How AI sees the world — in ways that are predictable, yet way off

An illustration of towering green trees above a red brick city.
An AI rendering by Midjourney imagines a phrase from a poem by Sesshu Foster: “eucalyptus trees in a Carlos Almaraz city.”
(Los Angeles Times / Midjourney)

One word: dumplings. I’m Carolina A. Miranda, art and design columnist for the Los Angeles Times, with all the best dough-wrapped foods and essential arts:

Signs of intelligent life

The interwebs, as of late, have been filled with images created by artificial intelligence rendering bots such as DALL-E and Midjourney — and the humans (I think they’re humans) using them as tools.

Brooklyn-based artist Zach Katz has used it to reimagine the urban design of cities. A reporter at SFGATE has undertaken a similar project, asking DALL-E 2 to retool some of the city’s architecture and infrastructure. (Sample prompt: “The Salesforce Tower but make it beautiful.”) In July, the Guardian rounded up four artists to come up with unlikely prompts — such as “biotech harpy in field at sunset” — for DALL-E Mini (the free, public version of DALL-E). The results got weird.

Naturally, the advent of bots that can create an image out of a simple text command is drawing the scrutiny of illustrators. In a lengthy report published this week, my colleague Steven Vargas looks at what the advent of this technology means for art.

Against a colorful background are many types of illustrated hands reaching toward the sky.
Some fear artificial intelligence could render illustrators obsolete; others worry it will perpetuate tropes.
(Ashley Cai / Los Angeles Times)

Some artists and art directors are finding ways to deploy the technology, such as video director Karen X. Cheng, who recently created an AI-generated cover for Cosmopolitan that shows a female astronaut on the surface of Mars. She says DALL-E 2 has made her able to “create different kinds of art that I never was before.”

But the bots, as Vargas writes, have “blurred the lines of ownership and heightened instances of bias” — since rendering bots frequently create their images off of what already exists.

The realness of some rendering systems, such as DALL-E 2, has raised other concerns, writes the New York Times’ Kevin Roose: “important questions about what all of this A.I.-generated art will be used for, and whether we need to worry about a surge in synthetic propaganda, hyper-realistic deepfakes or even nonconsensual pornography.”

At New York magazine, photo editor Megan Paetzhold put AI to the test. “As a tool, it’s incredibly easy to use — just type and wait,” she writes. “Extracting a satisfying image from DALL-E, on the other hand, is no simple task. Without giving it any stylistic guidelines (‘digital art’ or ‘surrealist’ or ‘sci-fi’ for example) the images DALL-E generates tend to be reminiscent of tragically terrible stock photography.”

Naturally, I’ve also been fooling around with AI renderings — employing the freebie version of Midjourney, which is accessed through Discord. (Of my favorite renderings, it’s hard to choose between “Ed Ruscha juice bar on fire” or “an indie band called Dead Lady Architects.”)

For The Times, I decided to see how AI might render L.A. Naturally, the early images I got delivered all of the tropes: palm trees, freeways, sunsets, smog. So I turned to literature, looking for vividly written descriptions from myth, poetry, essays and fiction — lines such as “a basin that looks like coffee-stained carpet with a few pointy rocks dropped on top” (penned in the ’70s by art critic Peter Plagens). That L.A. is an L.A. full of truly surreal sights and bizarre oddities.

The Times data graphics team then got to work feeding those excerpts into Midjourney. Overall, the program delivered some intriguing imagery — even if it wasn’t always on point. AI has no comprehension of a concept like “Miesian,” nor does it entirely comprehend subtractive words such as “without.” But the picture it paints of Los Angeles is like a bizarre fever dream, which I suppose is very L.A.

Find the whole visual poem right here.

An AI rendering shows a hazy night sky over a city punctuated by flashes of brilliant neon.
A phrase from Sandra Tsing Loh’s memoir, “A Year in Van Nuys,” inspired this image from Midjourney.
(Los Angeles Times / Midjourney)

Special kudos to members of The Times’ estimable data graphics team — Ashley Cai, Joy Park and Alex Tatusian for the remarkable design.

In the galleries

“The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art,” which just opened at LACMA, is the first major exhibition to chronicle a time of massive cultural transformation in Korea: the sunset of the 500-year Joseon Dynasty at the end of the 19th century followed by the one-two punch of Japanese occupation and the Korean War in the early 20th — a moment in which Modernism, which arrived via colonial enterprise, begins to mark the art of a nation. “Being drawn to Modern Western art opened up Korean culture in many ways hitherto unknown in the West, and the exhibition is worth seeing to understand the dynamic,” writes Times art critic Christopher Knight. “Just don’t expect many satisfactions beyond organized historical narrative.”

