LA Expanded

A Queen and a Stone

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, "The Banquet of Cleopatra," 1740s. Courtesy National Gallery of London.

The word stature is one of those that’s meaning and sound do not completely agree. Say “stature,” and it sounds like you mean something serious, like stature is the same as status: “Her stature alone commands attention”; “He was a man of great stature.” But of course, someone could have small, wimpy or weak stature. When writer Judith Thurman reviewed a Cleopatra exhibition the Guggenheim hosted in 2007, she wrote, “There have been other great queens, but none of [Cleopatra’s] stature.” Then, in the next paragraph, she wrote, “That stature was petite — aristocratic women of her time were about five feet tall…”

So she was small, maybe even femininely delicate, but still commanding enough to prompt the Romans to inscribe on a stele carrying her depiction, “The queen himself.”

I have been thinking about stature because Michael Heizer, an artist of great stature (who is significantly taller than Cleopatra probably was) known for his earthworks and his secret City in Nevada, is making a work of stature. This work, if you have not heard, will be on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s campus and will involve a rock of great stature — 340 tons — that recently had to be moved from its point of origin in Riverside to L.A. This move, of course, involved street closure and hassle and quite a bit of spectacle. By the time it reached it’s destination, tens of thousands had come out to see the rock, which will ultimately sit behind the museum above a big concrete slot that viewers can descend into.

Night view of Michael Heizer's rock in transit, about to leave the Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach.

The rock has prompted extraordinary amounts of media coverage, but very little art criticism yet, understandable seeing as the work isn’t quite built. Christopher Knight of the L.A. Times finally did stick his neck out and offer some art critical thoughts on the rock and related fanfare. He’d wanted to dispel some of the rock-associated economic frustration, as the price tag hovers somewhere around $10 million — no taxpayer dollars were spent, LACMA and city officials assured the public as the route wound through the region. After making his money point, Knight wrote, “Besides money, what else draws easily distracted eyeballs toward budding celebrity? Ask Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Sex, in the case of the rock, requires a bit of explanation.” By “budding celebrity,” he meant the 340-ton rock; he referred to the whole transport as “the boy-toy.” He continued,

As a source of public fascination, art’s psycho-sexual position in American life matters. Art has a gender in popular consciousness, and that gender is female. Like it or not, art is presumed to be feminine, not masculine. Under those circumstances, if art in a patriarchal society is to have a prominent public life, femininity just won’t cut it.

His was a sort of vague argument, but the gist was this: if you were to assign gender to artworks, most would be girls. Unfortunately, femininity can’t hold its own out in public, however, which means all artists commissioned to make public work on LACMA’s campus were male: Chris Burden, Robert Irwin, Heizer, James Turrell and perhaps Jeff Koons. He called the boulder “just about as butch as it gets.” But I wonder if that’s true.

Michael Heizer, “Double Negative,” 1969. One of two slots in the Mormon Mesa.

The earthworks artists, their own gender aside, seemed always to be interested in crevices and nuances and indentations and interventions, even if they sometimes acted upon the landscape in  megalomaniacal ways (Heizer blasted out tons and tons of sandstone to make Double Negative, two deep slits in the Nevada desert). In contrast, Chris Burden’s recent sculptures have been interested in “erecting”–erecting cities or lampposts–and Jeff Koons makes aggressive stand alone work that has no interest in crevices. Heizer’s rock, despite it’s stature, has idiosyncrasy. Slated to hover over a deep dip into the ground (albeit a concrete-constructed one), it feels more gentle.