The latest winners of the annual Herb Alpert Awards in the Arts, which funnel $75,000 prizes to experimental artists in recognition of past achievements and future promise, include longtime L.A. visual art provocateur Daniel Joseph Martinez and four others based in Chicago or New York who didn’t start making their marks until the 21st century.
Martinez, who earned his master of fine art degree from California Institute of the Arts, which administers the Alpert Awards, has been exhibiting his work since the late 1970s and was included in both the 1993 and 2008 Whitney Biennials at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.
He grabbed attention in the 1993 Whitney group show by creating a simple white lapel button distributed to museum visitors that said, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.”
Martinez recently had an L.A. gallery show whose paintings and photographs were inspired by what he’d seen and heard over several years of riding Metro buses through the city.
The Los Angeles Times review said the show “confirms his reputation as a brilliant mad philosopher.” He pulled down a $50,000 prize in 2007 from L.A.-based United States Artists, whose annual fellowships aim to underwrite the work of accomplished mid-career artists.
This is the 20th year that Alpert, the star trumpet player, visual artist and former record A&M Records partner has funded the arts awards, bringing the totals to 100 winners and more than $6 million in grants since 1995. Along with their experimental offerings, two of this year's winners have worked on more popular attractions – theater director Annie Dorsen and dancer-choreographer Michelle Dorrance, both based in New York.
Dorsen was co-creator and director of the mid-2000s musical “Passing Strange,” which eventually made its way to Broadway, where Spike Lee filmed performances for a movie version of the semi-autobiographical show by erstwhile L.A. rocker Stew (Mark Stewart), who won a Tony Award for his script, and his songwriting partner, Heidi Rodewald.
Dorsen has since gone on to fare that uses computer algorithms to slice up texts and turn them spontaneously into technology-infused live theater.
Her recent “A Piece of Work” was described as a “machine-made 'Hamlet’” in which algorithms applied to the Shakespeare tragedy spat out snippets of speech for actors to perform in sequences that drastically discombobulated the original.
Dorsen’s technological bent goes back to her scuffling days in 2001, when she staged “Xanadu Live” at a small theater in Culver City, teaching cast members to lip-sync and mime to the soundtrack of the 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie musical “Xanadu.”
Dorrance first danced into the limelight performing in off-Broadway and touring productions of “Stomp.” Tap dance remains her specialty as she leads her own Dorrance Dance company, winning a $25,000 Jacobs Pillow Dance Award last year from the noted dance festival in Massachusetts.
The award-winner in music is Matana Roberts, a New York-based saxophonist who won acclaim for her 2011 album “Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile,” which Los Angeles Times jazz critic Chris Barton hailed as “family history as social history in a swirling mix of free jazz, opera and spoken word.”
The film honoree is Chicagoan Deborah Stratman, whose experimental documentaries include “Oe’r the Land,” which the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art described for a 2009 screening as channeling “the dark side of the American psyche, presenting a savagely poetic meditation on the contemporary culture of violence and patriotism.”
Stratman also had a hand as cinematographer of what Times film critic Kenneth Turan described in 2003 as “quite likely the best documentary on the City of Angels ever made” -- “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” in which filmmaker Thom Andersen, a CalArts professor, deployed multitudes of clips from the movies to show how L.A. has been depicted on screen over the decades.
Recipients will get their prizes at a May 9 luncheon at the Herb Alpert Foundation in Santa Monica. Three-member panels of experts in each category recommend winners.
This year's judges included actor-playwright Eisa Davis (a 2012 Alpert Award winner who’s particularly well-acquainted with Dorsen, having been a cast member in “Passing Strange”); Hammer Museum chief curator Connie Butler and Dan Cameron, chief curator and interim director of the Orange County Museum of Art; Lincoln Center Film Society director Dennis Lim; 2011 Alpert Award winner Marc Bamuthi Joseph in dance; and 2004 honoree Miya Masaoka in music.