When I found out that the 15th Annual Los Angeles Art Show is taking place at the LA Convention Center this year, I immediately flashed back to the last time I was there, about 5 years ago, getting sworn in as an American citizen. Instead of being surrounded by fellow foreigners awkwardly waving our tiny American flags as a video George Bush, wheat fields, and smiling children played on a large screen, this time I was surrounded by rich old people, hipsters, and hungry reporters.
“Who’s here? What celebrities? Who’s checked in so far?”
“Tatyana … hm… something,” the publicist was a bit taken aback by his ferocity. “Let me look it up, I’m not good with celebrity names.”
“Honey, if you can’t remember the last name, they’re not important.” BURN.
All I was hungry for was pasta and possibly champagne. Journalism is usually an individual sport, lonely, cold and demanding, like curling, so when fellow reporter Tommy Tung, a freelancer for Juxtapoz, suggested we wander the art show together, I was excited to have a partner in crime. Especially when it came to snagging a drink and food at the same time – teamwork was of the essence.
The LA Art Show is vast in size and scope. Kim Martindale, the Director/Executive Director of the show, had a very clear vision for utilizing the space to its maximum advantage, including giant live painting installation Vox Humana, the Downtown Gallery Association, and the Sister City Los Angeles International Art Exhibition. “The great thing about the convention center versus any other facility in Los Angeles, is that you have the potential to do these things. When we moved the show here we were at 70,000 square feet, this is 150,000 square feet.”
The size of the space is important, since Kim’s view of the LA Art Show is encyclopedic, “We have [everything from] very historic work to really cutting edge. This show is about showing all the different types of art.” That may account for some overheard grumblings at the show about Holly Hobby art, or declarations that the LA Art Show is no Art Basel. But for every complaint, there is a gallery or an artist that has a chance to show its work to an outside audience. Be it the art of Uruguay, the debut country for the brand-new Guest Country Program, or the graffiti of Retna and El Mac, this convention center is a site where many unlikely matches of artist and art lover will occur.
Tommy and I were most excited for the Vox Humana Art Performance, which is curated by Bryson Strauss of LA ART MACHINE. There are two separate 12’x12’ murals for Mear One and Kofie, and a joint mural that’s a collaboration between Retna and El Mac. It is a black and white photorealist portrait of a woman, a universal mother figure with pained eyes and a wrinkled face – El Mac’s contribution. Her face touches something primal inside, a nostalgic guilt that is so familiar to every kid who’s ever upset his mother. Starting from the top left corner, Retna has begun to cover the background in his signature calligraphy, beautiful in its fluidity and grace. By the end of the show, he will complete the Spanish quote, which so far reads “I am your mother, who gave you the earth that bore you, now my tears…” I can’t wait to see the finished product.
A featured spot at the LA Art Show brings a certain legitimacy to an art form that is illegal in its natural environment; a fact that’s easy to forget with artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy having become pop culture staples. Kim Martindale is proud to aid this shift in perception with Vox Humana, marking the first time a prominent art fair has featured street art: “Graffitti art is part of that latest movement that has gone through transitions, where people pushed it aside, saying it’s an evil thing for our society, and in the last 5 years you start hearing a lot more about those artists, and they really are artists.”
Just as the live graffiti art installation is a first of its kind for any art fair, not just the LA Art Show, it is a first event of its kind for the artists as well. Retna tells me he’s excited to paint here, “It’s nice to be able to be in an environment like this and be able to produce the pieces that we would normally do on the street.” For El Mac, the ability to paint on a 12’x24’ canvas is another bonus – he says his work has a lot more impact large, in addition to minimizing a perfectionist streak that can run wild when he is working on a small scale.
Retna and El Mac are glad to expose a different kind of audience to their work, seeing the difference between this gig and what they usually do as merely a difference between the private and public sector. “We kinda do it for everyone, it’s a universal thing, there’s stuff we give away to the people and there’s stuff we give away for a commercial purpose, but the meaning is the same,” says Retna.
For El Mac, creating the giant murals under the watchful eyes of an ever-changing crowd goes hand in hand with the exhibitionist nature of being a graffiti artist, “The more the better. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Wanting people to see the work, whoever they are, whether they are little old ladies, or rich Italian people. Whoever might like it, whoever it might do something for.” Both artists hope that the exposure will lead to new opportunities and new investors.
After taking some video of Mear and Kofie working their magic with aerosol cans, acrylic paint, and rulers, I head over to the giant Hershey kiss that has been beckoning to me throughout the evening; even more than the pomegranate martinis.
The 20’x12’ kiss is one of several delightful offerings of CA mosaicist Jean Wells, presented by Timothy Yarger Fine Art. Its Oldenberg-like oversized playfulness draws people from all around the show like a shiny silver beacon, and its little paper flag flies a promise of something fun, silly, and sweet. It does not disappoint – inside there is a little bench, where videos of silent movie kisses play on a loop. It is an escape pod from reality, a giant piece of brain candy.
Elizabeth Yochim, the Director of International Exhibitions for the gallery, shared what she thought made Wells’ work so popular internationally in the last couple of years, and so attractive to serious collectors: “It seems very simple, but it is very highly crafted mosaic works, each piece is hand-cut glass. [And] they find her work refreshing, whimsical, funny, nostalgic – which can be a trite word, but it truly does remind you of a innocent happy time, and also [attracts] people who are just drawn to objects of pop vernacular.” Ah yes, Jeff Koons fever.
Other pieces include a ritzy gold teddy bear in a hilarious brightly patterned vest – it has the expensive look of the Damien Hirst diamond-encrusted skull but it comes with a sense of humor. As I let a giggle escape, I catch an older man frowning at me and the bear, which reminds me that a lot of people do not consider this art. Elizabeth is used to hearing that. “Whether or not the art world accepts it as art, or fine art, it touches people. Everybody who looks at that teddy bear smiles,” says Elizabeth. “Is that art? Is it an expression of the human condition? Of course.” As I watch people interact with the bear and the kiss, I see their emotional response, and the whole argument becomes moot.
On our walk back to the parking lot, I overhear a formidable-looking gentleman with neck tattoos tell his friend with a shiver, “That painting sucked the life right out of me.” I want to recommend that he check out the Hershey’s kiss, where his vigor would be surely restored, but he heads straight for the bar. That works too.
I leave the LA Art Show feeling excited and inspired by what people are trying to create here, the city that Kim Martindale believes is the new epicenter of the art world. He tells me that there is a far greater purpose to the obvious desire for the commercial success of the show: “You are trying to develop an interest in art, in the community. It’s about uniting all those non-profit, for-profit, institutions large and small so that more people talk about art, and create an excitement about art, because without that, my soul is lost.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.