The 2018 L.A. Art Show (Jan. 10-14) presented works from influential underground galleries and international heavyweights, spanning Picasso to pop surrealism, street art to official government exhibitions, with an increased focus on Asia and Latin America — and backing from serious institutional muscle.
On-site programming by the Getty, the Broad, LACMA, MOCA and others lent gravity and an integrated sense of place to a scene perpetually on the come-up in the shadow of New York.
Boosters hope that's shifting, as the combination of anchor museums and idiosyncratic Angeleno subcultures reflected this year outlines a market and cultural space with its own unique luster.
“Twenty-three years ago, no one talked about L.A. being a center of the art world,” said Kim Martindale, L.A. Art Show general manager and partner. “It's been an art-oriented city for 100 years, but for collectors, and the fine art aspect, it wasn't rivaling other destinations and now it does.”
On L.A. Art Show's opening night, more than 6,000 visitors meandered through 100 galleries across 260,000 square feet of the L.A. Convention Center. Graffiti artists and avant-garde skaters rubbed shoulders with career art snobs and collectors. Pretension and self-promotion peacefully coexisted with introspection.
As one merry reveler put it: “This may be the best gallery show of my entire life. I couldn't ask for anything more: Pink's chili cheese dogs, doughnuts and free booze.”
Outsized exhibitions such as Antuan Rodriguez's forest of red punching bags emblazoned with the faces of tyrannical world leaders garnered the bulk of media attention, as did celebrity names and celebrated lowbrow fair Littletopia.
What began as a market for 19th-century California plein air paintings has evolved in tandem with the city as a destination for collectors.
“I still think there's a market for that type of artwork,” Martindale said, pointing to the shrinking Roots section of the fair, which shows historical works. “But I think L.A. and the world have become more interested in contemporary material.”
While collectors were more likely to go to New York or London to buy, even if they lived in L.A., he said, a new generation of collectors is developing “who are serious about putting together collections of original work — and that changes the whole dynamic as a city as far as the art world is concerned.”
Artist and former Watts Towers director Mark Steven Greenfield also noted a dramatic shift over the last five years.
“Most of the work in the past here has been a little too commercial for my taste,” Greenfield said. “I just think it's a natural evolution of the art world in Los Angeles, which is going through some interesting convulsions. But now you've got all these great schools here, world-class museums that are putting on world-class exhibitions — it's actually living up to its hype.”
One year into the sinking indignities of a Trump presidency, overtly political messaging was everywhere. So were Star Wars references, the refractive effects of social media and the tight knit of the city's lowbrow scene.
Graffiti artist Axis, whose work was recently shown at Eastern Projects in Chinatown, described curating “L.A.: Ley Lines” for Cartwheel Art.
“It's basically my home,” he said, surveying a space decorated with wood paneling, antique furniture, house plants and taxidermy where works by Big Sleeps, Defer, Eyeone, Prime and Swank were on display.
“I wanted to make it current L.A. art, but with roots in graffiti, punk rock, gang culture — everything that is vital to L.A.'s history — but as if we were in the 1930s … so basically you're viewing the private collection of someone back in time but our art from now. Dig it?”
Surrounded by a glorious visual banquet on almost all sides, a man in a sharkskin suit made sweeping, grandiose gestures at what may have been the only blank wall.
Nearby, L.A. artist, animator and Witchsy co-founder Penelope Gazin filmed an actor in a smoking jacket playing an art collector.
Of the works she had on display with Littletopia's Red Truck and Superchief galleries, she said, “I think they're bringing a lot of fresh, weirder artists along with them, including myself.” (Gazin is also a subject of photographer Parker Day's work presented by Superchief.)
While not aiming for direct political commentary, Gazin noted she's been doing “a lot of paintings of men choking women” since Trump was elected.
Painter Yalda Sepahpour, whose style echoes something of Picasso and Matisse but with a femininity all her own, sold a massive, gorgeous triptych of women and pink flamingos for $22,000.
“This is part of a series I did, and I was really inspired by powerful women around the world actually doing something — such as Malala Yousafzai, Kurdish women fighting ISIS. The one we did last year was a bunch of women with AK-47s,” said Sepahpour, who is from Iran but recently moved to Laguna Niguel from Switzerland.
“This is mainly focusing on the femininity of women, because I feel there is a little bit of negative energy over here, and there's kind of like a man-hating culture being created,” she explained, revealing that peculiar U.S.-European cultural divide. “Why can't we celebrate our differences?”
Many attendees could trace their social DNA to Greg Escalante, the beloved champion of lowbrow and founder of Juxtapoz magazine whose sudden death last year sent shockwaves through and beyond the L.A. art community.
Escalante helped curate Littletopia last year; this year, it paid tribute to him — as well as to Margaret Keane, the iconic founder of the “Big Eyes” movement and subject of the eponymous Tim Burton film. L.A. artist Mab Graves presented Keane's family members with a lifetime achievement award when the 90-year-old painter was unable to attend.
Tyler Nacho, muralist and art director of graffiti magazine Kill Pretty, said he was pleasantly surprised to see more risk-taking work.
“I feel like in the last three years it's kind of opening up more — more mainstream art culture is becoming accepting of lowbrow and they're mixing a little bit.”
No sightings of pop-surrealism godfather Mark Ryden — although there was an eerily lifelike bust of him by Kazuhiro Tsuji.
There was a beautiful Warhol, a wall of Jae Yong Kim's luscious ceramic doughnuts; Cristobal Valecillos' vibrantly theatrical masks and Wolfbat's energetic, intricate archway; Italian painter Alex Folla's chiaroscuro saints and centaurs; occasionally terrible commercial pop art —and, in a world all her own, living Latex doll Pandemonia.
“I created Pandemonia about 10 years ago,” explained the anonymous London-based artist behind a performance that looks like a 3-D–rendered 2-D drawing. “I wanted to create artwork about celebrity and social media,” she said, through a small mouth hole, “that could jump through different genres of things.
“It sounds really corny but I kinda like L.A. … There's something about the architecture here, the road signs — Pandemonia sees this as a vision she can fit into.”
Raquel Gallardo, a schoolteacher and art aficionado, gazed at a painting by Korean monochrome artist Kim Tae-Ho.
“I do feel a little out of place,” Gallardo said. “Because I don't think the artists are Hispanic like me. I don't see people like me,” she said, wondering why the “native art” was stuck in the corner. “I'm definitely leaving inspired. I was just hoping to see one thing that felt like home.”
Looking ahead, Martindale wants to increase institutional programming via DIVERSEartLA and bring more internationally recognized galleries into the fold while maintaining the eclectic feel and regional focus.
“We're not turning our back on Europe, but I do feel Los Angeles is in the center of the Pacific Rim, so really our show should have a great emphasis on Latin American and Asia,” he said.
As for L.A.'s place in the art world, Martindale is patient.
“It's challenging that right now, and becoming that, and we're really finally in that place with major galleries. Are we there yet? No. Are we looking like we have a real possibility of being that? Yes.”