This art exhibition will change the way you think about news

March 27, 2017

LOS ANGELES — There are Van Goghs, Cézannes, Monets, Rembrandts — and the works of Diane Sawyer, Wolf Blitzer, Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel.

Van Gogh and Wolf Blitzer?

Well, welcome to the stunning J. Paul Getty Museum, the artistic marvel on a 120-acre campus overlooking the city, which includes a temporary exhibition, “Breaking News: Turning the Lens on the Mass Media.”

It’s an engrossing look at modern artists whose works have been inspired by the press, in particular newspapers, TV news and magazines starting in the 1960s.

My kids, like most, rolled their eyes at the mention of “going to a museum” but were blown away during a spring break afternoon there last week.

For sure, they did not perceive the disjoint of having Paul Cezanne, Greek and Roman Antiquities, ornate 19th century furniture and Blitzer under the same roof. The CNN fixture is found in “CNN Concatenated” (2002), one small part of the news exhibit (actually, just a single TV monitor) where Israeli Omer Fast edited video so that many then-CNN hosts and correspondents (such as Christiane Amanpour, Judy Woodruff and Kelly Wallace) are seen speaking just one word apiece but appear to be taking part in an actual personal conversation among themselves.

There’s also the work of Sarah Charlesworth (1947-2013), who in the late 1970s took photos of newspaper front pages and redacted the text other than the masthead. She succeeded in giving insight into the editorial decision-making, such as the priorities manifested in the cropping of images.

There’s the late 1960s effort of photographer-academic Donald Blumberg, who took shots of his own TV and featured famous politicians on primetime newscasts. He reversed tonalities and used multiple negatives to fashion a single print, conveying different notion than in the original appearances on his set by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George Wallace.

The late American artist Robert Heinecken traded heavily in magazine and TV images, including those procured for TV news and, in particular, the rise of the anchor as personality. He features multiple works that center on newscasters, frequent in rather large bust-length views and arranged with very similar expression.

One project on display is his 1984 “A Case Study in Finding an Appropriate Newswoman (A CBS Docudrama in Words and Pictures).” It took individual photographs of TV personalities, then created composites images as he printed two negatives on a single sheet, creating his own text to chronicle a fictional effort by CBS to produce the perfect newscaster.

My own favorite during our family’s vacation drive-by was “The Dictator,” a 1978 video parody of a “60 Minutes” type newsmagazine show in which a fictional overthrown Latin American tyrant (whose five wives all mysteriously died) is interviewed by a Lesley Stahl-type correspondent. Bottom line: “Colonel Riccardo Garcia Perez” still comes off as a rather appealing character — a bit like Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” whose Trump parody makes a similar point about mass media partly shaping perceptions of public figures.

It all prompted me to track down Arpad Kovacs, assistant curator in the department of photographs at the Getty. He’s the driving force behind the media exhibition.

What’s the history of the exhibition? Whose idea was it?

The exhibition was my idea. I have been interested in the intersection of art and news for several years and have been thinking about how artists have included images and text from the press in their work.

Most of these efforts were, and continue to be, based in the tradition of appropriation where an image or piece of text is removed from its original source and reused in a new context. This action often aims to undermine or critique both the form and content of the original news story, but it also gives rise to new meaning in the work the artist has created.

The show grew out of the Department of Photograph’s collection with work by Donald Blumberg, Sarah Charlesworth, and Robert Heinecken. It then became more ambitious in covering a wider time period (late 1960s to 2011) and also to include video.

What do you see as the seeming relevance of some of the art, such as the spoof of the Latin American dictator or the melding of news photos with tranquil domestic scenes?

I think the works in the show are relevant because they engage directly with news as a form that everyone is familiar with and, to varying degrees, interacts with on a daily basis.

David Lamelas and Hildegarde Duane’s “The Dictator” parodies TV newsmagazines like “60 Minutes” and “20/20,” but it also comments on how such programs shape the viewer’s understanding of global events and individuals on the world stage. Interviews of world leaders that are meant to be probing and critical don’t always achieve the desired effect because the format can also offer the subject a public platform from which he or she can shape their own image.

Martha Rosler’s “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” continues to be relevant because it juxtaposes two disparate realities of American life; on the one hand images of a war in which America is participating on a distant land and on the other images that promote the a desire for comfort and luxury in modern America. These very different realities occupied, and continue to do so, the pages of the same magazine; separated only by the turn of a page. Rosler brings them together in images to bridge the divide.

"Bush Smiling, Help Us" from the series Close to Home, by Catherine Opie.

“Bush Smiling, Help Us” from the series Close to Home, by Catherine Opie.

Is there anything that particularly resonates with you when it comes to the takes on modern media, despite how many years ago some of this was created?

For me what resonates most is how the relationship between image and text, especially in newspapers, is explored in art. A number of the artists in the show deal with the idea that an image cannot have a fixed meaning; that both the text that surrounds an image in a newspaper and a viewer’s personal history help to determine meaning.

As viewers, I think we generally know this to be the case, yet we are still susceptible to misinterpretations. Artists like John Baldessari, Sarah Charlesworth, Alfredo Jaar and Ron Jude are interested in how images that seem straightforward in one context can be ambiguous in another.

This is an age where those in the political class are extremely conscious of “controlling” their message, be it the local mayor or the West Wing of the White House. Does living in this age and also putting together this exhibition offer you any insights — perhaps cautionary notes — when it comes to that whole notion of “control?” do these artists’ work perhaps suggests that, for those in the establishment, it’s far easier said than done?

I’m not sure that the act of influencing messages in the press by politicians is a new phenomena, or one that was developed recently; it has certainly existed throughout the 20th century, and since I’ve not lived in an age where it was not common place, I’m not sure I can comment on it.

I’m also trying to choose my words carefully by employing “influence” rather than “control” because sometimes the desired messages that are sent out don’t land according to how they were intended. If there was control, there would be no change of such misinterpretation. Describing what authoritarian regimes do their press as “controlling,” on the other hand, seems far more appropriate. (Sorry, I digress.)

Many of the works in the show critique how images and text circulate and how the meaning often changes depending on context. I think Lamelas and Duane were certainly interested in this concept.

Well, if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of the gleaming grounds known as the Getty Center, heed the old City News Bureau of Chicago dictum about what to do if your mother tells you she loves you: Check it out.