Portrait of a man in a fedora holding an artist's palette. In the background are hills and blue sky.
In his “Self-Portrait in Long Blue Coat,” circa 1948-49, artist Lee Qoede is seen holding paintbrushes typical of both Western and Asian art.
(Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times)

If global capitalism were an ASMR soundtrack, what would it sound like? That’s the vibe of artist Mika Rottenberg’s video installations, which feature absorbing juxtapositions of images that are as much about looking as they are about absorbing the work through all of your senses. There’s clacking and clicking, puffing and throat singing — not to mention a jiggling pile of turquoise gelatin. The New York-based artist is the subject of a solo show at Hauser & Wirth. She is also debuting her first feature film, “Remote,” made in collaboration with Mahyad Tousi, at MOCA this weekend — and I got an advance peek.

Sometimes a garment isn’t just a garment — and that’s certainly the case in the paintings of Carolyn Castaño, who currently has a solo show at Walter Maciel Gallery. There, the Colombian American artist takes the form of the ruana, a type of poncho common to the northern Andes, and uses it as a bright frame through which to view the world. She tells me that she refers to her brilliant color palette as “Mango Modernism” and “a political move against the hegemony of black and white.”

An earth-colored garment similar to a poncho on a mannequin in a corner of an art studio.
The ruana that once belonged to Carolyn Castaño’s grandmother on display in the artist’s studio.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

On my colleague Deborah Vankin’s radar is a new book of photography by Penny Wolin titled “Guest Register,” which records the lives of the denizens of the St. Francis Hotel in Hollywood during the 1970s. The book began as a student project in the spring of 1975 when Wolin was a student at ArtCenter and lived in the hotel for three weeks as part of her project. “There were people there on their way up, people on their way down, young and old, gay and straight, Black and white, people from all different walks.”

Over 25 years, Houston-based artist Trenton Doyle Hancock has created a universe of comic-book-like characters that regularly appear in his work. Three of them materialize in his ongoing solo show at Shulamit Nazarian, which also includes a chapter from a forthcoming graphic novel. “Most of the book will be clearly grounded in fantasy involving monsters, mutants and super beings,” he tells Vankin. “However, every third or fourth chapter will be based mostly in real-life situations that are embellishments on things that actually happened to me.”

A pair of framed comic book pages feature a man at a doorway and the word "Veganism."
Two pages from Trenton Doyle Hancock’s in-progress graphic novel.
(Trenton Doyle Hancock / Shulamit Nazarian)

The Orange County Museum of Art is set to open its doors early next month. Vankin, who has been incredibly busy, has a sneak peek of the museum’s new Morphosis-designed building.

Plus, she also checks in on the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Update: Like me, it’s running late.

On and off the stage

“The most beautiful sound an audience can make in a theater isn’t applause or even laughter. It’s the audible hush of rapt attention,” writes Times theater critic Charles McNulty. “At Sunday’s Los Angeles area premiere of ‘Sanctuary City’ at Pasadena Playhouse, you could hear the proverbial pin drop.” Martyna Majok’s “tense” and “gripping” drama charts the lives of two undocumented immigrants in Newark, N.J., in the wake of 9/11, trying to survive at a moment of intense xenophobia and political paranoia.

Two actors dressed in casual outfits stand on a sparsely furnished stage bathed in blue and lavender light.
Actors Miles Fowler and Ana Nicolle Chavez in “Sanctuary City.”
( Jeff Lorch)

Meanwhile, “Oklahoma!” has landed at the Ahmanson Theatre, and it’s safe to say that this is not your mother’s Rodgers & Hammerstein. The Tony-winning revival features a racially mixed cast that, per the production company, takes “what was once seen as a nostalgic and romantic vision of an idealistic prairie community” and transforms it into “a provocative, gritty, and sexy 21st-century commentary on America’s dark and oppressive histories.” McNulty says that this “bracing modern production isn’t trying to start a culture war. It just wants us to see the show with fresh eyes.”

“Jagged Little Pill,” the jukebox musical inspired by the multiplatinum Alanis Morissette album of the same name, has taken the stage at the Hollywood Pantages — and there is lots of crooning, rasping, belting and wailing, reports contributor Margaret Gray. There’s also a lot of turmoil beneath the veneer of U.S. suburban life: Tragedies accumulate, writes Gray, but “the show doesn’t leave its characters (or the audience) in extremis but comes back around with a hopeful moral.”

