Architecture has been nobly described as the enduring art of making the content and forms of a civilization coincide but in “Building As Ever,” the second California-Pacific Triennial at the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), the focus is on its more everyday nature and the unstoppable vitality of change.
On view through September 3, “Building As Ever” is an ambitious survey of 25 artist projects whose works tackle open-ended questions of placemaking, history, obsolescence, memory, and, of course, building. Organized by curator Cassandra Coblentz, who worked closely with artists and commissioned numerous site-specific projects during her seven-year tenure at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona, the triennial has directly considered OCMA’s real estate predicament in producing the exhibition.
In his foreword to the exhibition catalog, OCMA Director Todd D. Smith diplomatically addresses the impending destruction of the museum’s long-time base (there are plans to sell the property and re-locate to build anew at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in nearby Costa Mesa). “We contemplated how best to carry forward the biennial/triennial tradition,” reflects Smith, delicately skirting the issue of when the move might occur and whether the Thom Mayne-designed proposal is still in the picture. “We grew increasingly unable to separate this project from the larger situation in which the museum finds itself.”
OCMA has, since its inception as the Newport Harbor Museum, existed in a rather mutable state of architectural flux. The museum surfaced in 1977 like a cultural atoll alongside Fashion Island, the 600-plus-acre masterplanned community developed by the Irvine Company (with architects William Pereira and Associates). Constructed on two spare acres donated by the developers, the museum’s T-shaped configuration features three low-slung pavilions with corrugated concrete façades; the Brutalist design, the era’s favored civic style, was also provided gratis by Langdon and Wilson Architects, a Los Angeles and Newport Beach-based firm perhaps best known for creating the J.Paul Getty Museum’s ancient Roman villa in Malibu. By the 1980s, OCMA’s permanent collection and institutional vision (“a destination museum that is locally relevant and internationally significant”) had outgrown their original building and relocation plans began to steadily percolate. As Los Angeles Times critic Carolina Miranda quipped parenthetically in her thorough and thoroughly enjoyable roundup of the museum’s architectural affairs: “(Reading all the vintage clips on this is like reading the treatment for some 1980s episode of ‘Dynasty: Orange County Architecture Edition.’ In other words: totally worth it.)”
“Building As Ever” addresses architecture as a curatorial premise, subject, and even art-making material in works that range from participatory actions and interventions to large-format photographs and sculpture: “Common Ground,” by Julian Day and Luke Jaaniste, a collaborative performance team from Australia, utilizes cups, saucers and audience participation to transform a gallery floor into an interactive sonic game board; operating at the crossroads of art, architecture and archeology, Leyla Cardenas cuts into the museum wall to reveal fragments of an anticipated urban ruin; Michele Asselin’s darkly beautiful photographs of the Hollywood Park Clubhouse (built 1938; demolished 2015) offer cinematic chiaroscuro renderings of abandoned interiors and displaced characters; and continuing in the tradition of the late minimalist sculptor Fred Sandback, Cybele Lyle’s spare wooden sculptures employ reductive strategies to incise space and alter perception.
In this current Triennial, art surrounds, inhabits and confronts the museum. Flanking the building’s main entrance, Bryony Roberts has installed “Imprint” in the industrial modern windows. A 1:1 fiberglass resin cast of the museum’s rippling façade, “Imprint” functions like a haunting cover version, the original’s rugged texture is unexpectedly delivered in a softly glowing fashion; backlit by the sun, the translucent cast shimmers and the museum logo printed on the window beneath is faintly visible, floating like a shadow glimpsed in a rearview mirror.
Alongside the museum visitor’s desk in the lobby, Olga Koumoundouros has installed a newly-commissioned work: three blown-glass objects are incorporated into metal stanchions and each transparent organic shape houses quotidian relics — a bit of asphalt, a pair of archival gloves. Koumoundouros’s work developed out of a sort of conceptual reconnaissance mission: after studying the life of OCMA’s building and listening to morphing reminiscences, she created these commemorative objects to honor both collective experience and one individual whose knowledge of the museum had been both intimate and encyclopedic.
Throughout the show, questions about memory — its insistence, vagaries, loss and recovery—have been smartly articulated and given form. When Patricia Fernandez set out to research Ruedo Iberico, the Parisian bookshop and printing press that served as a meeting place for radical Spanish students during the 1960s, she steadily mapped its previously unrecorded history through correspondence, personal accounts, objects and intuition. Distilling her research, Fernandez produced a series of images and objects – including a wooden spiral staircase and exquisite watercolors — that incisively evoke that very particular time and place.
The persistence of cultural memory is also strongly evident in the work of Beatriz Cortez, an artist and cultural critic. In “The Lakota Porch: A Time Traveler,” she reimagines an existent California Craftsman porch, a domestic social space constructed from wood and local river rock. Built 100 years ago by Dan Montelongo, an Apache Mescalero master stoneworker, it is now owned by a Lakota woman. In Cortez’s contemporary version, welded sheet metal has been used to recreate the original hand-built porch, acknowledging the past and envisaging a future.
At the heart of most all the works featured in “Building As Ever” is a shared desire to pursue questions about how the built environment shapes contemporary experience and influences recorded history. In Ken Ehrlich’s on-going project about Donald Wilber (1907-1997), a scholar of ancient Persian architecture and the CIA agent credited as the “architect” of the 1953 Iranian coup (a Cold War strategy designed to secure British and American oil interests in the region), the artist composes a dialogue between Wilber’s two linked but divergent professions through a series of drawings and laser-cut archival photographs. Where each letter of Wilber’s CIA report appears, the paper has been evaporated, leaving only hollowed out words atop images of Persian Gardens and ornate ruins.
Measured in terms of architectural eras, Southern California is still young. During the last century, however, recurrent cycles of building booms have continually altered the California landscape, expanding suburban sprawl and reinventing urban areas. Alex Slade’s large format photographs provide a stunning record of the rapid architectural changes occurring now in downtown Los Angeles. There’s a futuristic quality to these scenes of vertiginous glass towers that seem to sprout up overnight, overshadowing even the recent architectural past, and casting earlier building efforts into ruins; but there is also a quiet formality, an almost 19th century gaze that pauses to capture this fleeting moment and the uninflected Western light.
Vito Acconci once observed that “The beautiful thing about architecture, it does have the anticipation of renovation always built into it, which I find so refreshing from art because art is supposed to be unchangeable. The only things that are unchangeable are tombstones.”
Top Image: "Clubhouse Turn – Clubhouse Mezzanine, 2013–16" by Michele Asselin | Courtesy of the artist