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Art Trekking with the Berlin Collective

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One bright, sunny, and balmy Southern California Sunday in November, I and a small but attentive group of GPS-enabled art-lovers undertook an unlikely adventure -- the Open Studios tour, Berlin Collective's first LA event. Berlin Collective was founded by once L.A. -- frequently Berlin -- and lately mostly NYC-based photographer and video installation artist Nicole Cohen (clearly during one of her European stays), inspired in large part by her own peripatetic work process and exhibition history. More on that later. For now, let's stay with the Berlin Collective thread of this story -- because it's about more than only the (albeit impressive) work of the artists and tour-takers involved in this event; it's about the experience of convergence as a specific perspective on today's art world, which mostly thanks to social media and related technology, is more international, more interwoven, and both bigger and smaller than ever.

I'm a huge fan of Nicole Cohen's work, and I profiled her and reviewed her incredible Getty Center exhibition "Please Be Seated" back in 2007, and she was very generous in lending a video piece to a show I curated in 2008 at an alternative domestic space in Venice -- but we first met at a party in the West Village through mutual friends a year or two before any of that. I was with her when I had my first-ever sweet potato fries. I'm just saying, sometimes the art world is the same as the regular world; the kind of place where long-lasting connections can be forged, as if by accident, over a basket of fancy snacks. The raison d'etre of the BC speaks to the value of this almost grassroots variety of exploration, existing in order to create events around the world that go beyond exhibitions and exchanges, to directly engineer intimate, user-friendly, spaces and contexts for experiencing contemporary art on a human scale. As Cohen has said by way of introducing Berlin Collective to new audiences and potential members, "The BC is a global arts network aimed at supporting artists and developing a broader discourse. We've recently branched out to Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, London, Melbourne, Berlin, NYC, and Boston. Although we are all in the 'art world,' each city has their own art world with its own character."

The four artists she picked to represent LA were Stas Orlovski, Alexis Zoto, Stephanie Pryor, and Micol Hebron; and despite the salient fact that they are all incredibly talented, gregarious, intelligent, and generous people who could be counted upon to to offer delightful and educative visits (and they did), they were chosen in large part because of their own personal friendships with Nicole that predate and transcend the career-based collegiality they currently enjoy. The event's IQ was sky-high, but it was put together at least partly in the heart -- and you could totally tell. And now here's where the convergences rear up in earnest. Besides working with and writing about Nicole Cohen, over the years I had previously written about and/or exhibited with every single one of the four participating artists -- some more than once, and some as recently as this year.

The studios were scheduled to be open consecutively, so there was only one order to do it in: Culver City, Westwood, Culver City, Echo Park. Folks caravanned between them for the afternoon, which took about seven hours in total, in 90-minute segments with travel times accounted for in between. Now, I don't drive a car, which may well have been insurmountable in this instance although it's usually completely fine; but upon seeing that I had rsvp'd "Going" to the Facebook event, my friend the artist Angel Chen invited me to travel to the four relatively far-flung studio spaces with her lovely and knowledgeable boyfriend Dermot Begley (it was his car) who, in turn, has been a friend and art/rare book/design-dealing, estate-sale prowling colleague of my boyfriend for years. (I mention this in the context of the smallness of the art world, and because he was the only dealer/collector who attended the event; and we all thought there'd be more of them.) Angel had known Stephanie in school, and had other, equally long-standing connections with Micol and with Nicole, all of which had contributed to her curiosity and commitment to attending. This message from Angel well represents the warm enthusiasm that all of us in the day's visitors felt about the proceedings: "Thank you all for opening your studios and sharing insightful, engaging, provocative conversations on exciting new work. An artist's studio is truly the most resonant space within which to view and experience one's vision. From mechanics to process to concept and personal history it was a most enlightening Sunday!"

In the end, the 20 people who rsvp'd to the Facebook event materialized as five. Myself, Angel and Dermot, the artist Heather Carson (for whom I'd written the essay accompanying her installation for the COLA grant in 2011), and Pat Gainor, a very interesting LA painter about whom I have yet to write, but I have a feeling that will change one day. And oh yeah, I'd blogged about Angel's painting show at Here Is Elsewhere Gallery at the PDC this past Spring. But even though at first we were surprised at the low turnout, for our small band that is part of what made it such an incredibly special event. As we increasingly bonded with each other, there was no reason to be shy with our questions, other, more personal themes were free to come in and out of the narrative prompted by what we were seeing, and we all had plenty of time to spend one on one with each artist. So although I partly wish 100 people had shown up, I'm glad about it. Even though I do this for a living, this was one of the best iterations of the studio-tour format I've ever been to.

Stas Orlovski was first, and that augured well for the rest of the day. I had been to his studio before, when I was writing the catalog essay for his exhibition "Nocturnes" at Rio Hondo College in October 2010, and I knew it was a gorgeous piece of architecture and a beguiling work environment that any painter would covet. I also knew his technical process is unique and fascinating to have explained and demonstrated, and we were not disappointed. I had written up his 2011 exhibition at NYC's Mixed Greens Gallery, and much of those observations still apply: "Stas Orlovski's best-known work depicts landscapes with sidereal light and expansive darkness outlining topographies both literal and emphatically metaphorical, like mountains, dark or rainy skies, oceans, and valleys. His newest work takes place almost entirely in interiors and specifically on tabletops; recent series have clearly chronicled that transition, with architectural spaces interacting with worlds visible through windows, doors, and other devices. The stylistic influences of Japanese master printers like Hiroshige, the devotional minimalism of Russian Suprematism, and the bohemian quirkiness of reading materials and daydreams from his own childhood are all evident in his deliberations on the canvas, and in the materials strewn about the room; as is his love of pattern, texture, and history." To all that magic, on the occasion of his commissioned work for the current LACMA exhibition "Drawing Surrealism," he has added stop-motion animation and video installation, and his presentation on making that piece nearly sent us off course in a rush to LACMA to see it. It will be shown in an altered form at the Volta Fair in New York in March of 2013, and if we are lucky it may make an appearance in his upcoming solo survey at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in September of 2014.

