HERE and NOW ARTRA Curatorial at the T Lofts

Ooooook. First thing’s first. I have to get this out of the way: The abysmal nature of Here and Now ARTRA Curatorial was NOT, in any way, the fault of the artists involved. The work I saw was really hit-or-miss, but on the whole most of it exhibited real commitment and dedication. There was not much half-assing (but there was a lot of derivative painting). The real problem was the space, the context for the event.

Artra was a weekend-long event where dozens of artists were invited to exhibit their work (overwhelmingly painting) in unoccupied apartments in a new loft complex on L.A.’s Westside. The event was billed with the subtitle: “A Westside showing of over 70 artists at the corner of cool and convenience.” Cool is debatable. Convenience – for who?

I went on Sunday as the sun was setting, and, I will admit, rushed to each room. Maybe it was because I was in a rush, but I quickly developed a queasiness about the whole thing.

Important to note was that some of the lofts had already sold. I know this because they had huge circular stickers on their doors reading “SOLD,” which lent a strange uber-capitalist aura to the event.

The T-Lofts, where urban living meets lots and lots of concrete.

Here’s how Artra is described on the event’s website:

“ARTRA was formed in answer to the restrictions in exhibiting opportunities for artists following the economic meltdown. With commercial galleries closing, non-profits seeing their budgets shrink and future funding drying up we felt the need for a return to some DIY creativity in the search for an engagement between artists and audiences.”

I’m all for expanding exhibition opportunities for artists, but let’s not kid ourselves. This was not a DIY endeavor. It was a DIC thing: Do It Corporate.  This event was put on by the T-Lofts company, an entity devoted to selling – duh – the $600,000 plus lofts which played host to work for the weekend. Another sponsor was Lee Homes, a developer who built the lofts. So this was a corporate money-making scheme – there is not disputing that. So please, lets banish any notion that ARTRA was artist-run, DIY, or subversive in any way. It wasn’t really an answer to dwindling spaces available for artists to show their work. It wasn’t a new concept in any respect. Realtors, salesmen, developers, and government insitutions have used artwork, and the attendant presence of artists, to sell property for decades. This is how people sell real estate all over the world. The problem here is that when a developer looks to sell a condo they usually RENT work from artists to put up on the walls. Artists are PAID for their labor and the use of their art as temporary decoration to make a space look less cold and more inviting. The ARTRA artists were NOT paid for use of their works nor for the time they spent in each space talking to visitors and potential future inhabitants of the T-Lofts.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the event was that The Torrance Art Museum was an event sponsor. What is a museum like the TAM doing sponsoring what was, essentially, a corporate sales event? I wonder if one of the board members at the museum has a direct or indirect interest in the success of the T-Lofts or Lee Homes.

I’m sure some of the artists who participated were pleased to do so. Work certainly got sold and I saw a few collectors there. Plus it did draw a crowd.

But really, was this the ideal environment to showcase work? First off, the lighting was completely inadequate. I went around 4pm on Sunday and half of the condos were poorly lit or else completely dark. Only a few spaces had switched on their lights and a few had to employ their own flood-lights for proper viewing. Also the artists involved had to contend with real-estate agents wandering around actually showing potential buyers the space. This seems like an inevitable outcome of such an event, but it did taint the entire viewing experience. It gave each space the feeling of a model home, a sort of Ikea showroom.

From the rumblings of a few artists I talked to, it seems that they were promised something far different from what they got. From poor lighting, to space restrictions, to interruption from loud realtors, the artists who participated in this thing really got the short end of the stick. But what do you expect from a real estate sales pitch masquerading as an art show? The whole thing fell somewhere in between an art fair and a timeshare presentation.

That said, there was certainly some great work on display. Here are a few of my favorites:

Sherin Guirguis

Sherin Guirguis’ work is always so gorgeous, you can’t help but want to stare and stare and stare away until you can take in every last detail. The cut out tessellation patters are really what take the cake for me. Yet they have a kind of violence bubbling just beneath the surface – with images resembling mushroom clouds and technicolor explosions. The work revels in it’s own visual pleasure and I find that comforting.

Roni Feldman

I’m not very familiar with Roni Feldman’s work but I really liked his black-on-black paintings of crowds. You can really only grasp the totality of each visual field when the light reflects in a just-so manner. This makes the work very mysterious but kinda hard to photograph.

