For her first museum exhibition in the United States, Agnès Varda has returned to California. A native of Belgium (born 1928) who has long lived in Paris, the noted filmmaker first went to the Golden State in 1967, when she accompanied her husband, Jacques Demy, to Hollywood for the making of his film Model Shop. She spent another few years in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Always working on the margins of the studio system, Varda pursued her own projects during each stay. This show brings together her critical, humorous and loving observations of the peculiar culture of California in the second half of the 20th century through photographs, collage and one film, while also occasioning a sculptural installation born of reflections on her personal history.
Occupying a spacious gallery at the top of LACMA’s contemporary building, the exhibition is conceptually anchored by Varda’s 1969 Lions Love ( . . . and Lies). Screening on a small television adorned with an American flag and a pink feather boa, the film was shot mostly in a large sun-filled house in Los Angeles. Warhol superstar Viva and actors/writers James Rado and Gerome Ragni (who co-created the musical Hair) star as a trio of aspiring actors with bohemian tendencies who become the subject of a film made by independent documentarian Shirley Clarke (who plays herself). Casual, intimate and reminiscent of Warhol’s films from this period, Lions Love interweaves footage capturing the banal beauty of Los Angeles with commentary on the culture industry, social movements and the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
Unframed stills from Lions Love and large buttons with slogans like “Poetry Not Poverty” are arranged along one wall of the gallery, on a long rectangle of purple paint as though on a bulletin board, with lines from the film painted by hand throughout. On the opposite end of the gallery, photographs taken on the sets of Varda’s other California films—Uncle Yanco (1967), The Black Panthers (1968) and Murs Murs (1981)—are hung according to museum convention (in frames, on white walls), the display contrasting with the more vernacular Lions Love installation.
Complicating Varda’s return in this exhibition to ’60s-era aesthetics and politics, which has the potential to come across as nostalgic and sentimental, is a freestanding structure exhibited in the middle of the gallery, titled My Shack of Cinema (1968-2013). The structure mimics the flimsy architecture of a beach shack, but is constructed from glass rather than wood, with strips of celluloid from two prints of Lions Love lining its walls. This makeshift shelter completely reorients the experience of viewing Lions Love. Visitors can move around the space to “watch” the film, which, given the glass supports, becomes intercut with the works and people outside the enclosure.
That 45 years are covered in the dating of My Shack of Cinema gives some indication of Varda’s process. Two of the artist’s recent films, while not present in the exhibition, play a crucial role in understanding the shack as more than a clever joke (although it is that, too). In The Gleaners and I (2000), a meditation on rural life, collecting and recycling, Varda demonstrates her preoccupation with reusing material. In her recent autobiographical film, The Beaches of Agnès (2008), she uses the beach as a site of self-reflection and a metaphor for vulnerability, particularly in questions of authorship. Picking up both of these threads, My Shack of Cinema shows Varda’s strength as an artist to be in her refusal to be precious about her own work.