The legacy of Otis College of Art and Design shines as it looks toward the next 100 years
Even in a town rife with prestigious art schools, Otis College of Art and Design has assembled an especially illustrious alumni roster over its first 100 years — people like Robert Irwin, John Baldessari, Philip Guston, Billy Al Bengston and, more recently, Alison Saar, Gajin Fujita and many others. These artists are currently being feted in the school’s Ben Maltz Gallery where Centennial: 100 Years of Otis College Alumni is on view through December 7.
While it’s impossible to exhibit work from every student who has passed through Otis in the last century, Hazel Mandujano, director of Alumni Relations, and her colleagues settled on representing as many disciplines as they could, including video, sculpture, painting, fashion and design.
“There’s a balance between craft and conceptualism and skills,” says Mandujano, attempting to define the undefinable — an Otis look. “There’s definitely experimentation with a lot of Otis alums. You have Gaijin Fujita at one end and Ruben Ochoa at the other end. They were at the school at the same time, same lessons, same faculty. It’s hard to say there’s one style. There’s so much diversity that has come out of here.”
Growing up on the streets of L.A., Fujita was directionless, knocking about with friends and tagging downtown walls. A professor at East L.A. College suggested he go to art school, so Fujita chose Otis — only because his father mentioned it.
“I thought I was going to get there and do paintings immediately. And instead it was like boot camp. I was really upset but looking back I guess that little discipline taught me how to see things through all the way to the end,” Fujita tells the Weekly.
His addition to the exhibit is the large-scale, “Pacific Ghost,” an image of a samurai that is representative of his oeuvre combining the muralism he learned in the streets with traditional Japanese and modern L.A. iconography. “It’s emblematic of the city,” says Mandujano. “He pulls on his own heritage, with the samurai style, the panels with the gold leaf.”
The vitality of the art scene in any city can often be measured by the extent to which its successful practitioners become teachers, servicing not only their careers but the next generation. It was true in L.A. in the 1960s and it’s true today, with most of the city’s prominent artists at one time or another serving on the faculties of L.A.’s many esteemed institutions.
“Part of the reason I went to Otis is because my mother was on faculty and I got a great deal,” laughs Alison Saar, speaking about her mother, Betye, who taught there in the early 1980s. “The school definitely benefits from the artists who are living here. If you have a city that’s really supportive of artists, it’s more likely they’ll gravitate toward those towns. And in L.A., there’s a lot of schools competing for so many of the same artists — CalArts, Art Center, as well as UCLA, USC and all the universities,” she says.
Saar’s piece, “Grow’d,” features a recurring character in her work, Topsy, from the antebellum classic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A whimsical life-sized bronze sculpture, she has radiating pigtails framing her head. “One of the great things about this piece is that oftentimes our students are taught about works by Alison Saar, so they were able to come see it in person,” notes Mandujano.
Although Saar has occasionally collaborated with her mother, her practice stands resolutely apart, overlapping mainly in their embrace of mysticism, totems and the black power movement. Like Fujita, she is a native Angeleno whose work today is in the collection of many of the world’s most prestigious institutions, including The Met and MoMA.
“I met some great mentors and friends you keep dearly,” Fujita recalls of his college days. “My father also went to Otis as a paying student when he came from Japan. But he had to drop out because he had me and my younger brother. So, it was a financial struggle there. My father passed away in ’96, a year before I graduated. So, that day of graduation felt like a shining moment because I was able to get a degree at something my father couldn’t.”
The exhibition is on view at Otis College of Art and Design, Ben Maltz Gallery, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., Westchester, through December 7. For more information visit otis.edu.