With its vast olive groves, manicured lawns, iconic architecture and stunning views, Barnsdall Art Park oozes serenity and elegance. Which is why it is particularly interesting that, for three days this weekend, the city of Los Angeles and the various cultural institutions that run and fund Barnsdall are handing over the entire park to an artist whose work is explicitly noisy and outrageous.
Aaron Axelrod’s July 15-17 takeover of Barnsdall marks the first time an artist has been given free rein of the entire park. For his retrospective survey show, “Dark Matter,” Axelrod’s brightly colored, psychedelia-inspired paintings, sculptures, videos and performances will fill all 12 galleries in the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery as well as any other space on the park’s property he chooses to utilize. This includes — for the first time ever — the park’s carefully preserved and protected, Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Hollyhock House.
Axelrod was born and bred in Los Angeles. A Valley kid whose mom worked in the Beverly Hills School District, he attended Beverly Hills schools from kindergarten until his senior year of high school, when he was kicked out for drawing on too many desks and walls. “I was probably also obnoxious,” he concedes.
In high school, Axelrod was grounded all the time. Stuck at home, he drew and painted constantly. He was obsessed with hyper-realism. “I thought that the more realistic you could make something, the better an artist you were,” he says. “That was just my green understanding of what art was. But I got to that point in high school. I was able to draw and paint things so realistically that they looked like photos and it was boring. It was tedious. It wasn’t fun.”
Standing in his airy studio loft space in L.A.’s downtown Fashion District just a week before his Barnsdall show opens, he recounts how his ideas about drawing and art changed dramatically after high school. “I went to CalArts to study fine art,” he explains. “That place really changed my life. All the weirdos who get kicked out of high school, they all go there. That’s where my perception changed. If you want to make something that looks like a photo, just take a photo. Anyone can learn that craft. It’s just a skill that if you practice, you will be able to achieve. Art is more about your own voice and your own way that you see the world. It flipped the script on me. Now I actually have a lot of fun making my art.”
As a professional artist, Axelrod has found a voice that is as playfully hyperactive as he is in person. Inspired by psychedelia, 1990s pop culture, Dr. Seuss and Disney, his brightly colored pieces do look like a hell of a lot of fun to make.
For “Melting Rainbows,” Axelrod spreads brightly colored paints across a curved, transparent surface with the same exuberance as a kindergartener with unrestricted access to finger paints. His artist statement for a piece called “Pot, Sex and Acid” is simple and to the point: “This series of paintings and mechanical paintings explores the process of making art while under the influence of Pot, Sex and Acid … while using the female form as the muse … the end [emoji smiley face].” Even his more intellectually driven pieces, such as the large pastels in his “Freedom of the Press” series that examine the distortion of news through TV media, are ultimately appealing because of the way they pop with bright, pleasure-inducing color.
Just as he’s found his own aesthetic voice, Axelrod has found his own unique way of funding his art. “I have been able to navigate the art scene in a different way than I feel most people do,” he explains. “Most people graduate from art school and they do some group shows in galleries, which then lead to solo shows, but they still need a side job to keep things going. I don’t have money. I’m not a trust fund kid, so I can’t self-fund. I’ve had jobs, but I don’t want to do that, so I figured out a different way. I did my own thing. I did pop-up shows and public art on buildings and then I got brands involved in underwriting [projects] without it tainting my artistic integrity.”
MySpace, Disney, Vans and Google are just a few of the big-money benefactors Axelrod has talked into funding his art over the years. “Most of my projects require a lot of capital, so I had to find partners,” he explains. Growing up, he watched his dad — a “money guy” and the vice chancellor of UCLA in charge of endowments — raise large sums of money. “I get the finance, business stuff from my dad,” he explains. “I know there’s money out there. People get it. I just decided I’m going to get it.”
Axelrod’s corporate sponsor for this weekend’s Barnsdall retrospective is Swarovski. The Austrian crystal company is underwriting the show and also providing more than 700,000 crystals that Axelrod has incorporated into two new pieces. In his studio last week, Axelrod showed off a pair of bright pink crystal–encrusted bunny ears that he will be “rocking for performance art and stuff” throughout the “Dark Matter” show. “Gnarly, right?” he says as he straps them to his head and poses in front of another brightly colored, crystal-covered work on the wall.
Even though he is only 32 years old, Axelrod isn’t worried about filling the Barnsdall galleries with his art. In fact, he has more ideas than he has space for in the galleries. Just a few days before he begins to install, he is still finalizing projects, throwing out ideas he doesn’t have room for and plotting ways to utilize the space outside the galleries. If he can make it work in time, Hollyhock House will be covered in a projection.
“I’m fortunate enough to have accumulated a vast body of work and a following,” he says, noting his relatively young age. “A major public art institution wanted to celebrate what I’ve done so far, so that just tells me I need to keep going. It’s a really important step, and I’m excited about it.”