Just as Topanga Canyon lies on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the art that is shown there tends to exist outside of the dominant art dialogue that takes place in the city's museums, art spaces and galleries. This leads many in “the LA Art World” to dismiss the annual Topanga Canyon Gallery Artists Studio Tour, which took place this past weekend, as an outpost for “bad” art. And indeed, there was some typical “bad” art on display there — tepid landscapes and still lifes, sloppy abstract painting, clumsy/gaudy collages, juvenile narratives of one sort or another.
But there were also some cool finds that perhaps spoke to the region's storied history as an enclave for outsiders and dropouts of every stripe. People hang out there because they need to be away from it all, for one reason or another; and the art they produce, as well as the lives they lead there, provide some interesting windows into another art world.
In the most remote southern corner of the studio tour route, high atop a hill overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains, was a stunning house that was designed and built by fused glass artist E. Kim Bolanowski and her husband Ron, two over-achievers if I've ever met any. Although both have full-time careers in The Industry — Kim in props for television, her husband in special effects for movies — Ron, an engineer, somehow found time to build a complete set of glass-blowing machinery (including a furnace, oven, “glory hole” and kiln) from scratch, and Kim, a self-taught artist, somehow finds the time to have a thriving home practice. It boggles the mind.
Kim's pieces are nothing to sneeze at either — beautifully crafted and defined by strong geometry, they are reminiscent of classic California Finish Fetish sculptures, which took their inspiration from the sleek materials of the booming postwar aerospace industry. Kim was a gracious hostess in her warm, Spanish-style home, where the fireplace was going, a generous spread of food and drink was available to guests, and a gorgeous patio opened onto sprawling mountain views. Guests were treated to tours of the still brand-new glass blowing machinery, which occupied a sunny room on the lower level. Kim explained that she had been a ceramicist, but tired of the mess that ceramics makes. On a trip one day, she and her husband stumbled upon some glass art, and Ron said, “Hey, you could make that.” The rest is history.
Moving down the road a bit, I was surprised to find some street art festooning the water tank across the road from painter Ellen Lane's home and detached studio. Lane had been deeply moved by an LA Times article that recounted the tribulations of artist Barbara Black, who invited her students to paint a wall next to her house, only to be fined several hundred dollars by the city. Saddled with a dull brown water tank on her property, Lane decided to invite some older street artists she knew to paint on it. So far, there haven't been any complaints from neighbors, and both owner and artists remain safe from repercussions.
Meanwhile, on the northernmost end of the tour map, Elena Roché was sitting quietly in her kitchen, painting traditional renditions of the surrounding canyon landscapes. Her home, also a Spanish-style villa, was arrayed throughout with her paintings, which included still lifes, landscapes and portraits. I was not impressed with the still lifes, which were competent but standard-issue pictures of flowers and fruits. She really seemed to hit her stride, however, with the landscapes, which showed a pleasing light touch and utilized hypnotic layers of glowing blue. Two of the landscapes sitting in her kitchen were sold to visitors before she even finished them. Roché, who was born in Lithuania and schooled in Russia, finds peace and contentment in her surroundings, as well as a happy escape from the gloom of her homeland. Her children, who played in the living room, seemed like little Russian dolls loose in the wilderness.
Although I spent a total of about four hours in the canyon, I was still only able to get to eight studios. They were spread out over a fairly large area, and some of them required driving up hill and down dale, over rocky roads and along high cliffs, taking hairpin turns as I passed chicken coops and horseback riders along the way. This was really the fun of the tour, though — getting to see obscure corners of the canyon, watching the amazing scenery roll by and chatting with its diverse population of residents.
I ended my tour at the westernmost end of the map, at the home of painter, jewelry maker, and ceramicist Teri Hannigan. Her three chickens came out to greet me as I entered her backyard, where an inviting table of wares inspired me to make my only purchases of the day (a necklace and a mug). Following a lovely chat with the artist, I was even more inspired by the view from her backyard, which opened onto a raw, unspoiled vista that seemed to drop right off the face of the earth.