“Man cave” is a term used by both Guillermo del Toro[1] and press materials for his exhibition, “Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters” to describe the celebrated film director’s atelier. More formally styled “Bleak House,” it is a suburban abode filled with panoplies of objects that inspire del Toro and some artists and designers who work with him. On August 1, LACMA opened a much-anticipated exhibition displaying assortments of objects from this singular house alongside some of del Toro’s art, costumes and props from his movies, and pieces from the museum’s permanent collection.

Traditionalists might argue with the idea of an art museum hosting a retrospective for a mainstream film director; but traditional art museum definitions have changed.  I see no reason to dispute del Toro’s work belonging in an art museum.  It is art.  In fact, his residential installation may be considered a work of art; his collection itself contains a great deal of art and could as a whole be considered art; and this exhibition contains mostly art. However, the overall installation itself has elements that are not art; and the importance of non-art elements to the overall display could set a precedent for items to be displayed as artworks simply because they once belonged to or inspired an artist, or to be displayed as part of his oeuvre simply because they relate tangentially to his interests.

In this exhibition are many items–artworks and non-artworks such as books and curios–that were not produced by del Toro, and therefore are not his artwork. They would be elements of his artwork if he had assembled an installation from them for this exhibition.

This scene from Guillermo del Toro’s “man cave,” Bleak House, one of many rooms in the film director’s inventive private installation. Photo © Josh White/ JWPictures.com

The Los Angeles Times quoted LACMA’s CEO and Director, Michael Govan[2], “The idea is for him to make it an installation work.” However, the exhibition was curated by LACMA curator and Photography Department and Prints and Drawings Department head Britt Salvesen, not by del Toro himself, and as such it is not his installation work.

As we will discuss shortly, the show’s theatrical mood befits del Toro’s status as a film director.  Is the notion of “man cave” part of that theatricality?

Usually, I’m told, the expression “man cave” is used for humorous effect. I’m not sure how seriously we should take del Toro and LACMA’s use of the term. However, as museum exhibitions are generally expected to be taken seriously, its importance as an authoritative definition of the exhibition’s primary origin should not be entirely dismissed. In general, the term “man cave” and the notion it represents are fraught for a variety of reasons.  Its gender specificity and implied bias thereof, as well as its prehistoric implications[3], may offend women[4] and men alike in different proportions; its obtuseness should offend both in equal proportions.

Nevertheless, nomenclature is secondary to actuality. Most artists, regardless of genre or gender, have an equivalent to what del Toro calls his “man cave.” Usually, they call it a studio or a workshop or a library or an office or perhaps even a showroom, depending on its use and form. The point is that nearly every creative person has a favored place in which to think or work; and often that place, or another, harbors a treasured collection of inspirational objects. So, why does del Toro’s belong in a museum of art?

The press release quotes Salvesen to explain: “By bringing del Toro’s notebooks, collections, and film art into museum galleries, we acknowledge the curatorial aspects of his approach to filmmaking.” If so, then why wasn’t del Toro the exhibition’s curator, with Salvesen as assistant?

While curatorial aspects and collections are integral to most artists’ practices, issues arise with regard to their exhibition. The point of a man cave or studio is that its owner arranges it himself to make it uniquely his own. The autonomy that such a space engenders is inconsistent with curatorial culling by anyone other than the artist.  Visiting the studio or residence of an artist, or seeing his collection in the state in which he maintains it, is a singular experience difficult to translate into a formal exhibition space.

Formal display of auxiliary items such as studies, preparatory work, or inspirational objects confers upon them an import that risks overshadowing more significant artworks. Where does inspiration end and art begin?  Can material inspirations owned by an artist be accreted into his oeuvre? Answers to these interesting questions typically are determined on a case-by-case basis by the artist himself, who in turn must defend his own definition of his work, as Duchamp did with his readymades. When another person, as Salvesen, takes charge of this process, things become convoluted.

Typically, artifacts and pieces not directly related to an artist’s work are not considered paramount unless the artist is dead, or at least old and legendary–after all, their significance to the oeuvre of an artist that is still creating work remains up in the air. Del Toro’s collections are themselves works in progress[5], and as such their constituency, long-term relevance, and relation to the rest of his art remains to be seen.

Traditionally, museum curators select artworks and accompanying artifacts according to certain criteria: artworks will be included if they are considered the best examples or most important representations of the artist’s work, or most relevant to a curatorial theme. Curation is an art in and of itself. What happens, then, when curatorial aspects of an artist’s practice are themselves rearranged by another curator to make up the bulk of an exhibition?

Unless re-created exactly, at least some of the original curation inevitably gets lost in the re-curation.  Even if it is re-created exactly, that re-creation is an imitation, and what it represents is re-contextualized in the museum. This presents a dilemma for how to understand an installation that is meant to convey an artist’s curatorial practice but is not actually curated by that artist himself.  A re-creation is a facsimile, whereas a re-curation superintended by another curator is a bastardization of the artist’s curatorial work.

Bleak House interiors are replete with eclectic assortments of objects that interact with their surroundings; architecture and furniture are conspicuous and integral to the overall installation. The installation of “At Home with Monsters” was designed to evoke this spirit; the exhibition spaces are appointed with architectural features like windows and rafters; objects are displayed in cabinets and tableaux alongside rugs, lamps, and other furnishings.  While compelling, it’s still a museum exhibition with all its spotlights, bare expanses of wooden floor, pedestals, and velvet ropes that dampen the feeling of wandering around del Toro’s man cave, and imbue the installation with a degree of phoniness that becomes all the more palpable when one considers the fact that del Toro did not create it himself.

