All art has an economic subtext, but it usually only reveals itself to the public in the form of a price tag. The money that goes into a work before it enters the market is a far less visible detail of the system, although it may involve a considerable investment by the artist, usually made in blind faith and often without the expectation of a return.
In showcasing the 10 recipients of its 2000-01 Cultural Grants to Individual Artists (a.k.a. COLA fellowships) in a group exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, the city of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department brings this aspect of artistic production to light. It may be uncouth to speak of such an exhibition in financial terms, but because the grant money behind these 10 varied bodies of work is the only thing they have in common, it’s really the show’s only theme. Though the exhibition brings together “an exciting cross-section” of L.A. artists, it is less interesting as a statement of the city’s cultural climate than as a glimpse of 10 particular artists enjoying a modest slice of economic freedom.
Although the selection of individual works occasionally seems haphazard--many come across as hastily chosen fragments from projects that are only just getting off the ground--the roster of artists is strong; no one of them seems undeserving of the recognition. It is an extremely diverse group, in terms of race and gender as well as medium and subject matter. And each artist has clearly come to the grant with a radically different sense of purpose. Some have used the money to continue previous projects and others to start new ones. Some of the work is political, some intellectual and some spiritual.
The exhibition begins with the three most civic-minded of the artists. John Outterbridge’s project, still in the planning stages but represented in the exhibition by several rather confusing storyboards and an architectural model, is a reinterpretation of his 1970 public artwork “Oh Speak, Speak,” an open-air structure, to be installed in a public space in Watts, that will display the work of a rotating selection of artists.
Robert Nakamura’s documentary film “Brighter Shade of Dark: Toyo Miyake, 1895-1979" looks at the history of Little Tokyo through the lens, so to speak, of Japanese American photographer Miyake. Though a high-ceilinged gallery is not the most conducive space in which to appreciate this hourlong, PBS-style film, its many remarkable images--such as Miyake’s colorful home movies and the hauntingly beautiful photographs he took while detained in the Manzanar internment camp--make it well worth the effort.
Sandow Birk’s new paintings and prints chronicle the rise and fall of LAPD Officer Rafael Perez in the style of William Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress.” It is an entertaining and politically pertinent series, although it sadly lacks the nuance, humor and historical breadth of Birk’s other recent projects.
The works of Laura Aguilar and Sarah Perry are somewhat more organic in nature. Aguilar’s alarmingly intimate self-portraits, in which she photographs her own body in rocky New Mexican landscapes, express a poignant sense of spiritual longing--the desire to melt into the earth, to be swallowed by the singular calm of nature. Perry’s sculptures are strangely reciprocal: Aguilar’s primary medium is her own abundant flesh; Perry uses the bones of creatures whose flesh has long since melted away. She assembles these bones (many of them no bigger than a quarter of a toothpick) like bricks in astonishingly delicate architectural creations that explore themes of shelter and mobility, protection and exposure.
The body is also a focus of exploration in Susan Rankaitis’ enormous and absorbing photo-based collage, “Peripheral Memory” (2001), in which traces of anatomical imagery and fragments of unidentifiable landscapes swirl in a stew of metallic gold and black--and in Tom Knechtel’s delirious “The Gaudy Presence” (2001). It is unfortunate that Knechtel is represented in the exhibition by only one painting, but it is a wonderful one. Filled with a surrealistic melange of body parts, animals, and other less recognizable creatures, it virtually hums with brilliant shades of orange and yellow.
On the more conceptual side are Liz Young and Bruce Yonemoto. Young’s installation--which involves a man’s suit, a dress and life-size models of farm animals all covered in slick, strange, skin-like fabric--is simultaneously vague and uncomfortably visceral. Yonemoto’s wonderfully lucid and intelligent mixed-media works play with the concept of the film screen as both material object and metaphor. Particularly striking is “Achrome” (2001), a simple, monochromatic grid of stretched, silver projection screen material.
Unfortunately, the exhibition doesn’t do justice to its one abstract work, Jennifer Steinkamp’s computer-generated projection “Tra La La Boom” (2001), installed in an awkward, in-between space with far too much light. Smaller, more restrained and less colorful than much of her recent work--which is so spectacular for its electric hues and its magical command over space--it comes across as a less-than-enthralling study rather than a complete work.
Though there may always be cause to be cynical about the city’s funding of individual artists--about whom the city chooses or doesn’t choose, about how much or how little it spends--there is an undeniably charming sense of goodwill floating through this somewhat bureaucratic affair. It’s nice to see artists given money for their accomplishment and persistence, whatever the politics. In the case of this year’s recipients, it was certainly money well spent.
* Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 440-4500, through July 15. Closed Monday.