Bowie Through A Lens

A new Forest Lawn Museum exhibition presents intimate images of the rock star turned art tourist.

Ana Pescador carefully shuffles a pile of large color photographic prints on a table, thumbing through crisp bright images of the late pop star David Bowie visiting historic and cultural locations prior to his only concert in Mexico City, in 1997 — Bowie on the blue steps of the Frida Kahlo Museum, Bowie admiring details in a Diego Rivera mural, the rocker hiding behind a traditional mask.

As the new museum director of the Forest Lawn Glendale Museum, Pescador brings out an image of Bowie standing deep inside the massive Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. Here is a man surrounded by darkness, illuminated only by a cigarette lighter. “This one is particularly poignant for me,” she says. “It has so many connections. [It evokes the] candlelight celebrations we do here at Forest Lawn, but it’s also about Bowie physically and spiritually inside Mexican culture.”

Pescador, a native of Mexico and former CEO of the Latino Art Museum in Pomona, is prepping for the first stop of a new traveling exhibition she curated — David Bowie: Among the Mexican Masters — which runs through June 15 at Forest Lawn. It features almost 40 intimate, never-before-seen images by renowned Mexican rock and jazz photographer Fernando Aceves.

Twenty years ago, Bowie arrived in Mexico City a few days prior to his Earthling concert, to soak in the local art, history and culture. Aceves said that Bowie had done his research and knew exactly what he wanted to see. Aceves’ photos were to accompany an article Bowie would write for Modern Painters magazine, but the article was never published. “I had already worked with many rock stars like the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney and others,” says Aceves. “But David was special for me. I had been listening to his music and watching him in movies for years. I was a little nervous, but I found him to be very human and approachable.”

Photographed only with ambient light, Aceves’ images show Bowie with a relaxed grin and child-like wonder exploring historical landmarks (e.g. the National Palace, the Palace of Fine Arts) and cultural treasures, including murals by David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco, Rivera, Kahlo and more.

Part of the photographer’s assignment was to be a fly on the wall, capturing Bowie, not as a fashion model, but as an “artist paying tribute to other artists,” explains Aceves. “I think David’s gift was his ability to blend in and be local. I understood why people call him ‘the chameleon,’ because he became part of the scene, the landscape.”

The photos capture a casual side of Bowie that fans rarely saw. “David was used to being photographed throughout his artistic career. He knew how to model with makeup and lights,” says Aceves. “Here, these photographs show him looking human — not as a rock star or a movie star but as a human being experiencing the cultural landscape of Mexico.”

The Bowie exhibition is part of MXLA 2017, a yearlong cultural exchange between Los Angeles and Mexico City. The initiative celebrates L.A.’s connection with the Mexican community through performances, exhibitions and special events. MXLA 2017 will be part of the Pacific Standard Time L.A./Latin America project from Sept. 15 through Jan. 31, 2018, along with the Getty, LACMA, the Greek Theatre and Walt Disney Concert Hall, among others.

Located on the verdant grounds of the century-old cemetery, Forest Lawn Museum has been presenting eclectic programming designed to appeal to a wide audience — including many who aren’t traditional museumgoers. In the past few years, the museum has offered popular installations on the art of Legos, motorcycle design, record-album covers and movie posters. Prior to the Bowie photographs, the museum showcased the work of legendary Disney artist Eyvind Earle. After the Bowie exhibition wraps up in June, Forest Lawn will feature an installation from renowned Chinese artist Cao Yong, followed by a Charlie Brown and friends exhibition from the Charles Schulz Museum in Northern California. Those exhibition dates have not been announced.

It’s an ambitious slate for a small museum that’s still largely unknown. “So many people have said, ‘What? Forest Lawn? They have a museum?’” says Pescador. “I want people to see that Forest Lawn has a museum for the 21st century and that we are proactive in our choices. We are living in a diverse, multicultural society, so that’s what we want to reflect in our galleries. We want to be known as a museum of the community.”

Composed of three gallery spaces, the museum displays works from its extensive permanent collection in the front two galleries. On view are Remington bronze figurines, 15th-century stained glass by Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer, numerous paintings including Lincoln at Gettysburg by Fletcher C. Ransom and William Adolphe Bougereau’s Song of the Angels and even “Henry,” a Moai head from Easter Island.

“The world is changing so rapidly that it’s a challenge to attract new audiences,” explains Pescador. “To me there are only two options: offer innovative exhibitions, which we are doing, and two, make the museum available to the world. My goal is to be a virtual museum.” She’s planning a website dedicated to the museum’s offerings that would make its treasures accessible by art lovers around the world.

Glendale is the only Forest Lawn cemetery to have a museum. In the early 20th century, the idea for it percolated in the mind of Forest Lawn founder Hubert Eaton who, aware that many Californians could never travel to see art around the country and the world, decided to bring art to them. Eaton commissioned cast-from-the-original reproductions of Michelangelo’s Moses and La Pietà, among others. There’s also a re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, painted in Italy from the original sketches, on display in an architectural space patterned after Westminster Abbey and Gothic cathedrals.

Now, instead of bringing art to the people, the museum’s goal is to bring the museum to the world. “It’s not the same experience seeing artwork online, but people who cannot come here, many want to know what we have here and what we are all about,” says Pescador. “We need to reach out and open our doors to the world.”

David Bowie: Among the Mexican Masters is a free exhibition through June 15 at the Forest Lawn Museum, 1712 S. Glendale Blvd., Glendale. Hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Visit forestlawn.com for the schedule of lectures and musical events coordinated with the show.

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