If you're going to Los Angeles, the first thing you want to do is get yourself some fish tacos -- they're like nothing else on earth. Last week, I arrived at LAX with barely enough time to have two in the car on the way down to Santa Monica, where I attended the Jan. 27 opening gala for Stephen Cohen's new Art L.A. art fair. The party was a benefit for MOCA Contemporaries, and was attended by more than 700 guests.
Well-positioned midway on the calendar between Art Basel Miami Beach and the Armory Show in New York, Art L.A. has clearly begun life as a venue for younger galleries. The collector audience seemed to be largely local, with many of them fairly new to art buying. Dealers were reporting good results for wares priced at more affordable levels.
Los Angeles' own Sixspace, for instance, featured strong offerings of small, inexpensive works that are cute and smart, perfect for the budding art enthusiast. The booth of L.A.'s Western Project had some large allover paintings made from actual mineral crystals by Jose Alvarez and a selection of Wayne White's popular kitsch reproductions altered with painted 3D texts, territory already mapped by L.A.'s own Ed Ruscha.
Rock music and surfing got smooth treatment in the booth of New York dealer Jeff Bailey. Paolo Arao's untitled drawings of microphones, a steal at $1,550, would look great over the hi-fi, while Chris Gentile's photos of carpets mimicking waves, priced at $1,900, would look great at the beach house. Gentile currently has an exhibition at Bailey's gallery in Chelsea.
The atmosphere at Telephonebooth gallery from Kansas City was youthful and unfettered. The work was largely drawings -- energetic, crafty and makeshift, with nothing breaking the $1,000 ceiling. The booth's inconsistency made sharp works like John Doohey's collage of an eclipse made from newspaper weather maps, $800, all the more enticing.
More established galleries profited if they offered hip art up-and-comers in their stables, perhaps including a few more famous, infinitely more expensive artists to impress and provide gravitas. Elizabeth Leach Gallery from Portland, Ore., had it right. Good work by new artists like M.K. Guth, who showed a lenticular photograph of a pair of vintage Nikes, and Mark Smith, whose Compressed Id consists of clear plastic beach ball shapes stuffed with clothes in matching colors, $600, were balanced with a secondary market Kiki Smith drawing for $22,000.
New York dealer Ethan Cohen, who handles a lot of contemporary Chinese art, brought drawings by Xu Bing and Zhu Ming. His booth also featured a huge painting by Chicago artist Bernard Williams, known for his large-scale hieroglyph-comic paintings of African American life, and some works by the young conceptual artist Elisabeth Demaray. Her malformed baseball sculptures look like children's drawings made 3D but are in fact stones encased in white leather and stitched with red threading -- a beautiful gesture.
A series of artist's installations tempered the fair's commercial atmosphere, attracting many viewers not in the market to buy. Most were hokey but they lent the space a funky energy, as in Chico MacMurtie's The Horny Children, a crowd of wire frame figures equipped with motors to make them bounce.
The Los Angeles nonprofit Raid Projects turned its booth into a trove of wacky treasures, including a conga line of large plush cartoon cows, with each cow reaching around and milking the one in front of it, by Margaret Adachi, and Matt Driggs' miniature bronze sculpture of Michelangelo's David sporting a beer gut.
Attendance was moderate and sales seemed okay, but dealers I spoke with were downright ebullient -- there was a definite excitement in the air. If the feeling lasts -- upon reflection and after the accountant weighs in -- we are likely to see Art L.A. become an annual event.
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When people talk about L.A., invariably the biggest complaint is about all the driving that's required to get around, but in the end, it turns out to be a great way to see art. After four or five galleries, getting on the highway is a chance to zone out, rest your feet and rehash everything (and everyone) you just saw. After 20 minutes you park and do it again.
My first stop on the morning after Art L.A. was 6150 Wilshire, the intimate complex of galleries just down the road from the La Brea Tar Pits and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was raining so I ran into the first door I found, which was Roberts & Tilton Gallery.
Co-directors Julie and Bennett Roberts were behind the desk, and Bennett talked passionately about their current show of paintings by Eberhard Havekost. The title, "Sonnenschutz" -- "protection from the sun," or sun block -- came to mind for the Berlin artist, a pale-complexioned German, when he decided to do a show here in L.A., a place he'd never been. In the back gallery is a pair of canvases that depict a building faade in Havekost's characteristic steep perspective. Along one side of each image is a wedge of blue, desert-clear sky, while across the bottom is a horizontal strip of red awning. These hyper-vivid details nearly tip the paintings off the edge of representation, but the detailed structure of the building, its recessed window and cast shadows, weights it firmly in place.
On the opposite wall is a suite of nine portraits of models in sunglasses; on another wall is a small painting of an eclipse. The pictures are icy-hot, with a multiple artistic ancestry (Andy Warhol, Alex Katz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gerhard Richter). The entire show sold out, with the suite of sunglass paintings slated to end up in a museum.
Across the sidewalk at Marc Foxx Gallery, the Italian artist Luisa Lambri continues her three-year-old project of photographing modernist buildings from the inside. By focusing on small details and avoiding a documentary approach, she looks for what she calls "the intersection between a space and a place," a space being neutral and a place being "invested with desire." Pretty heady stuff, though the actual artworks are graceful.
