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The other day, I spent the afternoon cruising down the street in my ‘64 (okay, it was really my Prius, and I wasn’t jocking any bitches or slapping any hoes). I was cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard when a billboard caught my eye: a James Turrell-like photograph of a large, abstract pink light with the name “Jack Pierson” next to the photograph. Then, as I was heading west on Melrose I saw another billboard with the familiar name of Ed Ruscha on it. There was no advertisement to be seen.
When I got home, I immediately Googled the names and started researching their work, thinking they had an upcoming exhibit in LA. They didn’t. My Google search grew more inquisitive and specific until I stumbled upon “The Billboard Creative”.
The Billboard Creative, founded a few years ago in Los Angeles, is a non-profit organization that takes unused billboards and turns them into public art. TBC is run by artists and art enthusiasts for the sake of other artists and art enthusiasts while expanding the audience for art. Anybody can submit art to be considered for these unused billboards, and “exhibitions,” if they can truly be called that, are broken up into quarters, with a different curator and artists each time. The most recent Quarter, Quarter 4 (despite being the second installation), went up on December 1st. The growth of the non-profit has been successful in getting people talking about the billboards, which have been the center of a number of controversies in Los Angeles due to their distracting nature for drivers.
Mona Kuhn, the current curator, said she “wanted to stop traffic with art”. Kuhn is a photographer herself, best known for her dream-like photography of the human form. Under her guidance, The Billboard Creative has grown quickly past its own inception – the first installation from last spring featured only 14 billboards, compared to the 33 billboards that took over in December, and features several dozen artists, primarily including work by the following.
Jack Pierson works in several different mediums, ranging from sculpture and photography to drawings and installations. Pierson leads to a more abstract style of sculptures and collages. As an openly gay artist, many of his photographs are images of men shot in a casual, erotic fashion.
Perhaps the most recognizable name on the billboards, Ruscha is an American artist best associated with the pop art movement. Ruscha has worked in mediums of painting, printmaking, drawing, photography, and film. The LA based artist has had a wildly successful career, with one of his collections being installed in the White House in 2009.
Shannon Rose, a student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena was the only student chosen to be a part of the show this year. The photographer takes ordinary type photographs that make the audience look beyond the surface.
Lee’s work draws on natural abstractions of the world as she is heavily influenced by aspects of biology and psychology. Lee has experimented with various mediums, but painting is her niche, as she claims she “likes the immediacy of painting”. Her work can be described as a controlled doodling process, with an emphasis of line formations.
Another emerging artist of note is Laura Niubo, who in addition to being a visual artist, works as an art director at an advertising agency, where she designs advertisements for Apple. Niubo’s ongoing works of “Colorful Spaces” and “Colorful Labs” are heavily focused on geometry and color. “Colorful Spaces” studies geometry drawings from math and science books, and eventually inspires her to create her own unique shapes. “Colorful Labs” is all about color. The shapes are simple, but the colors are vibrant and eye-catching.
Zuchowski is an abstract painter who draws in an audience with his predominate use of color. His non-realistic forms of imagery allows Zuchowski to delve into the psyche of the mind in order to create and explore his choices of color. Zuchowski’s use of color touch and resonate with the viewer, making them look beyond the abstract and find a deeper meaning within his work.
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Vija Celmins’s Untitled (Ocean), 1970. (Courtesy of the Met Breuer)
“ W hen the Ferus Gallery began exposing the rest of the country to Los Angeles art in the fifties, New York art people quickly observed that everyone seemed to be obsessed with perfection in L.A.,” writes Eve Babitz in an early chapter of Slow Days, Fast Company, her lightly fictionalized chronicle of 1960s and ’70s Los Angeles. “The frames had to be perfect—the backs of the frames, even.”
