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Peter Voulkos, Can I Have Your Autograph? 

Superheroes of L.A. art and the young artists who idolize them

Thursday, Sep 22 2011

Fandom typically involves frivolous pursuits like Dodger dogs or Comic-Con nerdery, but for artists it's practically a necessity. Try to find an artist who wasn't motivated by the work of someone older, who gave them a glimpse into how provocative, eccentric or sincere art could be, and odds are you'll be stumped. Maybe the best artists make work so well-timed it leaves the past in its wake, but even those pioneers usually start out as big fans.

For this reason, Pacific Standard Time feels like a Hall of Fame ceremony, or a Justice League of L.A. art superheroes, all back in full force. And it's the young artists they influence who may appreciate this gathering most of all.

Here, five L.A. artists who came of age long after that 1945-1980 PST window talk about the icons who informed their art-making.

click to flip through (9) COPYRIGHT BILLY AL BENGSTON, 1962. MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, SAN DIEGO - Drew Heitzler learned California cool from Billy Al Bengston's painting Buster, above, and Ed Bereal's sculpture American Beauty.
  • COPYRIGHT BILLY AL BENGSTON, 1962. MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, SAN DIEGO
  • Drew Heitzler learned California cool from Billy Al Bengston's painting Buster, above, and Ed Bereal's sculpture American Beauty.
 

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Surf Punk Like Me

Drew Heitzler on Billy Al Bengston and Ed Bereal

"Growing up a surf punk on the East Coast in the '80s, Southern California was a magic kingdom," says artist Drew Heitzler, whose video work riffs on the freewheeling SoCal stereotype but also tries to dig beneath the surface of California cool. "Every band I listened to, every video I watched, all the clothes I wore seemed to come from that place. It makes sense, then, that as I got older, and started making art, Los Angeles would be the place where I located my aesthetic." Works from two '60s artists strike Heitzler as particularly evocative of the magic kingdom's light and dark sides.

"Buster by Billy Al Bengston and American Beauty by Ed Bereal operate like history painting for me, even if one is a sculpture," he explains. "It's all there: surfing, cars, motorcycles, jazz, rock & roll, shiny on top and oily underneath." Bengston's sleekly sprayed lacquer painting and Bereal's dustpan-shaped wall piece, which superimposes a swastika over a U.S. flag, also suggest the ominous return of the war technologies that California exported during World War II but kept as a part of its political landscape even after the war ended. In the work of these two artists, "You can see the war coming home to California in the form of choppers in sunset skies and tanks in the streets of Watts."

Ed Bereal's American Beauty (1965) is in "Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture 1950–1970," at the Getty Museum, Oct. 1-Jan. 5. His work also will appear at the Laguna Museum of Art. Billy Al Bengston's works will be at the Getty, Norton Simon and other museums.

How I Invented "Kitbashing"

Glenn Kaino on John Outterbridge

Glenn Kaino began "kitbashing, "a term he coined to describe his distinct assemblage approach, before he knew what it was. He'd take pieces from model-making sets you'd find at hobby shops and mix them up to make unexpected hybrids.

The work of John Outterbridge showed him these model mash-ups could be art. One of the first shows Kaino saw after he arrived here as a student in the early 1990s was an Outterbridge retrospective at the California Afro-American Museum. Outterbridge, a force in the black arts movement in 1970s Los Angeles, had just retired after 17 years as director of the Watts Towers Art Center. "The idea of being so generative with found material, model-mashing and being interested in the form but also having a political energy, all resonated with me," Kaino says.

Jive Ass Bird, an almost anthropological collection of white objects made of metal, cloth and leather straps, is one work from the show Kaino distinctly remembers. "Because I'd seen his work at such a formative moment, Outterbridge spoke to me more than Rauschenberg, for instance. It really set a precedent for my own work."

In the years since, Kaino's kitbashing has become increasingly ambitious, uncanny and mammoth — he's given a taxidermied goat alligator skin and constructed a 20-foot "Transformer" out of fiberglass fragments of iconic bridges. Though impressive as objects, these sculptures exist mainly to alter people's experience of the world, something Outterbridge consistently did through his art and through his infectious persona.

"For Outterbridge and a lot of artists of his generation, the images and objects were secondary" to how they lived, Kaino says. "Spend just five minutes with them, and you'll learn more than you would from any book about their art."

