In its 20th year the LA Art Show brought together 120 galleries from over 22 countries to broaden the dialogue of international contemporary art. That conversation was highlighted by the featured guest country, the United Arab Emirates, which showcased Past Forward, an exhibition of contemporary Emirati paintings, photographs, sculptures, and video installations by 13 contemporary artists. It is this relationship of time that sets the tone for this article, as we will see throughout the show that time is a vehicle for darkness. Time is the conversation between historic and contemporary art and it is contemporary artists who bring the essence of the past death into the present life.
The conversation at the LA Art Show was to be heard not just by the ears, but with the eyes. And what I saw, and what I discussed with a number of the gallery curators and artists, was a critical need to essentially bring the “dark side” forward in this dialogue. Art being a reflection of the relationship between the individual and society is understandably reflecting dark images during these times of wars and shifting of political and religious powers around the world. It is quite appropriate to see the deconstruction of tradition, the evaluation of salvation, and the rising of revolutionary voices in contemporary art. When I speak of darkness I don’t mean so in a morbid, grotesque, or evil sense of the term. Take for example the monochromatic works of the Korean Tansaekhwa, exhibit presented by Columns Gallery, rendered by heavy brush strokes and agitated textures. These works are not grotesque, but they do display raw, unrefined emotion in a pure state of color uncompromising to divide itself with a shade anything less than or beyond itself. They are purely elemental and unrefined—a state that we would have to discolor ourselves in order to achieve.
Fine art galleries such as Jack Rutberg displayed the famous works of Joel-Peter Witkin, as well the paintings Future/Past by Bruce Richards. But it was not the abstract photography of Witkin or the mutilation of Bruce Richards, but the works of Jordi Alcaraz that led me to understand that Mr. Jack Rutberg was in tune with the alchemy process of transcendence—a process that Alcaraz depicts in his work Process to Reduce This Room into a Painting, which the epitome of darkness is defined as darkness absorbing light. His mirror not only captures our reflection, it pulls us into its form through a dip in the mirror’s clean surface that disappears into oblivion.
Darkness can be referred to in terms of psychological and spiritual archetypes. In the works of Emil Kazaz, mythological depictions of gods and creatures, historical heroes and provocative heroines reflect across the canvases and relaxed forms of sculptures. Kazaz is a classically trained artist and his works reflect a time past in this world that never was and never will be. Transcendence is in the eyes of his muse that have been immortalized in bronze and oil. Inspired by the great masters Michelangelo, Goya, El Greco and movements such as the Renaissance and the Baroque, it is as if the spirits of the old masters have entered the pigment and bronze, but Emil’s hand is not directed in the light of the past but into the darkness of the eternal. That sacred aesthetic of love courses through his hands delicately in the soft brush strokes of his paintings and electrically in the rough textures of his sculptures.
Guy Simard of Galerie Simard Bilodeau, represents the works of Renzo. In Enlightement a crouched figure carrying a metal cube crouches upon a stack of blocks. Renzo’s work are evocative narratives that truly reveal what we know about ourselves. When we see Enlightenment, do we see a man pressed between that which is above and that which is below? Or do we see him carrying the weight of the divine will? Or do we see him emerging from a cold darkness? Whatever we see of him probably speaks wonders about how we perceive our own path of enlightenment, what to speak of how we define darkness.
The LA Art Show hosted the largest collective of Korean galleries outside of Asia. gallery NoW displayed the work of Chong-Il Woo, who explained to me that it is very common in Asian countries for women to undergo eyelid surgery in order to Westernize their faces. Saddened by the younger generation losing connection with the beauty of their traditions, Chong created contemporary works by taking photographs of women in traditional 1800s Joseon dynasty empress garments, and then took individual pictures of gems that he then formatted over the portraits of the women. Each gem was shot individually, requiring over 400 hours of production. The series includes thirty works. Inspired by the enduring process of minerals transforming into gems over the course of hundreds of years, Chong sees how Korean culture over time will transform its history into beautiful gems that is its future generations. In his works these hundreds of gems complete the one image that is the beauty of Korean culture.
