Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 15, 2000
William Alexander McClung Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 300 pp.; 150 b/w ills. Cloth (0520218272)

LA is a hard city to get in focus. Many American and non-American immigrants thought of it as an ideal destination. But much of the local literature is devoted to the natural disasters—earthquakes and fires—and to stories of crime. Because it is a new, very rich city without well-established cultural traditions—and because it is the center of the film industry and a place dependent on massive water imports—LA can seem a highly artificial city. Perhaps that is why this landscape inspires such powerful myths.

McClung’s beautifully produced, well-illustrated book presents a wealth of information about the city in clear accessible prose. His subject is LA from 1850 to 1985, as seen by Anglo settlers and visitors. For him, the collective visions of LA provided by architects, painters, and writers are essentially contradictory. They wanted to see the city as both a natural paradise and as a Utopia inviting development. They thus thought of the city both as perfect “as is” and as an empty place ready for settlers. And this contradiction, in his view, explains many of the oddities of the self-images of the city.

McClung discusses LA’s climate, local plants, and promotional literature. He analyzes the work not only of the well-known novelists (Raymond Chandler, Christopher Isherwood, Nathanael West), visual artists (David Hockney, Edward Ruscha), and architects (Frank Gehry, Rudolf Schindler) associated with LA, but also of a host of minor or marginal figures. I admire the range of McClung’s examples, and the fluency of his presentation of them. But in the end, his theoretical framework is too thin, and his writing too flighty to sustain conviction. For example, he writes, “The Huntington and the Getty are emblematic of a Los Angeles deeply desired by many, one that should dispense a cascade of natural wonders without abridgment by weather or season” (130). More would need to be said about their sources of wealth, and the history of their collections and research facilities, to make this account of these remarkable institutions illuminating. Of the Getty Center, he writes: “The spatial and visual experiences . . . have convinced many that it is the worthy successor of earlier points of vantage over earlier, flatter, LA’s. . . .” (182). That is a very thin account of a rather complex set of buildings. McClung doesn’t flesh out his examples in sufficient detail. And he has a tendency to back into secondhand analysis, without relying entirely on his own experience. Rejecting Robert Hughes’s ironical interpretation of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, McClung says that “when the image conflicts with the perceiver’s assumptions, its surfaces are presumed to be faces concealing the truth, which yields itself up to the critic who wears no rose-tinted spectacles” (202). His analysis, which brings in Robert Hughes’s interpretation with a side reference to Susan Sontag on the erotics of art, is too elliptical to bring that painting into focus. McClung’s commentaries often are overly literary. In Edward Ruscha’s now famous The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire “the fire may inevitably lead to the destruction of the museum,” he notes, “but there is no time within which it operates; as with the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn, the process has been forever arrested” (216). That description, which could apply to many narrative paintings, really evades the obvious point Ruscha was making about the failure of the county museum to support local artists.

McClung’s way of thinking too often seems a little abstract, too linked to literature commentary, to explain ordinary people’s experience of the city. Perhaps his self-imposed restriction to the discussion of Anglo myths is part of the problem. He says too little about the job opportunities that drew people to the city. Nor does his account of LA myths deal adequately with the source of the most powerful myths—pop culture. For everyone who reads Chandler or looks at Hockney’s pictures, there must be many people who love the Beach Boys. There is something oddly academic about a book on LA that says so little about the film industry. Peter Plagens is discussed by McClung—but not Alfred Hitchcock. At the start of his book, McClung indicates that he will not deal with political or sociological concerns. He wants to present the artistic and literary visions of the city. The obvious trouble, then, with this self-imposed limitation, is that we are given insufficient tools with which to judge these visions. And yet, McClung is not concerned merely with presenting the myths of Los Angeles. He critically evaluates the political claims of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz. Approving Davis’s account of how the desire that LA be a “paradisal community succumbed to its internal contradictions” (227), McClung says that he wants to show why, “in the teeth of so much evidence against it” (227), so many writers and artists thought of LA as “Edenic.”

In a brief, highly effective Afterword, McClung adopts a more personal tone than is found in the body of his book. Noting that he was raised and has lived in the American South, he compares the myths of the South with those of Southern California. The mythological South has managed to renew itself, “but in Southern California the romance of place may be over” (233). Perhaps that is the case for Anglos, but no doubt immigrants from the Far East, the Middle East, and Latin America will find their own distinctive ways of writing myths for this region.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar