The history of art in Southern California isn't linear; it is a fluid, multi-angled continuum made from the personal experiences of many artists from myriad backgrounds. So to trace the trajectory of Southern California art, Artbound is creating a collective timeline comprised of the decisive events that shaped artists' creative development. We hope that in the space between these personal histories, an impressionistic view of Southern California's art history will come into focus.
Today we talk to Los Angeles artist Alexandra Grant.
The Mexican American War
I grew up in Mexico City and so as a child I learned all the states of Mexico before I knew the American states. And when I was choosing where to settle as an artist after my education, I wanted to live somewhere that made perfect sense to me and L.A. did because it's a Mexican city. One of the reasons for me Los Angeles is as exciting a place today is because it is so diverse. It still is a Mexican city, but it's also a Korean city, an Armenian city, an African-American city, it's a city where everyone coexists and brings their particular energies together. That story of how in The Mexican-American War, General Stockton came and attacked General Flores from Mexico and they finally settled that L.A. was the capital of this Mexican state and became basically the capital of a new part of The United States.
After the Mexican-American War, there was a kind of attempt to erase the Mexican part of California, in a way. How do you feel about this revisionist history?
There's been this romanticized vision of California always being California and that the Spaniards somehow transferred ownership to the American government. There's this entire chunk of history missing and I think like anything repressed, it's bubbling back up to the surface naturally. That even if you want to erase part of history, or romanticize it, or gloss it over, it always will come back. That's why it was the first thing on my list because it is the most important part of history for me of Los Angeles. It is this hybrid that is 50% Mexican today, but it always has been.
Olvera Street is an imagined world; a Disneyland version of the Mexican experience. What impact does that have on you?
I heard a story -- so I might not have the facts totally right -- that Olvera Street was built later. It's not a part of the Mexican history of Los Angeles. It was built as an effort to cover up what had been an oil field in town, so it almost has sort of this Hollywood feel to it because it was constructed after a time to mimic a romantic version of a Mexican town. I think it's important to realize that that's not the true Mexican history of Los Angeles. It's not far from there in Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights, but I think that the false front of glamorizing or making this romantic peasant village of what Mexican American history is, is a disservice to everyone. It's a disservice to people who don't know Mexico and think of it as being sort of rural, or sombrero, or oompah music. And it's a disservice to Mexicans because that's not who Mexicans are. I mean Mexico City is one of the world's most vibrant and sophisticated cities in the world and I think that it's our role for people who understand both sides of the border to continue to explain that the history is seen very differently south of the border, that it's much more sophisticated.
The Watts Towers
I've been involved with a project called the Watts House Project for about four years and through that project got to know the neighborhood and especially the Watts Towers. That they're one of the only monuments in Los Angeles that's on the National Historic registry points to their importance. That a single person, and I'm a very tall person, but that a single man who is 4'11 made these almost 100 feet sculptures out of his house using steel rebar and using tile over a span of thirty years and then just sort of left them to be taken care of, first by a neighbor and then by a group of citizens who cared for them as a prominent example of outsider art. I think it's just so important to the history of Los Angeles. That neighborhood is so interesting because at first it was a European immigrant neighborhood and then a Southern Black immigrant neighborhood and now it's a mostly Latino neighborhood and the waves of immigration point against the waves of the tower as a symbol of sort of what's possible in the United States. I think that's why people move to Los Angeles and that they are a very hopeful monument, as well.
How has that informed your art?
I grew up around Azulejos tiles and a lot of craft work that my mom collected on various trips, and so I was very open to artwork not being just in formal places but informally practiced by artisans. I come to the Watts Towers after having lived in Barcelona and thinking about sagrada familia and the use of materials and creating complex architectural forms using just the imagination not sophisticated tools. So the spirit of the towers is the most important part. It's the symbol of what one person can do. Again this one man who worked at a tile factory made this thing that's so beautiful -- but out of garbage and things that were thrown away. I think it's a real symbol for our age of how we as artists need to think about creating beauty in spots that aren't necessarily considered beautiful, out of things that would normally be thrown away.
