Odd Couples – SCRATCH at the El Segundo Museum of Art

I am not a big fan of20140614_133156 rap. When I see graffiti in my neighborhood, I wonder what’s coming down the pike. I’ve never seen anyone improved by a tattoo. But, there is no doubt that there are some major creative talents working in all of those forms and that their connection to traditional, accepted art is more than tenuous.

Graffiti and medieval manuscripts aren’t obvious partners but can go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Context, it seems, matters. LA’s Antics Performance Group continues to develop “Illuminated Manuscript” presented almost exactly a year ago at the Ford Amphitheatre. Amy “Catfox” Campion staged the Gilgamesh epic with an ensemble of fearless dancers to a pulsing score. Each scene is set to a video clip of a tagger doing his or her thing, illuminating the manuscript or stone tablet as the case may be. It was absorbing, thrilling, and falling short of epic by being just a little too short.

This year the Getty Research Institute and collector Ed Sweeney present SCRATCH a purely visual pairing along very similar lines at the El Segundo Museum of Art. Sweeney saw a connection, the Getty’s David Brafman agreed. ESMoA is art’s analog of a black box theater: A single long room with a vaulted ceiling, it’s success depends on the ambitions of the exhibits and here it succeeds in spades. The walls and floors are decorated by graffiti and tattoo artists from the greater Southern California area. It is an in-yer-face riot of color and literally larger-than-life representations. Some are by individuals, others by the artists working in groups. That, in itself, is surprising. We hear much of the individual, highly competitive world of graffiti. The artists acknowledge one another but to hear of them collaborating like this is like hearing of an anarchist collective. The creative choreography at work here must be an interesting story in and of itself. However it was done, it was done – much like Campion pulled together her Gilgamesh ensemble from several disciplines within the modern dance community.

The connection among the modern artists and the medieval manuscript is the Liber Amicorum or Book of Friends. We learn that it is customary for graffitists to contribute to one another’s sketchbooks as had been done in centuries past by artists of a different stripe. There are many sober display cases containing the Getty’s contribution of antiquaria, printed and scribed, for easy comparison. The older works are definitely of the subtle, understated type where the modern are emphatically not. Subject matter aside, there are some intriguing similarities in shading and the creation of depth in a two dimensional medium. The logistical problems would be many but a performance of Illuminated Manuscript would go well with this exhibit.

20140614_133329Technology unobtrusively supports the art. There are iPads aplenty, photography without flash is allowed. The Getty has taken a lead in digitizing rare materials and one can easily flip through page after page of images of the priceless books in the cases. A large chunk of it is online and can be examined from home. Johann Michael PĆ¼chler’s Calendarium Perpetuum is an almost infinitely-recursive exploration of his world and time. What look like lines and hatches are actually words upon magnification. It’s also an engraving meaning he did this with a stylus and in mirror-image.

There are plenty of other good reasons to go see SCRATCH. The LA Times is an unqualified disaster when it comes to theater and classical music reporting but has not yet given up the ghost when it comes to art commentary. New addition Carolina Miranda provides some background in a blog post. One delightful bit of fallout from this melange is that it has nicely honked off a segment of the right wing.

El Segundo has quietly become a destination. Between the chemical industry on one side and aerospace on the other lie a growing collection of breweries, galleries, shops, restaurants, the Old Town Music Hall, and a clean, well-lit 99-cent store.

The Making of video: No sound – Wish I’d stopped by the museum as this was happening…

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