In an art-world equivalent of burning sage, this summer an erstwhile grand man cave has been transformed into Bolivian American artist Donna Huanca’s first major institutional show in the United States, Obsidian Ladder, which opened June 28 at the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles. Huanca, who says her work is about creating femme gestures, is known for immersive environments: visitors and the space itself interplay with her sculptures, paintings, soundscapes, videos, and performers—in this case, nude models, covered with paint or slightly draped in textiles, who move slowly through the installation.
Obsidian Ladder (which runs through December 1) explores ideas about skin, the body, and nature. Huanca says the title is meant to evoke “an image of a ladder made out of black stone extending into infinity.” She created the exhibition for the Marciano’s Theater Gallery, an unusual, 13,000-square-foot space that was originally designed for elaborate Masonic theatrical presentations. The Huanca show is the latest in a series of innovative site-specific installations at the Marciano.
Los Angeles is rich with buildings of intrigue: homes with jaw-dropping views, infamous hotels lurking behind high hedges, vintage downtown banks turned hot spots with subterranean speakeasies. In 2016, when news spread that brothers (and Guess founders) Maurice and Paul Marciano would turn a mysterious former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple a few blocks west of Koreatown into a museum to house their extensive collection of contemporary art, exploring the place was as enticing a prospect as viewing the works within it.
Adrian Scott Fine is the director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, the city’s main historic preservation organization. He calls the fortresslike Scottish Rite “one of those buildings that everybody had been wanting to get in for decades” because of its secretive exterior. The late artist and educator Millard Sheets designed the temple in 1961. “He had a unique way of integrating art as part of architecture, rather than applying art onto architecture,” says Fine. “That’s where he really shines. Each one of his buildings is site-specific in trying to tell the story of that place.”
Sheets’s architectural aesthetic is perhaps best expressed in the iconic Home Savings and Loan branches he designed all across California, around 150, according to historian Adam Arenson (who wrote a book on the subject). Many feature his colorful mosaics above the entrance, oft tied to the location’s history, along with sculptures and stained glass windows. Sheets also created distinctive mosaics, murals, paintings, and wood carvings at the San Francisco Scottish Rite Masonic Center.
The Masons have an enigmatic reputation, but their L.A. temple was hardly hidden. It encompasses 100,000 square feet, its hulking marble-and-travertine exterior is emblazoned with Masonic symbols and adages, and the building is perched along one of the city’s biggest thoroughfares, Wilshire Boulevard. The activities and amenities inside, though, were not nearly as visible. For the most part, only Masons (meaning only men) could enter.
The Scottish Rite, established in 1801, is part of the worldwide fraternal organization known as the Freemasons. Members, who typically join by invitation, learn moral lessons through a series of 32 “degrees,” culminating in Master of the Royal Secret; a hallowed 33rd degree is conferred only upon recommendation. In 1994, faced with waning interest in fraternal organizations and a significant decline in the L.A. temple’s membership (18,000 at its peak, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy), the Masons vacated the building. It sat empty for years.
A NEW LIFE
The Marciano brothers grew up in Marseilles, France, and in 1981 moved to L.A., where they founded the denim lifestyle brand Guess. As their clothing empire expanded, they also devoted themselves to contemporary art. They visited galleries and museums, they attended auctions, and they collected. In 2006, they began focusing on works from 1990 forward and immersed themselves in Los Angeles’s flourishing art scene.
In 2013, they purchased the temple to showcase their substantial and growing collection, which includes over 1,500 works by more than 200 artists: established names like Mark Bradford, Mike Kelley, Takashi Murakami, and Yayoi Kusama alongside mid-career and emerging artists.
The brothers turned to the California art world’s architect of the moment, Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY, to convert the Masonic temple into a temple of contemporary culture. Yantrasast’s latest projects include the Institute for Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and a new pavilion under construction at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. He recently won accolades for his temporary exhibition space at Frieze Los Angeles, the international art fair that showcased 70 galleries on the Paramount Pictures back lot in February.
