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Alleyway Appeal: Miha Štrukelj's Explorations of West L.A.

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 Miha Štrukelj, "Stozice."

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

Miha Štrukelj is a Slovenian artist working in painting, drawing, installation and site-specific work. His interest is in the linear elements of urban landscapes and the geometric building blocks of architectural forms. The son of a mathematician, it is no wonder that his eye consistently gravitates to images fixed from comparative ratios like textbook pie charts and the numerical equations realized in building constructions.

Štrukelj is visiting artist residency at 18th Street Arts Center is supported by a grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, a foundation sponsoring cultural exchanges between artists in Central and Eastern Europe and non-profit organizations in the United States that works to engage local communities through its programs. He is the tenth artist in residence that TMU has sponsored at 18th Street. TMU's mission is directly linked with 18th Street's goal of provoking critical dialogue through contemporary art-making. The residency at 18th Street has provided Štrukelj with opportunities for cultural exchange through internal programs for visiting artists such as tours of art spaces and studio visits with local curators, as well as public programs such as panels and artist talks that enhance 18th Street's everyday atmosphere of dialogue and exchange.

Štrukelj arrived at 18th Street with an idea in mind of how he was going to focus his time here, but his direction changed when he began exploring the city and became entranced with the 'culture of alleyways.' While observing the travel patterns of Angelenos, Štrukelj had a realization that inspired a new body of work. He noticed the masses of people and the constant congestion on main roads that is so commonplace for locals. As one of the largest cities in the country, the presence of human traffic on every central route in Los Angeles was not surprising, but what caught Štrukelj's eye were the deserted alleyways splitting off from these main roads like dried-up tributaries.

Miha Å trukelj, "Melting Pot"
Miha Štrukelj, "Melting Pot"

Štrukelj describes the alleyway appeal, saying "It's something that I haven't experienced before, it's mostly visually appealing but it's also kind of interesting from a social point of view. [In Santa Monica] you see a lot of people out on Main Street or Third Street Promenade, but if you go one block up, not even to 4th Street but in between, there's an alley. It's like an on/off switch. No one is there. It is complete quiet. It's so different in this country. That's why I was drawn to these alleys. So this is where I started. I started taking pictures of alleys around Santa Monica and Venice." A wall of Štrukelj's 18th Street studio is covered with prints of his alleyway photographs and a few shots of a grouping of cable towers that he was especially drawn to on the corner of Essex and Washington in Culver City.

Štrukelj's process begins with these photographs, which are then transferred to a large canvas through a series of steps creating a mathematically rendered grid structure. The process, he explains, is a story within itself. "A very important part of my work is the process. I am interested in how things are developed, showing how I came to the idea. I wanted to show all the steps of the process to making the painting. I always start with the grid structure from the reference photo. I use grids to track proportion from the photo, to the drawing, to the painting. This is the first step, and then I do the outline of the image. This is always the first layer." Referencing his latest work, Alley I, he says, "I cover some fields within the grid [with tape]. I cover exactly 1/3 of the painting. I calculate how many squares there are on the whole surface -- this one has 238 all together. Then I do the underground painting, which is the image that you see. Then I uncover the fields, most of them, not all of them. Here I decided to leave some. So this is kind of unpredictable."

Miha Å trukelj, "Bazaar 2-4"
Miha Štrukelj, "Bazaar 2-4"
Miha Å trukelj, "Construction site 2-6
Miha Štrukelj, "Construction site 2-6

The painting that Štrukelj is describing is a stunning mixed media piece that reveals evidence of his entire process, from traces of tape and pencil sketches to detailed acrylic renderings of the unknown Westside. "What would you do with all these fields?" he asks. "Whether you uncover them and leave them empty, or cover them in a variety of mediums, or just leave them as they are. I use numbers so I can keep track of how many squares I've covered, but it's not predetermined. It's not related to the image, so I never know how it will look in the end. Even though the painting is quite technical, and there are a lot of calculations, it is still very much a painting process. You can't predict all these layers."

Štrukelj continues, "So this one is finished. I deliberately left it in this undeveloped state because it kind of relates to these alleys. A lot of these alleys look very chaotic. Everything, even these cable towers are always bent, never straight." When questioned as to how he concluded a piece was finished, he stressed, "It took me about two weeks to figure out one little detail. For at least a few days I didn't even touch the painting. I was just looking at it and trying to figure out what was missing. It was this small piece that had to be done a little differently. I don't know. It was more of a feeling. It's not something you learn in school. It's just a feeling. And of course it's kind of personal, I guess. Just because it works for you, doesn't mean it works for someone else."

Looking around Štrukelj's studio, there seemed to be several works being developed simultaneously in various stages of process. With regards to how long it normally took to start and finish a single painting, he said "It really depends, back home I do large paintings, maybe twice the size of this, and it's done in oil which takes much longer because you have to wait for layers to dry. Here I use acrylic because I sleep in the same space," he says while laughing.

Miha Å trukelj, "Drawing 2"
Miha Štrukelj, "Drawing 2"
Miha Å trukelj, "Galata Bridge"
Miha Štrukelj, "Galata Bridge"

Experimenting with mediums is a new challenge that Štrukelj has welcomed during his 18th Street residency. "This is something new for me. It's a medium I haven't used since the Academy. I use oil back home. So this is new, completely different, I was kind of struggling at first. I wasn't sure how to approach it. I had to handle it very differently. I had to do research." Though working with acrylics was an adjustment for Miha, he is warming up to the new medium. "So far I like it," he admitted. "Acrylic is much easier to handle, and you can be quicker. And I like it because it's more expressive too. You can really [let loose]. You don't have to be as precise. I kind of like this roughness. Plus it makes more sense for the subject."

His new appreciation for acrylic isn't the only thing Štrukelj is taking away from his three-month residency. He has also taken hundreds of photographs around LA's Westside. He plans to use this material for reference and inspiration for years to come. "Normally when I travel somewhere I gather a lot of material," he says as he shuffles through a new pile of untouched photographs. "I'll work on this for one year, maybe even two, after the residency. So even travelling around and outside the city is a working process. I'm always being inspired and gathering material for my work."

Miha Å trukelj, "Memories of a City"
Miha Štrukelj, "Memories of a City"

When asked how this residency has impacted him on an artistic level, Štrukelj cites his newfound, Los Angeles inspiration in the abandoned culture of alleyways, as well as the opportunity to push his limits with new mediums, and also the space, both mental and physical, that the 18th Street residency provides. Because his paintings are often on a larger scale, Štrukelj has thrived in the spacious loft-style studio he currently calls home and is grateful for the mental freedom to experiment with his practice and create new works informed by this unique residency experience.

What's next for Štrukelj? After his 18th Street residency ends on June 30, the artist plans to return home to Slovenia to prepare for his upcoming installation at Tobacna 001 Cultural Centre in Ljubljana this September. After that he's heading to another residency, this time in Miami, Florida, where he has been selected for the Fountainhead Residency program from December 2014 through January 2015. It will be exciting to see how Štrukelj's impressions of Los Angeles recur in his work as his trajectory carries him away from the city, and hopefully back again.

For more information, or to contact the artist, visit his website.

Miha Å trukelj's triptych, "The City"
Miha Štrukelj's triptych, "The City"

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