Installation photograph, Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, August 1–November 27, 2016, photo © Joshua White / JWPictures.com

Theatricality is heightened by the exhibition’s “soundscape” composed by two-time Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla, replicas of characters from del Toro’s movies, timed tickets, and $25 admission that seems as appropriate to a theater production as to a public museum. Perhaps all this is apropos; del Toro is after all a filmmaker. However, as it stands, the exhibition straddles gray areas between man cave and museum exhibit, between theatrical experience and art exhibition. On one hand, the exhibition’s setup and curatorial concept are theatrical in their link to the film industry and their evocation of Bleak House, but on the other hand its theatricality remains comfortably inside museum status quo as an Art exhibit with a capital A overseen by an official curator.  It’s awkward.

Last year, Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights featured a maze conceived of as a “living trailer” for Crimson Peak.  According to Halloween Horror Nights creative director John Murdy, del Toro was deeply involved in the maze design, directing special effects and sets all the way down to details such as wallpaper. Going through the maze beautifully encapsulated the feeling of going through the mansion in the movie. The tone of “At Home with Monsters” indicates that this, a Halloween maze, could be museum art.

A scene from the “Crimson Peak” maze at Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights, 2015. Image courtesy of Universal Studios Hollywood.

Govan would apparently agree, for in a LACMA press release he states: “Del Toro encourages us to ignore our traditional art-historical narratives and hierarchies of high and low culture, just as he blends and reinvents conventional genres in his films. With his ability to collapse time and space, history and fiction, nature and fantasy, he taps the latent potential at the core of our institutional mission.”[6]

Salvesen seems to be in agreement with Govan as she states at the conclusion of her essay: “Standards of rarity, value, taste, and skill are never as fixed as institutions would have us believe; they ought to be questioned and reevaluated at regular intervals and from different points of view. When a private collection such as del Toro’s is brought into a public museum, it reanimates the museum and erases hierarchies.”

Govan talks of ignoring traditional hierarchies while Salvesen speaks of erasing them.  Hierarchies can neither be ignored nor erased, for if this were so, hierarchies would no longer exist, the result of which would be incongruous with the ethos of an art museum.

Hierarchies may be rearranged, but never leveled.  An exhibition as this can transform what is acceptable to be shown in an art museum, by including work that in the past would have not been included in a contemporary artist’s retrospective. What is acceptable to be shown in a museum may change, but in the end it is still decided upon by officials in the museum hierarchy. As arbiters of value, taste, and historical narrative, museums occupy a privileged position near the pinnacle of the art world hierarchy.

Internally, a museum is stratified: donors; officials, curators, and other employees; and artists shown all occupy places in the hierarchy. Without order there is chaos, and without these hierarchies the museum would not exist at all.

The $25 admission fee is part of a financial hierarchy in two ways.  Firstly, it implies that seeing the show is worth that price and is of a commensurately greater value than other shows that one could see.  Secondly, some cannot afford it, which is at odds with the museum’s mission to reach the “widest array of audiences.”  As long as these admission prices remain in place, museum art is for an elite.

Del Toro said of Bleak House, “It’s the single thing that I have done that expresses me most completely, more than any of my movies.”[7] With regard to his house and his own collections, he has autonomy. The fact that he curated them himself endows his collection and installation with special charm.  As Salvesen wrote, “He selects, installs, maintains, and, if necessary, fixes every item in his possession.”[8] So why not give him total autonomy as the curator in charge of his own show?  What if del Toro himself had turned the entire exhibition space into a more theatrical installation that would represent his own tastes unmediated by another curator and exigencies of traditional museum display?

As in the film industry, del Toro is a part of this show’s hierarchy. But here he is no longer the director. Salvesen is the director; top museum officials are the producers.

Ultimately, this exhibition betrays the slipperiness of museums’ mission, definitions, and curatorial criteria.  In addition, Govan’s statement about “latent potential” portends major changes on LACMA’s horizon.

Art museums seem to occupy a transitional period in their quest to maintain artistic venerability and historic relevance while gaining public popularity. Perhaps one day, shows featuring broad arrays of artists’ influences will replace sterile exhibitions of significant works.  Art museums’ exhibition programs could expand to include significant retrospectives for artists like musicians, actors, creators of haunted houses, magicians, et al.  Maybe someday we will be treated to an art museum retrospective featuring David Copperfield’s International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts, or Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, or art and fashion from Lady Gaga’s performances. It’s an exciting time.

–Annabel Osberg

[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0WXqEl846k

[2] http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-et-hc-guillermo-del-toro-bleak-house-20160727-snap-story.html

[3]  Bleak House and the collection therein are clearly very sophisticated; “man cave” gives the degrading expression an absurdly humorous incongruity when applied to Bleak House.

[4] Del Toro’s films feature female protagonists and seem to have little to do with gender stereotypes. However, in light of the notorious cliché of male dominance in museums, the film industry, horror genres, and the art world, the use of “man cave” in this context is all the more displeasing regardless of jocular intention, especially as this exhibition ostensibly purports to erode hierarchies.  Flippancy with regard to male dominance comes off as contemptuously dismissive, trivializing the hierarchical subordination of women in all of the spheres to which this exhibition relates.

[5] http://unframed.lacma.org/2016/07/26/chaotic-passions-guillermo-del-toro-and-collecting

[6]From http://www.lacma.org/overview, LACMA’s mission is as follows: “To serve the public through the collection, conservation, exhibition, and interpretation of significant works of art from a broad range of cultures and historical periods, and through the translation of these collections into meaningful educational, aesthetic, intellectual, and cultural experiences for the widest array of audiences.”

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/aug/03/guillermo-del-toro-bleak-house-home-lacma-exhibit

[8] http://unframed.lacma.org/2016/07/26/chaotic-passions-guillermo-del-toro-and-collecting

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