What once was a disadvantage for L.A.-based artists has now become a winning edge. There was a time in the 1960s, in the early days of the Ferus Gallery, that legendary artmakers like Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses and Billy Al Bengston could only hope to get a show in New York or London because they were just too far from the scene. Today, that distance is an asset. L.A. is uniquely positioned on the Pacific Rim, a forum for artists from North, South and Central America as well as the Far East and South Pacific. And no one synthesizes this variety of influences better than Gajin Fujita, whose massive Ghost Rider is just one of five new works on display at L.A. Louver’s booth at Frieze Los Angeles.
“This particular image I referenced from a samurai returned spirit,” Fujita tells L.A. Weekly about the massive six-panel mural, of spray paint and marker on gold leaf, depicting an Edo period (1603-1868) samurai. He wears the monochrome black and silver of the Oakland (formerly L.A.) Raiders, Fujita’s favorite team dating back to their Super Bowl rout in 1984. “I like to use the Raiders logo, and I think it suits the samurai and gives it a more contemporary Western twist.”
At 5 by 9 feet, the scale of Ghost Rider evokes the walls Fujita and his Eastside tagging crews, KGB (Kidz Gone Bad) and KIIS (Kill to Succeed), were known for in the 1990s. His use of gold-leaf panels, iconography from Edo Japan, graffiti and the Raiders makes for a unique pan-Pacific vibe. Also in the show is Xing the River Styx, which references an Edo period color woodblock painting of a woman riding a man’s back as he fords a river. In her hand, she raises a blade, about to stab him. Both are set against gold leaf and graffiti tags as a raven comments from the lower left-hand corner.
Phony Disillusion pictures a Japanese maiden in flowing robes, attacked by a demon against a backdrop of gold leaf and graffiti. A cellphone occupies the right half of the frame, recording the scene. And Dirty Rotten Scoundrel offers an erotic scene of a love triangle about to go bad. The smallest work, City of Fallen Angels, is epic in content, a giant samurai towering over the L.A. skyline.
“I’d been toying around with themes of how humans are irrelevant, minuscule grains of sand, or specks of dust in this universe,” Fujita says, echoing notions common to Japanese landscape painting. “I like these tales from the Edo period, when these woodblock prints were made of these samurais of mist and legend.”
Born in Boyle Heights, the son of an abstract landscape painter from Hokkaido, Japan, and an art conservator from Tokyo, Fujita spoke his parents’ language at home, where he was regaled by his artist father with legends of warriors and demons. Growing up in a Latino neighborhood, he embraced hip-hop and street style, tagging walls and overpasses with his friends. He attended a visual arts magnet at Fairfax High School, on the other side of town, and upon graduation entered East L.A. College but soon transferred to Otis College of Art & Design. He received his MFA at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he studied Renaissance painting. His adviser was art critic and professor Dave Hickey, who chose him to be the youngest artist in the Santa Fe Biennial in 2001 where he showed his logo mural, Beau Monde.
L.A. Louver’s “Rogue Wave” show periodically looks at a dozen or more emerging L.A. artists. Gajin was chosen for the inaugural 2001 exhibit, and his career took off from there. “It’s about a community growing and the demographics changing,” says gallerist Peter Goulds. “Our mission statement is to show local, to show California-based artists, primarily Los Angeles in fact, in a context of international art around the world.”
Having exhibited at numerous art fairs, including eight times at Art Basel, Fujita is skeptical about the impact of fairs on an artist’s career, though he feels sanguine about Frieze coming to Los Angeles. “It is one of the more classy, prestigious art fairs that has been around for a long time. For them to expand and reach out to the West Coast for the first time, I think it will be really good,” says the 47-year-old artist, adding, “I'm not sure of it being critical or transformative, but it may make a lot of noise and I hope that they will have a place to stay here from here on out.”
You can see and decide for yourself Feb. 14 through 17, but that’s if you can get your hands on a ticket, because speaking of its potential impact and noise-making in our scene, the fair is purportedly already sold out.