Few artists do it for the cash. But the art world's pressure to brand, package and sell yourself and your work can be overwhelming.
“Artifacts of a Life Lived by the Living (To Live),” which opened this past weekend at the Craft and Folk Art Museum and is curated by contemporary artist Chris Johanson, puts the spotlight on those who care less about profit and reputation and more about the emotional relief that comes from a disciplined daily practice.
Here are some crazy people I know who do this to stay sane, Johanson is telling us.
Since his breakout moment at the Whitney Biennial in 2002, the Silver Lake-based skateboarder's bright and colorful work has transcended the condescending “street art” label; his work can currently be seen at MOCA's Pacific Design Center space, at the San Francisco Art Institute and at Cheekwood in Nashville. New shows featuring Johanson will open in Columbus, Glasgow and at SF MOMA by the end of the year.
Johanson, however, is not content to sail off into next-level art stardom on his own. With this show, he seems determined to bring mainstream recognition to artists whose work might otherwise be dismissed by the haughty hordes of MFA-holders who make what he calls the “totally offensive” distinction between “craft” and “art.”
Many of the pieces and installations currently on display at CAFAM deal with ritual verging on the compulsive. The artist and poet known as Swan (John Ratliff) has spent the last decade or so living on the streets of the Mission District in San Francisco. With his signature long white hair and beard, Swan takes care of local pigeons and hands out the daily bulletins that help him cope with his schizophrenia.
The British artist and DJ Justin “Kutmah” McNulty was unexpectedly deported from Los Angeles in 2010. During his two months in a New Mexico detention center, he maintained sanity by creating 39 obsessively detailed pencil drawings, many of which feature the Eye of Providence motif found on a dollar bill.
Liz Harris creates formulas in her head that form the basis for intricate black and white patterns. The process calms her social anxiety and offers her a retreat from the world. “I can't stop until the line reaches the edge of the paper, and the lines have to intersect at this angle,” she says. “It's like little kid math, [and it] literally takes my stress away.”
Harris has already found fame in the music world, performing ambient folk under the name Grouper — she opened for Animal Collective on their Merriweather Post Pavilion tour in 2009. But like most of the artists featured in this show, she feels repulsed by conventional metrics of artistic success.
“[If] this costs $3000,” she says, gesturing to one of her drawings, “people I can't relate to can afford that. I want it just to be free, and anybody can come hang out with it.”
In the same way, Alicia McCarthy simply gave her work away for many years. For decades she's painted her interwoven lines of color on found wood, initially because she wanted to spend as little money as possible on materials but now because she's found she prefers a canvas that brings its own backstory. One of her pieces at CAFAM is mounted on shelves thrown away by the anthropology department at the University of Berkeley.
Kim MacConnel also works with found materials, collecting the plastic that washes up near his home in San Diego. A coat hanger intimates hair, upturned bottles serve as faces and bottle-cap buttons dot the chests of MacConnel's unique creatures. In this context, the pile of colorful junk set before them at the museum feels less like a heap of garbage and more like a mound of dismembered doll parts.
The other burst of color in the exhibit comes from Alex Cohen, 23, who took a class with Johanson in Michigan, where the two quickly hit it off. Cohen also skates, and his playful installation evokes the underground culture that produced Johanson two decades ago.
On Cohen's wall text, his middle name had been misspelled as “Brady” (It should be Bradley). Never one to worry about the preciousness of a white museum wall, Johanson whipped out a black Bic the day before the opening and scrawled a correction.
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Although Kal Spelletich is known for transcendent bursts of flame and scrappy robot-creatures that might punch themselves or pour you a drink, his contribution here celebrates the creative potential unleashed by daydreaming. On behalf of kids everywhere who have been told to get their head out of the clouds, Spelletich projects video onto the ceiling of friends and family staring off in contemplation with cloudy skies rolling along behind them. Visitors can even “photobomb the installation,” as Spelletich says, by standing in front of a flat-screen TV showing a loop of clouds facing a camera rigged by the self-taught mechanical engineer.
At the exhibit's opening on Saturday night, former embattled MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch could be spotted giggling over Spelletich's hotdog-wielding mobile barbecue as it lurched around the CAFAM courtyard. (Unfortunately, that machine will not remain in L.A. for the duration of the exhibit.)
Like Johanson, Spelletich has achieved international acclaim since their punk-rock warehouse party days in San Francisco, but shipping his robots to Europe for a show might cost ten times more than a gallery is offering in the first place. And less than a year ago, McCarthy was working 60-hour weeks at a warehouse forklifting roasted coffee. But as Johanson points out, worrying about the vagaries of the contemporary art market is a waste of time.
“Having the value of your art being taken care of by money people… to me, that's like the death of art,” Johanson says. “This is like a survival thing first, and the economics of living comes second.”
“Artifiacts of a Life Lived by the Living (to Live)” is on view through Jan. 5 at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 937-4230., Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 12 p.m. – 6 p.m. $7 for adults, $5 for students, seniors, and veterans. Free on the first Wednesday of ever month.
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