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Magazine

12 December 2011
“Pacific Standard Time”, or redefining history, all of it

Paloma Checa

Taking a step back so that a place can be significant today. Los Angeles is fighting its own constructed image, with the industries that have marked the evolution of the city, to try to incorporate itself into the critical, artistic and cultural discourse about the North American reality and as such globally. A budget of ten million dollars for a project, that aims to redefine a brand, re-appropriating the idea of a city.


With “Pacific Standard Time” the Getty Foundation wants to establish a hiatus in the way that the history of art is written. By sponsoring over fifty exhibitions in the Los Angeles area, it aims to provide the public with an all-encompassing vision of what happened in art, design and architecture in Southern California between the years 1945 and 1980.

The project “Pacific Standard Time” was born at the late nineties driven by the Getty foundation in order to configure an archive of the culture produced in Los Angeles during the second half of the 20th century. The body of information that arose from this project is being made public in the second phase of this project, which we are now in, with the inauguration of scores of exhibitions between October 2011 and March 2012, as well as the publication of a considerable number of catalogues.

In a city that grows under the protection of the petroleum and aerospace industries, the cultural production of Los Angeles has always remained under the shadow of the third largest industry, film. “PST” wants to counter attack Hollywood and make visible the other face of a city that, far from the image of prosperity and glitter that the large screen has constructed, passes through decadent times associated with the permanent racial conflict in its streets and institutions, which on the other hand are aestheticized by the project, in order to present the climate of tension without which the art would not have been able to emerge.

The Getty foundation wants to redefine the way in which the binomial culture-California is read by the rest of the world. To counteract the kitsch and glitter that Hollywood takes care to situate in our collective imaginary, LA is presented as the cradle for the development of work by such wise and established artists as John Baldessari or Judy Chicago, as well as others that aren’t so well known globally but who have a definitive importance on the local scene, such as Ricardo Valverde. It locates Los Angeles amongst the group of precedents for the great discourses articulated by contemporary art today: the relation between creation and education, institutional critique, the new languages of video art and design, etc. Placing Los Angeles within the prehistory of contemporary art is a more intelligent operation than placing it within the current state of things. By taking a few steps back, focusing on a part of history that given its proximity has still not been colonised by any great institutional myth, the Getty foundation appropriates it. The way in which this happens is perhaps less categorical than the operations that took place in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th C but it is equally violent. Now that the creation of these tales is dislocated, each agent is granted the freedom to construct them as he considers appropriate, but they are still commissioned by an institution that watches over the city from the top of the hill.

However, “Pacific Standard Time” is not just about linking the city to the global discourse of art. It is also about claiming the region as an area with a specific denomination of origin, for exclusive products that only could have arisen here. The part played by the geographical and social specificity of Los Angeles is constantly highlighted in the exhibitions and catalogues, an operation that borders on an aestheticization of the different forms of violence that underlie the fabric of this city in the second half of the 20thC. Is this aestheticization a wager to neutralise the tensions between racial groups? Is art the ecumenical language that everyone speaks in this new Babel?

On the other hand, “Pacific Standard Time” speaks the language of advertising. The language of a city, that takes on the idea of polysemia and displays it to the world with pride as part of its perturbed identity. If one looks at the web of the project (www.pacificstandardtime.org) one can appreciate the way in which the advertising campaign appeals to the eye of a public which probably is drawn to it in the hope of spectacle. (In this respect, don’t miss the promotional videos of this project, in which well known Hollywood faces maintain abject encounters with some of the artists included in the shows) However “PST” does nothing more than play with this game of sparkle; under the layer of metallic paint which catches the attention of the spectator there is a huge amount of work that has mobilised curators, artists and coordinators for over a decade. The exhibitions, in general, are of noteworthy quality, and never fail to surprise the public with the stories they articulate. The catalogues, sponsored in the majority by the Getty foundation, gather together valuable texts that amplify the debate opened in the gallery.

Amongst the exhibitions one stands out, “Asco: Elite of the Obscure. A Retrospective 1972-1987”, at the LACMA (until April), an impeccable consideration of the interesting productions that the artists Harry Gamboa Jr, Patsi Valdez and Gronk carried out over two decades. The collective is rescued from the marginal and their productions are assumed to be symptomatic of a way of doing things typical of Los Angeles at the dawn of the post-modern era. Apart from this monographic exhibition, the work of Asco is the most visible in the whole project being included in the majority of exhibitions and their images have also been the most used in the publicity campaigns. Without a doubt, a revision of the aesthetic and racial roots of certain current languages linked to narration and the placing of the body of the artist within the context of urban conflict.

But it would be unjust to tie the whole project to Asco. Other exhibitions that shouldn’t be missed are “It Happened in Pomona” and “State of Mind, New California Art circa 1970”. The first, in the gallery of Claremont College in the city of Pomona, is an exhibition in two parts that speaks of the importance of the art department in this university as the articulator of a group of professors and students whose work became key in American art of the end of the 20th century. Figures such as Michael Ascher or Allen Rupersberg form part of a reflection upon the importance of the experimental in formal education as a trigger for innovative discourses. The second, co-produced by the Orange County Museum of Art and the Berkeley Museum of Art, brings to the public an analysis of the state of the conceptual in the East coast from the end of the sixties until well into the following decade. It is perhaps the only exhibition, in the whole project, that places the area of Los Angeles in relationship to the exterior, in this case the bay of San Francisco. The work of creators on the scale of Ruscha, are placed in dialogue with the countercultural productions of projects such as Al’s Café or Anna Halprin’s San Francisco Dancers Workshop.

However much one enumerates the events that make up Pacific Standard it is impossible to tackle it from a single point of view. The complexity of the phenomenon is not just to do with the quantifiable aspects of its production (it has operated with, in a total, a budget that borders on ten million dollars, of which ten percent has been destined to advertising), but is also related to the repercussions that, in a medium term, it will have in the field of investigations about art today in the United States. In reality “PST” is a mega research project, which is associated with a dense body of editorial production, cycles of multi-format events, conferences, festivals, etc.

Many things are taking place in Los Angeles within the framework of “PST”. Too many, perhaps. When one travels to the city with the intention of seeing it first hand, one is inevitably forced to acquire the type of neurotic gaze that any cultural project of Los Angeles seems to demand. Appeasing an appetite that merely grows as one sees the exhibitions, becomes impossible, given that the list of things to do is endless, though it couldn’t be any other way, as it is distributed across an infinite number of spaces, within a 40 km radius.

It is absurd to ask oneself about the impression one is left with by “Pacific Standard Time”. What does it want to tell us? What it talks of has nothing to do with the content of the exhibitions; what matters is a way of being, that is, the coexistence of the multiple and the different within a chaos that, even though it doesn’t aspire to be ordered, prospers under the auspices of the great patron of American modernism.

Paloma Checa-Gismero is Assistant Professor at San Diego State University and Candidate to Ph.D. in Art History, Criticism and Theory at the University of California San Diego. A historian of universal and Latin American contemporary art, she studies the encounters between local aesthetics and global standards. Recent academic publications include ‘Realism in the Work of Maria Thereza Alves’, Afterall, autumn/winter 2017, and 'Global Contemporary Art Tourism: Engaging with Cuban Authenticity Through the Bienal de La Habana', in Tourism Planning & Development, vol. 15, 3, 2017. Since 2014 Paloma is a member of the editorial collective of FIELD journal.

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