The Los Angeles Art Scene Looks to the World

LOS ANGELES — You keep insisting that this city’s artists don’t need New York’s approval, and then what happens? When the whole world shows up at the biggest coming-out party yet for the Los Angeles art market, it takes place against a Manhattan facade.

Over half a century, L.A. has nursed its own practice of artistic experimentation, steered by the best art education programs in the country, with its own traditions of airy minimalism, wily conceptual projects, abject installations, and politically engaged performance and public art. The galleries and collectors around it have matured to the point that London’s Frieze Art Fair staged its first West Coast edition in late February on a Hollywood backlot built to resemble a New York street.

[View some of the memorable moments from the Frieze and Felix art fairs.]

Audiences did not need an advanced degree in semiotics to get the joke. As Travis Diehl, among the most perceptive young art critics in this rambling city, wrote in 2017, “NY thrills to style LA as a golden-hour dreamland that never quite wakes up; LA gladly concedes to NY the status of the overbearing and immutable reality it rejects.” They’re thoroughly codependent, New York and Los Angeles, and affirm their cultural identities by looking at the other with oscillating dismissal and envy.

So as the latest New York Times critic to go spelunking in this city’s museums, galleries, studios and alternative spaces, from Brentwood to Boyle Heights, let me get my verdict out of the way fast. Is Los Angeles, in 2019, the equal of New York as a center for contemporary art? Sure, of course it is.

But the more pressing inquiry is: In what ways does Los Angeles now stand out in the global art system? Could its rise help us rethink what an art scene can be — a place where art schools still drive the conversation more than money does, where artists have the freedom to lead their own initiatives, where Latin American art holds as much sway as the European tradition? Or does it portend a flattening of Los Angeles into just another entrepôt of a single art system — one less and less distinct from New York?

Museum Metamorphosis

Los Angeles’s museums are in fine fettle, if significant transition. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is emptying out its old Ahmanson Building and hoping for final approval of the most ambitious, even daredevil, museum project in America: a nearly 400,000-square foot concrete U.F.O. that will hover across Wilshire Boulevard, designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. But as important has been Lacma’s effort to distribute the museum’s wealth to satellite spaces around town. (So far the museum has presented a show of Latino art and activism at an elementary school near MacArthur Park.)

The museum has also had a recent hiring coup, bringing on the superb curator Naima J. Keith, who has brought new vitality to the California African-American Museum. The highlight of its current programming is Robert Rauschenberg’s 190-panel assemblage “The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece” (through June 9), though perhaps I am too sour a New Yorker to appreciate the wall of stills from Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” which looked more like an Oscar campaign than an exhibition.

[Read more about Robert Rauschenberg’s quarter-mile-long mural.]

The Hammer Museum, currently hosting an important retrospective of the Los Angeles-trained artist Allen Ruppersberg (through May 12), is also set to expand. Downtown, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles — a reboot of the Santa Monica Museum of Art — has put down roots; and the Broad continues to draw lines to its ultra-blue-chip permanent collection and to traveling shows like “Soul of a Nation,” arriving March 23.

The problem child of the last decade has been the Museum of Contemporary Art, across the street. Not long ago it was the most venturesome modern art museum in the country, recasting the history of postwar American art in shows like “A Minimal Future?” (2004) and “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” (2007). But the museum ran multimillion-dollar deficits, raided its endowment, and nearly collapsed in 2008. Neither Jeffrey Deitch nor Philippe Vergne, the last two directors, could stabilize it. Will a third New York veteran, the former MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, be the charm?

It’s far too soon to say, but MOCA today is a more hopeful place than it’s been in a while. I was drawn to some surprises in its permanent collection, like a cloth work from 1977 by the South Korean conceptualist Kim Yong-ik, donated in 2017, before Mr. Biesenbach's arrival. A scalding new addition by Cameron Rowland, one of New York’s smartest young artists, amends MOCA’s donor recognition wall to reflect how the museum’s site on Grand Avenue, formerly a melting pot of Latino and Asian families, was razed and redeveloped.

Elsewhere, MOCA has wisely closed its western satellite at the Pacific Design Center, and Mr. Biesenbach is trying to balance programming between the Grand Avenue headquarters and the more flexible Geffen Contemporary, in Little Tokyo. The museum lacks a chief curator in the mold of Paul Schimmel, its longtime figurehead, but MOCA has got a sharp, diverse college of young curators, including Lanka Tattersall, Bryan Barcena and Amanda Hunt (who is also a curator of the nimble, if perhaps too Instagram-optimized, Desert X biennial in Palm Springs, through April 21).

Artists on the Move

Mr. Biesenbach took some serious stick in his first days in the job for describing his new home in The New York Times as “turning into the new Berlin” on account of its influx of artists and supposedly cheap real estate — a shock to those facing rent hikes far in excess of inflation and living among an intense homelessness crisis. Forbes magazine, last year, called Los Angeles the worst city in America to rent a home; studio space isn’t cheap either.

Matters aren’t helped by the debt load young artists take on at the city’s fabled art schools; both the California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, and ArtCenter College of Design, in Pasadena, rank among the 10 most expensive degrees in the country. (Free advice to young artists contemplating an M.F.A.: try Brussels, where tuition is a few thousand dollars a year.)

But young painters and sculptors and photographers have been chasing their dreams out here since “The Day of the Locust,” and the city’s scrappier galleries and artist-run nonprofits have a freer spirit than you usually find in New York or London. Some of the most intriguing work I saw came from the young local artist David Alekhuogie, whose lush, flower-festooned photographs of young black men in sagging jeans shiver with both political ire and sexual potency.