If any artist of that era can be said to have been obsessed with perfection, it would be Vija Celmins, the Latvian-born painter who is currently the subject of a sprawling and enchanting retrospective, “To Fix the Image in Memory,” on view at the Met Breuer in New York City until January 12. Though she never exhibited at the Ferus, instead showing at the woman-owned Mizuno Gallery a few doors down, Celmins, who lived and worked in Los Angeles for two decades, was a long-overlooked yet foundational presence in the 1970s LA art world. She is a painter whose skill with oils—and other mediums like graphite and charcoal—is a pleasure to observe, Celmins’s work flirted with both pop and photorealism, two styles of painting that require a technically superlative hand.
Her deftly painted still lifes and use of photographic references have prompted comparisons to Gerhard Richter and Giorgio Morandi. Her work is characterized by a patient, immersive attention to detail—a mode of looking that activates the most quotidian object or fragment, forcing the viewer to consider its surface and contours. Like Richter, Celmins has painted from news clippings, revisiting her childhood memories of World War II, and she frequently works from photographs, taking the image of the image as her subject. Her later work centers on surface, texture, and imitation, as in her drawings of night skies, spiderwebs, desert grounds, and perhaps most iconically, ocean waves.
I found myself thinking of Babitz when a bit of wall text at the Breuer informed me that Celmins’s somber ocean drawings were made, of all places, in Venice Beach, beginning in 1968. Yes—that Venice. Had Vija lived in Eve’s Hollywood? The grayscale graphite drawings (along with mezzotints, woodcuts, and oil paintings, completed in the 1980s and 2010s) feature the waves of the Pacific Ocean, depicted at a slight distance, the texture of the water completely filling the frame. Yet these are no idyllic seascapes, there is no horizon, no landmark to place the viewer in space. Back in her studio, Celmins carefully rendered the waves in graphite, paying close attention to the tiny particularities of the water, its ripples, highlights, and shadows. She frequently drew from the same reference more than once, as if retelling a story to see if that changed what was said. From a distance, the drawings—charged with graphite’s metallic sheen—look like silvery photographs, fogged over as if with memory’s haze. The drawings have a monumental quietness about them, a silent surface that invites close inspection. Could this really be Venice Beach?
T he two artists were contemporaries in Los Angeles: While Celmins was beginning her MFA, Babitz was photographed playing chess—in the nude—with Marcel Duchamp. When Celmins first lifted her camera to take a photo of the waves near Venice Beach in 1968, Babitz could very well have been somewhere nearby, painted toes wiggling in the sand. It’s tempting to wonder if the two ever met, if they ever attended the same parties, if Babitz ever stopped by one of Celmins’s openings.
In Slow Days, Fast Company, referring to her own writing practice, Babitz says, “No one likes to be confronted with a bunch of disparate details that God only knows what they mean.” A slapdash quasi-novelist, Babitz’s books aren’t read for the plot (there isn’t any) as much as they are for the spirit of the era they evoke, her beautiful sentences frequently cited in reviews like gleaming nuggets of gold. She recognizes this about her practice, too: “But perhaps if the details are all put together, a certain pulse and sense of place will emerge, and the integrity of empty space with occasional figures in the landscape can be understood at leisure and in full, no matter how fast the company.”
Vija Celmins’s Desert Surface #1, 1991. (Courtesy of the Met Breuer)
That “certain pulse and sense of place” certainly applies to Celmins’s pieces as well, though in a subtler way than in Babitz’s abundantly social writings. Celmins’s work lives less in the individual movements of her brush or pencil than it does in her movement across multiple works—her choices of composition, repositioning, and framing as she repeats her investigations of a subject with deliberate variations. The pulse is her eye, the place, her mind. In the changing details, one witnesses the moving thought of the artist at work. But unlike the other ’70s California artists that Babitz identifies, Celmins isn’t obsessed with perfection for the sake of a photo finish—she’s no factory-farmed Warhol, no Ruscha. Her obsession with replication is a challenge to memory itself, and to the limits of what we can recreate with the materials at hand. “If you really look at an image…it stays in your memory,” Celmins has said. “So then memory does other things to it. Sometimes a work fades…. Sometimes it stays. Sometimes you have to run back and see if you remember it correctly…. It’s an alive experience.”
