Notes from the Venice Biennale: Hot-rod gondolas in the Grand Canal and L.A. art in a 15th-century palazzo


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If all goes as planned, a pair of gondolas unlike all others will glide along the Grand Canal in Venice on Wednesday. Instead of the usual, hearselike black, one will be painted in a bold Ducati red and the other in a light chartreuse -- a flashy makeover by veteran L.A. artist Billy Al Bengston.

‘It’s blasphemy for the gondoliers’ society to have anything but black,’ says New York collector-dealer-curator Tim Nye, who has organized the gondola project to promote ‘Venice in Venice,’ a show he curated with Jacqueline Miro for the Venice Biennale, featuring art by two dozen L.A.-area artists. He says the gondoliers’ group made an exception only because it was an art project.


‘My first thought was to get a hot-rod pin-striper to do a gondola. But I realized Billy Al was the perfect person to bring Venice to Venice,’ added Nye.

Bengston, who has painted surfboards and furniture as well as artworks in the past, worked with local boat builders in Venice this time around. He calls it ‘a marketing product, not an artwork,’ adding that Nye has a way of talking him into things. ‘But I think it’s great to draw a little attention to the wellspring that came out of Venice, California.’

One of many events affiliated with the international art exhibition held every two years, ‘Venice in Venice’ runs from June 1 to July 31, with Courtney Love scheduled to perform at the opening night party. Apart from a few offsite attractions like the boats in the canal and a skate pipe to be set up in a public square, the show takes place in the Palazzo Contarini Dagli Scrigni, a recently restored 15th century mansion in the Dorsoduro district.

‘I really like the idea of playing with nonpristine space,’ said Nye. In New York his gallery occupies a Victorian townhouse on West 20th Street. Here works that are largely minimal in nature play against the ornate chandeliers, marble floors and classical busts lining the corridors.

The palatial entrance features some signature Robert Irwin light works, new and old. Around the corner, Laddie John Dill has taken over a cavelike space with his own early light pieces -- argon tubes he called ‘light sentences.’

On the second floor, a mottled pink Ken Price ceramic is perched not on a pedestal but on top of a piano, with a marbleized blue ‘plank’ by John McCracken leaning against the heavy wooden door nearby.(McCracken, who died earlier this year, also figures into the gondolas in one way -- Bengston said he used solid colors instead of stripes in homage to McCracken.)


A former dot-com entrepreneur, Nye believes that several of these artists, who made their breakthrough work in the ‘60s, are still undervalued and underexposed. He is trying to change that on many fronts. Last winter he co-curated ‘Primary Atmospheres,’ a critically acclaimed show on the era, for the David Zwirner gallery in New York. Last month, he got a tattoo on the inside of his left wrist that says ‘VinV’ -- a ‘painful gesture,’ he says.

He is also teaming with Lexi Brown to open a gallery in Culver City this fall. First up will be ‘a big show on car culture’ that, like ‘Venice in Venice,’ is loosely pegged to ‘Pacific Standard Time,’ the Getty-funded celebration of the roots of California art.

As for the relationship between Venice and its California namesake, Los Angeles dreamer/developer Abbot Kinney and his vision for Pacific Coast waterways provides the most obvious historic link. But Nye sounds interested in more subtle -- or should we say fluid -- connections between the artists in the two cities, describing the ‘inevitable concern with water’ and ‘unique luminosity’ they share.

‘Tintoretto was maybe one of the first Light and Space artists, but he was depicting light and space,’ says Nye. ‘These guys from California were working with it experientially.’


Venice Biennale: Mapping the Madness


-- Jori Finkel

Photos, from top: Artist Billy Al Bengston’s bright gondolas reimagine a Venetian classic; installation of ‘Venice in Venice’ at the Palazzo Contarini Dagli Scrigni showing an acrylic on ceramic sculpture by Ken Price, ‘Bags,’ from 2003 and an Untitled (Blue) resin on wood plank by John McCracken from 1985; Tim Nye’s tattoo reads ‘VinV,’ for ‘Venice in Venice.’ Credits: Kristin Jai Klosterman; David Brendel; Jori Finkel / Los Angeles Times