Mr. Alekhuogie, though born in Los Angeles, trained at the venerable Yale photography department — and decided to make his career back West. Received wisdom is that the city’s art schools are its initial draw and its social nuclei. But I kept noticing how many young artists, notably artists of color, came out here or returned home after finishing East Coast art educations, including fellow Yalies like the painters Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Christina Quarles and the installation artist Lauren Halsey.

Mr. Alekhuogie’s photographs are on view through Saturday at Commonwealth and Council, in Koreatown, one of the standouts of the city’s young gallery scene. Another is The Box, downtown, which has a startling display of erotic drawings by the French novelist Pierre Guyotat, whose libidinous excess hits even harder in the #MeToo age (through March 30).

Both galleries were at Frieze, whose young Los Angeles sector was its most impressive portion. These smaller galleries have some notable L.A. touches: taco trucks outside exhibition openings, crystals displayed on front desks, solicitous emails about parking validation, and the omnipresence of marijuana, now advertised so openly here that I was put in mind of the vice-choked Pottersville in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

These new spaces offer a more accurate reflection, too, of the demographics of this city. Just under half of Angelenos are Hispanic or Latino, and the local galleries have offered key support to artists I saw at the fairs, including Rafa Esparza, whose performances and installations use arduously cast adobe bricks, and Tanya Aguiñiga, whose beguiling wall-mounted weavings draw on both pre-Columbian and American feminist traditions.

Meanwhile, The Underground Museum in Mid-City, founded in 2012 by the painter Noah Davis and the sculptor Karon Davis, his wife, has brought together black artists, filmmakers and intellectuals and established itself as one of the city’s most essential alternative spaces. Various Small Fires, in Melrose, reintroduces the Korean photoconceptualist Nikki S. Lee (on view through Saturday), and the gallery is about to open a branch in Seoul — a welcome endeavor from a city that could do more to look across the Pacific.

As much as anything, activity and leisure, artistic creation and artistic consumption bleed into one another here. One sunny afternoon I drove down Sunset Boulevard to an about-to-be-leveled Spanish Colonial Revival villa in the hills, where nearly two dozen artists had larded the walls, garage, bathrooms, and even the drained pool with childlike paintings and one-note jokey sculptures. The show, mysteriously titled “Henry Is Blue,” seemed an irrelevance to me, but perhaps this anti-institutional stance has a new, ironic bite in the age of Airbnb and Instagram.

Is There Gold in These Hills?

Can you make any money out here? The Ferus Gallery, in the late 1950s and 1960s, was the first anywhere to show Andy Warhol; Larry Gagosian, whose multinational gallery now occupies a prime corner of Beverly Hills, got his start hawking posters in Venice Beach. David Kordansky Gallery, founded in 2003, has matured into one of the city’s best, and its current show of Fred Eversley’s translucent, cast polyester lenses refines the history of the L.A.-centered minimalist movement known as Light and Space. (Mr. Eversley’s art is also in “Soul of a Nation.”) Blum & Poe, the stalwarts of Culver City (who embarrassed themselves two years ago by letting Kanye West’s team take over the gallery with a Madame Tussaud-style fun house), are now presenting the single best show in town: “Parergon: Japanese Art of the 1980s and 1990s,” through March 23, which features a whole generation of the Tokyo neo-avant-garde.

Still, L.A. has long been a better place to make art than to sell it, and though sales at Frieze and Felix were reportedly brisk, that remains the case. Both fairs went out of their way to include smaller local galleries — I appreciated the gnarly pottery of Jennifer Rochlin at the Frieze booth of a Glendale gallery called The Pit — but the bigger-ticket merchandise remained on the booths of New York and London dealers. Collectors, too, at the fairs and in the galleries, remain disproportionately out-of-towners. Hollywood’s talent agencies have made small inroads into the art scene, but nothing transformative.

But what does it even mean to be an L.A. collector in 2019? Is a Chinese business person holding an investment condo by the Staples Center a “local collector”? Is Ms. Akunyili Crosby, a Nigerian represented by galleries in London and New York, a “local artist”? Is Blum & Poe, with spaces in New York and Tokyo, a “local gallery”?

In the 1970s and 1980s, the old CalArts mafia used to celebrate this city’s artistic autarky, where strong schools, cheap rent, a benign market and a three-hour time difference insulated L.A. from supposed excesses out East. Those days are decisively over, and in its place is a new Los Angeles art world with hazier boundaries, where local and global concerns overlap.

A place like The Underground Museum, for all its community engagement, also broadcasts its exhibitions through Instagram stories and welcomes nonprofit boards from Dallas and Toronto. The artists of Eastside Los Angeles show their art to one another in pop-up spaces, but their dealers sell it in Switzerland, or via WhatsApp, to foreign investors — who might also be buying up former studios in their gentrifying neighborhoods. If L.A. is more artistically vibrant than ever, it may also offer less of an escape than before from the freely flowing capital and instantly shared images that are homogenizing culture from Hollywood to Hong Kong.

This is the price of making and exhibiting art in the 21st century, when images fly in from all over, and no city can ever again be the sole “art capital.” Like too many New Yorkers, I also indulge idle fantasies about what my artistic life might be like on the other coast. What seemed clear this time, however, was that a New Yorker moving to Los Angeles might not be moving very far at all.

These artists of America’s most exciting scene are as implicated in the global economy as the rest of us, and finding their way through an art system where the old certainties about place and rootedness no longer hold. The pioneers who built this city of soundstages knew this long ago: With enough money and with the right technology, you could turn Los Angeles into anywhere.

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