The Met Breuer’s retrospective begins on the museum’s smaller fifth floor, which features Celmins’s work prior to 1968. Following her time at UCLA, she was particularly interested in still life, noticing how painting directly from observation might neatly exclude formal questions of expressionism or abstraction. The first room is devoted to her paintings of objects—a heater, a lamp, a hot plate—isolated from context and set against Rembrandt-like backdrops of moody grays and browns. The objects vibrate strangely, viewed as form without function. In the adjoining rooms, Celmins’s still lifes are complicated by the introduction of photographic reference. Here, she engages more directly with the relationship—or lack thereof—between image and content. Drawing on her memories of World War II as the Vietnam War began to escalate, she painted fighter planes suspended in midair, a burning car in the aftermath of an explosion, a news-clipping-esque image of an explosion at sea. These images aren’t Celmins’s but rather images made for the mass consumption of trauma and violence. Yet they are memorialized through her sure and steady brushstrokes, profoundly tragic and mundane at the same time.
Celmins is at her best when confronting the flatness, the thing-ness of photography: how it transmits, duplicates, and crumples. A side room of her early drawings on the exhibition’s first floor places her photographic references—a scene from Hiroshima, a letter from her mother, each postage stamp rendered on a separate piece of paper and carefully affixed—squarely in the middle of the composition, the wrinkles and folds faithfully rendered. In later drawings, as in her moonscapes from 1969 and the early ’70s, the entire rectangle of the paper becomes a way to interpret the photographic space. Images are layered, doubled over, and refracted, not unlike today’s Photoshop tricks. But a painting of a shell from 2009–10, its nubbly texture shaded off gradually with a soft-focus blur, is less interesting, since what it references is a less interesting photograph, too. Set next to the rest of Celmins’s carefully considered body of work, the shell feels more like schlocky photorealism—a 1:1 translation—than the texture of memory.
T he show takes its title from To Fix the Image in Memory, a collection of small sculptures created between 1977 and 1982. Displayed in a vitrine on the museum’s fourth floor, the piece features a series of small rocks placed side by side with her handmade duplicates, cast in bronze and painstakingly painted down to the tiniest speck. Head bowed over the vitrine, it was impossible for me to tell which was real and which was constructed. I chose one set, then another, eyes flicking back and forth between each half of a pair, trying to notice a discrepancy until, like a light switch flicking off, I realized I’d slowed down enough to simply enjoy the textures and colors of the rocks themselves. How beautiful a stone could be, I thought, and with such variation.
Vija Celmins’s To Fix the Image in Memory, 1977–82. (Courtesy of the Met Breuer)
It’s possible to look at any object in the show for a long time: There is so much to be seen, and each object yields so much on deeper investigation. The close looking that Celmins asks of us can be overwhelming, especially given the exhibition’s scale. But if the rooms begin to blur together—if the ocean waves and night skies and comets begin to layer upon each other—perhaps the work encourages that, too, as the accumulated drawings turn into a kind of palimpsest, a reappreciation and revisiting of the texture of memory, which itself is characterized by how many times we pass over its surface again and again.
For Babitz, the fast company she surrounded herself with was a way to fill the slow, sunny days in a California gleaming with good weather. Celmins, another Los Angeles artist, inverts the motif: Her work is slow company for fast days. Amid a busy world popping and pinging with notifications and headlines, Celmins offers her viewers slow art in a fast time, an opportunity to engage with a body of work for far longer than the lifespan of a tweet. In the slow movement of her canvases, in the generous minutiae of her drawings, Celmins offers us the space to engage with what often feels like the most far-off resource: the attention of our own minds.
Larissa Pham Twitter is an artist and writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is the author of the forthcoming essay collection Pop Song.
