Arts & Entertainment

How one artist transformed LA's imposing Masonic Temple with a stunning light show

Olafur Eliasson's
Olafur Eliasson's "Yellow atmosphere projector" at the Marciano Art Foundation in Hancock Park

Two great assemblages of light — one that fires off stained glass windows in your head, the other that folds its colors around an immense, darkened inner space — have come to the Marciano Art Foundation’s ocean-liner-sized museum space in Hancock Park.

Both are the works of Denmark-born Olafur Eliasson, whose expansive constructions have transformed historic sites from Versailles to the Chicago River. In this case, the site is the 110,000-square-foot Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on Wilshire Boulevard.

1978 view of the magnificent Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, at 4357 Wilshire Boulevard. The structure was designed by Millard Sheets and cost $4 million to build in 1961. It now houses the Marciano Art Foundation.
1978 view of the magnificent Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, at 4357 Wilshire Boulevard. The structure was designed by Millard Sheets and cost $4 million to build in 1961. It now houses the Marciano Art Foundation.
Anne Laskey/LA Public Library LA Photographers Collection

The building, bought by the stone-washed denim tycoon Marciano brothers for a reported $8 million, houses not only their own state-of-the-moment modern art collection but their ambition to play a leading role in America’s avant garde scene.

But is this light art exhibit enough to counter the darkness surrounding the Marciano name?

Paul Marciano recently stepped down from Guess management in the wake of model Kate Upton’s accusations of sexual harassment. Upton is publicly scoffing at the self-examination into the allegations announced by the company.

Guess has sustained bad press in the past over matters ranging from alleged sweatshop operations to a massively costly litigation with rival Jordache — to the half-billion-dollar meltdown of brother Georges. Could the foundation's inspiration be that someone at Guess thought it was time to make a more positive impression?

Maurice, however, claims the foundation rose purely out the family's longterm fascination with Southern California art. Your guess is as good as mine, but the Eliasson exhibit is worth seeing. And so is nearly everything else in the building.

At the press preview, Eliasson spoke of his fascination with light, both natural and artificial. (He’s even devised a yellow solar-powered lamp in the shape of a sunflower that he says he intends to distribute worldwide.) He stressed the psychological side of his work, talking about “what we project on to what we see,” and praised the singular light of Southern California.

Olafur Eliasson's
Olafur Eliasson's "Reality projector" at the Marciano Art Foundation in Hancock Park
Vivian Rothstein

One of the pieces, “Reality projector,” filled up the Foundation’s cavernous performance space (formerly a 2,000-seat theater) with strong artificial light filtered by cyan, magenta, and yellow gels shining into shifting sharp-edged shapes and actinic colors, along with a humping, bumping sound track... plus the shuffling sounds of the shoes of the audience as they moved around the polished concrete floor. It reminded me of Joshua White’s “Joshua Light Show,” which accompanied many memorable Fillmore East rock performances — a half century ago.  Only instead of being spectators, this time the audience were participants.

Christopher Knight's video of Eliasson's "Reality Projector"

The works here are, in their way, a collaboration with the man who designed the building they’re displayed in: the late Millard Sheets, best known as a master painter and mentor, but also for his Home Savings & Loan architecture and its mosaics. 

Olafur Eliasson's
Olafur Eliasson's "Reality mosaic" at the Marciano Art Foundation in Hancock Park
Vivian rothstein

More successful to me were the less participatory combined works “Reality mosaic” and “Yellow atmosphere projector.”  These are two large, transparent, not quite identical polyhedrons hanging together over the building’s central court. They illuminate it and its ceiling with a stained-glass-like geometric play of varying color, light and shadow that demonstrate how Eliasson’s work can be as subtle as it is dazzling. 

Maurice Marciano noted, “This is Olafur’s first major exhibition in Los Angeles.” You have to wonder why it took place in the premises of this upstart establishment by the highly controversial family that made Guess denim into a high-end fashion statement — and whose lurid advertising sparked the modeling careers of Claudia Schiffer and Anna Nicole Smith. On the other hand, Getty and Rockefeller were hardly models of propriety in their heydays, but we fill their museums now without a second thought.

Olafur Eliasson's
Olafur Eliasson's "Reality projector" at the Marciano Art Foundation in Hancock Park
Vivian Rothstein

One can justly wonder just what tide of charitable ostentation has suddenly made L.A. second to no city in the world in the breadth of its new museums. The Broad, now featuring its epochal Jasper Johns show, confronts the relatively venerable MOCA in the city’s heart. The Main Museum has opened in DTLA, along with the displaced Santa Monica Museum of Art — now the Institute of Contemporary Art — not far from Hauser & Wirth’s acres of galleries in a former flour mill. In a handful of years, a tremendous surge of modern art has splashed itself all over the city’s landscape.

With its Eliasson assemblages and its potent upstairs collection, the Marciano Foundation, between downtown and Museum Row, is a particularly bright splotch in that splatter — and did I mention it has a pretty good bookstore?

Olafur Eliasson's "Reality projector" is at the Marciano Art Foundation (4357 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90010) until August. Tickets are required, but free.