Clockwise from top: States of Matter, Natalie Portman in one of Rodarte’s Black Swan costumes, and Dave White at MOCA (photo by Chris Gardner).
I think about the La Brea Tar Pits a lot. It’s my favorite place in Los Angeles.
One of the things I like about the main tar pit is that it’s a neighbor to the LA County Museum of Art. Separating them is a permanent outdoor installation of huge concrete Donald Judd cubes. I like the way the cubes are enormously heavy, solid, orderly and immobile, but 20 feet away is a bubbling pit of tar that seems alive and chaotic and—if the movie Volcano is to be believed—possibly even going to kill us all some day and swallow those cubes whole.
Donald Judd: Untitled (for Leo Castelli), 1977
That block of land at Wilshire and Fairfax is also slugging itself around my brain while I’m inside MOCA at the Pacific Design Center at the Rodarte: States of Matter show. Because when you walk inside, the lower level is engaged in a similar kind of boxing match between the witchy, mentally ill Black Swan ballerina costumes that Kate and Laura Mulleavy created for Natalie Portman’s freakout, and several other black dresses that have been assembled from dyed cheesecloth and gauze, black feathers, metal lace and black vinyl embossed in a way that resembles a gnarled, lumpy, horror-creature dream. Hedora from Godzilla vs The Smog Monster appears to have been skinned alive after emerging from the oozing, bubbling Tar Pits and then turned into a shoulder cap for a dress. While you stare at it wondering how and why, you realize that if you took a very close-up photograph of all the elements going on at once, it would seem like a scorched, doom-landscape. Not a dress, but something that could swallow a giant Donald Judd cube. And that is fantastic.
Photo: Autumn de Wilde
Climb the stairs for more dresses and more Black Swan gear. Now the entire space on MOCA’s second floor is a strobe light show of flurorescent black and red competing for attention and, at times, simultaneously submerging the area in darkness. None of the clothes are black but the narrative is still a scary bedtime story.
At the top of the stairs is a group of white dresses suspended on wires that, in the black light, turn to into floating Haunted Mansion ghosts but, at, odd intervals, in brightest light, have the feel of a pearl-draped grandma who decided to add bedspread fringe to her sleeves just to remind you that she’s about to turn a hundred and she’s not done having it her way quite yet. Gnarled, nubbly wool pops up all over the place, and one of the dresses features a bodice that looks like a shearling breastplate. Everything here is white or near-white and, depending on when you look at it, in darkness or in light, it can feel both romantic and full of strange dread.
If you move over there are white incarnations of the black ballet costumes from below and, then, in the back corner, the film’s “Oops I just stabbed myself in the stomach because I’m crazy” costume, its hand-made open red wound popping out like a really gross flower, front and center.
The shock of that garment tempers the Dario Argento-ish smeared, streaked red dresses from a 2008 collection hovering nearby. They haven’t been splattered, though. They’ve been soaked and left to precision drip. Again, order co-existing with chaos. These are my favorite pieces in the show, because they remind me of a fake blood-stained white porcelain teapot by the Spanish artist Antonio Murado that a friend gave me, the perfect dresses to wear to a crime scene tea party or teen slasher prom night. They’re the last thing you witness. They’re the horror movie’s “Final Girl.” They’re everything beautiful and terrifying, all at once.
Antonio Murado: Salome Coffee Set
Dave White is the author of Exile in Guyville, film critic for Movies.com, a contributor to L.A.’s “Slake” and KCRW’s “UnFictional.” Find him on Facebook.