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Betye Saar was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2018. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.
For nearly 70 years, Betye Saar has created prints, collages, and assemblages that transform the cast-off and forgotten into powerful explorations of African American history and identity, the politics of race and gender, spirituality, and the occult. To visit her Los Angeles studio is to enter the world of a brilliant collector. Carefully categorized and filed, everything has its place. Black memorabilia, African sculptures, washboards, cages, scales, buttons, and myriad knick-knacks await assemblages in progress. This is a home to things cast off and forgotten, things waiting to be activated.
Saar was born in Los Angeles in 1926 and raised in Pasadena. Even as a child, she created art objects. She recalls making nearly everything in the book Our Wonder World, a Library of Knowledge: Amateur Handicrafts. She is a child of the Great Depression, and her family, like many others, had little money at the time. They used dishes until they broke. They did not waste food. They made things for each other. She became an avid observer of the world: “I would spend time with my grandmother in Watts, and we would pass Simon Rodia creating the Watts Towers (1921–55). I was fascinated with that.” Putting together his work with the things that she and her family did on a daily basis, she learned the following: “Use it up, make it do, go without.”
Saar attended Pasadena City College, where she majored in art. She then received a scholarship to UCLA, where she focused on interior design. She also pursued graduate studies at California State University, Long Beach, California State University, Northridge, and the University of Southern California. In 1952, she married Richard Saar, a ceramicist. The couple had three daughters. Two of them, Alison and Lezley, are artists. Betye and Richard would later divorce.Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail, 1973. Mixed-media assemblage, 12 x 18 in.
The family moved to the Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles in 1962. Saar has been there ever since. By this time, she was involved with printmaking and had begun showing her work locally. A 1965 Los Angeles Times review of a oneday exhibition at the First Unitarian Church notes the high quality of her work. Printmaking served as Saar’s segue from design into the fine arts.
In the late 1960s, she began to create assemblages such as Black Girl’s Window (1969), which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. With astrological signs across the top, a self-portrait at the bottom, a skeleton in the middle, and a daguerreotype of the artist’s maternal grandmother, this work combines Saar’s personal biography, heritage, and her interest in the metaphysical. Black Girl’s Window is also an exegesis on the connection of life and death as well as a meditation on loss. All of these issues are leitmotifs in her work.
Saar’s assemblages are the result of her own experimentation and intense looking at the work of other artists. She stresses that Joseph Cornell, George Herms, and Edward Kienholz opened creative doors for her. In 1967, she saw the Pasadena Art Museum’s Joseph Cornell retrospective. His small, intimate boxes were among the first assemblages Saar had ever seen. In her mind, all of Kienholz’s work “tells a story, sometimes just from a certain article he read in the paper.” She continues, “There was one about Kathy Fiscus, a child who was three who fell down a well. They couldn’t rescue her in time. He did a beautiful piece about her (Ode to Kathy Fiscus and A Box for Kathy, 1962). Saar also saw Kienholz’s controversial installation Back Seat Dodge ’38 (1964) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1966. Works such as this showed her the political possibilities of assemblage.
In 1972, the Rainbow Sign Cultural Center in Berkeley put out an open invitation for an exhibition of works depicting black heroes. Saar, who decided that she wanted a heroine, produced The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, her best-known work. Connected to her earlier work yet explicitly political, Aunt Jemima was Saar’s response to the rage and helplessness she experienced after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The work also responded to the politics of civil rights and black nationalism. Aunt Jemima was the symbol of black nurturing and black servitude. She was the caregiver for the master’s children, as well as her own. She was also the gobetween for the house and the field. In Saar’s hands, Aunt Jemima, with her broom and her rifle, is transformed into a freedom fighter.
At the same time, Saar created Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail. Consisting of a wine bottle with a scarf coming out of its neck, labeled with a hand-produced image of Aunt Jemima and the word “Aunty” on one side and the black power fist on the other, this Molotov cocktail demands political change, insisting that full racial and gender equality must be achieved, to borrow the words of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X, “by any means necessary.”
