The Los Angeles Convention Center is frenetic with activity just hours before the L.A. Art Show is set to open. Artists and gallery owners race around in their booths, rearranging works and polishing frames; construction carts rumble by, carrying ladders and buckets of paint. One performance artist lies naked on a bed of fresh flowers, rehearsing a meditative piece to the background chorus of installation hammering, drilling and the repeated zap and ping of retracting measuring tape.
Now in its 21st year, the annual art event has grown steadily along with L.A.’s art scene, from 14 galleries during the fair’s 1995 debut to about 130 galleries last year, which drew close to 60,000 visitors. This year, galleries will be displaying works by artists from 20 countries, including China, Australia, Turkey, Kenya and Japan. The event's growth is due, in part, to L.A.’s rising place as a global hub for contemporary art, organizers say.
“The explosion of artists moving here, collectors, galleries moving downtown — it’s the perfect storm of people getting excited about collecting in Los Angeles,” said Kim Martindale, the L.A. Art Show’s general manager and partner. “That’s affected us in a very positive way. People are saying, ‘I wanna buy in L.A. That’s the hot spot for art right now.’ ”
As the clatter unfurls across the convention center floor, one artist in a booth stands serenely by a piece of work that speaks to the rise of the local art world during the past decade or so.
Spanish artist Lluis Barba, who had flown in from Barcelona two days earlier, is unveiling his latest work, an ode of sorts to the Los Angeles art scene. The piece, “La Muestra de Gersaint Watteau,” is an enormous photographic collage over a reproduction of an 18th century French painting by Antoine Watteau.
The collage is layered with a dizzying mix of local art world and pop cultural imagery. The original black-and-white Watteau painting, “L'Enseigne de Gersaint,” depicts a wealthy European art salon, the walls thick with framed works. Barba has replaced “the old masters with modern masters,” he said, such as pop art by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein as well as contemporary paintings by local L.A. artists such as Ed Ruscha.
Pasted into the salon, as if casually hanging out there, is the imagery of a bevy of celebrities and recognizable L.A. art world figures. Kim Kardashian stands front and center in lingerie and a fur coat; Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan is in the background, along with former Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffrey Deitch; a naked Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley, lifted from a magazine photo, appear along with nearly the entire cast of “Mad Men” and Anne Hathaway, who’s hosting the L.A. Art Show’s opening night reception. There’s also a smattering of anonymous figures, like a homeless boy and a tourist.
“Everybody’s coming here to L.A. It’s a little overbooked,” Barba said through a translator. “And in the film industry too, there’s a parallel. That’s intensely creative, but it also makes it harder for artists. It used to be all the artists wanted to go to New York; the people from the film industry all wanted to come to Los Angeles. Now, even the artists want to come to Los Angeles. There’s that intensity.”
Barba’s piece is also thick with juxtapositions: A young homeless boy crouches beneath a lavish piece of computer equipment, a tourist gawks at movie stars in glittering gowns. The one equalizer, however, is consumption. Barba stamped every figure in the picture with a barcode on the forehead or arm, where their names also appear.
“My work speaks to opposites in society,” Barba said. “I like for the people who have money and the people who don’t have money to share the same space, people who are glamorous and people who aren’t glamorous, all together. The barcodes, that’s consumerism. No matter where you go, globally, it’s widespread.”
“La Muestra” — part of a six-piece exhibition of Barba’s work at the fair, presented by the Cynthia Corbett Gallery of London — was commissioned by the L.A. Art Show. The show has commissioned two other original pieces: L.A.-based Melanie Pullen created a static installation of her high fashion crime-scene photos. Orange County’s Jeff Gillette built the archway entrance to the show’s Littletopia area — the fair’s pop surrealism section — which is a re-creation, made from desert debris, of the castle-like piece he showed at Banksy’s Dismaland.
Commissioning original work is a new practice for the L.A. Art Show. This is only the second year the fair has done it. Martindale said it offers the opportunity to present exhibitions and assert a curatorial eye.
“When pieces are in a booth, it’s quite straightforward,” Martindale said. “We’re taking it out of the context of a booth as something presenting works for sale, and giving artists voice so they can present works for how they want people to experience it.”
Barba — who last year had a solo museum show, “Travels in Time,” at the Fundacio Vila Casas in Barcelona — typically reinterprets old master works, as he does in “La Muestra,” layering them with contemporary visuals to make larger cultural statements. While seemingly random, there’s a loose method to Barba’s referential collages. Painter John Currin’s work appears in “La Muestra,” for instance, along with Larry Gagosian, who represents Currin, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a collector of the work.
Some of these cultural references are seemingly infinite, like endlessly stacked Russian nesting dolls. Barba included a piece of his own in “La Muestra,” for example. It’s a reinterpretation of an Italian painting that features in it collaged images of Warhol’s work as well as Kate Moss — the same picture of Moss, nude in a wedding veil, that appears in the larger work in which the Italian painting is featured. And the Warhol work in the Italian painting-within-a-painting is actually Barba’s collaged reinterpretation featuring yet other tiny paintings in it.
Some visual references come from Barba’s own travels. In “La Muestra,” Barba featured a snippet of a painting by French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, “The Turkish Bath,” in which naked women bathe together. He pasted in a photograph of a naked woman he saw at an erotica fair in Spain recently. She’s tattooing the naked women in the Ingres painting.
Barba said he’s been to L.A. only once before, in 2012 for a photo shoot; his interpretation of the local art scene, laden with artists and celebrities mixing, is what he feels to be the European vision of the L.A. art scene — even if it’s more stereotype than reality.
“It’s an outsider’s vision, how many in Europe see it," he said.
Whether that’s true, he said, most everyone would agree on one thing: “It’s intense in L.A. right now,” he said of the art scene.
Barba will give a lecture about his “La Muestra de Gersaint Watteau” at 2 p.m. Jan. 30.
Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin