Normally a mainstay of the culture season and a highlight of the social calendar as well, the annual City of Los Angeles Individual Artist Fellowships (colloquially known as the COLA awards) exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery was scheduled for May 21-July 5, and it would have been gorgeous. Due to the pandemic, with LAMAG itself closed, the Department of Cultural Affairs re-imagined both the planned physical exhibition and slate of talks and performances, the key feature of which is an engaging archive of video documentaries visiting the visual artists in their studios while they created the works supported by the grants.
Support grants of $10,000 each were awarded for the creation of new visual as well as literary, dance and musical art projects, to Tanya Aguiñiga, Amir H. Fallah, YoungEun Kim, Elana Mann, Hillary Mushkin, Alison O’Daniel, Vincent Ramos, Shizu Saldamando, Holly Tempo, Jeffrey Vallance, and Lisa Diane Wedgeworth. The literary and performance-based artists — writer Steven Reigns, dancer Roxanne Steinberg and singer Mia Doi Todd — had the opportunity to appear in live streaming events during the exhibition’s run, all of which videos are now archived at the website if you’d like to catch up.
In lieu of the consistently ambitious and impressive gallery installation, LAMAG produced the COLA 2020: Artist Focus video series. Filmed in the months before the May opening, these short but sweet mini-documentaries offer sneak peeks into the work then being made for the fellowship show, along with curator Steven Wong and assistant curator Brianna Bakke interviewing the artists about their practices and what the city and its arts community means to them. All of the films are now available to watch online, and this is such a good idea as well as a deep, accessible, and shareable resource that we hope they do them from now on.
The projects themselves, as has been noted before, are not curated as a group; which is to say, the artists win the fellowships on individual merit, and the curatorial team figures out how to design the show as these projects progress. Somehow, every year this process nevertheless reveals solid themes in materials and topicality that are as clear as though they were curated with intentional direction. In a sense, what this year’s group all share is an urge to recenter art-making around lived experience.
For their parts, Reigns’ writing is evocative and autobiographical, Steinberg’s dance is rooted in what she calls “embodied knowledge — dancing as a form of knowing,” and Todd’s music has long been known for its seamless stylistic fusion and narrative intrigue. Whether in experiential or narrative approaches, across an eclectic array of mediums, each of the visual artists are also manifesting the power of the personal perspective, challenging systems of oppressive uniformity that thwart social and cultural progress.
For her COLA Fellowship, Tanya Aguiñiga continued her social justice work on the U.S./Mexico border, establishing a ceramics studio at Jardin de Mariposas, an LGBTQ shelter in Tijuana. Vincent Ramos’ bricolage of personal archives creates enduring physical monuments to heritage, preserving fleeting traditions and personal memories. Mixed media painter Holly Tempo uses unconventional materials and schematic, expressive architecture-inflected abstractions to document the physical and environmental changes and erasures in her Inglewood neighborhood.
Jeffrey Vallance focuses on recent paintings which subvert conventions of plein air painting by infusing choices of locale and dissonant pastoralism with a subtext of social critique. Hillary Mushkin reconceptualizes landscape drawings using tools of surveillance to create tension between personal relationships to regional locations and the frequently more nefarious elements of government and military land use. Sound artist YoungEun Kim investigates the history of Western tonal standardization as both a literal structure of restraint and a metaphor for the pitfalls of such homogeneity. Elana Mann articulates how she perceives her hand-made communal horn sound instrument within the context of protests and activism. Alison O’Daniel also uses sound as a touchstone for interdisciplinary works exploring the experience of navigating the world with compromised hearing.
Painter Lisa Diane Wedgeworth continues and expands her idea-driven abstraction which explores a universe of possible meanings for the color black, in its semantics and associations as well as emotional and spiritual aspects. Painter Amir H. Fallah addresses the surprising degree to which portraiture and personality can be accomplished through seductive color, pattern, pose and personal artifacts in lieu of faces, highlighting common humanity and individual stories at the same time. Shizu Saldamando also creates portraits, depicting the ordinary people in her life in regally rendered drawings that are intentional in their insistence on community representation in the art world.