A nice series in editions of five ($6,000-8,000) depicts foliage through a set of louvered windows in an Oscar Niemeyer house in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Lambri stays on location for months at a time, and often takes hundreds of photographs of a site. Microscopic changes in the camera's position and focus tell of the patience of her experiments and the pleasure of selecting seven perfect images out of 300 or so.
Whatever the state of the U.S. economy, the art sector seems robust. Though right after I left town the Hammer Museum opened its new show, "Thing," a major survey of young Los Angeles sculptors, the galleries were pushing paintings. Very few and far between were the spaces showing experimental art and performance, which thrived in the money-starved L.A. art market of the 1990s.
Upstairs at 6150 Wilshire is the boxy little 1301PE Gallery, which is featuring new works by Chicagoan Judy Ledgerwood. Always surprising, Ledgerwood manages to keep abstraction fresh even though rooted in the past. Her new paintings -- the show is titled "Wickity Wackity World" -- are more decorative than ever, combining stripes, diamond patterns, a floral motif and bright colors and gold paint. Mad Joy (2004), a simple, quilt-like pattern in white and yellow, has an admirable thrift. The geometric design is loose and off center, with just a hint of painterly brushwork in its focal point, a painting that would be easy to live with. The price: $25,000.
Around the corner, New York dealer Clarissa Dalrymple organized the show at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, which features seven artists and rather a lot of artworks. Among the clutter, paintings by Andrezj Zielinski stood out. His pictures of computers ($1,800) are dumb in the best way. The paint is thick and goofy; Dalrymple aptly names it "confectionary" handling. With contemplation, the work gets better and better until finally it seems awesome. Curiously, the best two paintings of this series were on the floor in the office.
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The next stop was Chinatown, where the galleries are mixed into a garish red and gold square of tapioca drink stands and knickknack shops. On the edge of it all sits the Mary Goldman Gallery. The current show by Eric Neibuhr, titled "Still Missing," features "realist" paintings based on the DVD movie of the popular novel series "Left Behind," which imagines the Biblical revelations in modern times. Full of the mystique of the religious right, the paintings don't offer much insight; instead, they happily indulge in a redeeming sensual appeal.
The quintessentially pukka Angeleno painter, Bart Exposito, had a solo show at Black Dragon Society. His neo-California hard-edge abstractions feature a crystalline structure floating stage center on the canvas, in graphic flat space. The palette is tightly composed: shades of green with a single dark blue, or oranges and a dark brown on an eggshell field.
Critics have complained that Exposito's paintings are too close to graphic design or cover art for electronic music, but playing it so close to that edge is what gives the work its juice. They are designed to visually implode with the simplest means possible, which they sometimes do, as in successes like Symmetry and Shadow ($6,000).
Dinner that evening was in the shadows of the Hollywood sign, hosted by art patron Shirley Morales. She sponsors the Hollywood Hills House residency program, which brings emerging and mid-career artists from abroad to live in L.A. for a couple of months. The guests were a schmear of young L.A. artists, including Kim Fischer, Patrick Hill and the Los Super Elegantes duo. The dinner was fun; to our amazement or amusement, personalities loomed large and came into sharp focus as the night wore on. At the end, everyone piled into classic cars and an old van, dropped down the hill through the restful, manicured neighborhood and dispersed to various parties -- is this the proverbial other half?
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The next morning, back in Santa Monica, I checked in on the progress of Art L.A., which had steady traffic, then went to the ever-elegant Angles Gallery. There, a group show titled "In the Abstract" includes works by well-knowns like Ingrid Calame and Linda Besemer alongside striking work by young painter Susanna Maing, a recent UCLA grad. Her painting, Call it Australia ($2,700), is a triumph of simplicity.
Ruddy red oblong dots, a recurrent unit for Maing, are grouped on a pea green field with biological regularity; it's nothing rigid, but there is a solid sense of order, like cells. The dots stay contained in the frame except on the right side, where they edge out over the border. Maing's work was snapped up quickly, as was Besemer's Multibulge Fold #2 ($25,000). A great show for collectors.
At Lizabeth Oliveria, San Francisco artist Anna Van Mertens made great use of the cavernous space with five of her bed-sized sculptures -- read "blankets" -- mounted on low plinths, priced at $7,000 a piece. They're made of ultra-soft, hand-dyed Pima cotton and stitched with AutoCAD-generated energy patterns, such as the currents of the world's oceans. Of course we're all well versed in the fetishization of art, but these were the first objets d'art I've actually wanted to sleep with.
My trip ended with a visit to the show of painting-sculpture combines by Sally Elesby at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Skylar Haskard's impressive installation at Anna Helwing Gallery, both recently covered in these pages [see "L.A. Confidential," Feb. 7, 2005]. And Blum & Poe was screening Julian Hoeber's new film, Talkers Are No Good Doers, a show that was packed by the high court of L.A.'s art world. I didn't like it much -- somehow it reminded me of something out of an Alberto Gonzales memo -- but it's destined to end up in a biennial, I'm sure.