L.A.'s artistic iconoclasts

All artists inhabit worlds of their own making to a certain extent. Van Gogh’s ecstatic swirling stars, for example, or Munch’s tortured scream are raw expressions of rich, deeply eccentric visions. But some artists take this impulse to obsessive extremes. Their desire to construct alternate universes, act out fantasies or probe psychological undercurrents drives them to conduct extensive research, spend years working on a single painting or build life-size environments that rival the scenic follies of Hollywood. ¶ Opening this weekend at the Hammer Museum, “Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A.” explores the relationship between such fanatical artistic endeavors and the psychic and physical landscape of Los Angeles. The exhibition is the latest in the biennial “Hammer Invitationals,” a series that since 2001 has focused on various aspects of Los Angeles art. Featuring nine local artists known for their idiosyncratic, often incredibly detailed work, “Nine Lives” celebrates the fanciful extremes of individual creativity and delves into some of its darker, more troubling corners. It also blurs the line between fact and fiction, which has been an increasingly familiar, sometimes disturbing trend in literary memoirs, reality TV and online communities such as Second Life.

Ward Kimball: An article in Sunday’s Calendar section about L.A.-based artists referred to Llyn Foulkes’ former father-in-law, one of Disney’s original “Nine Old Men,” as Ward Kimbell. His last name was Kimball. —

Charles Irvin: An article in the March 8 Arts & Books section about the Hammer Museum exhibition “Nine Lives: Visionary Artists From L.A.” said that Charles Irvin had made a video about false memory syndrome. It was about the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. —

Julie Becker’s multimedia work traces an imagined, if macabre, connection between herself and the deceased former tenant of her apartment. Charles Irvin’s video mimics the style of conspiracy theory documentaries to examine another kind of fiction -- False Memory Syndrome (in which psychiatric patients develop convincing but unfounded memories of abuse). And Victoria Reynolds’ voluptuous, glistening abstract paintings are actually close-ups of raw meat. The exhibition also includes works by Lisa Anne Auerbach, Llyn Foulkes, Hirsch Perlman, Kaari Upson, Jeffrey Vallance and Charlie White.

“There’s both a critical engagement with the stuff of the world and a fantastical retreat or projection,” says Los Angeles writer and critic Jan Tumlir. He curated an exhibition last year at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Gallery that drew a link between the region’s wide-open vistas and themes of illusion, utopia and apocalypse. “This kind of thinking -- about whole new worlds rising from the ashes -- is helped along by the landscape.”

According to “Nine Lives” curator Ali Subotnick, the city’s sprawl also exerts a more practical influence. Upon moving here from New York in 2006 to join the Hammer’s staff, she was struck by L.A.'s relatively plentiful and inexpensive studio spaces. “These artists can have these huge spaces and don’t have to work nonstop, 9-to-5, in order to supplement their income,” she says. “They can actually take the time to really get into their work.”

From personal to protest

A month before the show’s opening, Llyn Foulkes was still in the thick of it. His surreal paintings and assemblages often deal with highly personal psychological issues, and the wiry, 74-year-old artist was struggling to finish “The Awakening,” a painting he began in the early ‘90s in response to the breakup of his marriage.

The image depicts Foulkes and his wife in bed -- he’s sitting bolt upright with a book; she’s curled in a fetal position around a large egg that he says symbolizes their children. Characteristic of his work, the image blends illusionistic, painted space with 3-D elements; he had embedded two sparkling metal screws to represent his eyes and was planning to add locks of his own hair. “I’m trying to finish this bedroom picture that’s extremely personal,” he says. “I’m not somebody who’s just kind of following the art scene, you know? And that’s probably why my things seem so unusual.”

Foulkes, who is also a musician (see accompanying story), has cut a fractious path through the Los Angeles art world, in large part because of his uncompromising independence. In the late ‘50s, he joined the influential Ferus Gallery but was “kicked out,” he says, for criticizing another gallery artist’s work. In 1969, at the height of his commercial success, he abandoned the large landscape paintings that made him famous and began a series of intimate self-portraits. “I was losing my soul,” he says, “So I got back into some kind of investigation rather than just hacking out the same things.” “Nine Lives” includes a selection of works from his more than 40-year career; the earliest is from 1961.

