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Can Artists Run Their Own Spaces and Find ‘True.BLISS.’?

TIMES ART CRITIC

Have you heard of Bliss? Not many people have--inside the art world or out. An alternative exhibition venue in a residential neighborhood in Pasadena, Bliss has been a well-kept secret these past nine years.

Artist Kenneth Riddle and a changing cast of cohorts, many of them recent graduates from Art Center College of Design, began to use the ordinary bungalow on North Michigan Avenue in 1987 as a place to show their own work. (Riddle lives in the house.) Frequented mostly by artists, their friends and those who heard of the place by word of mouth, Bliss has usually been open only on Sundays and its exhibitions have been held sporadically--often in the summer months, not so often in the winter, and every now and then in between.

Now Bliss is the subject of an exhibition at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in Hollywood--and a rather odd exhibition it is. Curators Riddle, Andrea Bowers, Mike Mehring and LACE director Brian Karl have created a kind of testimonial dinner without the food.

“True.BLISS.” is an assembly of recent examples of work by four dozen artists whose principal connection to one another is that they have all shown in the Pasadena house. Eclectic is too mild a term of description for the array.

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What makes the exhibition odd, though, is not the breadth of variety in the paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, computer animation and mixed-media works brought together for the show--art that also runs the gamut in terms of quality and interest. What’s unusual is the idea of one artist-run exhibition space (LACE) organizing a show in which the subject is the history of another artist-run exhibition space (Bliss).

The work at LACE does stand as evidence that these artists are among those who participated in past Bliss shows, and because the work is recently made we know these artists are still at it. (We also know they’re still working because a good number of them--Judie Bamber, Russell Crotty, Jacci Den Hartog, Sam Durant, Sally Elesby, Diana Thater and at least a dozen more--show with regularity in commercial galleries and museums in Los Angeles and elsewhere.)

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But, finally, it’s the nesting of one kind of artist-run space inside another, older kind of artist-run space that’s the show’s most interesting feature. “True.BLISS.” would have benefited from a more direct and challenging exploration of the differences.

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LACE, as everyone in the art world knows, has been through tough times in the 1990s and has labored hard in the past year or so to revive itself. Many obvious factors had played their part in the downturn.

The mid-1980s exodus of galleries westward from downtown L.A.'s warehouse district, where LACE had been located, left the space isolated. The national recession that lingered so long in Southern California made always-scarce arts funds even scarcer. Indifferent internal leadership was damaging. And so on.

Less commented upon in diagnoses of past woes, however, has been the simple fact that the times they were a-changin’. LACE was an artist-run exhibition space of the old-fashioned, 1970s kind--and the 1970s were long gone.

In general, the format of nonprofit, artist-run exhibition spaces had been born for two intertwined reasons. They were designed to provide alternatives to, first, the commercial values of the new American art market of the 1960s and, second, to the status quo traditionalism of art museums.

By the end of the 1980s, though, strict traditionalism was gone from the museums and artist-run exhibition spaces had become feeders of new talent to a newly roaring market.

That is, they were feeders when artists eager for commercial venues weren’t simply ignoring offers of shows at alternative spaces.

The 1980s changed everything. In its aftermath, though, LACE didn’t change--except in rudimentary ways, like moving from the downtown warehouse district to pedestrian-friendly Hollywood Boulevard. One sign of the creakiness of LACE, with its cumbersome, museum-like trappings of membership rolls, exhibition committees, fund-raisers, newsletters and so on, was the emergence of a place like Bliss.

Quick on its feet, beholden to no one but its self-appointed curator (Riddle), marked by an enthusiastic spirit of “my father’s got a barn, there’s costumes in the attic, let’s put on a show!,” Bliss was of significance mainly because it represented a relatively small bunch of artists taking initiative on their own behalf. Which is, of course, the same artistic energy that had gotten LACE off the ground--in a very different way--in 1978.

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In the small catalog to “True.BLISS.,” essayist Julie Joyce frets a bit about the limitations commerce can place on art and she cites the noncommercial atmosphere of Bliss as one of its more salient features. But I’m not so sure.

On my half-dozen or so visits to Bliss, I never saw any art that I would have been startled to find being shown in a commercial gallery. The subsequent commercial success (relatively speaking) of many of the participating artists is not surprising.

It’s true that some shows played off the specifically domestic setting for which the work was specially made, such as the time in 1989 when Jennifer Steinkamp projected computer-animated video images of outer space and a swirling vortex on the picture windows that flank the front door of the bungalow. (The format of Steinkamp’s projection also recalled a well-known 1970s video installation, in which Bill Viola projected gigantic images of his own face on the attic windows of his house in Syracuse, N.Y.) But judging from the “Bliss testimonial” catalog and the exhibition, shows like this seem to have been more the exception than the rule.

In fact, Bliss is partly interesting because it immediately preceded similarly inclined commercial venues, such as the original Thomas Solomon’s Garage, which opened in 1988 in a one-car garage in a West Hollywood alley. (A success, the gallery soon expanded into a two-car garage.) Eventually, artists themselves began opening such commercial spaces, like Food House and TRI, which were the source of much of the gallery energy of the early 1990s. The artists who showed at Bliss--most of them barely out of area art schools--often were shown at these commercial venues, too.

“True.BLISS.” would have been a stronger show if it had explored this phenomenon more provocatively, and if its documentary features had been more straightforward and complete. The catalog does feature a short essay on the post-art-school situation of artists today, written by artist and critic David A. Greene, and it’s as bracingly refreshing as a cold shower. (Read it, even if you don’t see the show.) But the exhibition, probably like most honorific endeavors, feels staid and polite.

Finally, though, the questions it raises seem to have more to do with places like LACE than with places like Bliss. The tired old castigations about the ostensible horrors of commerce in the vicinity of art need to be rethought. Foundation grants, program bureaucracies and all the rest do not have an exclusive claim on democratic ideals of freedom. In fact, if you want to turn your living room into an art gallery, they aren’t even necessary.

* LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., (213) 957-1777, through Jan. 26. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.


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