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On the surface, museums dedicated to private art collections seem more like glorifications of investment than valorizations of creativity—though what comprises a collection makes clear on which end of that spectrum it truly is. When billionaire philanthropic and art-collecting duo Eli and Edythe Broad—whose surname appears on virtually every cultural edifice in Los Angeles—announced plans to build a museum to house their own art collection, it was more a given than a surprise. Yet the mystery lay less in the couple’s imminent desire to construct a monument to their art holdings and more in how this collection-cum-institution would actually function in an age of global museum expansion and private foundation proliferation.
At the time of the Broad’s inaugural exhibition, the reviews were almost exclusively negative, with many critics pointing out the installation’s safe, art market-approved homogeny. It is true that the collection is overwhelmingly comprised of blue-chip, auction-sanctioned art; however, “markets always distinguish between what’s salable and what’s not, but they can’t calculate quality.”1 Thus the real question is: Can vital, culturally significant exhibitions be mounted purely from such dedication to art’s established markets? If Creature, the current exhibition at the Broad, is any guide, the answer is probably not.
Regardless (or possibly because of) the collection’s oft-cited limitations, Creature’s thesis seems willfully porous. Its introductory wall text states, “We navigate constantly a fluid zone between our instincts and our learned behaviors,” and goes on to posit that “art can reframe—at times even rupture—preconceived or stale notions about what it
means to be human.” Certainly, the conflict between our instinctual, desire-driven selves and the body as a physical, mental, and social construct makes for an intriguing and fertile exhibition context. Yet such curatorial succinctness was either unattainable or was simply not the goal here. The wall text goes on to state, “this exhibition examines the wide ranging terrain of creaturely life, from everyday animals to extraordinary monsters to human beings.”
With these additional obfuscating layers, Creature becomes a nebulous, rambling display that is essentially split into three co-mingling divisions: tension between subjectivity and societal systems (Baselitz, Golub, Wojnarowicz), corporeal spectacle (Houseago, Koons, Murakami), and zoological allusions (Balkenhol, Basquiat, Vaisman). Unsurprisingly, the latter two categories’ respective sensationalistic and non-human qualities irreparably compromise the integrity of the former. For instance, Andy Warhol’s The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) (1963), which opens the show, is an appropriated image from the 1931 film Dracula, in which the titular vampire prepares to feast on his female victim. In this context, Warhol’s screen-print sets an unshakable art-as-spectacle tone, one that is echoed by Thomas Houseago’s monstrous Giant Figure (Cyclops) (2011), Tony Oursler’s suspended cloud, Dust (2006), and Takashi Murakami’s inexcusably misogynistic sculpture Nurse Ko2 (Original rendering by Nishi-E-Da, modeling by BOME and Genpachi Tokaimura, advised Masahiko Asano, full scale sculpture by Lucky-Wide Co., Ltd.) (2011). The exaggerated and uncanny nature of these and other works injects the physical aspects found in the work of Kiki Smith and Cindy Sherman—to name just two—with a debased, overly theatrical tenor.
This is not to say that Creature does not incorporate exceptional artwork. In addition to excellent pieces by Georg Baselitz, Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, and Ellen Gallagher, is David Wojnarowicz’s Late Afternoon in the Forest (1986), perhaps the one work in the show that perfectly ticks all three of Creature’s thematic boxes. It makes sense, then, that it appears both at the beginning and end (due to the show’s circular layout viewers experience this particular work twice). The Broads own at least three of Wojnarowicz’s works and, according to the museum’s website, they were acquired in 1986, a time when the openly gay artist was authoring intensely personal, visceral reactions to the AIDS crisis era in which he lived (he died from the disease in 1992). His work’s inclusion here is an absolute high-light, one that is tinged with the sadness that seemingly very few works of this kind of zeitgeist vitality have found their way into this collection.
Put simply, Creature favors spectacle over substance. As a result, continually urgent issues of race, gender, sexuality, and governmental power that could have been more potently explored are either ignored completely or are dealt with in a sublimated manner indicative of “the synthesis of contemporary art, spectacle, and tourism that has already triumphed in much of the world.”2 This leaves the show’s potential for examinations of “the body” in any other sense than corporeally largely untapped.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 7.