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Why is the preservation of the towers important to you?
The preservation of the towers is important for the reason that they belong to everyone in Los Angeles, but more specifically the efforts of those who went to preserving them. The city wanted to destroy them and they were put through a series of stress tests to see if they would fall in an earthquake. They were built, again by one person, so he actually only went about a foot deep in the ground, so they're not reinforced in the ground. There was great fear that they would fall. The stress tests seem quite comical now, but they tied the tallest tower to a tow truck who tried to pull it down and it didn't succeed so they were allowed to stand. This was in the 60's and it really was a band of citizens who came together to preserve them. Then the city got involved and now the L.A. County Museum of Art is involved in protecting them.
But what I love about the towers is that they mean so much to so many different people. The towers art center is run by a group of people who are deeply passionate about the arts community in Watts, which historically has been African American. That's been an incredible place for people who haven't been able to show their work in any other venues. So the towers really symbolize a lot of hope for different groups who have not benefited from a lot of privilege within the art world, or in the world at large. I think that's a part of why they are so important.
The Rise of Modern Architecture in L.A.
I'm not an expert about Modern Architecture but what has struck me growing up in Mexico City -- and now living in Los Angeles and traveling the world -- is that the modernism from the Bauhaus reached every corner of the world and was received differently in each context and Los Angeles was so influenced by three Austrian Americans: by Lautner, by Schindler, by Neutra and the spatial imagination. It's not just an imagination that is impacted architects, it impacts how we see the city through the photographs of Shulman. How glamorous we picture these skylines with these boxes. I think modernism took hold in L.A. differently than it did in other cities. You have Barragán in Mexico City, but again a completely different palette of materials and color. I really think that the exodus from Europe, between WWI and WWII - the intellectuals, affected culture here and more broadly, in ways that we're still just figuring out.
Recreating Niki de Saint's Phalle's Work, Tears
I was invited for Pacific Standard Time to reenact Tears, Niki de Saint Phalle's seminal work shooting guns at objects to create paintings. I have to say at first I was completely resistant. I'm terrified of guns. The reason I was so excited to participate was that it forces me to reevaluate an artist whose importance, I think, has been overlooked; in part because she was so glamorous and so sexy, but in part because what she did was so scary.
She was the only female member of the Nouveaux Réalistes, this group of French activist artists who took on the notion of happenings creating events to rethink what painting was and what drawing was. Her idea was to cover a painted surface in bladders and balloons of paint and then shoot the gun, which for a petite woman who would of been a Vogue cover model was quite radical. She abandoned her family to run off with another artist, Jean Tinguely. When she did these performances in L.A. in 1962, every eminent person from Hollywood and the art world was there watching her do this. It was kind of a radical feminism in that it was a woman empowering herself with a phallic gun, but it also introduced violence to the art language in a way that I don't know had been done, especially by a woman in Los Angeles.
CalArts Woman's Building.
The Woman's building was a feminist school, a place to practice art that was established in the 1970's out of CalArts. A group of women had decided that a feminist education was important. They rented a building where there would be a feminist workshop launching new technologies to only women artists and the new technology was video. So women were encouraged to make all sorts of artwork but especially use this brand new medium. Women filmed themselves doing every imaginable thing and I think were quite empowered by it. No museum have ever collected video before. It really was a wonderful moment in terms of women empowering themselves through granting themselves space, and time, and again a new technology. The building is on North Spring Street and still exists as studios and it was actually where I had my first studio in L.A. I was there for about eight years. In this show about Video Art that Glen Phillips did at the Getty, the man who was working to transfer all the old videos from the Long Beach Museum of Art, he would call and say "You know I just watched 14 hours of vaginal video being made at your current studio," and I would look around the studio and think, "How cool! This place actually was a place where something was done for the first time."
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