Roland Reiss

Roland Reiss’ installation in one of the loft’s bathrooms was a nice surprise. I liked the variety of fake flowers, the notion of something beautiful springing from such a stark, modernist space. I also liked that this was one of the few installations that directly addressed the space itself, the idea of the bathroom as a fruitful, productive space.

Matt Wardell

Matt Wardell, aka 10 Pound Ape, makes some of the most badass assemblage installations available for your viewing pleasure today. I’m so glad his show at the Claremont Museum of Art is extended and the museum isn’t going to get shut down- yet.

The work really gives you a lot to look at, but it’s real success is its ability to make subtle comparisons between visual regularities and strange, metaphorical lovelies. Notice the flocked kitty next to the flower-sporting crack pipes? And yes, that is a poster for a Susan Sontag Marathon Reading. The work also employs lots and lots of phone numbers you can call to hear interesting messages. I love me phone numbers in art!

Matt Wardell 2

Matt Wardell

Matt also had one of the best installations of the day. These oranges festooned one of the loft’s staircases. I really liked how it engaged with the space, referenced the kind of decorative pennants used to sell stuff, and the fact that the oil dripping from the oranges stained the concrete floor. It smelled nice too.

Macha Suzuki

Macha Suzuki makes some amazing sculptural works that walk the line between humorous prop and surreal maquette. His work always seems to touch on questions of transcendence and out-of-body experiences. I also like the way the work takes up space.

Luis G Hernandez

This caught my eye because it was one of the few works that took advantage of the site itself. Here, during the show-off showcase day for the lofts, this work suddenly adds an ominous tone, as if the walls were falling apart. Nice job. I also like the work’s simplicity and its innocuous, yet penetrating, nature.

Joe Reihsen

Reilhsen’s other works were not so successful, but I found this piece really made an impact, probably because it photographs so well.

Martin Durazo

Martin Durazo had this great little buddah sculpture in his space (shared with Sherin Guirguis and Kelly Barrie, whose photographs were big and beautiful – but maybe a little too enigmatic for me). I really like the pedestal- very Martin to tweak the supporting elements of his work to bring about a totally unexpected read. I also like the stark whiteness of the buddah contrasting with the bright heavy utilitarian box.

Ichiro Irie

Ichiro Irie had some really funny photos of a guy (probably the artist) pissing on art museums and art institutions. The joke gets old pretty fast, but I appreciate that the next time I go to the BCAM I’ll think of this photo.

Dawn Arrowsmith

This work by Dawn Arrowsmith is a little difficult to see, but it’s a rearrangement of LA’s freeways as if they were a labyrinthine projection into the Pacific Ocean. It’s a funny collage work, and I appreciate how it involves the viewer in imagining the irrationality of it’s creation.

Andy Brown

This may be my favorite piece of the day. Andy Brown’s simple work consisted of a small piece of drywall with a foot-size hole knocked out of it. The hole is partially covered by a poster for the movie Escape From LA. Not only does the work call attention to rumblings of insecurity, the punishment of being “under the stairs”, it goes to a place that critiques the fragility of the very structure that houses it. It also references the notion of quick fixes, tiding up a space, wallpapering over problems. It seemed to fit the mood of the day.

Billy Kheel

Billy Kheel is one of the recent graduates of GYST’s 8-week Getting Your Shit Together class, so he’s one of my students. I was very excited to see his work in person, and it didn’t disappoint. His felt collages can be a little too design-y at times, too concerned with looking like “art,” but here the grey and black image is striking. It’s a scary work but made of comforting materials. I cant wait to see how he evolves this part of his practice.

Billy Kheel

But Billy’s strongest work is no doubt his videos. Here he tries to break a circular rope/crown/measurement string with only the blood in his head. It’s a rather ludicrous attempt to literalize a thought into action. It’s a rather Sisyphusian task, but one that calls to mind questions of the intersection between intellectual thought and physical strength. It seems to go to the heart of conceptual art. It’s also quite funny.

Maybe the ARTRA event was worth it to get introduced to new artworks. But I think artists should take this event and transplant it to an environment where they get paid to show their work, or a space that they claim and inhabit on their own terms, where their work is the main attraction.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Young British Artists did this by showing their work in warehouses, and, as Artillery has pointed out in their last Nov./Dec.2009 issue, there are many alternative venues in LA showcasing work, and many more just waiting to spring up. So come on artists! Let’s all seek out new truly DIY opportunities to show our work.

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