MOCA gala takes walk on the wild side

MOCA's gala began at Grand Avenue in the Urs Fischer exhibition, which opens this weekend.
(Jori Finkel / Los Angeles Times)

It seemed only fitting that the MOCA gala celebrating the opening of Urs Fischer’s new chaos-skirting show, organized under the “creative direction” of the crazy-making artist Rob Pruitt, would have a Dada sort of anti-logic.

In other words, it was one weird night, packed with preposterous events and odd gestures that never quite connected, except maybe through a reflexive sort of humor about the excesses of the contemporary art world and MOCA’s recent struggles.

The evening began with a cocktail hour or two at MOCA Grand Avenue, where Fischer’s exhibition opens with a visual punch: a field of blue raindrops hanging from nylon threads that nearly extends from wall to wall.


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But the party really started just after 8 p.m. at the Geffen, where Fischer had enlisted hundreds of volunteers to make a vast array of animals and other figures in clay.

Inside, guests including MOCA trustees and artists such as Julian Schnabel, Doug Aitken and Shepard Fairey toured the installation -- the men’s crisp black jackets and women’s glinting dresses making the drab gray of the dried clay seem like ruins from another century.

Outside, they encountered unusual food stations courtesy of Pruitt: taffy makers here, a cheese stand there, complete with live goats nearby in a pen.

Hostesses handed out leis to guests as though they had just arrived at a luau in Hawaii.

MOCA flyers provided a statement from Pruitt about his vision for the night: He didn’t want something so conventional as a theme for the event, so he hit on the idea “that the theme of this gala could be themes -- a ‘culture’ or ‘power’ clash of mismatched ideas.”

Pruitt also noted that the night’s events would include “an homage to 4/20” -- both the date of the event and a symbol for marijuana usage.


In this vein, pro-pot-legalization actor Cheech Marin appeared in a video playing on the shuttle buses that drove guests from Grand Avenue to the Geffen and bongs appeared as centerpieces on the dinner tables, which were set up in the south wing of the Geffen, right next to Fischer’s show.

One of the more traditional parts of the night came in the form of short speeches by MOCA board co-chairs David Johnson and Maria Bell. Johnson thanked all the trustees who had pledged money that would bring the museum’s endowment up to $75 million, while Bell announced that the gala itself grossed $2.5 million -- and encouraged guests who didn’t know the meaning of “4/20” to ask a teenager.

One of the more delightfully random moments came at the start of dinner, when the USC marching band paraded into the gala for a brief but high-energy performance that could also be read as an inside joke about MOCA’s attempt to forge a partnership with the school.

Another, just after dinner, was when the Go-Gos played a few of their biggest hits from the ‘80s, and museum patron Eli Broad (wearing his lei) and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could be seen in a crowd near the stage dancing side by side to “We Got the Beat.”

Stranger still was a fake appearance by museum director Jeffrey Deitch, who was in attendance but didn’t take the microphone himself. Instead, an actor wearing a patch over his left eye was introduced as Deitch and stepped on stage, talking about his enthusiasm for working with “fashion designers, rock musicians, and celebrity chefs” in a skit that seemed like a premature roast -- and just as uncomfortable.

Who was this man, and what was he doing? Museum publicist Lyn Winter said it was actor Stephen Nichols, who for years played Steven Earl “Patch” Johnson on “Days of Our Lives” and more recently played a role on “The Young and the Restless,” where Bell used to be executive producer and head writer.

His script played with some familiar criticisms of MOCA, mentioning Deitch’s support of movie stars such as Dennis Hopper and his “rigorous” programming, like plans for a disco show.

“I’m very grateful to our gala host Larry Gagosian, who has generously supported a MOCA gala celebrating an artist who he represents,” the fake Deitch said at one point.

This head-scratching reenactment of real-life issues sounds just like the sort of stunt Deitch collaborator James Franco might have arranged, and according to a person who was not authorized to speak on the subject, Franco was originally supposed to participate in the gala Saturday night before bailing out at the last minute.

Franco did, though, leave something behind. His name appears in fine print on an entrance wall at the Geffen as one of hundreds of collaborators who helped Fischer fill the space with their clay creations.

When you walk deeper into the space, past Fischer’s own wax replica of a Giambologna sculpture designed to melt during the course of the show, you will also see the name “James” scrawled in clay on the wall above a crude sculpture of a naked man. The figure is reportedly a self-portrait.



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