Museums have been shut down (again), which doesn’t effect the city of Los Angeles too much as museums weren’t reopened except for a very short week or so. Neither LACMA nor the Hammer ever reopened after mid-March shutdowns and, alas, the Hammer-Huntington’s joint exhibition “Made in L.A. 2020” (reviewed in this issue) is languishing in their galleries.
Pomona College’s Benton Museum of Art, in a brand new $44 million building, was supposed to open this fall, but COVID postponed that plan. The three opening exhibitions are installed, however, and after months of planning and re-planning, I finally made it in for a visit. It’s a simple, contemporary building organized around a courtyard that opens on one side to the street. In one corner of the courtyard is a commissioned bronze sculpture by one of LA’s most celebrated artists, Alison Saar.
The 12-foot-tall Imbue (2020) depicts Yemoja, West African deity of the waters and mother of all living things, a protector of women and children. She stands with a series of buckets and water containers on her head, while pouring out a stream of water from a pail. As typical of Saar’s oeuvre, the figure is strong and bold, a force to be reckoned with.
Inside, the exhibition space is twice the size of the old building’s, and the flow from gallery to gallery feels a lot more comfortable. Two galleries display “Of Aether and Earthe,” an exhibition of Saar’s sculpture and installation, as well as drawing and painting. The show is thematically woven around the elements of water and earth, says senior curator Rebecca McGrew. (A parallel exhibition will open at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena in 2021.) It is arguably the best installation of Saar’s work I’ve ever seen, with the 3D work very beautifully laid out and lit, thanks to exhibition designer Gary Murphy.
One sculpture that’s especially memorable is Breach (2016) which shows an African American woman poling through imagined waters—on her head is balanced her worldly possessions, a stack of trunks, a chair, a barrel, and several pails. There’s something about trying to balance all those things atop a human frame that feels both daunting and also very heroic. Breach was inspired by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, with its echo in Hurricane Katrina and its disastrous aftermath.
Other inaugural shows at the Benton are a selection of Alia Ali’s work and a look at what Pomona College holds in its own collection – quite surprising, ranging from Renaissance painting to contemporary ceramics. Ali’s photomontage work is in the reception area and corridor and her video installation in a special gallery. McGrew says they will continue to show contemporary and historical exhibitions as before, although “We hope to showcase our collection more, it’s been an underutilized resource.” For more information and projected opening date, check out their website: https://www.pomona.edu/museum.