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Arts and Entertainment

Inside The Marciano Art Foundation, L.A.'s Newest Museum

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By Matt Stromberg

Long dominated by four main museums—LACMA, MOCA, the Getty, and the Hammer—Los Angeles has seen the arrival of several new art institutions recently, including the Broad Museum, which opened in Fall of 2015, the Main Museum, which had its soft opening at the end of last year, and the forthcoming ICA. The newest kid on the block is the Marciano Foundation, which showcases the contemporary art collection of Guess co-founders Paul and Maurice Marciano, and opens to the public Thursday.

Unlike the Broad, which has stuck pretty closely to a traditional museum model, the Marciano was founded with somewhat more unconventional objectives, which are reflected throughout, from the debut exhibition to the architecture. Instead of picking a firm of international starchitects to create a whole new building, the Marciano brothers tapped ambitious architect Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architecture and Design to repurpose the landmark former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple. Originally designed by famed architect Millard Sheets in 1961, the gleaming white building had sat vacant on Wilshire Building for years. Scores of Angelenos will no doubt be thrilled to get a look inside, regardless of whether or not it’s filled with art.

“Maurice mentioned that he wanted this not to be a museum but more like an artists’ playground,” Yantrasast said at last week’s press preview, “a place where they can make mistakes and do something new and experiment, something completely refreshing.”

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Indeed the building itself is one of the Foundation’s highlights. Yantrasast has done a masterful job of retaining the original Temple’s character, with its carved and embedded allusions to cryptic Masonic cosmology, while creating flexible, interior spaces for art to exist. “It was a challenge to turn something closed in and secretive into something public and welcoming,” Yantrasast said. It’s a delicate balancing act, one made especially challenging by the Masonic predilection for weaving their symbols directly into the architectural fabric of their buildings, and for the most part, Yantrasast pulls it off. One especially nice, small touch is the retention of the original gold water fountains. A Relic Room on the mezzanine level houses photographs, costumes, and props used by the Masons in their theatrical rituals, offering a fascinating glimpse into this secret fraternal society.

The links between the building’s history and its current function carry through to the Foundation’s first exhibition, Jim Shaw: The Wig Museum, which takes over the massive ground floor theater space. Curated by Philipp Kaiser, it is surprisingly Shaw’s first large-scale exhibition on the West Coast.

Shaw has been a celebrated Los Angeles artist for decades. His idiosyncratic and personal work draws on a wide range of sources, from low-brow pop culture, to surreal dream visions, and obscure American religious movements. The Wig Museum is not so much a straightforward exhibition as an immersive stage set that throws together original Masonic objects found during renovations, such as wigs and large theatrical backdrops, with original paintings and sculptures by Shaw. It’s not always easy to tell the difference, which is by design.

For Shaw, the arcane Masonic rituals represent the last gasp of male Anglo-Saxon hegemony (just try to find a non-white or female face in the Relic Room photos). Whereas these societies basically ran the show a few hundred years ago (Illuminati anyone?), by the 21st century, they are essentially out of step and out of power. Perhaps Shaw sees in their insular protectionism a reflection of current political elites scrambling for legitimization. “When power gets abused, it loses authority,” Shaw told LAist. The show juxtaposes Masonic objects such as a monumental backdrop of a hellish Inferno, with Shaw’s own bizarre visual lexicon: a cutout image of Barbara Bush as the biblical burning bush being taunted by occult figure Aleister Crowley, for instance. It’s a wild, loopy, dazzling ride, and the Marcianos have their work cut out for them following this show up with anything that engages the site’s history as successfully.

The majority of the Foundation’s 55,000 square feet of exhibition space are taken up by Unpacking, a selection of about 100 objects pulled from the Marciano’s collection of 1500 works, also curated by Kaiser. Overall, the collection is a disappointment, not because it doesn’t contain some great works, but because—for all the talk of the Marcianos’ “openness towards the young and not established,” as Kaiser noted —we’ve seen much of this before. In fact, many of the artists prominently represented are currently on view across town at the Broad: Jeff Koons, Christopher Wool, Takashi Murakami, Thomas Houseago, Sterling Ruby, Alex Israel, Mark Grotjahn. This is not to say that two museums shouldn’t overlap in their collections, but these artists are hardly in need of double exposure. Even some of the new faces like Wade Guyton and Jonas Wood are safe blue-chip picks that tick off all the right boxes for any serious collection, but offer little in the way of new and diverse perspectives.

There are a few welcome surprises, like intimate, minimal paintings by Carol Bove and Latifah Echakhch, Damian Ortega’s honeycombed brick construction, David Hammon’s worn tarps, and Analia Saban’s playful material experiments, but their inclusion only serves to highlight the redundancy of much of the rest of the work on view. It would have been great to see pieces on display by Mark Hagen, Alex Da Corte, or Pia Camil, for instance, all of whom are present in the Marcianos' extensive collection, but whose work is not as ubiquitous as many of the artists featured in the current exhibition.

As with the Broad Museum, which houses the collection of entrepreneur and philanthropist Eli Broad, the thinking goes that it’s better to have this art be accessible to the public instead of languishing in private storage. “It’s a way to give back to the community, to share our passion,” Maurice Marciano said last week. In theory, this makes perfect sense (especially when admission is free, as at the Marciano and Broad), but as more and more major-league collectors build temples to honor their personal aesthetic tastes and aptitude for acquisition, the question arises of whether every collector needs, or deserves, their own institution. Just because they can build their own personal museums, should they?

The Marciano is a stunning building and if their Jim Shaw show is any indication, has the potential to mount challenging exhibitions in the future. Only time will tell if they’re able to follow up their opening act with a fresh vision, or if they’ll just offer more of the same.

The Marciano Art Foundation is located at 4357 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Open Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free, but timed reservations are required (tickets here).

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles.

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