The GGA Project -- Day #183 "Surprise History Lesson"

A few weeks back I was talking to my Bro on the phone and he mentioned there was something he wanted to do while he was up here.  Since we were all game for anything and didn't already have plans, his idea became

Today's New Activity: Visiting The Oakland Museum of California

One thing I love about museums is that even their entrance ways are interesting.  And I was sure to capture those since I wouldn't be taking (m)any pictures inside.

The below are bird feeders...

The OMCA, as it is somewhat awkwardly referred, turned out to be quite a nice surprise.  We only managed one of three pretty large galleries (well, my Dad powered through all three but I was lagging), but that galleray alone exhibited enough to make the visit plenty worthwhile.

The reason my Bro wanted to go was that he'd read in the L.A. Times about a SoCal artist, Michael C. McMillen, whose work was showing in an exhibit called "Train of Thought."  I'd never heard of the artist but a brief read-up on him revealed that when he was a child he used to visit the t.v. sets his father worked on, and at a young age began designing miniatures, models, sets, and--eventually--installation art.

His pieces ranged from a miniature scene like this, which you open a beat-up old screen door to get in to view:

(this is a close-up of what was an old, parked-forever trailer in what was a desert, overrun-with--broken-things/mini-junkyard scene)

To entire buildings installed there in the museum.  One was a small set-like piece which depicted an old motel.  Three of its doors had peepholes which you could peek into and see tiny scenes featuring moving parts like a ceiling fan or a rear window that was actually an aquarium.

Then there was this somewhat haunting piece:

And this, the little hut portion of which you could actually walk up into and sit down in.  A lot of his work featured water (the hotel above is perched precariously on stilts over a small body of water), and all the somewhat unsettling pieces--with their abandoned feel and the sad, muted colors--were made less so (or more so, I guess, depending on where you're coming from) by the sound of trickling water.

I wouldn't normally take pictures inside a museum but I suppose I felt comfortable because these pieces were off in tucked away rooms where I was the only person viewing them at the time.  Of course flash photography is verboten, but I couldn't resist wanting to take home a little bit of McMillen's eerie charm.  Viewing his work made me feel like I was in a Cohen brothers movie...like a little bit Raising Arizona and a whole lot of No Country for Old Men.

Plus I just loved the (lack of) light inside the fixture that seemed like a run-down house boat anchored in a contaminated bay:

A few pieces in McMillen's exhibition also included film elements, all housed in darkened areas where you could sit for however long and take it in.  His work was fascinating and diverse, and I'd love to see more of it.

All that said, however, I was most happy and pleasantly surprised to find a number of works from the photographer Dorothea Lange on exhibit.  You might not know it but you're probably already familiar with Lange's work, the most famous photograph of which is probably this:

During World War II and the Dustbowl, Lange was commissioned by the US Government to document conditions among various classes and groups of disadvantaged people.  Her work in the field was a terribly bitter dose of truth serum to people who realized they'd prefer never to have known what was going on out there.

One image, depicting two small Japanese children with tags around their necks, among many pegged for immediate interment and/or deportation during WWII, was taken right here in Hayward, CA.  In fact all of the images were taken in California, and every piece in the current mainfloor exhibit features California-based artists or artists from elsewhere whose work depicted California.  That's what I loved about the museum.  It is so great to get a glimpse into the history of the state you love calling home.  But that photograph was heart-wrenching, as was so much of Lange's work...how could it have been otherwise, given the nature of the subject matter? 

I happened to be viewing the Lange exhibit while a tour guide was bringing his group through there, so I got to hear some interesting history without having to move along through the *entire* museum at the long-winded guide's snail pace.  I had no idea she was based here in Berkeley or that she was married to artist Maynard Dixon. They eventually divorced after having two sons together, which was almost shocking to learn.  This was back in 1935, when divorce was a major cultural taboo and rarity.  It's really no wonder that an independent and successful woman (who, the tour guide related, had been supporting her artist husband all throughout the marriage--her job was a paying one) took such a bold step, but still it made an impression on me.

It was also interesting to learn that the woman featured in the above photograph, Florence Owens Thompson, had lost her husband a few months before that photograph was taken and that, after seeing the image splashed on the cover of Life magazine and various other print outlets, had written to Lange imploring her to stop printing it.  Lange responded that she was unable to do so, since the photograph was by then the property of the US Government, and I found that unfortunate.  While it is amazing to have this image in our collective national memory as a forever reminder of the difficult times our people have endured, it is unfortunate that it came at the expense of the dignity and privacy of a woman who was doing everything she could to provide for her children.  The week the photo was taken, she'd sold two of the wheels from her family's truck to buy food.

I've always loved Lange's photography, but seeing this body of work and hearing some of her story gave me an a new level of respect for her.  And I was grateful for the chance to get out of my little bubble and spend an afternoon appreciating the creativity of artists spanning three centuries.

If you're ever in the Lake Merritt area of Oakland with 12 extra bucks in your possession, I highly recommend stopping in.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a lot of powerful stuff in a location one would normally pass by. Thanks for sharing. And thank your 'bro' for wanting to visit this place.