Amid the hurly burly of activities that the American Music Center was involved with this past weekend—including participating in the L.A. Philharmonic’s West Coast, Left Coast Festival, a meet-and-greet with film and television composers at the Sundance Institute, and our own board meeting—I managed to somehow eke out an hour and a half to wander through two downtown Los Angeles museums near my hotel: the Japanese American National Museum and the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.
Both museums are currently mounting retrospectives. At JANM there’s a show called Giant Robot, an exhibition of artists associated with Giant Robot magazine for the past 15 years. And at MOCA there’s a show of 500 works by more than 200 artists whose work has been exhibited there over the past 30 years. Both shows were filled with fascinating painting, sculpture, video work, and installations, many by artists with whom I was previously unfamiliar. At JANM, I found Hong Kong-born Bay Area émigré Stella Lai’s paintings magical, and at MOCA, a yellow monochrome by British painter Gillian Carnegie was mind blowing, as was Tom Friedman’s assemblage of 3000 plastic garbage bags.
Several of the works on display were very challenging and some were downright upsetting. In fact, both museums posted warnings to parents that the current exhibitions contained work that they might consider unsuitable for their children to see. True confessions department: I pride myself on my open-mindedness, but I’ve never been able to stand looking at the work of Paul McCarthy. McCarthy is a Los Angeles-based visual artist whose work usually involves extremely disturbing images involving sex, violence, and excretion, usually in combination. His piece at the MOCA show, Tokyo Santa, Santa’s Trees (1999), consisted of a collection of Christmas trees paired with photographs of seemingly blood-smeared Santa Clauses, and a table which included a Santa suit and a bottle of ketchup. Not nearly as disturbing as other work of his that I’ve seen in the past, but still rather shocking, perhaps made even more shocking by seeing it at a time of year when so many places are filled with holiday displays. Not really wanting to see McCarthy’s version of Santa’s workshop ever again, I have not been able to get it out of my head, which tells me that—notwithstanding my distaste for his provocations—he affected me in a significant way.
Despite all the times I’ve witnessed people walking out on music that they think is too gnarly—which, by the way, never happened while I was in L.A.—there is nothing quite equivalent to the level of revulsion that can be experienced via the other senses. Even the roughest Merzbow recording can’t provoke the same level of discomfort as the most extreme visual art works; unpleasant tastes or aromas and physical injuries are still more unpalatable. Yet it’s interesting that for the most part, work created to engage one’s sense of smell, taste, or touch is usually designed to be pleasant, and the admission of unpleasant sensations into the vocabulary exists almost exclusively in things we see and hear. Admittedly there are creations of master chefs and perfumers that some people find revolting, but I would contend their creators never intended them to be so perceived. Ultimately there’s no accounting for personal taste.
That said, what leaves a lasting impression in any sense is not necessarily something that is aesthetically pleasing. These past two mornings, still not quite adjusted to Eastern Standard Time, I went back to sleep after turning off the alarm clock to be awoken half an hour later by the alarm music currently on my wife’s Blackberry, a tropical riff that opens with a quasi-Asian sounding arpeggio. (For the sake of the overly curious, I’ll reveal that it’s called “BBGrooves_Smooth Latin.”) No matter how hard I’ve tried to think of other music, I haven’t been able to get that somewhat innocuous tune out of my head all day. So perhaps it is possible for things to not be particularly offensive, original, or beautiful in order for them to capture your imagination, they just need to be experienced at the right time and place.