The House That Agnès Built. Agnès Varda at LACMA

Agnès Varda, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Agnès Varda, My Shack of Cinema (1968-2013), Agnès Varda in Californialand, Los Angeles County Museum of Art , Los Angeles (Photo by Zach Lipp 2013).

If you recognize the house as a symbol of the self, then you’ll get the subtle joke of Agnès Varda’s film house installations, one of which is up at LACMA through June 22nd, 2014.

The structure, with walls made of streaming film strips, is both a homage to her life’s work as a filmmaker, (which was flimsy as far as any US institutions had been concerned), as well as her own limited desire to build a traditional home. Instead her life has been composed of a series of brilliant frames, any one of which, viewed on their own, hold a lifetime of artistry.

Sure, she’s known for her New Wave filmmaking, from her first movie in the 50’s before the movement took off, to her later film in the 80s that was criticized for its lack of narrative distance.  But what this exhibit shows is that her work extends far beyond the art world.  Indeed, her moving images of the hippies, the black panthers and later the muralists of LA show that she had a sense of what the world’s issues would revolve around for the next half a century.

Agnès Varda, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

How could she have become both an observer of political movements as well as an artist in her own right?  The answer comes in her unique technique of working on two parallel planes, the real and the imagined.

The structure of the show, Agnès Varda in Californialand reflects these two levels of operation.  One one hand you can see things as they are: a collection of images from the films she made, either on the collage on the wall, in the short movie screening on a TV, in the stills of the strips from the house or by looking at photographs from her movies on the wall.  On the other hand you can see an artist who did not want her life to “add up” to anything at all.

Varda is really not an immersive artist and both the translucent house and the layout of the whole show reflect her detached sensibility.  The body of the work is meant to mean less than the experience of viewing them. Her films are meant to come alive not on the screen, but in the mind and heart of whomever is watching.

Agnès Varda, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Which is just what I happened to me when I watched Mur Murs, the movie that documents the various anti-establishment philosophies of Los Angeles’ mural makers. Coincidentally, the meaning of public art is a hot topic in LA right now, since the city just lifted a decade long moratorium on murals.   Or perhaps you could see this as another sign of Varda’s knack for being in the right place at the right time.

The movie starts off with a most beautiful and memorable mural in Los Angeles: The Freeway Lady, a dark painting that sat over the 101 for many years until it was whitewashed out by the building owner who had a new agreement with an advertiser to pay to use the space.  She’s kind of watching over the traffic, with these all-knowing blue eyes mirroring the earth floating behind her.  Much like Varda, who had a kind of prescience about the importance of capturing these images before they were gone.

How did Varda know that that very mural, painted by Kent Twitchell, would have a twenty year history of disappearance and reappearance, much like her own film making career? The image was first obscured by another building, then blanked out, then reemerged when Kent Twitchell and his friend and art restorer, Nathan Zakheim, chipped away at the white wall to reveal her eye peeking out from under the surface.  Now, she is covered for good.

Of course there are photos of the mural that has survived, but what Varda’s movie captures is the way that the city moves around a mural.  And that, again, would predict something about her own life’s work.  After decades in film, she would move to installation art, giving the art viewer a chance to move around in her art.  Beware though, you can’t sit on the film canisters in the center of the piece.

Agnès Varda, Agnès Varda in Californialand, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles through June 22, 2014

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by Emily Kramer
in Focus on the West Coast

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