Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

It’s midday in northern New Mexico, and the guided tour starts with a request (nay command) to stay on the sandy path. We’ve come to visit a cave: in 1994, local cave digger Ra Paulette (he shirks the term artist) began burrowing into a sandstone cliff to create the intricate interiors of Windows on the Earth, a sanctuary-like hideaway. Dug by hand over the course of two years, it comprises a sequence of tall and narrow vaults converging on a central space, where a throne-like seat is set high up in the wall; as you move through the cave, eccentric ornamentation — organic whorls, fossil-like seashells, shrine alcoves — punctuates implausibly smooth surfaces. It’s a wonder of man shaping the landscape, but first, we’ve stopped for a New Age biology lesson.

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Construction is abundant across Los Angeles right now, and amid the backhoes and the cranes we are seeing signs of fresh takes on expressive architecture: glass domes, geometric facades, soaring arches. Charges of elitism swirl around big-time architecture, but many of the new designs opening this season promise to advance cultural and social life in L.A., whether with a riverside park that filters rainwater or a campus crafted to uplift the lives of LGBTQ homeless youth.

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The celebrated multidisciplinary artist Sterling Ruby has long been concerned with freedom. With its degradation, its expression and its preservation – as well as its literal and conceptual importance in the identity of his home and homeland, America. Having grown up in Baltimore and rural Pennsylvania, and then studied in both Chicago and LA, Ruby has drawn from the contours of these variegated US landscapes, compiling a body of work that is equally aesthetically and texturally diverse. What all these environments have in common, though, is an epic scale – rural, urban, industrial – an element that has governed his practice since the start.

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If there was any lingering doubt that Brutalism — the architectural style derided for everything the name implies — was back in fashion, the “Atlas of Brutalist Architecture” quashes it with a monumental thump. At 560 pages representing some 878 works of architecture in over 100 countries, the outsize volume is part reference tool, part coffee table book, and certainly part of an ongoing design trend favoring big, big books.

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Art institutions often crow about their roles as bastions of progressive thought — places robust enough to tackle tough cultural questions in the gallery. Yet the 2018 firings of several prominent curators and directors exposed the precarity of women who speak out and through their exhibitions and programs, provoke conversations about race, gender, privilege, and power. As we move into 2019, it seems more important than ever to interrogate the dubious narrative of the museum as a safe space, but also to hold out hope that it can be a place of resistance. Read More …

Guiding the transition of San Francisco’s Presidio from military base to national park may be the standout accomplishment of the landscape architect and parks administrator William Penn Mott Jr., who assumed the helm of the U.S. National Park Service in 1985, but it’s a little “monster” from early in Mott’s career that has received renewed attention.

In 1952, when Mott was parks superintendent for the city of Oakland, he commissioned the artist Robert “Bob” Winston to create a unique play structure on the sandy banks of Lake Merritt. Sculptural and organic, the chartreuse green piece was known as the Mid-Century Monster. It was one of the first designs in the United States to depart from conventional swings or slides and celebrate imaginative play, and from its opening, children climbed on and hid inside the Monster’s many haunches and niches. Read More …

Artist Janna Ireland is on a hunt across Southern California for Paul R. Williams. For nearly two years, she’s searched out buildings to photograph — mansions and housing projects, churches and banks designed by the Angeleno architect who died in 1980.

Ireland has her work cut out for her. Williams was prolific for decades. From 1923, when he became the first black member of the American Institute of Architects, until retiring in 1973, he produced a broad body of work that spanned different styles from Mission Revival to Midcentury Modern. He built homes for Hollywood elite such as Frank Sinatra, and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Adam, where he was a member of the congregation.

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On a Sunday afternoon this past fall, a small group gathered in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, one of the oldest parks in Manhattan. Architects and artists, curators and academics, neighborhood residents and stage moms—all had come for a performance of Marching On, a collaboration between architectural designers and scholars Bryony Roberts and Mabel O. Wilson, and the Marching Cobras of New York, a Harlem-based after-school drum line and dance team.

With a start, the sound of drumbeats cut through the autumn air. Dancers dressed in white and musicians in military-type fatigues filed into the square, their camouflage capes flapping with each high-energy move. For the next few minutes, the audience was united by the beat and transfixed by the performers’ shifting formations. Just as quickly, it was over. After a couple rounds of cheers, the team marched off and the audience dispersed. Read More …

Sometimes the ending is the beginning. Curation, as with criticism, hinges between the labor of production and turning that work to face the public. As such, the opening of an exhibition represents an end point for the curatorial team and the start of an audience’s engagement with the ideas, materials, and experiences on view. Which is why, when reflecting on representation and a broad interpretation of the term to convey both the mechanical processes of display and the making seen and heard the bodies and voices structurally left out of the discourse, it makes sense to begin at the inauguration of the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.

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When Robert L. McKay, the architect best known for designing and founding the first Taco Bell, died in early October, news of his passing spread nationwide on the AP Wire. The Los Angeles Times ran an obituary, as did Fox Business and news outlets in Kansas and Nebraska – places that were unlikely to have flocked en masse to hard shell tacos before McKay opened his doors in 1962.

In 2015, McKay’s original building was moved from the Los Angeles suburb of Downey to Taco Bell’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, California. Images from that migration reveal his early vision for a hacienda-type fast-food eatery: mission-style arches across the facade, red Spanish tile roof. Riding down the freeway – doublewide on the back of a flatbed truck – the lowly taco stand merged dogged American entrepreneurism and classic Mexican design. Taco Bell is not on the curatorial checklist of Found in Translation, an exhibition on view until January 2018 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) about the design influences between LA and Mexico, but it could be. Or, given how a fast-food restaurant best known for stoner Meximelt binges and questionable slogans – “Make a run for the border” – transmitted Mexican design imagery across the country, it should be. Read More …