Alexis Zoto was next, and at first I wasn't totally sure I remembered her correctly, but then when I saw her it all came back to me. I had reviewed her 2007 exhibition "Small Things" at the now defunct and sorely missed Overtones Gallery for Art Ltd. -- but back then she was known as Alexis Weidig. Like Stas, her main themes persist through intervening years of formal evolution, so here's some of what I wrote about her work at that time: "Being American is always a hybrid experience, even for those born here. And for those who immigrate here from other countries, that hybridity is only intensified and expanded. Rife with details and materials that possess both personal and broader cultural implications, Alexis Weidig's [sic] site-specific installations and mixed-media assemblages take her immigrant parents' accumulation of objects and images to the extreme. Using furniture, lamps, stuffed birds, costume gems, gold leaf, and sundry other craft-based materials, she constructs opalescent, glittering monuments to the romance of the old country." Since later changing her name to Zoto in a furtherance of her embrace of the matrilineal spine of her heritage, she has continued to explore the themes of inherited identity and cultural quirks, expanding the sculptural imprint of her work in large-scale installations such as the current LAX vitrine, while also practicing a print and collage-based thread that is increasingly abstract and process-oriented, taking leaps toward the ultimate resolution the relationship of the personal and the art historical in her work.

Stephanie Pryor was third, and we were all really looking forward to seeing her. I'd first seen her work as part of a group show at Marine Salon 2010, and was so taken with her amazing gift for merging abstraction and portraiture, and the seductive, toxic beauty of her distorted fashion-based images, that I bought a painting out of the show. It turns out later that my boyfriend had taken classes in abstract painting from her, which I always found ironic and also quite telling -- because her imagery is so charged, people don't think of her as an abstract artist. Yet among the many things about her which we learned at her studio is that she started her career practicing pure abstraction until she hit a creative wall and started looking for a new approach, eventually settling on the method for constructing images using abstract painting techniques she still employs. I later had the pleasure of reviewing her solo show, "Domina" at Marine Contemporary (a white-box outgrowth of the salon) for Art Ltd. earlier this year. Here's part of what I wrote: "Paintings of women are not always portraits. Perennial teaching tools, sometimes they make a go at portraying the sitter's inner life, using compositional distortion in deliberate, evocative ways. Sometimes they assert the financial dominance of the lady's husband or lover, as signified by luxurious clothing and/or surroundings. Sometimes, they are merely the most pleasing, convenient, or conventional armatures for a formal occasion. Lust is the viewer's way in, but the painted surfaces of acrylic washes layered in swirling archipelagos, dark and dusty shadows, and riots of gossamer translucence -- that's the allure."

The most unexpected discovery at her studio is that her new work applies this strategy to experiments with landscape painting and with executing working on a much larger scale than she had used in a long time. As it happened, both Angel and Pat, painters, and Heather, a light-based sculpture installation artist, all had specific reason to be engaged with economies of scale, atmosphere, and movement in their work lately, both as aesthetics and a practical matter. So besides the insight into Stephanie's process, we had a really unusual peek at the pragmatic side of art-making from a variety of medial and stylistic perspectives. Stephanie also described her relationship to photography, and a recent transition she has made from sourcing images to grabbing the camera and taking the pictures she needs for herself. This not only smooths out questions of content versus form in an analytical sense, but left us with a deeper understanding of what goes into her work that nothing but a private studio visit could provide. The results of her current labors will go on view at Marine Contemporary in September 2013.

Micol Hebron was the final artist on the tour. I first met Micol when I reviewed a performance and exhibition she produced in collaboration with Elizabeth Tobias at an alternative space in Eagle Rock in 2001. In 2011 we showed together in a unique social experiment collaboratively produced by Debating Through the Arts at the 18th Street Arts Complex; and in between I've been an avid fan of her art and writing and have seen several exhibitions, mostly at Chinatown's Jancar Gallery -- a space with a laudable commitment to showing the work of historical and contemporary figures of feminist art. She'll be showing there again in March of 2013, and is working toward that now, with a new series from her ongoing "Body of Knowledge" motif -- exploring figures from an alternative perspective on history which privileges the brave and radical actions of female activists like Lady Godiva and Sojourner Truth who sited their political protests on their own nude bodies at great physical risk to themselves. Yet in Micol's version of these violent events there is still plenty of humor and amazement to be found, just as in all her work. Her special gift in my opinion is precisely this ability to merge wit and humor into considerations of weighty historical matters of art and social policy. Sitting the floor of her studio, on the second floor of a church in Echo Park, discussing the issues involved in making modernism out of pee and pina coladas, seeking energetic counterparts in crystal miners and unicorns, was the most wonderful way to wrap up the adventure, as there was something specific in the warm shock and ambition of her work that made our access to it and to her all the more moving.

This event was free, as it was aimed at introducing the Berlin Collective to potential new members, and offered a discount for a one-year membership for anyone who went who then wanted to officially join. You can find more information on the membership program at their website. Their next LA events will be for BC members only, with private artist talks, conversations, social events like dinner parties, and artist-run workshops.

Like them on Facebook to keep updated on these and other events, as well as their new BC Artist Editions program.

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