Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Wizard of Oz at CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art

Last night was the opening of The Wizard of Oz at my alma mater, California College of the Arts. Like always at the start of the semester, it was a full house, and the subject matter was well-suited to Wattis Director Jens Hoffmann's theatrical approach. The path of exhibition, which juxtaposed works by several notable international artists with ephemera from the titular novel and 1939 film, followed a narrative arc loosely based on that of the source material.

Walker Evans, Part of the Bedroom of an Alabama Cotton Sharecropper,
Hale County, Alabama
, 1935

The show opens with multiple beginnings. The American Midwest, where the story begins, is represented here by Walker Evans' powerful photographs of threadbare farm houses, which date to roughly the same time as the MGM film starring the teenaged Judy Garland. A large wall installation by Donald Urquhart chronicles thehistory and the dark side of the film's creation in a style derived from cheery children's book illustrations. Between these is a first edition of L. Frank Baum's novel, accompanied by reprints of early reviews, representing the start of a long cultural engagement with the book.

Clare Rojas, Woman in Yellow Dress in Poppy Field, 2008

Works such as Clare Rojas' drawings of women playing in a field of poppies, Evan Holloway's ax poised to chop, or Felix Gonzalez-Torres' images of birds flying through cloudy skies, can be read literally within the context of the story. Other works such as Bruce Conner's film Valse Triste have more subtle connections to the theme. Rivane Neuenschwander's installation Eu desejo o su desejo (I wish your wish) casts gallery visitors as Dorothy and her entourage, wishing for respite from the difficult journey ahead. Film originals include a first-run print, a Gramophone playing a recording of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and a pair of genuine Ruby Slippers.

The culminating work in the show is Steve McQueen's Once Upon a Time, in which images collected by NASA as indicators of human society and sent into space for alien consumption have been strung together and accompanied by a soundtrack of people speaking in tongues. The effect is wonderfully evocative of the Great and Terrible Oz - both ridiculous and full of hubris. Though traces of those characteristics can be found throughout the show, the negatives are outweighed by the strong use of space to describe a narrative, the visual interest of art mixed with cultural artifacts, and the iconoclastic takes of several artists on the literary source material.

The show runs through December 13.