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Bruce Nauman, South America Triangle, 1981, steel beams, steel cable, cast iron chair. Installation view, 2011. Photo: Brian Forrest.

“Under the Big Black Sun”

Bruce Nauman, South America Triangle, 1981, steel beams, steel cable, cast iron chair. Installation view, 2011. Photo: Brian Forrest.

IN CONTRAST TO THE SPIRIT of celebratory commemoration and even boosterism that underlies so many “Pacific Standard Time” exhibitions thus far, Paul Schimmel’s latest curatorial effort, “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981,” has a critical and historical argument to make. His premise is that a “plethora of individual art practices”—what he dubs “California pluralism”—“flourished within [the era’s] dystopian atmosphere.” To put it more bluntly: “Bad times” make for “good art,” or at least the kind of art Schimmel favors, which tends toward a negativity bordering on the apocalyptic.

“Under the Big Black Sun” is named after an album by the Los Angeles punk band X that was released in 1982 with a very noir cover by Alfred Harris. “Helter Skelter,” Schimmel’s groundbreaking 1992 survey of contemporary LA art (at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles),

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