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Architects X Artists 1: A Match Made in Venice

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Billy Al Neil Denari.
Billy Al Bengston and Neil M. Denari. Photo by Tibby Rothman. 

Art and architecture have been intertwined for millennia. Nonetheless, in Los Angeles, which has been defined creatively by artists and architects in equal measure, there exists a tension between the two fields, consisting, it seems, of mutual attraction, rivalry, and disdain.

Tibby Rothman, a Venice-based writer and editor (she founded and edited Venice Paper) and marketing strategist, decided to tap into the mutual attraction part of the relationship and has created a show, at Joe's Restaurant on Abbot Kinney, entitled "Artists X Architects 1," that matches the work of eleven Venice area artists with eleven architects. Her goal, she says, was to "illuminate how the paired individuals saw the world visually or approached it conceptually," and she asked each half of a chosen pair to meet, compare ideas, and select one piece from each other's work at a sketch or conceptual stage. She picked mostly architects and artists who she had come to know over her years in Venice, saying of them: "I did not get an MFA. They were my MFA."

John Frane and Barbara T. Smith | Photo: Tibby Rothman.
John Frane and Barbara T. Smith | Photo: Tibby Rothman.

She also mixed up patriarchs and matriarchs of the 60s and 70s art scene with some of the very talented architects who have made their mark in the area in the last 20 years -- Larry Bell and Lorcan O'Herlihy, Billy Al Bengston and Neil M. Denari, Laddie John Dill and Kulapat Yantrasast, Ned Evans and David Hertz, De Wain Valentine and Patrick Tighe, Alexis Smith and Lawrence Scarpa, Barbara T. Smith and John Frane, of Predock_Frane. Also paired were: Laurie Steelink and Erla Dogg Ingjaldsdottir/Tyggvi Thorsteinsson, and Jennifer Wolf and Dwayne Oyler/Jenny Wu, Casper Brindle and Andreas Froech, Huguette Caland and Mark Mack. Many of them did not know each other and some did not know each other's work, so the studio visits became a key part of the process, and the show itself. "I didn't go to every artist and architect meeting," recalls Rothman, "but it was a lot like eleven first dates."

The match-making "was a really intuitive process," she says. "I wasn't trying to create a survey. What I was looking at was the match. Would they make interesting combinations visually, conceptually and in many cases in terms of personality? Were they going to have an interesting conversation?" She also mandated that work had to be "ephemerally similar, you can't pair a painting and a model for instance." At the same time, says Rothman, who embarked on this project impressively undaunted by the challenge of herding twenty-two strong personalities into creative communion, with neither budget nor the imprimatur of a traditional art museum or gallery. "I didn't want artists to try and be architects or architects to try and be artists. The idea was -- where did the authentic pieces of themselves connect?"

So how did her efforts at the role of artist-architect yenta pan out?

"People were so confused at first," she admits, a fact confirmed by Billy Al Bengston, who was paired with Neil Denari on account of "their finishes and forms," Rothman says, and a shared love of machines (Billy: motorbikes; Neil: airplanes). "When I sat down with the architect, Neil, I had no idea what the whole project was, and neither did he. So I said, well, let's do something. And I gave him a piece of paper and pencil and said let's work with a line." The result: a new line drawing by Bengston and a sketch by Denari using paper and pencil given him by Bengston. "Architects always work with the same pencil on the same paper," Bengston says, "I whipped him up." Conversely, Denari acknowledges, "Billy was not aware of me or my work. I enjoyed being an unknown to him." But he says that they found some commonality: "Billy Al Bengston's work uses both formal and informal elements, and it ranges from gray-scale monochrome to polychromatic vividness. Although our languages (and metiers) are different, my work covers some of the same ground in these respects."

But along the way, something alchemical happened. Andreas Froech, an inventor and fabricator who has worked with architects like Greg Lynn, was paired with Casper Brindle. He saw the process as "as a chemical reaction experiment to instigate an energy of appreciation and excitement" and felt theirs was "a perfect pairing since we are both very hands - and straight on with little hesitation."

Larry Bell and Lorcan O'Herlihy, 'masters of light.' | Photo: Tibby Rothman.
Larry Bell and Lorcan O'Herlihy, 'masters of light.' | Photo: Tibby Rothman

"Finish Fetish" artist Larry Bell was paired with Lorcan O'Herlihy, on account of them being, says Rothman, "masters of light." On visiting Lorcan O'Herlihy's studio, Bell found himself very impressed with Lorcan's work: "I chose a small maquette that he had made of a façade of a building he was proposing. It was quite a beautiful little object. Then he came over to my studio and I was showing him the things I'd been working on and he had technical questions about reasons for the light changing on surfaces of things; I gave him demonstration of how I handle materials and he picked a component from a collage, and said that's what I want to show."

