ART : Working With Smog (And Other Stuff) : Kim Abeles mixes artistry and activism, making art about subjects that most people don’t even want to think about

<i> Leah Ollman is a art writer based in San Diego. </i>

A nostalgic smile spreads over Kim Abeles’ downturned face. Her short, tousled brown hair bobs forward, cloaking her distraction. She’s just been asked about the “semi-embarrassing” book she wrote as a young painter living in a grain silo in rural Ohio. “Crafts, Cookery and Country Living,” published in 1976 when she was 24, contains recipes for granola, home-picked herb teas, directions for making macrame wall hangings, a patchwork sweater and much more, all handwritten and quaintly illustrated. Her section on nut butters not only describes how to grind nuts into spreads, but how to grow the nuts and recycle the hulls into usable dyes.

The book runs on an innocent idealism, something hard to find in the politically charged works that surround her now in her downtown Los Angeles studio. A wicker baby cradle seems homey enough, but on a clear panel resting inside are silhouettes of toys etched in grimy smog. An old-fashioned school chair feels cozy at first, too, but inside the desk section are letters and poignant memorabilia belonging to people with AIDS. Eighty of Abeles’ sculptures, installations and artist’s books will fill the Santa Monica Museum of Art when “Encyclopedia Persona,” a traveling, 15-year survey of her work, opens on Friday.

Cynicism had no more place in “Crafts” than polyester, pesticides or processed cheese. Abeles’ holistic optimism has suffered a few bruises over the years, but she still has the resourceful, work-it-out-from-scratch sensibility that guided her through those early years as an artist and craftsperson.

“That’s so much why the work looks like this,” she explains. “If I don’t know a process or a material, I’ll just figure it out. It allowed me to see that the possibilities are endless. As long as you think you can do something, you can pretty much do it.

“That person that I was then, that’s the person I would love to retrieve in the rest of my life. You go through life and there are so many hurts that happen, and you become cynical. You lose your laughter.”


Actually, Abeles laughs a lot. Raucous cascades of laughter tumble over absurd thoughts. Deep, nervous gurgles coat painful moments in the conversation. And occasionally, she apologizes for the interview’s prolonged focus on her life with a shy, embarrassed laugh. For all of the pseudo-scientific look of her work, and what her critics call its inaccessibility, Abeles, 40, wears her emotions close to the surface.

Aside from her 4-year-old daughter’s small plastic chair, every other table, chair and contraption in the room is part of an installation or larger series of work. Even the trucks rumbling by outside fill the studio with continuous white noise, affirming its use as a brass-tacks workplace.

Against one wall, a framed photograph of the Coyoacan fortress where Trotsky was murdered sits in a red bird cage, a shirt, tie and pair of shoes attached to the base. It’s one of Abeles’ coy comments on the fluid boundaries between fact and fiction. A related work presents a pair of eyeglasses mounted on a map with the caption: “Leon Trotsky’s Eyeglasses. Found in East Chatham, New York where he considered visiting.”

In one corner stands a wood lath dome, a one-person observatory that Abeles built to monitor the paths of the stars.

“What I always liked about this sort of piece,” she says, “is that it’s information you could get from any child’s science book, but there was something about being able to experience it that made it so much more real for me, so much more of a part of my experience.”

An artificial stone wall, a Brownie camera and cracked, antique-looking ceramic jars appear in several sculptures dealing with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, an episode in history that appealed to Abeles for its intertwining forces of chance, greed and scholarship. Works from the recent “Smog Collector” series are scattered about, as are pieces addressing AIDS, aging and the deteriorating environment.

Most critics have linked Abeles to the California assemblage tradition launched by Edward Kienholz and Wallace Berman, among others. She moved to Southern California in 1978 and received her master of fine arts degree from UC Irvine in 1980. When she was an undergraduate at Ohio University and first saw a reproduction of Kienholz’s “The State Hospital,” she tore it out of her art history book and carried it with her for years.

Working then as a trompe l’oeil painter, Abeles remembers being awed by the grim, life-size tableau, but she distances herself now from the assemblage school. She describes her work as more driven by ideas than by the interplay of found, familiar forms, though she does use found objects, taped sounds and other real-life elements just as often she fabricates things that only look authentic.

Playing off the familiar props of domestic life--furniture, table settings and ironing boards--she re-examines the givens of history. All history, she contends, is a fabrication of some type. Editorial decisions, arbitrary choices and errors, not to mention outright biases, leave their imprint on every text. Her ongoing “Biographical Portraits” series tackles this phenomenon head-on by probing the identities, real and presumed, of such notables as Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Calamity Jane and Rosa Parks.

One of the more unusual materials Abeles has used in her work is smog. Inspired--and enraged--by a neighboring factory that she says spews formaldehyde into the air, Abeles began putting some of her household furnishings on her rooftop. She cut out stencils of things that would normally be found on the the high chair, for instance, and then left them outside for pollution to do its work. After a few weeks, enough of the ambient grime had settled on the objects that when she removed the stencils, the smog itself had formed an image. On the highchair tray were murky silhouettes of baby snacks.

