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The Word on Los Angeles as Subject for Fine Art

Showcasing the local art scene as a Los Angeles cultural celebrity supports the idea that the region has firmly developed its own commercial fine art culture.

That's the takeaway from the 18th annual L.A. Art Show, which closed Sunday after five days of attracting gallery owners and collectors wanting to escape cold weather with a strong set of exhibitions and panels.

In a city inhabited by those who arrive with desire for reinvention, the locals who create art in Los Angeles risk being seen as outsiders. But with time, as their art is influenced by the region, it becomes a constant evolving and mutable form, migrating ideas from other places.

On Thursday, the panel "To Live and Paint in L.A." featured Jason Shawn Alexander, Gary Baseman, and Greg "Craola" Simkins speaking about their experience working in the Los Angeles area. A general consensus was formed between the panel of artists: Los Angeles allowed them the chance to combine media, such as commercial, multimedia, and fine arts, and that their art is a bit of entertaining themselves, and a bit of entertaining the public.

The city has broadened his perspective, said Alexander. "I no longer call myself a painter, I call myself an artist." When Baseman spoke about commercial art versus fine art, the illustrator/toy designer/animator told the attentive audience, "it's not about walking the line, but blurring the line." Graffiti artist Greg "Craola" Simkins seemingly had a desire to stay local, admitting to shying away from traveling aboard to be hosted by galleries featuring his work.

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Steven Greenfield's Gameface and Nightmare at the L.A. Art Show I Photo by Helen Ly

Los Angeles' commercial typography landscape acted as a muse for works featured in the exhibition "Letters from Los Angeles: Text in Southern California Art." The artists used words, numerals, and text to form an aesthetic that "might even be seen as a logical antecedent to the current spotlight on contemporary graffiti and tattoo art."

The exhibition reasons that the Hollywood sign is the most famous text in the region, making it a direct metaphor to celebrity culture. It's also a starting point to reinterpret Los Angeles typography as art content, as seen in works by Edward Ruscha among others.

The exhibition and the accompanying panel gave an extended life to the the text-themed exhibition at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, which had closed on January 19. The show itself "originated out of an idea I didn't have," confessed Rutberg to the panelists, which included Mark Steven Greenfield, Bruce Richards, and Alexis Smith. A suggestion from a friend prompted the idea, said Rutberg, adding that text in L.A. "has a unique role" and that no other city has its initials as strong an identifier as its name.

Rutberg also stated that the least interesting interpretation of type imagery is to bypass its nuance and considering it merely "text art."

An avid reader with a degree in humanities, artist Alexis Smith's interest in writing formed into a "hybrid text art thing," which she expresses through large collages. Early in her career she worked alongside Frank Gehry, during which she developed a public art strategy based on his saying, "If it looked good small, it looks good big."

Mark Steven Greenfield's exhibition work includes "Gameface" and "Nightmare," a demonstration of reference to language that is a challenge for some gallery owners. At one point, he said, a gallery owner attempted to tell him what words to put in his art, suggesting that the artist was unable to curate proper words for his own text.

Bruce Richards' response to how text interacts with image carried a simple logic. To Richards, naming one's art is already an exercise in using words as an aesthetic exchange with the final imagery. "Titles, to me, are text," he said.

L.A. Art Show I Photo by Helen Ly

Recently, surveys on what is considered fine art in Los Angeles has allowed graffitti and murals to become topics in the conversation. The L.A. Art Show is not new to presenting street art and mural part of the Los Angeles art ethos, as graffiti artists have reached fine art status in previous shows. Which, of course, translates into being collectible.

But art that cannot be owned was the theme of "Rebuilding Out Heritage: Ordinance Reform and the Impending Mural Resurgence in L.A.," a Saturday panel with major mural stakeholders who have participated in the "current mural resurgence in Los Angeles."

Chicano murals that originated in the 1970s were noted as indigenous work ready to be revived with the expected approvals of the city's mural ordinance. For those who have not followed the saga closely here or elsewhere, it may be news that this was even an issue.

"Rebuilding our Heritage" became a recanting of personal perspectives on the future of murals, with Isabel Rojas-Williams, Executive Director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, as moderator.

The panelists included artist Glenna Avila, who spoke about her revived "L.A. Freeway Kids" painted in 1984 for the Los Angeles Olympics. "This is not an art people can have and own," she said. "It is an art people can see".

Tanner Blackman, urban planner for the Office of Councilmember Jose Huizar, City Council District 14, shared that his role as the city planner in drafting the mural ordinance contributes to art policy, and hoped to untangle "a complicated combination of advertising, art, and public space." "[There is now] distinction between art and advertising," said Blackman, while previous policy made everything "equally unfair".

Christopher Espinosa, appointed General Manager of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, focused on the opening of América Tropical Interpretive Center, which presents the history of El Pueblo as one about "free speech, protest . . . a place for immigrants to get together."

Artist Judithe Hernandez was reintroduced to murals after finding out how the city's mural regulations blocked young artists from freely expressing themselves. Murals must continue the long tradition of art as social commentary, she said. "Public art is the only thing that can do that."

Artist Man One shared his early experience of growing up with murals in East L.A. and Boyle Heights, and later wanting to create artwork of that scale, even if his medium was an aerosol can. "All I wanted to do was art, but I'm being prevented by the law," he said. He then expressed concern about how in Los Angeles, all graffiti is associated with gangs. "If I had a paint brush, it wouldn't be a problem."

During the question and answer period, J. Michael Walker, another "Letters from Los Angeles" artist, chimed in with his views on murals. His statement could be the shared tagline for those waiting for the ordinance to be approved: murals are about "turning walls inside out." He continued, "a wall is about creating barriers. Muralism is about erasing that wall."

L.A. Art Show I Photo by Helen Ly

Top Photo: San Miguel Street: The Last Judgement of Don Vicente de los Reves de la Osa" (2007) By J. Michael Walker. The L.A. Art Show 2013 photos and contributing reporting by Helen Ly.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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