For Patrick Tighe, his meeting with partner DeWain Valentine "turned into a two-long-day outing, and we became friends. I have always admired DeWain's work so to be paired with him was quite an honor. We were paired together, I suppose, because of our interest in surface (and materiality). In the end, we could have been paired together based on our personalities because we are a lot alike. Maybe Tibby knew that."

Similarly, artist Jennifer Wolf was very taken with her pairing, with architects and SCI-Arc teachers Dwayne Oyler and Jenny Wu, who divide their time between structurally inventive installations and buildings: "the most important consideration was the materials and means and conceptual nature of their work and mine. Their work is so on the edge and having a studio visit and experiencing all the different people in their office (including a loomer) has been a whirlwind." To get at the essence of the process, she asked to see the architects' sketchbooks: "I wanted the drawing on the napkin feel. That really influenced the work they chose of mine, so in terms of our particular pairing we stuck close to graphite on paper."

At the end of the experience, how did the participants, several of whom work in increasingly elastic realms of installation, feel about the synergy, or lack thereof, between fine art and architecture? For Froech, steeped in robotic sculpting and cutting machinery, "there will always be some boundaries. But today, mostly because of technology used by both, artists and architects, the boundaries are getting thinner and thinner. We do a lot of work for architects that could easily be called art."

Billy Al Bengston still sees two worldviews. He believes that architects, with the exception of Frank Gehry, are not comfortable around artists, who in his view are defined by "working with the hand" as well as not "needing to go to a client and ask what they want." His partner in this experiment, Neil Denari, concurs, "Architecture may very well be art at times, but for me never by intention: I am not an artist." Architects Erla Dogg Ingjaldsdottir and Tyggvi Thorsteinsson of the firm Minarc, paired with artist Laurie Steelink, respond that "architecture and art can not be separated. Architecture is the canvas and the art is the structure and never separated."

As much as divisions do exist between the fields, shaped in part by structural differences in the education and profession of fine art and architecture, there has always been crossover (Michelangelo, Le Corbusier?). It is a crossover that seems especially fertile now. Larry Scarpa, whose projects include the Solar Umbrella House in Venice, points out that "many architects have left the profession of architecture to become artists. Peter Alexander and Ball Nogues are just a couple. Alexis Smith, whom I paired with, worked for Frank Gehry during the cardboard furniture days. Conversely, artists also have practiced architecture. Robert Graham has done a few homes and Ellsworth Kelly just completed a building in West Hollywood. However, neither artist or architect are viewed as a serious voice by critics or curators when the crossover is part-time."

Finally, given the show's location in a restaurant (and one that is as much rooted in Venice life as the artists and architects on display), there is a culinary dimension to the discussion. Kulapat Yantrasast, a recent transplant to Venice who has quickly made a mark there with his designs for L & M Arts and his home, both on Venice, was paired with Laddie John Dill. He remarks that architecture is always art, but "a different kind of art. Just like food that I think is also an art form, but both architecture and food are particular art forms that only become truly relevant through people's use of the works. Food without tasting, architecture without experiencing will merely be just eye candy, not art."

David Hertz and Ned Evans. Hertz: 'I think Tibby curated this show as if a chef would make pairings between good food and fine wine, which is appropriate considering the venue.' | Photo: Laura Doss.
David Hertz and Ned Evans. Hertz: 'I think Tibby curated this show as if a chef would make pairings between good food and fine wine, which is appropriate considering the venue.' | Photo: Laura Doss.

David Hertz, known most recently for a 747 airplane remade as a home and paired with surfer-artist Ned Evans, continues the metaphor in offering up his expectation for the show, opening Tuesday: "I think Tibby curated this show as if a chef would make pairings between good food and fine wine, which is appropriate considering the venue. In some cases we might find tasteful pairings and in others not so, however the experimentation is noble and in my case a perfect selection. Maybe not fine wine and good food. More like a burrito and a warm beer!"

Artists X Architects 1, sponsored by V-SCAPE and the Architects Newspaper, opens with a free public reception on June 5, 2012 from 6:00 to 8:00pm at Joe's Restaurant, 1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice CA 90291. A second show is being planned, involving full collaborations between the artists and architects.

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