Both of these works turn derogatory images of blacks on their heads, a move that African American poet Ishmael Reed lauded in a 1973 New York Times essay (Saar illustrated his 1978 book A Secretary to the Spirits). Other observers also recognized the radical nature of The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Activist and academic Angela Davis, in a 2007 lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, suggested that the black women’s revolution began with The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. “I was on cloud nine with that,” Saar recalls.Cage (In The Beginning), 2006.Mixed-media assemblage, 42 x 15 x 12 in.
Saar’s immersion into assemblage led to a new understanding of Rodia’s work. She notes that “I really didn’t see the Watts Towers until I was an adult. I saw how he made it from every broken dish that he could find, and if he had some wet cement and didn’t have anything he’d take a corn cob and put it in there or embed his tool and make a print.” Along with the lessons of the Depression, Watts Towers reminded Saar that “nothing is broken. You can always recycle it and make art out of anything.”
Responding to a burgeoning body of work that was becoming known for its exploration of personal history and spirituality, Los Angeles Times art critic William Wilson, in a review of the 1973 exhibition “Betye Saar: Selected Works 1964–1973” at California State University, Los Angeles, commented that the artist’s work combines “charm with occult magic, passionate idealism, and venomous racial sarcasm.” Given the mammies, washboards, slave ships, skulls, African art, feathers, and charms that populate her work, such a description is still apt.
Saar understands her art-making process as a four-part ritual. The first, which she calls “Hunting and Gathering,” consists of collecting objects from flea markets and garage sales. Her daughter Tracye Saar- Cavanaugh recalls going on monthly pilgrimages to the sprawling Pasadena Swap Meet, where “Betye sorted through a box of old buttons or haggled over the price of a seat-less chair.”We Was Mostly ’Bout Survival, 2017. Mixed-media assemblage, 37 x 8.5 x 2.75 in.
Next, Saar sorts through the objects, shifting them around to see which pieces go together. She believes that all things have stories within them, and combining them registers as a formal act that opens other narratives. We Was Mostly ’Bout Survival (2017), for example, features the infamous diagram of the slave ship Brookes, an icon of black suffering and diasporic loss, painted onto an ironing board, which itself is combined with a wooden ship, a washboard imprinted with a photograph of a black woman doing laundry, and a bar of soap. Taken as a whole, the assemblage brings together the Middle Passage and black female domestic labor, characterizing both as foundational elements of African American history and experience. Like many of Saar’s works, We Was Mostly ’Bout Survival beautifully illustrates her proposition that the combining of objects leads to the uncovering of sublimated stories and the invention of new ones.
The third part of Saar’s process consists of transformation and fabrication. When her daughters were young, they assisted in this process. Now Saar hires people to help her put things together. Finally, in the last phase of the ritual, the work is released into the world, where it is subject to the infinite stories and interpretations of those who interact with it. Saar recalls how the washboard works that populated “Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean” (Craft & Folk Art Museum, 2017) elicited questions about African American history and contemporary race relation, in addition to personal recollections.
Whether washboards, buttons, masks, or cages, Saar chooses things based on their formal possibilities as well as on their alchemical, metaphysical, and transformative potential. Her travels and the experience of being an African American woman in Los Angeles have had an important influence on the kinds of objects that attract her and the kinds of art historical research she has done. When Saar and fellow artist David Hammons visited Chicago’s Field Museum in 1970, she was attracted to the African and Oceanic works on display. She also traveled to Africa, visiting Marrakesh and attending the 1977 Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria. She read art historian Arnold Rubin’s 1975 Artforum essay “Accumulation: Power and Display in African Sculpture,” which explored the relationship between objects, display, and power. All of these experiences led to an interest in using raffia, rattan, bamboo, leather earrings, skulls, and other organic materials in her work.
