To Steven Wong, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery's curator, contemporary art is a sign of the times and local art reflects the pulse of the city.
An upcoming exhibition at the gallery aims to highlight just that. The City of Los Angeles Individual Artist Fellowship exhibition is the culmination of an annual grant celebrating midcareer L.A. artists. Awarded by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, the fellowship began in 1997 and provides each artist with $10,000 for the creation of new work. This year the city selected 14 fellows in design and visual arts, literary arts and performing arts.
The exhibition opening Thursday at the municipal gallery showcases the work of 11 COLA fellows in visual artists. The show runs through June 24.
Although art funding continues to shrink, the grant is one of few in the city by a public entity.
"L.A. is one of the few cities that really awards artists," said Isabelle Lutterodt, director of the gallery and Barnsdall Art Park, which are presenting the exhibition with the DCA. "It's not conditional. They can do whatever they want with this funding."
For Wong, the exhibition is a broad look at trends in contemporary art and a glimpse into the experiences of those living in L.A. Wong said the fellows are also a diverse representation of the city.
Given creative freedom and about nine months to create work, several artists chose to explore the country's turbulent political climate.
"We're in a very unusual, high anxiety time where people are searching for ways to process and understand what's happening around us," Lutterodt said. "The people on the front lines of responding are artists."
Painter June Edmonds' work focuses on abstract, patterned paintings influenced by Adinkra symbols from Ghana. The funding gave Edmonds the resources to move into a studio at Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro to create the large-scale pieces.
Inspired by the presidential election, her art took a political turn, with one piece centered on the American flag. The work — which interprets the flag with various skin tones — examines what the flag symbolizes for people of color and women in the U.S.
"I'm responding to ownership of the flag and how it's appropriated by white supremacist ideas," Edmonds said, "and reclaiming it."
The work was a departure from her typical use of bright primary colors.
"When she told me she was thinking about doing something that was inspired by the election … I was a little skeptical," Wong said. "But it's the time that we're in. It's great to have a city space to have that engagement and have that dialogue."
Other artists are addressing history — the erasure, the re-imagining and the reclaiming of it.
Cassils, a transgender performance artist, used the grant to bring attention to the history of Barnsdall park, once a gay cruising site.
Cassils developed a blackout room that relies on touch, smell and hearing to re-create the Barnsdall olive groves in darkness. The work also pays homage to the park's founder, heiress Aline Barnsdall, as a radical feminist.
Multimedia artist Sandra de la Loza said her work was inspired by the role of transportation infrastructure in shaping the physical and demographic contours of L.A.
To create her work "To Oblivion," De la Loza dug deeply into the history of L.A.'s rail infrastructure, the 1903 Pacific Electric Railway strike by Mexican laborers and a faith healer who was exiled from Mexico and settled in L.A. The installation, which includes a remade bicycle float, kaleidoscope video footage and redacted poems made from old L.A. Times, speaks to the erasure of history.
For De la Loza, the fellowship let her tackle a research question she's had for years.
"It's very hard to dedicate 100% of your life to art practices," she said. The fellowship "helped me claim the time, space and also have the resources. It helped me take a leap."
Other themes at the exhibition include a mixed media installation by Guillermo Bert, which features video testimonies of L.A. immigrants projected onto suspended tumbleweeds; multiple slide projections and audio narratives exploring what it means to be a second-generation Filipina by looking to the past, present and future by artist Michelle Dizon; and a video installation that critiques systemic patriarchy and misogyny by Michele O'Marah.
Both Lutterodt and Wong hope visitors use the exhibition to reflect on current affairs and connect with the diversity of experiences within L.A.
"We don't have enough time offline to really think and communicate with each other," Lutterodt said. "Going to see an exhibition is a time for people to … slow down and really think about what an artist is tackling."
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COLA Individual Artist Fellowships Exhibition
Where: Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
When: Thursdays-Sundays, through June 24
Who: Fellows are David Hullfish Bailey, Guillermo Bert, Terry Braunstein, Cassils, Sandra de la Loza, Michelle Dizon, Tim Durfee, June Edmonds, d. Sabela Grimes, Peter J. Harris, Michele O'Marah, Julie Shafer, Doris Sung, Kristina Wong (not all are in the exhibition).
Info: (323) 644-6269, www.lamag.org