"I can smash it, burn it, repaint it," says Arthure "Art" Moore to two girls lingering beside one of the paintings he has arranged in his regular spot, on a relatively quiet stretch of the Venice Beach boardwalk. Quiet here just means "not chaotic," no street performers whizzing by, no pot shop across the way.
"Whatever you want, I can do it," Moore adds, but if the girls decide they do want the painting, one of Moore's "Funky Pussy" pictures of a wily cat with its middle finger extended, he'll likely suggest it's perfect the way it is.
Moore has other funky subjects: Funky Buddha giving the finger, Funky Frida giving the finger. "She's your very first anarchist," Moore says of painter Frida Kahlo. "What she really wanted to do was say 'fuck you' to all America."
In 2007, Hammer Museum curator Ali Subotnick had bought her first Funky Pussy painting, and later bought a painting by Moore, called Fuck It, in which a guy who's had a bad day plunges a fork into a toaster. She bought a few more Funky Pussy paintings as gifts before introducing herself to Moore and asking if he would be interested in working on a project with her.
Subotnick wanted to put on a Venice Beach Biennial. Its title would riff on the Venice Biennale, the famed art show held since 1895 along the canals in Venice, Italy, but this would be its own animal. Veteran vendors and contemporary "art-world" artists would coexist for a weekend, selling their art objects side by side and performing in the city Parks & Rec space and along the boardwalk.
Moore agreed to participate. For the last few months, a rendering of his Funky Pussy, a pink one with a particularly long middle finger, has been on banners, postcards, totes and the Hammer's home page. Moore also has acted as a liaison between museum and boardwalk artists and given the non-boardwalk artists tours to prep them for the biennial, scheduled for July 13-15 as part of the museum's larger "Made in L.A." project. Each morning of the biennial, they'll have to show up at 5 a.m. to claim a spot along with all the regular vendors. "You're not in your galleries anymore," he tells them. "You're in the trenches now."
The first time I meet Art Moore, who has unruly blond hair and paint splattered across his jeans and sandals, I ask him how long he's been a painter, and he acts confused. "I just don't know," he says. "A couple of weeks at least." He turns to his friend, artist Al Culbertson, who's packing up the adjoining spot. "How long have I been painting, Al?" Al, stone-faced, says, "Let me check," and looks at his watch.
The second time I meet Moore, he begins telling me about how, at age 28, he left his job as a general contractor in San Diego and moved up to Venice Beach, when a cop rolls up in his patrol car and summons Moore to the passenger's side window. After a few minutes of interrogation (what happened to that big painting you had earlier, the officer wants to know, and who is that you're talking to?), Moore returns while the officer writes him a citation. "He says he saw me with a beer 30 minutes ago," Moore explains. "He should be busting those guys selling the T-shirts" — only art objects handmade by the person selling them are allowed in the boardwalk's "free speech zone," but that law is hard to enforce. "It's just that I'm an easier target."
Moore has been on the boardwalk for more than 30 years, and for at least the first 20, he sold small ceramic items, like personalized casts of people's faces. Then about 12 years ago, a girlfriend of his — "Yes, I had a girlfriend," he jokes — inspired his "shock" project. "She said, 'Baby, it's my birthday, can I have a cat please?' " he remembers. "But she pissed me off, see? I said, 'Sure I'll give you a cat.' " He made her the first Funky Pussy. "She loved it. We even had sex that night. That's when I realized people want a shock."
After the cop car pulls away, three women walk by Moore's work. "Amazing," says one. "Phenomenal, cutting-edge," Moore replies, "and psychotic." They leave and Moore observes, "There are so many better artists than me, but people aren't really buying the painting. They're buying the energy."
Curator Subotnick loves that energy, the feeling of irreverent independence that hangs over the whole boardwalk. She has since she was 17, studying for a semester at UCLA, going down to Venice Beach every day to shop for jewelry and hair wraps while working on her tan. "It's eclectic. You can get anything there, and these artists make whatever art they want," she says. "Any other place, this wouldn't still exist."
She moved to Venice in 2006, when she began working at the Hammer. She had just co-curated the Berlin Biennial and friends joked that a "Venice Beach Biennial" should be her next project. But when she wandered down to the boardwalk and imagined the artists she knew interspersed with those already there, it didn't seem like such a joke.
