"What do you do?" It's one of those ubiquitous questions we encounter at parties, at bars, at events — anytime you meet a new person. And your answer to this question is particularly important in Los Angeles.
"'What do you do' helps people understand the definition of you," says Ty Joseph. Perhaps most important, he says, "It helps me to define myself."
When he tells the Weekly this, it's 2 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 13, just a few hours before his first solo show as an artist opens to the public. More than a year in the making, "The Meaning of L" will open at Gloria Delson Contemporary Art during Downtown ArtWalk. Joseph has spent a quiet day in his apartment at the foot of Runyon Canyon, recovering from the VIP opening reception the night before — an evening that had kept him out until 5 a.m.
Joseph's "What do you do?" has been evolving since before he arrived in L.A. He's done service in the Israeli navy. He's been in bands. He's been a real estate investor and developer. Now, finally, and with a level of confidence and enthusiasm missing from all these other identities, he introduces himself to the world as an artist.
The pieces in "The Meaning of L" are the culmination of a full revamping of his life about 2½ years ago. The title of the show has a literal meaning: Every piece is largely composed of L-shaped symbols sweeping across the canvas and arranged to create objects, movement and narrative. He's setting up these L's to be the foundation of his signature style.
In one piece, Joseph lovingly renders Andy Warhol (one of the artists whose work inspired him to paint), his facial features built almost entirely from L's. Birds, the first painting he did in this series, offers two beaked silhouettes densely filled in by clouds of L's. For one of the most striking works in the show, Joseph teamed up with James Goldcrown for his first collaboration. Joseph's clean-lined, precise and bold-hued L's are deliciously juxtaposed with Goldcrown's dripping rainbow graffiti hearts.
The path to this show started in childhood, and it hasn't been tidy. Joseph's mother dabbled in art, and his father always had paint and tools lying around. At the age of 10 Joseph began playing guitar and recording his own songs. Despite his currently crisp, bright aesthetic, he was heavily into the grunge scene.
Joseph's childhood provided him with all the material to explore creativity, but there was nothing that clearly indicated he was destined to go into art. "Painting was the first thing that stood out as a prominent talent in my childhood," he says. "And yet it took me the course of a generation to realize that this is what I should be — an artist. To explain my late start, I tend to say that first I had to try everything else to assuredly know that painting and making art are my true calling."
As a native of Israel, Joseph was required as a young adult to complete three years of military service. Before it was done, he was looking for his next identity, and nightlife, music and potential rock stardom were on the menu. He joined a band that began to tour the United States, and he fell in love with Los Angeles, where he laid down roots.
When the music scene became too much, he went to school, got a B.A. and then went into real estate. Not something he really wanted to do, but he felt he would be good at it. And it gave him a much different identity than being in a band. He began investing in and developing properties all across the country. After a particularly horrendous project in Chicago, he realized he needed to find something he truly wanted — something that would allow him to express himself.
"I reached a point where I had enough passive income to not worry about my basic needs," Joseph says. "But with great relief comes a disturbing sense of comfort...," and from that, "the need to evolve."
It was time to be an artist. And unlike creatives who gradually fall into art, or complete art school, or follow any of the myriad paths that take them into the world as an artist, Joseph's art career began when he first told himself, out loud, "I am an artist."
He sat down and began to make marks on a piece of paper. Within 20 minutes, he emerged with what would become his signature L's — his vehicles into this new life. "My earliest works, like Birds, were pretty much composed entirely by chance," he explains. "My eyes just caught the right arrangements of shapes and then all that was left was to refine it."
Right away, he began introducing himself as an artist. "Pretty much I had to take that role and portray it to the fullest because there was no other way," Joseph says. "I mean, I wasn't going to say, 'I'm trying to become an artist.' I had to say that I'm an artist, and if people believed me, then great."
It wasn't long before he was part of a group show at Gloria Delson. Other group shows and other events followed. Just a few weeks before the opening of "The Meaning of L," his work was being exhibited by several art galleries at Art Basel. Now, for the first time, he's commanding his own solo show. He's not just an artist. He's the artist behind this show you're at.
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"That's the essence of doing art. I can tie my personality into what I do," Joseph says. "When people look at my art, they basically see me, in a way. And I think they see something unique," he adds. "I see it in their reactions. And that tells me if they see something unique, that means that it's truly something that came from me. [Art is] a way for me to express who I am to people, and they don't even have to see my face."
"The Meaning of L" is on view at Gloria Delson Contemporary Arts, 727 S. Spring St., downtown, through Jan. 31. gdcagallery.com. There will be two special receptions in January — the Downtown Art Walk reception on Thursday, January 10, 6-10pm; and another on Saturday, January 19, 6-10pm.