The Marcianos’ museum-in-the-making featured rooms with high ceilings, wide expanses, and extensive windowless wall space that seemed built for art. Yantrasast preserved Sheets’s original architectural design and layout as much as possible while modifying the space to accommodate its new mission. A grand mosaic on the east wall was restored (though it’s now partially obstructed by a gallery wall), and the architect kept eight monumental travertine sculptures of key Masonic figures—among them, King Solomon and George Washington—that greet passersby along Wilshire and Plymouth Boulevards.
“It’s a nice marriage of preservation and adaptive reuse,” says Fine. “Anyone who goes into that building experiences the art that’s there, which is fantastic, but they also experience the building, and the history, and some of the story of the Masons, so that part is not lost.”
When the Marciano Art Foundation opened in May 2017, it entered L.A.’s long history of patron-founded private museums: the Huntington, the Norton Simon, the Getty, the Autry, the Hammer, and newcomer the Broad. The crown jewel of the temple was the 2,000-seat auditorium where Masons staged dramatic performances with costumes and fantastical painted backdrops. Today, the cavernous Theater Gallery offers spectacles of a different sort: it has thus far hosted solo exhibitions by three influential contemporary artists, all men.
Jim Shaw’s magnificent installation took cues from the building’s history and incorporated stage sets, furniture, robes, wigs, and regalia left behind by the Masons. Olafur Eliasson created expansive light projections to interplay with the space’s architecture. And Ai Weiwei’s multifaceted installation included a field of 49 tons of porcelain sunflower seeds, another composed of thousands of antique teapot spouts, and a giant tableau of a boat loaded with refugees, surrounded by figures from Chinese mythology crafted from bamboo and silk.
Huanca’s path into the building was laid when Olivia Marciano, the museum’s artistic director and the daughter of Maurice, happened upon a large-scale installation by the artist last year at Vienna’s Belvedere museum. Her companion that day was unaffiliated with the art world and not much of a contemporary art fan, but was nonetheless floored by the exhibition.
“My friend explained, ‘You’re seeing consciousness move.’ It was this natural response and total immersion into the piece,” says Marciano. “I thought, ‘If this is what it can do for people who don’t necessarily have the context…’ It was just a really beautiful experience that I thought, ‘It would be amazing to bring this to the U.S.’
“Huanca’s response to the Belvedere as a historic space was so thoughtfully and sensitively done that I was positive that when she came into this space it would be a big consideration for her, since it was a male-dominated space.”
Indeed, the history of the temple is critical to Huanca’s project—a hallucinatory femme takeover of a zone that once epitomized male power. The project is “a way to reclaim a theater as a space for the models’ meditation,” says Huanca. “My paintings, sculptures, sound, and scent pieces act as markers for the models,” who in turn, she says, respond to the artworks however they are inspired to. “The audience is a guest, and the performance is a place where the relationship between performer and audience is questioned, subverted, and defined in a new way.”
As Huanca deconstructs barriers downstairs, a space on the second floor called the Relic Room offers a glimpse of the building’s unusual past. When the Masons vacated, they left behind a small trove. Books, photographs of former members, silk and satin banners affiliated with specific organization lodges, and miscellany pertaining to their theatrical performances are preserved and presented in the renovated Masonic library. It’s like peering into a long-forgotten trunk in the attic.
California native Stacey Ravel Abarbanel, the former director of external affairs at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, is an arts and culture writer and consultant.
• Through Dec. 1
• Marciano Art Foundation, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
Three other standout Millard Sheets projects in Southern California
Chase Bank (former Home Savings and Loan), 9245 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills: In 1954, Howard Ahmanson, head of the Home Savings and Loan Association, hired Sheets to design this branch. He did such a fine job that he was hired to design some 150 additional branches.
Pomona Mall, Second Street and Park Avenue, Pomona: One of the first pedestrian malls in the United States opened in 1962 in Sheets’s hometown—with his input, of course. Sheets advocated for closing nine blocks to cars and adding trees, benches, art, and fountains, many of which remain today, including mosaics and sculptures by the artist.
New Balance (former Home Savings and Loan), 2600 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica: On a busy corner at Wilshire Boulevard and 26th Street, this former bank is one of Sheets’s most noteworthy Home Savings and Loan projects. The beach-scene mosaic above the entrance is one of the largest murals he produced for the financial institution.