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The Frida Kahlo Theater in Westlake is a vital outlet creative outlet to the talent in its ranks: dishwashers, day laborers, factory workers and cooks. “Throughout their lives, many have been told that acting is not a real career,” writes The Times’ Selene Rivera, “that they don’t fit the Hollywood beauty mold, that they might end up jobless and homeless.” Operated by the long-running Sinergia Theatre Group, the Frida Kahlo instead offers art and community that cater to Spanish speakers.

Classical notes

L.A. Opera kicked off its new season with a production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” The narrative centers on a young woman named Lucia, who is forced into a loveless marriage and ends up killing her groom and going crazy. (Opera is such a mood.) Directed by Simon Stone, this version sets the action in the contemporary Rust Belt. “It is a striking production,” writes Times classical music critic Mark Swed, “the most theatrically engaging that L.A. Opera has mounted in some time, and also with the most consistently excellent cast.”

Two performers in casual contemporary clothes sing on a stage set that resembles a drive-in, complete with cars.
Arturo Chacón-Cruz and Amanda Woodbury perform in L.A. Opera’s new production of “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Swed also took a trip up north to check out John Adams’ “Antony and Cleopatra” at the San Francisco Opera. The characters may fail to come to life in this new production, but the score is quite alive. “It is in the orchestra where the magnificence of the opera lies,” writes Swed. “Ever churning, ever changing, ever exploring nuance, the orchestra reveals much about the characters in the opera — their inner essence and, to great extent, their outer aspects.”


The Aga Khan Award for Architecture has named six winners for its 2022 prize. They are: Co.Creation Architects, for a riverside promenade in Bangladesh; Rizvi Hassan, Khwaja Fatmi and Saad Ben Mostafa for a community space within a Rohingya refugee camp; andramatin, for a remarkable green roof airport in Indonesia; Ahmadreza Schricker Architecture North for the Argo Contemporary Art Museum & Cultural Centre in Tehran; East Architecture Studio, for a renovation of a guest house designed by Oscar Niemeyer in Lebanon; and Dawoffice, for a secondary school project in Senegal.

Artists vanessa german and Cauleen Smith have been named the recipients of the Heinz Art Awards.

Pacific Symphony has announced that music director Carl St.Clair is set to retire from his longtime post at the end of the 2023-24 season — though his contract could be extended if a search for a successor extends beyond that time.


Jack Brogan, a renowned fabricator of artworks for Light and Space artists such as Robert Irwin, has died at the age of 92. “The artists may have seen the Light,” writes Gordy Grundy in an obituary in Artillery, “but Brogan knew how to create the Space.”

Last year, Lawrence Wechsler profiled Brogan for the Brooklyn Rail. In that story, artist Lynda Benglis describes a figure who understood artists’ aims. “He doesn’t just deal with the materials, he deals with the aesthetics and the feeling of the piece, and that’s much more important than just having a fabricator.”

Virginia Dwan, an art gallerist and patron who helped support the careers of key 20th century artists, including Minimalists and land artists, is dead at 90. Among the art spaces she established were the Dwan Gallery in Westwood, where she showed L.A. artists such as Ed Kienholz, and brought artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Yves Klein to L.A. “We write often, all of us, about the importance of Walter Hopps and the Ferus Gallery,” former MOCA director Richard Koshalek tells contributor Catherine Wagley in Dwan’s obituary. “But we always forget to mention Virginia Dwan.”

Definitely read the obit for the anecdote about John Altoon hightailing it out of one of Klein’s performances.

A woman with short hair and wearing all black is seen photographed against an all-white background.
Virginia Dwan, pictured in 1998.
(Virginia Dwan Archive)

Valerie Maynard, a New York-born, Baltimore-based sculptor and printmaker whose work highlighted nuances of the Black experience, is dead at 85.

In New York, the life and work of Joan Didion was celebrated in a memorial ceremony at St. John the Divine in New York. “Literary New York and California both tried to claim Didion as one of their own during her lifetime,” writes Times contributor Carolyn Kellogg of Didion’s legacy. Kellogg spoke with figures such as Fran Lebowitz, Carl Bernstein and Calvin Trillin to understand how Didion was viewed.


In other news

Ukrainian stone statues known as babas, dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries, have been destroyed during the Russian occupation, reports the Art Newspaper.
— Good read: what Native artists have to say about Michael Heizer’s “City.”
— Curator Helen Molesworth has a new podcast out that examines the death of Ana Mendieta.
— The Art Newspaper’s Jori Finkel has a listen and talks to Molesworth about the making of the podcast: “When I took on the assignment, I very blithely assumed that everyone would be willing to talk ... ,” says Molesworth, “and that was not true.”
— L.A. Metro could use a bus mascot like Spain’s Bussi. 10/10 would ride this bus.

And last but not least ...

I am here for alllll the Adam Levine memes. Now, someone turn this into a musical.