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Unseen LA: A Hidden Noguchi Museum

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Like so many good things in Southern California, the California Scenario is next door to a TGIFridays. I recently made the pilgrimage to Orange County to spend the weekend with extended family, and having already visited the OCMA’s Richard Jackson exhibition and spent several misty mornings at Rudolf Schindler’s Lovell Beach House, I was looking for a new escape. That could very well have meant a trip to South Coast Plaza Mall but, thanks to a photographer friend’s recommendation, it led me instead to a hidden sculpture garden in Costa Mesa, designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1980.

Across from the aforementioned mall, the California Scenario is nested between several tall, mirrored office buildings of the postmodern variety, accessible by a pathway between the parking lot of a steakhouse and that place where you can go enjoy a Tropicalada© after you take in the art. Like so many special art experiences, this one takes some finding.

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Once you make through the tree-lined pathway, a sandstone-paved wonderland emerges. The 1.6 acre office plaza unfolds into a sequence of clustered sculptural groupings, all meant to represent the topography of the state: a brilliant green planted redwood forest, xeroscaped desert, vaguely Egyptian pyramidal fountain, and of course a bubbling brook running through an irregular “faultline.”

It’s often overlooked that Noguchi, the sculptor and landscape artist now widely associated with his mid-century furniture collaborations with Herman Miller, was himself a California native. And this work, for all its celebration of the natural environment, plays on so many of the contradictions about California I like best. The work seems to have been imagined as some kind of master narrative, commissioned by real estate developer and, yes, you’re reading this right, lima bean mogul, Henry T. Segerson across from his biggest development, the South Coast Plaza Mall.

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But in Noguchi’s careful hands, the work says more about the artifice of the Californian environment—its imported palm trees and overloaded aqueducts. And of course the pervasive atmosphere of west coast psychedelia is a major part of the experience of visiting the garden, though likely Segerson would not have thought so (it’s both an affront to the quality of the work and a testament to the creative compromises necessary to make a living as an artist that one of the loveliest of Noguchi’s organic rock sculptures on the site is meant to pay homage to the mighty lima bean). There is, however no denying the cosmic appeal of a 15-foot polished granite pyramid rising starkly against the plaza’s stuccoed enclosure, like a Zeppelin version of the San Bernadinos looming over the Mojave dessert.

I visited on a peaceful, gray Southern California “winter” morning, coffee in hand, and spent the next hour wandering, mostly, and sitting on a bench atop the redwood forest (the best vantage point to take in the grounds). I thought about Noguchi’s sculptures, and the strangeness of office complexes and mega-malls, and how both are so totally off-kilter and ultimately modernist. From time to time, another visitor would meander through, whether a custodian shuttling trash or Friday’s employee cutting through to some hidden back parking lot, but for the most part I had the whole thing to myself.

It’s a place I hope to return to again and again—especially at night, as the lighting design is apparently a crucial transformative element of the work. It’s the ideal way to round out your inevitable shopping binge across the street…

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Maura Lucking

Maura Lucking is a historian and independent curator interested in the intersections of art, architecture, technology and object cultures.

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