John Outterbridge's Jive Ass Bird (1971) is in "Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980," at the Hammer Museum, Oct. 2-Jan. 8. Work by Outterbridge is on view at LAX Art through Oct. 22 and will be at Watts Towers Art Center, California African American Museum and other venues.

Bowls Aren't Just for Cornflakes

Rebecca Morris on Peter Voulkos

Painter Rebecca Morris was a kid in Connecticut in the 1970s, the daughter of a ceramics teacher in a house where Ceramics Monthly and The Studio Potter were the most readily available reading material. It was in one of those magazines that Morris discovered bold California sculptor Peter Voulkos. "I just remember these forms that weren't functional," she says. "They riffed off traditional vessels, but they were too heavy and awkward to hold."

Voulkos trained as a traditional potter in the early 1950s, but over time his pots and bowls become more and more amorphous and impractical.

"It's hard working with clay because you just don't know how it's going to turn out," Morris explains. "Voulkos embraced that. It's funny, when I first saw the photograph of Little Big Horn" — a 1959 stoneware vessel — "it looked like it could have been one of the bronze sculptures he started making later."

It can be hard to identify the sculptor's materials because he switched things up often, trying different kinds of kilns or dramatically shifting the scale of his objects. This constant flux resonates with Morris, whose own work has an organic unsteadiness to it, as if the confluence of shapes, textures and colors on her canvases was a happy accident. "The older you get, the more you know about what you're doing. But Voulkos was always trying to undo himself. His aesthetic is rough, never perfect. My own aesthetic dovetails with his slop."

Peter Voulkos' Little Big Horn (1959) is featured in "Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture 1950–1970," at the Getty Museum, Oct. 1-Jan. 5. His work also will appear at the American Museum of Ceramic Art and other museums.

Northwest Rock Buddies

Noah Davis on Llyn Foulkes

Driving between Malibu Canyon and his studio recently, Noah Davis noticed how intensely the rock formations along the road resembled the textured landscapes by artist Llyn Foulkes. "He paints L.A. the way it actually feels," says Davis, also a painter, and it's Foulkes' work that compelled Davis to begin a series of large-scale rock paintings he has yet to exhibit.

Davis grew up in 1980s Seattle, just a few hours north of Yakima, where Foulkes grew up in the 1930s and '40s. "I understand where he comes from, and maybe that's why I feel he captures the specific feel of geography so well," says the young painter. "He's one of those artists who are a little less predictable, but it looks like he's finally getting his due." In addition to Foulkes' dense, mixed-media landscapes, Davis admires the way he embeds actual wooden frames into his paintings, so that his subjects, like the disfigured man at the center of Money in the Bank, are boxed in by an extra set of walls. "At first, his portraiture seems like it's straight on, but it never really is. He makes it seem like there's still room to do something original."

Llyn Foulkes' Money in the Bank (1977) is featured in "Under the Big Black Sun: California Art, 1974–1981," at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary, Oct. 2-Jan. 13. His work also will appear in exhibitions at the L.A. Municipal Gallery, Pacific Asia Museum, Santa Barbara Museum of Art and other museums.

Feminist Performance Art, Now Inspired by Facebook

Dawn Kasper on Womanhouse

"It's so difficult doing things alone," says Dawn Kasper, a performance artist who co-directs the Chinatown alternative-space Human Resources L.A. Her collaborative performances spurred her interest in Womanhouse, a live-in, monthlong performance project spearheaded by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in 1972. Chicago, Schapiro and their students transformed an abandoned Hollywood mansion into a labyrinthine artwork that explored gender politics, individuality and friendship and reclaimed domestic space. "It was all women, they fixed up the house themselves, and a lot of them had not even used power tools before," Kasper says.

For PST, Kasper is creating a virtual Womanhouse, collaborating with artist/curator/writer Carole Ann Klonarides to build a social network that will be a forum for artists' conversations, updating gender-identity issues for 2011. "What does it mean that the computer has become a kind of home?" she asks. Human Resources will host some events, but most interaction will occur online.

As with the original Womanhouse, heady ideas will be tossed around, but community is ultimately the point. "There were lots of meetings, deliberation and talk about what the work would become," Kasper says of the original. "I found that process to be very inspiring."

Womanhouse (1972) is featured in "Greetings From L.A.: Artists and Publics, 1945–1980," at the Getty Research Institute, Oct. 1-Jan. 5. Performances for Kasper's virtual Womanhouse will occur during the PST Performance and Public Art Festival, Jan. 19-29.

Reach the writer at cgwagley@gmail.com

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