House of Designs : Grant Alkin transforms home in Northridge into 3-D artwork before it is torn down.
It is one of art’s alluring challenges, to push and pull at the physical boundaries of a work.
For Grant Alkin, this struggle appears as a recurring theme extrapolated from Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. Alkin applies three-dimensional objects, often a pipe, to otherwise flat paintings.
Now he has twisted his approach, if only slightly, by applying paint to a decidedly three-dimensional canvas. A very large canvas.
Alkin is making his art on the walls and ceilings of a Northridge home that was rendered uninhabitable by last January’s earthquake. With wide splashes of color, he has transformed the dwelling into an artwork that engulfs its viewers.
“As you walk in the door, you literally walk inside the painting,” the Northridge-born painter said. “I thought this would be a unique opportunity to paint in a really large scale, in three dimensions.”
Another aspect of the project attracted him--the work is doomed. As soon as the owners of the house receive an insurance settlement, they will demolish the structure and rebuild on this spacious lot a few blocks east of the Cal State Northridge campus.
“I’m working against a clock,” Alkin said. “And it’s a clock I can’t even see.”
Nothing about the neighborhood betrays that something so curious is transpiring. The street remains quiet at midday, save for the scattered banging and sawing of carpenters still busy with earthquake repairs. The house where Alkin works shows only a little damage on its exterior.
Inside, wide cracks run across the floors and walls. The foundation is ruined and the owners, Morton and Marjorie Denker, moved out in June, expecting that rebuilding would soon begin. But disagreements with their insurance company delayed the process.
As the house sat empty, the Denkers received a visit from Alkin, a family friend who had grown up nearby.
“Grant asked me if he could get in there and paint on some large surfaces before the house came down,” Marjorie Denker said. “I talked to my husband and we said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ”
So the rooms, already bare, were stripped of their carpeting. Alkin clamped spotlights at various angles to augment insufficient natural light. He chose an assortment of brushes and sprayers to wage a startlingly physical brand of art.
“Full-arm motions and jumping and running back to take a look,” is how the 32-year-old painter describes his method. “I can only paint for about four hours a day. It’s hard work and really messy, too.”
His shapes and colors stretch as long as 30 feet. They play over the changing textures of glass doors, drapes and whatever else gets in their way. They dip in and out of closets, as the artist plays with shifting planes.
“This is not about the earthquake. There are no symbols of ground splitting open or fissures,” he said. “When I came here, I didn’t have any preconceived notions. I just asked myself, ‘What can I do that I can’t do on an ordinary canvas?’ ”
And in a corner room, his work clothes--a white shirt and jeans splattered with layers of acrylic paint--have become works of art in themselves.
When Alkin is not transforming the interior of the Denker home, he mixes painting with set and graphic design. He was trained as an architect at UCLA. Since then, the Westwood artist’s work has appeared in such disparate venues as a recent production of Ayn Rand’s “Ideal” at the Melrose Theatre and a 1992 exhibit called “Boxes” at the Space Gallery in Hollywood.
His current project draws upon a long, if not widely known, tradition. Tibetan monks pour colored sands in intricate patterns, then sweep away their completed picture. This painting, or mandala, celebrates the act of creation. More recently, Scottish artist David Mach, among others, has made imminent demolition integral to his artistic creation.
While Alkin experiments with the ephemeral, he is also organizing a longer-lasting project that makes the Denker house appear minuscule by comparison. His proposed “Highway 5 Museum of Art” would place giant artwork along the interstate every 10 miles, from the Grapevine to Highway 580, east of the San Francisco Bay Area.
“It’s the ideal California thing,” he says. “It should be a challenge for artists to make art that is accessible at 65 m.p.h.”
As curator of this proposed drive-by art, Alkin is courting Caltrans and corporate sponsors. While the project remains in its nascent stages, he envisions an immense open-air gallery that would attract millions of viewers, both voluntary and involuntary.
The work at the Denkers’ is not so public. Neighbors don’t seem to notice that a house in their midst is becoming unusual art.
Green paint runs down the walls of a front bedroom. Alkin calls it the “Jungle Room” because the drips look like vines. Other rooms are marked by giant, bright pineapples--another of his recurring images. Only friends and the Denkers have seen his efforts.
“I was surprised. He painted the drapes and everything,” Marjorie Denker said. “We’re just glad we could help him out. We’ve got pictures of the house from long ago and from after the earthquake. Now we’ll go back and take pictures of what Grant has done.”
Alkin, too, has been documenting his work with photographs. He will soon make a videotape, and he is considering an open house, though no definite plans have been set. Meanwhile, the unseen clock ticks.
So he pushes onward, down a hall, inching closer to a bathroom with tile, mirrors and porcelain basins that provide beguiling surfaces. Beyond that lies a larger bedroom with broad windows.
“This is about being overwhelmed by space and form,” the painter said. “These are surfaces I have never worked on before and probably never will again.”