L.A. is overflowing with alternative/artist-run spaces right now, and a particularly intriguing one is Summercamp, located in a sprawling ranch-style home on a steep hillside in the Eastside community of El Sereno.
Designed and built in 1950 by an illustrator and art teacher named Al Kaelin, the house has two stories, including a catacomb-like basement, plus a vast, dramatically sloping backyard -- the main site for the new show "Friday Night Lights & Sunday Afternoons," which opened over the weekend.
Five years ago, through a series of fortuitous circumstances, the house came into the possession of artists Janice Gomez, Fatima Hoang and Elonda Billera, who since 2009 have opened the grounds for art exhibitions during the summer months -- hence the name Summercamp.
Spaces like Summercamp are the result of both a burgeoning young art scene and a relentless economy that's forced galleries to close and museums to become more conservative over the last two years. As mainstream opportunities shrink, resourceful artists create their own opportunities off the beaten art world path.
Anyone who visits Summercamp can't help but be captivated by the place. The views of the neighboring valleys are stunning, and the house itself is lovably eccentric. There's a modernist living room with built-in seating and tables, a bathroom with trick drawers and a special nook just for storing extra toilet paper, unexpected passageways from one room to another, an angular anteroom on the back patio that used to be a goat pen, and so on. The place was obviously a labor of love for Kaelin, who even left behind a binder of archival materials documenting his own and the house's history.
The opening reception for "Friday Night Lights & Sunday Afternoons," a group show installed throughout the backyard and back patio, was held late on Sunday afternoon. On the hillside, Suzanne Fontaine's A New Kind of Fortune Telling offered individual readings that sought "understanding of destiny and self," while Matt Wardell's Fig to Pataya (Ramp) snaked down the entire length of the hill with a merry path of fruits and found objects, along which the artist would occasionally roll a cantaloupe.
Up on the patio, Marcus Durkheim arranged about 20 small, ambiguous paintings of objects in Goatspace (the new name for the old goat pen), while Alison Owen's House Rules was a site-specific installation responding to the movement of light in the space known as Guestroom. It was Michael Carter who probably stole the show, however, with Appetite for Destruction, a banquet table festooned with a roast suckling pig, plenty of champagne and a few dozen chef's knives. The piece was intended to subvert expectations around the typical art opening reception table, but this crowd happily sliced off delicious bits of pig, then thrust the knives back into place before helping themselves to champagne.
Fragrant pork aside, the true centerpiece of the whole show was Hill House Mine, a work of freestyle theater and dance composed especially for the house by visiting Brooklyn artist Liza Wade Green. Green began developing the piece during a brief residency at Summercamp last year. Like most everyone else, she found herself enchanted by the house and its histories, and decided that she wanted to choreograph a work that would actually take place in five interior rooms of the house, playing off its unique architecture.
The three directors of Summercamp are normally quite strict about keeping the private areas of their home closed to visitors during art events, so it took a lot of convincing on Green's part to get them to agree to this. The setup was an elaborate one: individual scenes took place in five different rooms, and groups of visitors were led through the house to experience them, one after the other. There was a certain order, but it didn't matter which room you started in, as the structure of the work was circular as well as interlocking.
Mining her own childhood memories of gruesome family tales, Green created a fragmentary, evocative narrative in which clues to events were thrown out, often connected in interesting ways, but never overtly delineated. The sadistic son in the bathroom tells the story of how grandpa was murdered by a Swedish fisherman; in the living room, the daughter nibbles on Swedish Fish while talking about how worms will eat her grandma, who lies nearby in state. Dad complains in the basement about how mom just offers him cookies as a solution to every problem, and in the kitchen mom does a solitary dance after offering cookies to her daughter via a pass-through into the living room. Grandpa's slaughtered body lies in the bedroom, receiving a brief visit from grandma as he recounts the night he was murdered.
The house was used so intimately in this piece, that it felt as though the walls themselves were offering up these old ghost stories. Instead of the artifice of a stage set, personal belongings were cozily scattered everywhere. The effect was spooky and touching.
For the grand finale, timed to occur after sunset, the six cast members walked out of the house and down the long hill, returning together to the top of the hill with lanterns that glowed eerily in the night. Instrumental music playing on a sound system gave way to Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros' jubilant song "Home," to which the cast members did a final dance -- with the audience looking on from the patio -- that evoked warmth, humor, and liberation from past traumas. A dance floor had been set up on the patio, and the actors ended the piece by hitting it and inviting everyone at the event to join them in a positive affirmation of home and community.
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Hill House Mine was beautifully written and choreographed; poetic phrases lingered in the mind as story fragments wove in and out of the labyrinthine rooms. I was most impressed by the high level of professionalism in this literally homegrown production, performed free of cost to all visitors -- I have paid money for performances that were not as impressive or unique.
The piece was also performed on Friday night, in a special evening of performance that included Maya Gurantz's Fade to Black, a live tableau enacted on the patio and timed to coincide with the setting of the sun; and CamLab's Try-Relational Feedback, a performance piece in which two artists did intimacy exercises with a stuffed monkey in one of the bedrooms -- the results were then televised into a mock living room that had been set up in Goatspace.
"Friday Night Lights & Sunday Afternoons" is Summercamp's last official show for the 2011 season, and will be viewable by appointment only for the next few weeks. From September 30 through October 3, look for Summercamp's booth at ARTRA Co/Lab, a promising showcase of nonprofit and alternative spaces being held in conjunction with the Art Platform -- Los Angeles art fair.