Spirit Catcher (1977) incorporates some of these materials, which become a means to visualize and connect with a spiritually and metaphysically based black identity. Understood by many as a folk altar, this assemblage ignited the imagination of many Los Angeles-based artists of color, who saw its straw and beads as a way to explore an earthy, organic, even mysterious blackness. Saar and the assemblage were also the subjects of a 30-minute television documentary, “Spirit Catcher—The Art of Betye Saar,” which aired on public television in 1978.
Saar’s works of the 1960s and 1970s— her mammies, forays into the occult, washboards, and collages—form the basis from which she still creates her works. Be it clocks that illustrate equality as an unfinished project, scales that bear witness to what she calls “the weight of racism,” or the return of Aunt Jemima, who combats our current racial amnesia, her works offer an unflinching look at African American history, as well as a deep, feminist exegesis on the social, psychological, and emotional construction of black identity. Along such lines, Cage (In the Beginning) (2006) presents African sculpture in captivity, alluding not only to the Middle Passage and the containment of black bodies, but also to the unconscious containment of our feelings and emotions. Saar adds that such works attend to the ways that “we build cages in our lives without even knowing it.” Cage and assemblages such as Migration: Africa to America I (2006), which merge African art, mammies, and daguerreotypes, continue Saar’s penchant for combining the personal and the political in unexpected ways. Her goal is the transformation not only of the objects under scrutiny but also of those who interact with them.
The past couple of years have been very busy for Saar, and with several upcoming exhibitions, she shows no signs of slowing down. She is still collecting, still combining, and still transforming objects in her quest to mine African American histories and to invent new ways of understanding the world. She is also converting her garage into additional studio space to accommodate larger works. Saar is still inventing stories through the combination of myriad cast-off and forgotten objects, with many more ideas to pursue. As far as she’s concerned, “Artists don’t retire.”
Steven Nelson is director of the African Studies Center and Professor of African and African American Art at UCLA.
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"The rose is the most iconic tattoo on the face of the planet,” says tattooer Daniel Winter, aka Winter Stone. “If you’re a tattoo lover, you will eventually have a rose on your body."
It’s a design the Los Angeles-based artist has etched on his clients countless times, from delicate thorn-covered blooms wrapped around fingers and collarbones to the now-iconic long-stemmed flower climbing up Lady Gaga’s spine that peeked out from her Alexander McQueen gown at the 2019 Oscars. "She wanted to make a statement," says Winter, who also inked the star and her friend with matching tattoos that spelled the word “Gaga” in musical notes that same day.
But long before Winter’s deft hand and keen eye for the tiniest of details caught the Oscar winner’s eye, the tattooer had already racked up a sizable following in Hollywood. Fans of Winter’s flawless fine lines include Demi Lovato, Sophie Turner, Joe Jonas and Emma Roberts, not to mention Mandy Moore and her husband, Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith, who turned to Winter for matching initial tattoos.
"I was pretty much born with a pencil in my hand," explains Winter, a second-generation Los Angeles native born and raised in Beverly Hills. With a father in the clothing business and a jewelry designer mother, Winter’s artistic leanings were encouraged at an early age, out of high school, he worked for Disney as a graphic designer before eventually launching his own sportswear line, Mr. Winter, sold at the likes of Fred Segal and Nordstrom.
But the artist always knew he would one day trade in his graphite for a tattoo gun since getting his first tattoo at age 18 — a Celtic cross between his shoulder blades (a nod to his Irish heritage) from the legendary Mark Mahoney of Shamrock Social Club on Sunset. “I was fascinated by the art, so I just started adding and collecting [tattoos]," he explains. "Every time I got one, I would watch, and learn and learn."
In 2012, Winter began tattooing friends out of his first studio and adopted the moniker Winter Stone (derived from his late dog, a Weimaraner named Stone for his deep gray coloring). "People come to me for fine-line, really meaningful, powerful pieces," explains Winter, who describes his aesthetic as "delicately sharp."