Living La Vida MOCA


When I was 21, I spent 3 weeks living in London visiting roughly one museum a day, most of which contained some of the most famous and important art in history. My favorite? Warhol's Marilyn Diptych at the Tate Modern.

Personally, I'd take a Warhol or a Rothko over a Da Vinci or a Michelangelo or any of the other Ninja Turtles any day.

True story. I mean, while I barely passed Art History in college, I've always loved, loved, loved modern art. It inspires me to see things from new perspectives, which in turn has influenced my own creative projects. So honestly, I'm kind of surprised that after all of my visits to LA and all of my years living in Southern California, that it took me this long to finally make it into a single modern art museum on the west coast.

Ryan and I went up to LA over Memorial Day weekend just to get out of town for the day and see what there was to explore. We ended up starting off our adventure downtown near Little Tokyo and after a couple of false starts (specifically: a failed attempt to tour the Disney Concert Hall and a too long line at The Broad), we found ourselves at the Museum of Contemporary Art, otherwise known as MOCA. 

After purchasing our tickets ($12 for Ryan, $6 for me with my student discount... but they have free admission Thursday nights from 5-8pm!), we headed downstairs and into the museum.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect... after all this was a day of exploration and our visit to MOCA had not been researched beforehand. I didn't know what art was on display there or anything about the visiting exhibit. In a brief attempt to get a better handle on the museum, we attempted to tack on to a free tour that had just started, but the docent spoke so softly that neither Ryan or I could handle it and off we went on our own.

I later learned that MOCA has a collection of over 7,000 post-war pieces and that the selection that we saw, The Art of Our Time, is in part is meant to highlight some lesser known works by iconic artists. Which completely explains why I recognized the styles of artists I like, but not the specific works. There were a few Warhols, Lichtensteins and Pollocks in the first couple of rooms, but honestly? They were somewhat drab, boring pieces.

Sometimes lesser known work is lesser known for a reason?

But the more I wandered through the museum and the more I read about the curator and exhibit after, the more I started to see the exhibit in a new way.

One whole room was dedicated to massive Rothko's and I tried, for a bit to stand in front of each them until the colors were all that I could see, the way Rothko apparently suggested you view them: eighteen inches away from the canvas.

Standing so close did help me pull more emotion out of the paintings and drew my attention to the subtle gradients that I wouldn't have been able to see from farther away... but unfortunately it did nothing for the nearly universal sentiment that many people get when they see a Rothko: I totally could have painted this myself.

That thought alone is what makes modern art so fun for me. Who's to say what's amazing and what isn't? It's very clear when you're looking at a Botticelli that talent exists... you wouldn't catch a regular dude looking at The Birth of Venus and thinking, "I totally could have painted this myself." But Rothko? It almost makes you wonder: what if Rothko was just screwing around when he made these and the joke's on us?

Saying hi to Lena Dunham's mom, artist Laurie Simmons

The next couple of rooms after the Rothkos had some of my favorite art of the day. There were gorgeous photographs by John Divola and Ger Van Elk and a piece by Gordon Matta-Clark that could only be described as... hopeful? It took the floors of shortly-after demolished building and gave them a new life in the form of art in a museum on the opposite coast from where the building existed.

I especially loved April 21, 1978, which was part of a trilogy of works made in response to the kidnapping and assassination of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. The artist, Sarah Charlesworth, had taken the front page of newspapers from around the globe on that day and removed everything except for the mastheads and the images, which only made me think about how we digest media.

Another favorite was a series of photos by Ana Mendieta titled, Silueta Works in Mexico. It feels pretentious to use the word "haunting" to describe art, but that's what this was. It evoked that fear about what we leave behind, our imprint on the places that we go.

The dust on the ground around this fossilized turtle shell was actually sanded off the wall

Predictably, by the end, things got super weird, as modern art that is more or less chronologically displayed is wont to do. Weird latex installations, a photo of a bloody family scene carved into the back of the artist... this is when the exhibit tends to get too disturbing and nightmarish for me.

But there was one final reprieve, a room of surrealist pieces that made me the most amused I'd been all day. Where else could elephant shit or anti-depressant pills or pornographic collages be taken so seriously but in a modern art museum?

Elephant dung both holding up and stuck on this painting by Chris Ofili

Our final stop at the MOCA on Grand was to check out the visiting U.S. premiere of Hito Steyerl’s video installation Factory of the Sun. In a separate room, that intentionally felt like you were walking into a video game, a video played while you sat in blue lawnchairs that were scattered around the room. All I can say about this one is that we didn't stay long. 

The MOCA actually has two locations in Downtown LA, separated by about a mile-long walk, and your ticket gets you into both.

Since it was an exploration day after all, we decided to take the short walk down to the second location, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. 

The line outside of Daikokuya, a restaurant in Little Tokyo that is apparently worth the wait. 

The Geffen is a former police car warehouse that was turned into a 40,000 square foot exhibition space in 1983. The current installation is a 90s retrospective and features a lot of large-scale pieces that really do make you feel like you're immersed in the weirdness of the 90s when you stroll around them. 

In fact, the whole collection felt like one giant awkward phase... I couldn't tell if that was just because I spent the 90s going through my awkward phase or if it was because the art world did. 

But this exhibit also held some of the pieces that stood out to me the most from the day, like Kori Newkirk's Modified Cadillac (Prototype #2), which, when it's not on display, only exists as a set of instructions, a concept that made the art feel like the result of a treasure map. 

I have a thing for freeways, so Catherine Opie's shots of freeway on-ramps and overpasses were pretty stunning. They were all totally empty in the shots so they looked like they could have been stills from an eerie, post-apocalyptic documentary of Los Angeles. Similarly, a collection of real estate photos from the 90s felt like a time machine. And Christina Fernandez's photo narrative recreating her grandmother's journey from Mexico to California was captivating, if only for the story. 

But the most nostalgic pieces were Paul McCarthy's Tokyo Santa and Mark Dion's When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (Toys ‘R’ U.S.) diorama. In McCarthy's installation, there were all the pre-decorated Christmas trees of my childhood, surrounded by photos of a psychotic, perverse Santa pouring fake blood on himself and exposing himself to the camera. Basically enough to have permanently ruined Christmas for me, had I seen this in 1996 when it was performed. 

Conversely, Dion's diorama was like stepping into the rooms of my brother, male cousins and any other boy in the 90s. I swear my brother had that comforter at some point in our childhood and the fact that such a perfect life-size time capsule exists made me wonder what aspects of our decor now will be nostalgic to the kids of today in 20 years. 

All in all, between MOCA, the walk and the Geffen, I was pretty much over my choice of footwear by the end of the day... flip flops have their place and time and this wasn't it.

Nonetheless I left LA arguably more cultured, or at the very least happy that I have finally started to make a dent in my own personal LA Bucket List. Next up? The Broad...