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Jaume Plensa’s “Pacific Soul”

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Art & Soul

By Angela Ashman and Casey Hatfield-Chiotti

“Pacific Soul” rendering Courtesy of Jaume Plensa Studio and Richard Gray Gallery | Peruvian Spouted Whistling Jar photo courtesy of Mingei International Museum | Mark Bradford photo by Filippo Massellani / The New York Times / Redux

11.30.17

San Diego’s dynamic art scene is anchored by an expansive contemporary art museum, enthusiastic collectors and donors who believe in placing art in the public domain. Here’s a look at the people, places and pieces making our city a major force in the international art community.

THE PUBLIC WORK
Jaume Plensa beckons global art lovers to step inside his monumental ode to diversity.

Jaume Plensa, the Barcelona-based sculptor responsible for works such as “Echo”—the 44-foot-high head of a girl that towers over New York’s Madison Square Park—first visited San Diego eight or nine years ago. “I was fascinated with the city,” he recalls. “It has so many things in common with mine.” When the opportunity arose for him to do a project with BOSA, a development company building an upscale residential tower downtown, he didn’t hesitate. “When you fall in love with a place, you dream to do a project there, but you have to wait for the invitation,” he says. Plensa’s “Pacific Soul” will be completed at the Pacific Gate mixed-use development near the Embarcadero this month. The 25-foot-tall crouching stainless steel person is made up of characters in eight different alphabets: Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese and Hindi. “It reflects the diversity in the community,” Plensa says. The letters are elongated at the base, giving them the appearance of roots. The artwork, which took over a year to fabricate, is painted a brilliant white to reflect the West Coast light. Plensa, who has won multiple awards over the last three decades, including the National Art Award of Catalonia, has sculptures in Barcelona, Seoul, Tokyo and Miami. Plensa knows many passersby will stop and snap photos of the sculpture. “Pacific Soul” will also include an opening in the front large enough to allow visitors to walk in. Plensa says he hopes people will interact with the piece and even use it as a gathering place: “When the piece is really working, people are adopting it and embracing it in normal life.” –Casey Hatfield-Chiotti

THE UP-AND-COMING COLLECTORS
A growing collection inspired Matt and Nancy Brower to build a livable gallery to house it.

Matt and Nancy Browar vividly recall the first time they laid eyes on a John McLaughlin painting. “We loved the simplicity,” recalls Nancy, a trustee at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla. They purchased the undervalued 1966 oil on canvas—three white and blue rectangles on a yellow background—at Art Basel in Miami. McLaughlin, a self-taught artist who painted minimalist artworks in Dana Point in the mid-20th century, is considered one of the most important American abstract painters of the postwar period, but received little recognition in his lifetime. “I think if he had been in New York, it would have been a different story,” says Matt. Not wanting their home to look like a “McLaughlin store,” as Nancy puts it, they also collect a number of other prominent artists, including John McCracken, Carl Andre, Josef Albers and Kenneth Noland, and now live in a home designed in 2015 by the architect Bill Hayer, whose clean lines and ocean views provide an ideal showcase for the collection. The Browars believe strongly in art being available for public consumption. Matt, a successful developer, spearheads the Murals of La Jolla. “It levels the playing field for people interested in art. It’s open to everyone,” says Matt, a sentiment that signals their intention for their own collection, which the Browars intend one day to make available to the public. –CH 

THE SIGNIFICANT EXHIBITION
Pre-Columbian art comes alive at the Mingei.

We all know what happened in 1492. But for a spine-tingling glimpse into all that was lost after the Spanish conquest, the new exhibition Art of the Americas: Pre-Columbian Art from Mingei’s Collection, which runs through Feb. 18, aims to provide some answers. “This is the best of our collection—the masterpieces,” says Christine Knoke Hietbrink, the Mingei’s deputy director and chief curator. The oldest piece, an effigy jar shaped like two fish, dates to roughly 1000 B.C. Crown jewels of the collection include Peruvian pots adorned with paintings of elaborate scenes, such as a shaman transforming into his animal spirit. Three cacao vessels from Guatemala were used by Mayan elites to consume a kind of fermented hot chocolate—likely mixed with human blood. “There was definitely blood drinking and human sacrificing happening,” Hietbrink says. “But these were complex societies: It was to provide harmony and peace.” The exhibition delves into the roles shamans played, with a selection of animal-shaped ocarinas, whistles, flutes and rattles possibly used to awaken or frighten the spirits. “It’s really exciting when you get to look into a past civilization and see some of the pieces that would have been used by people for feasting, for burial, for shaman-ritual purposes,” Hietbrink says. “To see something that has that history behind it is a powerful thing.” –Angela Ashman

THE DYNAMIC GALLERY
The Murals of La Jolla put art center stage (and center parking lot).

Take an illustrious roster of artists (William Wegman, Jean Lowe, Kelsey Brookes, John Baldessari), put their work on the streets of La Jolla and—voilà!—a seaside gallery. Since its 2010 launch, there are now 16 works to admire. Free monthly tours, limited to 40 people, are given by curator Lynda Forsha, who often runs into people doing self-guided tours. “There are just a lot of people who are curious [and] willing to take the time to engage with it,” she says. Kathryn Kanjo, the David C. Copley director and CEO at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, isn’t surprised. “These are bold and unexpected works by world-renowned artists,” she says. Founded by the La Jolla Community Foundation, the project has commissioned a total of 26 pieces, with new works replacing older murals. (“Seagulls are the enemy,” Forsha says.) The newest addition is “Once Upon a Time in the West” by video artist Kota Ezawa, who was inspired a visit to the Salk Institute. “I visited La Jolla and the Stuart Collection at UCSD and was blown away by the public artworks presented in this community,” he says. “Public art is not always popular, but its pursuit is worth the risk. Even if the reception is mixed, there is likely going to be a public discourse, which, by itself, is a positive outcome.” –AA 

Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford

THE COMISSION
Mark Bradford provokes conversation about mass communication, new and old.

Mary Beebe, director of the Stuart Collection at the University of California San Diego, first saw Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford’s artwork in the mid-1990s. “I asked him then if he would do something for the campus, and he said he wasn’t interested in anything outdoors and permanent,” says Beebe. She followed his work from SFMOMA to the Saatchi Gallery in London to this year’s Venice Biennale. Nearly 20 years later, Beebe received this response: “He said, ‘I like your persistence, Mary, and we can talk.’” In 2018, Bradford will create a work for the Stuart Collection, whose 19 other works around the 1,200-acre campus include works by Robert Irwin and John Baldessari. The 195-foot-tall aluminum pole will have a beacon at the top that will flash in Morse code the question, “What hath God wrought?” Transmitted by Samuel Morse in 1844 to officially open the telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., it’s considered the beginning of communication as we know it. “Mark thinks about history and politics and the state of the world,” says Beebe. It will be located in UCSD’s first public space, off Revelle Plaza where a plaque was placed at the founding of the university. Perhaps ironically (or perhaps not), the plaza will have computers and cell phone outlets. “Mass communication has really changed the world in good ways and bad,” she adds. –CH