On a set of dinner plates, she paired presidential portraits with quotes from each leader on his environmental policy. The less environmentally friendly the president, the longer Abeles kept the plate outside and the darker and more ominous the image became. It’s impossible to look at these works without seeing a disarming mental image of one’s own lungs. Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and “The CBS Evening News” all reported on the series which has been shown in varying combinations in galleries on both coasts, as a novel way of calling attention to air pollution. (A related work called “60 Days of Los Angeles Skypatch (View to the East)” goes on display at the Linda Moore Gallery in San Diego on Oct. 1.)

For “The Image of St. Bernadette,” (1987), Abeles created a room-size installation of paintings, sculptures and fresh flowers in which she couched a message about exploitation. Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879) was a poor French girl of 14 when she claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto near Lourdes. Declared a saint in 1933, Bernadette and her visions gave rise to a tourist industry that brings 5 million visitors a year to Lourdes. In one work from the series, “The Amazing Rosebud,” Abeles painted a tiny portrait of Bernadette on the petals of a dried rosebud.

In conversation, Abeles will gladly discuss the links between herself and her subjects. In her work, she’d rather not be so explicit.

“The work always comes out of something very personal. But I don’t really want to show everyone my dirty underwear. When I did the St. Bernadette stuff, I was Bernadette. I was the commodity, feeling like the gallery system was using me. The work allows me to have a place to work it out, with no conclusions as much as being able to realize the scope of the happiness, the scope of the grief.

“The stuff that’s first person is the work I feel queasiest about. I find a lot of personal work automatically limits the audience. It’s like--here’s my secret, or here, feel sorry for me. Especially given the way society is. Look at people in L.A. Typically you don’t talk to strangers, and when you have a piece of art, basically you’re trying to talk to a stranger.”

Abeles works hard to live up to her dual identity as an activist-artist. She has curated exhibitions on the Gulf War and on AIDS. She has shown her work at public libraries and such popular school bus destinations as the California Museum of Science and Industry.

“Think of how most kids learn history, from these really boring textbooks that are all dog-eared, probably with little swastikas all over them from the kid earlier who flunked. A piece of art with some sort of public access has the potential for instantaneously drawing somebody in,” she says.

But even when correcting history, she shows no desire to proselytize. She’d rather reach people through humor or beauty than polemics. Her “HIV/AIDS Tarot” (1992) is her favorite example. The small accordion-fold brochure has striking Tarot-card emblems representing desire, legacy, chance and knowledge on one side, and bilingual information about AIDS transmission on the other.

“I wanted to reach people who just wouldn’t have taken an AIDS brochure. I wanted people to steal this thing, have it be so pretty that that’s what they do, and the next thing you know they’d be reading the information, whether they liked it or not.”

Abeles would keep a box of the brochures in her car, and leave them places when she was out. One of her favorite things, she says, is to just leave art “out there” and not know who will pick it up. Access was also the focus of an activist art class she taught last spring at Art Center College of Design. For one assignment, a student took her best drawings to a downtown intersection and traded them for anything anyone would offer her.

Her students resisted at first, Abeles recalls. Giving art away is not the most popular of strategies these days. The era of the art star may be past its peak, but careerism still thrives in art schools and on the gallery circuit. Organized and diligent, but not too keen on marketing herself, Abeles has had to struggle to keep her art and her family going. She worked as a go-go dancer for a spell and as a short-order cook. She filed books in a law library and answered letters from needy souls sent to the author of a self-help book.

Support and recognition for her work have been steadier in recent years. This year, she was awarded a prestigious fellowship from the J. Paul Getty Trust Fund for the Visual Arts. The Pollock-Krasner Foundation gave her a grant a few years ago, and various other commissions and grants have kept her afloat.

But because of the constant challenge of making it as an artist while keeping the work “honest,” she has always kept her art rooted in events of the tangible world.

Karen Moss, curator of Abeles’ show for the Santa Monica Museum, sees that as one of the artist’s strengths.

“Kim tries to stay away from all of the theoretical garbage and try to make work that has meaning in the world,” she says. “She’s interested in systems, linguistic systems, methods for investigating and producing results, but not in the dryness of conceptual art.”

As Abeles and Moss looked back over 15 years of the artist’s work, they found a coherence, a “visual-language system,” as Abeles calls it, that was much more thorough than she even realized. That revelation inspired the show’s title, “Encyclopedia Persona,” and the catalogue’s resemblance to an encyclopedia, with A to Z listings and diagrams all pertaining to aspects of Abeles’ work and life.

“The encyclopedia is defined as the circle of learning,” Moss explains. “It’s a pseudo-Greek term that was put together to define all of the liberal arts and humanities to be studied to be an educated person. Kim’s work is encyclopedic; she sees her role as sharing her research and her findings with her audience. She also wants to poke fun at the encyclopedia as the great authoritative text. She tries to explain to her reader-viewer that you can’t always believe what you read and see.”

Even though she feels her work has become clearer over the years, Abeles has had to answer to annoyed viewers who complain that they couldn’t understand her work until the stories behind it were explained.

“You can’t expect to approach a piece and, within a minute, get it,” she says. “Given time, all the components are always there. The people’s names are listed, all the items are there, and they’re read in a rather Cubist fashion, not in a linear narrative.

“We’ll see how cryptic people think I am in the end. When this stuff’s all together, that’s going to be a sore spot for some people. One artist walked out of one of my shows once. He said it gave him a headache because there was too much to unravel.”