Situated just northeast of Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley is home to large immigrant communities, and features every flavor and style of Asian cuisine you could possibly wish for. But when it comes to art, that's a tall order.
I've lived in the San Gabriel Valley for a few years now, and as a working art critic, I've complained about spending so much time driving to the usual suspects of the gallery world: Santa Monica, Culver City and West Hollywood. With the exception of Pasadena, which has a plethora of museums and galleries, art in the SGV never seems to make it onto my radar. But why not? Does it not exist, or have I not looked hard enough?
A few weeks ago, I set out on a mission: find art in the SGV. The San Gabriel Valley includes monied bedroom communities in Pasadena, San Marino, Rowland Heights, and others, but has yet to spark a really lively contemporary art scene. My search was far from exhaustive--I excluded museum-rich Pasadena and I'm sure there are many more neighborhoods and areas to explore. I didn't find much. However, looking for art in the SGV did make me re-examine my definition of the term, confronting some deep-seated biases. Basically, I am a snob.
For example, instead of the hushed, pristine white rooms I'm familiar with, galleries in the SGV seem to be cluttered with an array of gifts, cards, and books. In the SGV, galleries look more like stores. They might also provide framing services or art classes. I won't even mention the many coffeehouses and cafés that line their walls with art. Of course, their more "serious" compatriots on the Westside are also essentially stores--they may try to look like museums, but they are still in the business of selling things. Admittedly though, I prefer the white box. I found it distracting to try to look at art in cluttered spaces, amid tea pots, hats, and jewelry, but perhaps I was falling prey to the logic of the luxury brand: If your store has almost nothing in it, and something is perched alone on a pedestal, it must be inherently more interesting and valuable than the stuff piled high at the discount store down the street.
Another reason SGV galleries don't receive much media attention is because they deal in genres or styles of art that are considered old-fashioned or "lowbrow." Whereas contemporary art galleries elsewhere tout the intellectual underpinnings and historical pedigrees of the works they champion, art in the SGV seems to be much more about aesthetic pleasure and entertainment. At Nucleus, a combination store and gallery on a nondescript section of Main Street in Alhambra, it's directly related to the entertainment industry. With a sleek, futuristic logo and interior design reminiscent of an Apple Store, the gallery sells work by hip commercial artists as well as an array of prints, books and toys. Owner Ben Zhu defines "commercial art" as drawings, paintings, and graphics created by artists who work in the illustration, design, film, and video game industries. "It's the stuff that goes into the films and video games we love," he says. For him, Nucleus is a way to get people to see and appreciate this work as art in its own right.
Katya Shaposhnik, the gallery director at Space art center in South Pasadena, describes much of the work being shown in the SGV as "safe"--mostly picturesque California landscapes. By contrast, at Space she says, "We choose artists whose work ignites our passions." When I visited, the walls of the small gallery were covered with works that were neither entirely safe nor exactly cutting edge. Abira Ali's brushy, earnest portraits of animals possess a naïve charm, but don't risk much beyond that. Kathleen Coyle embellishes painted abstractions with lovely, delicate needlework, although some of her compositions tend toward the busy and overwrought. And a window installation by Joan Weinzettle consisting of hanging columns of twigs is perhaps too subtle--it's hard to differentiate it from the displays at the fancy landscaping store next door.
Yet this last critique feels unfair. To be sure, a lot of "high-end" contemporary art is hard to distinguish from construction materials, interior design, or, well, just plain trash. The difference, often times, is all in the framing. Most museums and blue chip galleries are not located next to a gardening store; their clean, white, spacious galleries are designed for careful, rapt, contemplation. It's this setting that confers the status "art." As we've seen time and time again--ever since Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal on a pedestal in 1917--you can put anything in a gallery, and voilá, it's art.
So do SGV galleries that look like stores also confer this status? Not so much. Here, the artworks look more like consumer goods, but that's largely by design. Shaposhnik says they don't want Space to be intimidating; in selecting art to exhibit, she emphasizes affordability and wide appeal. "We encourage people to buy art that speaks to them," she says, "art they fall in love with and want to look at for a long time."
This comment reminded me of a recent visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. After seeing the Surrealist exhibition "In Wonderland," one of my companions remarked that she had a hard time imagining any of the paintings hanging on her walls at home. This is not surprising given that much of the work in the show involved severed body parts and grotesque imaginary creatures, but the comment took me aback. As someone who looks at art regularly, I never think about whether the art I see would go well with my couch. For one thing, on a writer's income, I could never afford to buy most of the art I write about--in the art world, I am a perpetual window shopper. What's more, my companion's consumerist approach to art appreciation is widely frowned upon in the upper echelons of the art establishment, where ideas and bombast usually come first. High-end collectors are typically more interested in enhancing their social and financial portfolios than their home décor.
What this divide comes down to is an issue of class, of course. We elevate and value expensive art--whether a diamond-encrusted skull or a canvas full of polka dots--because it is expensive, and rich people have more power and influence than poor people. I've been paying lots of attention to art for the 1%. Why haven't I shown more interest in art for the 99%? As Zhu says, "People in Alhambra need art too."
However, one of the problems I've found with writing about "safe," commercial, or lowbrow art is that often, there's just not that much to talk about. You can discuss the expressiveness of a line or the skillful use of color; admire an impish grin, or wince at a torturously twisted limb. But it's usually hard to find anything more meaningful than that. For me, it's not that interesting to just look at pretty (or shocking or amazing) pictures. I want them to "say" something. I want them to change the way I look at the world, to make me question or see something anew. In some ways, I want them to step out of that frame called "art" and colonize something that wasn't art before.
In a 1983 performance in Harlem's African-American Day Parade, artist Lorraine O'Grady gave gold picture frames to a group of young performers who walked the parade route inserting their own faces and the faces of others into the frames, declaring themselves and their neighborhood to be art. Art's not the stuff in the picture, O'Grady was saying, it's actually the frame. It's a giant arrow, a nearly empty white room, that says, or whispers, or shouts, "Look at this!" It's a mechanism for sharing something that the artist wants us to see differently, whether that's the horrors of war, the play of light on the water, or the beauty and vibrancy of Harlem.
Some contemporary art does this; an equal amount pretends to do this; and much of it doesn't give a damn one way or the other. I suppose most of the art I've seen in the SGV falls into this last category. It's not trying to change the world or make us see it anew--it just wants to be loved and appreciated.
And sometimes that's enough, even for the big shots. Also on view at LACMA is Chris Burden's "Metropolis," a huge, jumbled mass of toy car and train tracks that swoop and curl through a miniature city made of blocks, erector sets, and myriad toys. It's Hot Wheels on steroids; an ultimate childhood fantasy. As I watched the colorful cars zoom endlessly around, I struggled to distill some greater meaning from it all. Perhaps it was a comment on the congestion and stress of the city. It would also be easy to critique the vast amounts of time and resources the piece consumes. But it's so successful at creating a spectacle of pure, naïve joy that I'm tempted--despite my better critical instincts--to say it was worth it. Despite the fact that there's a ton of money flowing through it, the work does share something with the best of its down-market brethren in the SGV: it's all about making us happy.
Top Image: Swinging, Abira Ali. 2011, 9x12, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Space.
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