identity"” ones, which I believe he felt were too “niche” to be of general interest. Certainly, for most people it wasn’t realistic (or desirable) to see everything. (I did come across a few stalwarts who saw all the exhibitions, but most of them worked in some capacity for the Getty.)
And I realize that with limited time, seeing just one show about Chinese American architects may feel neither representative nor interesting. Still, without these niche shows, PST would not have been the transformative force that I hope it will be.
For in all that unruly variety, PST was above all a tribute to the rise and fall of modernism. Looking at all stripes of artistic practice from 1945 through 1980, it charted, across myriad populations, the power and seduction of modern concepts of progress and utopia, as well as their crumbling and decay. What happened in art all over the world after World War II happened here too, albeit in an array of various local flavors.
PST may at times have been too granular, too specific. It may have felt like a bit of navel-gazing, but it also asserted that Southern California was not just some kooky outlier about to fall into the ocean; it has always been part of a global conversation. Art in L.A. was both more idiosyncratic and more international than we previously imagined.
PST turned my life inside out, but after a while I fell into a rhythm. I don’t really remember now what life was like before it, and I do miss the adventure of it all, never knowing what I was going to discover. Another friend said there was bound to be a PST hangover -- it was so big, wouldn’t people be sick of it? But actually, although the initiative may have begun with a bang, at the end, it trailed off rather quietly. It was almost as if it were blending back into the fabric of everyday life.
And shouldn’t that be the goal anyway? Not just to excavate a huge hole in the desert, but to let the things we unearth become part of L.A.'s foundation and to let them seed other, new things.