Mid-career artists are just middling

Special to The Times

Los Angeles has long been known as one of the best places on Earth to be an artist just getting started. Affordable rent, plentiful exhibition opportunities and collectors on the lookout for inexpensive art -- which just might be the next big thing -- make for a scene filled with possibilities.

What doesn’t make the headlines is what happens next: when the difficulties of being a mid-career artist replace the promise of emerging, when the honeymoon’s over, artistic accomplishment begins to count for more than the shimmer of potential, and the long grind sets in.

Collectors are often blamed for not sticking with artists as their prices rise, preferring newer and cheaper works by the next crop of artists or investing in super-expensive pieces by artists whose reputations are well established.


But an exhibition of works by the nine artists who won the 2008 City of Los Angeles (COLA) Individual Artist Fellowships suggests that the situation is more complicated than that -- and much crueler: that most artists who make it to mid-career status never get through this often drawn-out phase, instead getting stuck in the purgatory of never quite making it to the next level.

At the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Art Park, all of the award winners were born from 1945 to 1969. All reside in Los Angeles. And all were born outside L.A.

One of the best things about the exhibition is that it is really nine solo shows. The panel of experts who selected the $10,000 winners in the visual arts has brought together works that flaunt material and conceptual diversity, although there is no painting or sculpture included. Mix-and-match hybridity -- such as collaged drawings or photo installations or sprawling assemblages -- makes for an odd sort of orthodoxy. It’s where the conformity is found.

The majority of works are neither memorable nor irritating in the get-under-your-skin, stick-in-your-craw way of art worth mulling over. For the most part, originality takes a back seat to uninspired attempts to elaborate on respected precedents.

Timothy Nolan, for instance, has arranged 42 mirrored modules with triangular sides on one gallery’s floor. Abutting one another at odd angles, they break up space rather playfully and, when spotlights are aimed at them, throw squiggly reflections across the walls. Think Robert Smithson without the social implications or Jim Isermann without the bittersweet optimism. In short, this is a designer replay of adventuresome art, offering little more than pleasant recollections.

The same goes for Erin Cosgrove’s digitally printed scroll that wraps around the green walls of another gallery and is accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek video that extols its purportedly perplexing mysteries. The wacky story, filled with colorful characters, lacks the light touch of displays at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which it mimics in too heavy-handed a fashion.


Likewise, Joyce Dallal’s installation of large paper airplanes, made from pages on which various versions of the Geneva Conventions are printed, has the presence of an over-thought installation from the late ‘80s.

Lewis Klahr’s 12-minute animated video and Stas Orlovski’s sofa-scale collages call to mind Joseph Cornell’s enchanting shadowboxes. Klahr’s video maintains some of Cornell’s signature strangeness, particularly in the delight it takes -- and shares -- in clunky, cobbled-together compositions and funky, staccato edits. But although the form is captivating, the story grows illustrative and boring.

The immediate appeal of Orlovski’s Xerox transfers affixed to big canvases wears thin too quickly. Supersizing Cornell takes the intimacy of the original in the wrong direction.

A sense of trying too hard pervades the work of these five artists -- as if they are struggling to compensate for the slimness of their visions with the correctness of their references. The installations by Suzanne Lacy and Louise Sandhaus don’t have this problem. Half-baked and lazy, each could be engaging if either Lacy or Sandhaus bothered to develop it into anything more than a desultory diversion.

Lacy’s, which combines five photographs of yard sales, a poorly edited video of interviews with folks who shop at yard sales and a halfhearted reconstruction of a suburban garage’s interior, is undeveloped, unresolved and unfocused. It says nothing compelling about yard sales and is far less interesting to visit than the real thing.

Sandhaus is a graphic designer whose installation consists of a proposal for a book about the history of design in Southern California. It’s a great subject. But it’s not art. Imagine an artist doing a proposal for an exhibition as the exhibition. It could be interesting, but a fully realized exhibition would probably be better.

Far and away the most satisfying works are the simplest: Judie Bamber’s six page-size drawings of her mother and Alex Slade’s 14 color photographs of a mall in Rochester, N.Y. Bamber’s “Mom With Beehive” and “Mom With Tan Lines” capture the mystery of individual identity, the complexity of family relationships and the curious blend of intimacy and distance that suffuses both.

Slade’s crisp pictures give vivid form to the weirdness at the heart of Middle America. Without making fun of anyone, his accessible photos of run-of-the-mill settings invite double takes again and again.

Like Bamber’s drawings -- and unlike almost everything else here -- these works are more interesting than the explanations that surround and support them. They redeem the trials and tribulations of being a mid-career artist with their potential to age well -- to mature into bodies of work that haunt the imagination and resonate for subsequent generations.


COLA 2008

Where: Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays

Ends: July 16

Price: Free

Contact: (323) 644-6269