California, and in particular LA, remains the sun-kissed darling of the US West Coast. Only now, in addition to movie stars and Hollywood dreams, there’s a hot new arts scene in town and it’s here to stay, says Janelle Zara
You can’t swing your Adam Selman sunglasses in Los Angeles these days without hitting a work of art. Galleries and exhibitions occupy every nook and cranny, from spare bedrooms to strip malls and even former Masonic temples. February, for example, marks the return of ‘Desert X’, the biennial scavenger hunt that scatters artworks across Coachella Valley (artist Doug Aitken, who in 2017 contributed Mirage (main image), a mirrored kaleidoscope the size and shape of a small suburban house, described ‘Desert X’ as “a vast sprawling parkour… where suburbia ends and the landscape begins”) and that same month, Frieze Los Angeles makes its debut at the Paramount Pictures Studios lot.
In LA, the Hollywood industrial complex still reigns supreme, as do the city’s other cultural signifiers: palm trees and skateboarders. Since at least the mid-20th century, the art world has been dominated by a New York–Europe axis, leaving LA as something of an outlier. But then, seemingly overnight, the city became a world-class art capital. With its powerhouse institutions – the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hammer Museum at UCLA, CalArts, and many more – recent years have seen the LA art world expand at warp speed.
LA’s attractions for artists are myriad, but let’s start with the obvious: light and space. In 2018, both are highly prized amenities that in cities such as New York and London are increasingly hard to come by. With rising rents and an ever more crowded market, LA is no longer by any means cheap, but the art real estate continues to be as vast as the surrounding geography, stretching from the Pacific coast to the mountains and the desert beyond. Back in the 1960s in Southern California, in fact, there emerged a movement called Light and Space that brought together artists such as Doug Wheeler, James Turrell and Robert Irwin, all of whom experimented with sensory phenomena and visual perception, and with industrial materials such as glossy car paint. Today, artists can be found living and working in all parts of this landscape: Aitken is in Venice Beach, sculptor Charles Long is on Mount Baldy, and Andrea Zittel makes her installations in desert towns and on the arid plains of Joshua Tree.
For the most part, LA’s artists seemed to have benefited from being outside the contemporary art mainstream, unlike working in Europe, for example, which French painter Claire Tabouret described as “living in a museum… too much history”. LA also affords her a very special commodity – silence. Since moving from Paris in 2015, she’s been able to enjoy the kind of solitude that would be an impossible luxury in France. So enamoured is she of the West Coast’s vast spaces and quiet, in fact, that not only does she spend up to nine hours a day in her expansive studio working in silence, but she has also bought a house in the tiny desert city of Pioneertown, where she will have “no phone, no internet, no nothing”.
The city’s artists, to a large extent, have written their own history. This is seen in the Hammer Museum’s wide-ranging ‘Made in L.A.’ biennial surveys of the city’s emerging and mid-career artists. This show presents narratives typically excluded from the textbook art historical canon. For example, in 2018 Lauren Halsey erected a monument to her native South Central LA and its residents in the shape of an Egyptian tomb.
One of the most striking pieces was Eamon Ore-Giron’s Angelitos Negros (little black angels), a monumental mural along the museum’s grand staircase. Ore-Giron had arranged the circular motifs inherent in his work in a composition resembling the movements of the sun and moon. While his strong geometries typically evoke comparisons to the work of European modernists, he explains, they’re based on abstract Peruvian designs of the 13th and 14th centuries. “It stands in opposition to the standard Western idea of everything originating from Western concepts of space and time,” he says.
As a relatively new art capital, LA’s artistic community remains small. It’s the first thing gallerist Kibum Kim noticed when he arrived from New York in 2016. Kim is a partner in artist Young Chung’s Commonwealth & Council, a Koreatown space Chung founded in 2010. Building communities, rather than focusing solely on the commercial, has always been Chung’s ethos, which is perhaps why, as he says, he “didn’t make a sale for years”.
“Many artists we work with have practices that eschew the Western notion of the individual artist genius,” Kim adds, using the examples of partnerships between Rafa Esparza and Beatriz Cortez, and Candice Lin and Patrick Staff (all four of whom have now shown in ‘Made in L.A.’). Jamillah James, curator in both the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the New Museum Triennial in New York in 2021, also notes the close relationships that form between superstar and emerging artists. “I love going to openings and seeing multiple generations of artists supporting each other,” she says. “Charles Gaines has been a teacher at CalArts since 1989; so many of his artists are in the stratosphere, and yet you still see him everywhere.”
LA’s art scene, like any good ecosystem, thrives on diversity. Art operates on a range of scales, from small artist-run spaces to global stalwarts such as Hauser & Wirth and Sprüth Magers. Artists in search of solitude don’t have to look far to find it, but for those seeking a sense of community, there’s conviviality rather than competition. Forget the more formal affairs with white wine and polite conversation, over on the West Coast it’s casual and warm – think tacos and beer and, of course, those palm trees and skateboards.
This story appears in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of Baku magazine. Pick up your copy on newsstands now.
Main image courtesy of Doug Aitken and Desert X. Images courtesy of FD13, Brian Forrest and Lance Gerber
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