When the Tieger Foundation, which grants curators funds for dream projects, invited her to submit a proposal, she proposed the biennial.
Subotnick submitted her proposal in 2010, before an amendment to L.A. Municipal Code 42.15 struck down the lottery system that previously governed the "free-speech zone" vending spaces on the western side of the boardwalk and replaced it with a first-come, first-serve policy. The ACLU had challenged the lottery in federal court as a First Amendment violation, and a judge issued an injunction against it.
With no lottery, the boardwalk descended into chaos. Vendors would camp out overnight to vie for spots, sometimes violently. For a while, the Venice Beach Biennial, or VBB, seemed impossible, unless it consisted only of performances and a few booths set up in nearby park spaces.
Then, in January 2012, a new amendment to the code limited the definition of "creative expression" — pamphlets and buttons were allowed, as were paintings, sculptures "or any other item that is inherently communicative." Items like boxes, jewelry and clothing, more utilitarian than expressive, can't be sold in the free-speech zone, and it's up to the police to pick out the violators (the judgment that jewelry and boxes aren't "expressive" is currently being challenged in court).
Vendors still have to arrive early, but the amendment has cut down on their number, and chaos has lessened over the past few months.
The question was no longer whether the VBB would be feasible but how to enlist the right artists so that the VBB would underscore rather than invade the boardwalk's singular culture.
Few of the art-world artists who will be participating in the VBB frequented the boardwalk before Subotnick invited them to propose projects for the biennial. "I used to find it overwhelming," says Lisa Anne Auerbach, who has spent enough time on the boardwalk lately that she now nods hello to some of its regulars. Auerbach made a zine with artists Robby Herbst and Kimberly Varella, which will be available at an information booth and at Small World Bookshop.
"The idea of living free is dicey but fascinating to us," Auerbach says. "There's a lot of vulgarity, so much hyper-aggressive art on the boardwalk." She, Herbst and Varella wanted to capture that "crazy energy of humanity" but didn't want to come off as voyeurs. The zine has a raw, handcrafted feeling and functions like a collage of images, verbiage and personalities you might encounter at Venice Beach. But there are no stereotypical photos of napping bums or street performers with an arm around a tourist.
On its cover, it has "Free Speech Is Not a Lottery Prize," "Hashbomb Yourself Stupid" and other phrases lifted from signs and art around the boardwalk.
Artist Matt Merkel Hess, who shows at ACME Gallery, will arrive at 5 a.m. to claim a spot and hawk his specially made ceramic items, like his ceramic sunglasses and the incense holders he's still trying to get right. He also has made postcards and paintings of towels that say Venice Beach on them. He'll be standing there each day, behind his wares, trying to sell to passersby — not something he's done before.
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Artist Claude Stracensky-Collins first wanted to create a rainbow by sending a mist of water from a fire hydrant over Market Street. Then he proposed hanging hammocks made by the company Trip to the Moon on the big steel Mark di Suvero sculpture between the boardwalk and the beach — so he could offer naps, or "trips to the moon," to visitors. Logistics and nervous city officials blocked both those plans, so he began searching for the dancing man, an older man with a hint of a belly and no inhibitions, who often appears dancing on the boardwalk in just running shorts and shoes.
As soon as Stracensky-Collins started looking, the dancing man seemed to disappear. He's making posters like those in the skate movie Search for Animal Chin, which show the dancing man and say, "Have you seen him?" The posters will hang up and down the boardwalk for the VBB. That way, if the dancing man appears, people will already be looking for him. "I'm setting up the potential of the situation," Stracensky-Collins says. "It could come to fruition or not."
Moore knows things won't all go according to plan when the VBB opens this weekend. He says he read on the Hammer website that the VBB would take the art-world "artists out of their comfort zone." That may be an understatement. "These artists, they're pretty much weak," he says, "and I don't mean their art." They haven't spent enough time in the trenches. "There's going to be some friction. Some vendors will say [to the outside artists], you're new, you're hot off the presses, you can't be here."
But Moore is mostly optimistic. "Venice is all about art, free speech," he says. "This gives some legitimacy to what we do."