Photographer Michele Asselin has been best known for her portraits — emotional and empathetic images that are equal parts glossy editorial and impactful journalism. In her Clubhouse Turn: The Twilight of Hollywood Park Race Track project, she expands her portrait practice to include architecture. When the landmark site announced it would close permanently after 75 years, Asselin set about documenting the eve of its end — both through its semi-abandoned spaces, designs and surreal decay, and through the employees who had been its denizens and caretakers. Now Clubhouse Turn is also a thorough and thoughtful new book from Angel City Press, to be celebrated with a signing event at Vroman’s on March 1.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?
MICHELE ASSELIN: I am not sure I remember an exact moment. I do remember the first time I saw a photographic image appear on paper in the darkroom. I remember the image so clearly — a tree on the lawn of my junior high school campus. I watched as the grays and blacks emerged, growing on the surface of white paper submerged in developer. It was incredible.
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
I use serial photographic portraiture to explore identity, community, environment and social structure. As individual portraits, the photographs consider human dignity and resilience, and as a series they aim to reflect the broad historical, social and economic forces that shape a life. My work represents the tension between individuals and the society of which they are a part.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?
It’s pretty hard to say but if I had to guess I would say — architect, sociologist or psychologist, maybe an urban planner, journalist…software developer? I know that’s a weird one given my work but I enjoy analyzing, problem solving, composing and simplifying. There are so many things I would love to know more about. I wish I could have 10 professions.
Did you go to art school? Why/Why not?
I didn’t. I graduated from university and just began. I wanted to be out in the world and I wanted to try — to sink or swim and learn as I went. Initially, I worked as a portrait photographer for national magazines. Around 2010, I became more interested in working in a contemporary art context and gradually began to shift my practice. Now, I think about going to art school and how amazing it could be. I recently taught a class at Otis and loved the atmosphere. But back then it wasn’t in the cards for me.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
I grew up in L.A. and left right after high school. I never thought I would come back. I returned in 2011 for various family-work-life reasons and it took a while but I must say I am very happy living here. I appreciate the people, the pace and space and light, all things that are incredibly important for the work that I do. Three of my most recent projects are focused on parts of Los Angeles. In 2018, I created a series about women in transportation, Forward Motion, for MetroArt displayed in Union Station. In 2019 I worked with the city of Inglewood on a participatory public art project about Martin Luther King Jr., community and relationships. Finally, coming out this month is my book, Clubhouse Turn, the result of an intensive investigation into the final days of Hollywood Park Race Track, the remaining community and the structure itself.
When was your first show?
My first show was at the Orange County’s Museum of Art’s Pacific Triennial: Building as Ever in 2017. There I showed multi-image groupings from the series Clubhouse Turn. My first solo show, Commons, was at there-there in April of 2019.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show?
My series, Forward Motion, made for MetroArt and installed in Union Station is just coming down after one year. A Sense of Self was installed this January in downtown Inglewood. On February 11 my first book, Clubhouse Turn: The Twilight of Hollywood Park Race Track published by Angel City Press, was released and will be in bookstores — and there’s a signing party presented by there-there at 6150 Wilshire on February 23.
What artist living or dead would you most like to show with?
Alice Neel. I am so taken with the way that she sees people and the intimacy of portraiture.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so what?
Most of the time. It depends on the project I am working on. But I would say, ‘60s blues, ‘70s or ‘80s rock, ‘90s hip-hop and an assortment of more recent artists. I live somewhere between Nina Simone-Pharcyde-The Clash and Stew.
Website and social media handles, please!