Anyone who went to the Venice Beach Biennial this weekend just to see the “art-world” artists would have been frustrated. At the Biennial, organized by curator Ali Subotnick to coincide with the Hammer's current “Made in L.A.” exhibition, artists who frequent the sphere of MFA programs, galleries, alt spaces and contemporary art museums set up shop alongside the Venice regulars who work the boardwalk six, often seven days a week.
You had to wade through it all — the street performances, the summer tourists, the henna-tattoo stands, the self-taught folk painters — to find the “museum artists,” and sometimes, at least at first, you couldn't even see the difference between them and the others. “Have you seen any of the art on this boardwalk?” asked a gallerist I passed on Saturday, who meant, “Where are the artists I know?”
“I literally can't find any 'art-world' artists on the boardwalk,” a friend said Sunday, though half an hour later she'd found them.
It worked the other way, too: Anyone who came to the boardwalk just for the Venice scene likely would encounter at least some sign of the Biennial, whether they knew it or not. Maybe they'd see the story-high Easter Island heads Alex Israel had rented from a prop shop and set up near the skate park, or Liz Craft's abandoned Fiberglas couch.
When I arrived at the VBB on Saturday, artist Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, also in the “Made in L.A.” show, was under a canopy in the Parks and Rec area serving kale salad, sweet tea and cornbread. All the food she prepared is native to “Kentrifica,” the continent on which her art and research focus, where African culture and the culture of the American South converge. Her project can be hard to explain, but a food stand that serves dishes with a heritage isn't that confusing. “I've met so many people who don't like vegetables,” she said, as she served a man on a bike. He had come by the day before, too, but had been too tentative to eat anything. He bikes the boardwalk daily and has for two years. “It changes your whole mindset coming down here,” he said, before riding off again. It's also the perfect place to be if you really want to bring your art to the public, Hinkle observed, “because people already know it's here.”
The art-world art that worked best this weekend did so for the same reason any art along the boardwalk works: It grabbed your eye. Hammer artist Cara Faye Earl's handpainted terrorists, the size of collectible saints you might see in a devout Catholic's front yard, lined up along the sidewalk. She based them on 45 figures on Homeland Security's Most Wanted list, sculpted them out of clay, then had the sculptures cast in plaster. She painted some on the spot. They were strange and squat, halfway between toy soldiers and garden gnomes.
Kurt Mueller and Chelsea Beck had come down to the boardwalk when curator Ali Subotnick first invited them to propose a project. They'd met a boardwalk regular named Jose “Papa” Claustro, who made papier-mâché heads of pop stars, world leaders, art icons and cartoon characters. Mueller wanted to buy one but didn't want to pay the ATM fee. He said he'd come back, but when he did, Claustro was gone. That became his and Beck's project: They tracked him down and brought his work back for this one weekend. One bust of Queen Elizabeth wore minimalist found-object jewelry that Claustro crafted himself. She looked softened by age and regal in the most gentle way possible.
Boardwalk artist Arthure Moore — whose “Funky Pussy,” a cat he paints that gives the finger, became the VBB's logo, appearing on posters, postcards and T-shirts — had a handmade patch over his eye all weekend, perhaps from a fight. But he turned out a colorful array of Funky Pussies, “Fuck it” paintings (where a guy puts a fork in a toaster) and funky mermaids.
“Oh, Art Moore. He's famous now he's got the Hammer,” said a boardwalk regular who makes sand sculptures, with a hint of annoyance. Another vendor said she didn't like to complain, but she did have friends who had arrived at 6 a.m. to find their regular spots taken by artists they'd never seen before, since spots are allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis and some vendors didn't expect the extra competition.
“Come by when there's not a biennial going on,” said bead artist Sheila Richburg, who's work is all part of what she calls the Boardwalk Bead Project. “The rest of us will be here.” She finished an intricate beaded purse on Saturday and lined it with a VBB T-shirt. You could see Moore's pink Funky Pussy inside, like a “beast clawing its way up.”
Douglas La Marche, who started calling himself “LA.Marche” instead of “La Marche” to emphasize that he's an “LA artist,” has been selling his art on the boardwalk for a year and a half. When he heard about the VBB, he went to see the “Made in L.A.” show at the Hammer. There wasn't enough work that felt new and relevant to him. Artists were too caught up in their “critical” ideas, he thought. So he made a sculpture in response, and showed it this weekend.
Called the Death of Art Criticism, it has the severed head of a mannequin, covered in red foam, wearing glasses and lying sideways across books like Suzi Gablik's The Re-enchantment of Art and Don Thompson's The 12 Million Dollar Shark. A plastic handyman stands next to the head, and La Marche has replaced the toy's hammer with a paint brush. Push the button on the handyman's belt and he says, “We need a tool that can cut things.” Whether he's right about “Made in L.A.” or not, La Marche's piece felt like everything that was right about the VBB. It was asking what art should be in a way that was convoluted, messy but still pleasantly playful.