Subotnick says the concept for the exhibition crystallized when she met Foulkes. She had originally planned the show around two other Los Angeles artists who subsequently declined to participate; Foulkes’ intense engagement with his work was reinvigorating. “He represents to me what an artist should be,” she says: He’s “able to bring things out that maybe some people would be afraid to think about or talk about. He has no fear in that way.”

The main target of Foulkes’ outspokenness over the years has been the Disney corporation, and “Nine Lives” includes the 2007 painting “Deliverance,” in which he depicts himself holding a gun, standing over a very dead-looking Mickey Mouse. Disney, he says, is “one of the biggest examples of what’s wrong with our society.” He is especially critical of the corporation’s marketing campaigns that focus on children. This very public crusade also has a bittersweet personal angle: his former father-in-law, Ward Kimbell, was one of Walt Disney’s original “Nine Old Men,” the team of animators behind the studio’s classic movies.

Although he may be the most strident, Foulkes isn’t the only artist in “Nine Lives” to cast a skeptical eye on the relationship between media, image and consumerism. Charlie White’s photographic series “Teen and Transgender Comparative Study” uses the stark format of a scientific study to raise pointed questions about femininity and self-image. Each photo depicts a teenage girl and a pre-op transgender woman side by side, from the shoulders up, against a light blue grid. “The subjects are both going through a form of puberty,” writes White in an e-mail. “Both are following a trajectory towards femininity, towards woman. One is doing this chemically, and the other is doing it biologically.”

He hopes viewers will see the overlap. “When they are placed side by side, they help to illustrate femininity in contemporary society,” he writes, adding that his focus on femininity is simply a way of getting at bigger, underlying issues: “I don’t know if I’m as critical of the idea of ‘girl’ in culture as I am critical of culture, capitalism and sense of self.”

White, director of the Master of Fine Arts program at USC, developed his project during two years of research documenting in photographs the life of a teenage girl, Cyrilla Strothers, from age 16 to 18. The 36-year-old artist, who is well versed in the legal and ethical requirements of working with minors, never photographed Strothers himself but relied on her friends and family to snap what eventually amounted to 11,000 images. Although a few of them appear in his recent book, “American Minor,” White regards the photos not as an artwork but as an image database that has influenced all of his subsequent work. Indeed, “Teen and Transgender Comparative Study” is part of a larger project titled “Girl Studies.”

‘It seems natural’

Kaari Upson has undertaken a very different kind of study. The slim, blond San Bernardino native, 36, built a full-scale replica of the Playboy mansion’s infamous grotto in her studio and secluded herself within it for hours at a time. Inside, she consulted with psychics, Gestalt therapists, sex therapists and phone-sex workers via speakerphone and enacted psychosexual scenarios with a “twin,” a life-size doll she made in her own likeness.

In the exhibition, videos of these sessions appear inside the grotto, which is roughly 35 feet long, 12 feet high and filled with 200 gallons of water. “I’m next door to this woman who teaches pole dancing and then down the street they’re shooting porn,” says Upson, with a chuckle, about her studio’s North Hollywood location. “It seems natural that there’s a giant water grotto in my giant studio where then I get naked with these prosthetics that I made out of body parts.”

The grotto is the latest installment in a project Upson has been working on since 2005, when she found a box of personal effects in a house that burned down across the street from her parents’ home. The journals and photographs belonged to a man Upson dubbed “Larry” (to protect his real identity) and revealed a fascination with Hugh Hefner, the Playboy mansion and the self-actualization movements of the ‘70s and ‘80s, such as Gestalt and est. Drawn to this New Age, wannabe playboy, Upson embarked on a detailed investigation that quickly escalated from basic Internet research to handwriting analysis and comparisons of his-and-hers astrological charts.

In an installation at the Hammer last year, Upson documented her growing intimacy with Larry in myriad drawings, paintings, photographs and videos, culminating in a disturbingly visceral merger of Larry’s identity with her own.

The new work, by contrast, is a kind of exorcism. “I thought a lot about reinvention and kind of this California process that this guy Larry seemed very obsessed with,” she says. “It seemed like a natural road for me to turn back inwards and then use some of those methods that he was taking on in the ‘70s and ‘80s and use them on myself to kind of become whole without him or without the male other.”

Clearly, Upson is deeply invested in her narrative, so much so that it’s difficult to separate what’s real from what’s not. “She definitely straddles that line,” says Subotnick, “and sometimes you wonder, ‘Is it her really? Or is she just a character?’ and sometimes I think maybe she doesn’t know.”