The Beijing gallery, ME Art Gallery, featured the photographic work of Liu Dadi, whose silver gelatin liquid emulsion printing process captured black and white images of light and dark. The imagery exposed in his works were ghostly dreamscapes, almost voyeuristic through the nostalgia of another’s reminiscence.
Contemporary artist Qiu Shengxian had several pieces from his Sentiment series on display at Duke Gallery. His paintings are a fusion of traditional Chinese painting with contemporary fashion expressionism. The equipoised female figures adorned by flows of vivid cloth sit amidst melancholy atmospheres, yet their pale skin and sophisticated postures highlight the seductive quality of darkness. These women indulge, but they are not intoxicated. The geometric symmetry of their gowns reflect their mental disposition.
Tokyo based Galerie Taimei presented works by Kaori Tamura, who used a sharp tool to carve into the layers of pigmented plaster to create a network of intricate designs. In person these details are especially marvelous and border on categorizing her paintings as sculptures. In her works she explores darkness, transformation, and rebirth, as in her painting of the story of the Phoenix bird in The Infinite.
Another featured artist at Tamei was Maiko Kitagawa who is unique in her use of Dermatograph pencils for her black and white drawings. Her absurd realist drawings depicting humanized animals correlates with her philosophy of embracing darkness. Darkness is not to be feared. “You cannot separate human and nature and the same goes for human and animal.” Maiko explores the middle ground between light and dark, human and animal. “Everything has the middle section, the gray area where you cannot tell which is which.” In Japanese culture she explained how representing the animal and human combined is auspicious. Perhaps this age of enlightenment in the western countries is an embrace with our darker animal selves.
Tansey Contemporary of Sante Fe, New Mexico presented the work of Patrick McGrath Muniz’s The Seed. Patrick Muniz has a unique way of utilizing archetypal images and social institutions, such as Catholicism and colonialism into his artwork represented by modern iconography and mythology. In his work The Seed the divine mother, represented manifold by cross-cultural mythological feminine figures, stands center before modern technology, such as a Nintendo and a laptop computer, which before stands the artist holding a Lord of the Rings ring and wearing a Star Wars t-shirt. On either side of him an archangel and a devil vie for influencing his will. This painting is pregnant with meaning in the idea of the external influences being archetypal vessels that correlate with our subconscious. From mind comes matter and when we look upon the iconography of historical traditions, we can see how they manifest in modern times.
Patrick McGrath Muñíz
At Building Bridges Art Exchange artist and scholar Zhenya Gershman unveiled Bryan, from her Larger Than Life series. This series captures photographic moments of introspection. In Bryan we see a nauseating, yet calming moment of “there’s no going back” as Zhenya explained to me. The painting is a waking up moment. And though the colors are nauseous and the heavy broad strokes of paint texture the face with exhaustion, the eyes of Bryan are focused with determination. He is grounded and looking inevitable death in the eyes. He’s looking at us.
One of the biggest crowds that was consistently drawn throughout the art show was around mural painter and Los Angeles native, Robert Vargas, who used live models to paint portraits on eight foot panels. Within an hour Robert could paint three eight foot panels of a face. Within twenty minutes he could paint a smaller portrait on paper, as he did with Nikki Sixx during Wednesday night’s VIP reception.
Throughout several days he painted on the same three panels. Each mural was a perfect depiction of the subject, and what intrigued me about his work was not only did he move on to the next painting often without taking a break, was that as soon as he finished one mural, he would begin the next by painting right over the last. There was no hesitation to detach himself from his work.
Robert Vargas, like many mural and street artists, are a part of a movement gaining recognition in the art community. What started out mainly as graffiti art has now become a widely accepted and applauded form of art. Cities used to arrest street artists, now they are hiring them to beautify the city. This phenomenon is a perfect example of the essence of the alchemical process of transformation. The principle of alchemy is to take a base metal and transmute it into gold. The lives of many street artists reflect this process, and a perfect example of this transcendence through art was showcased at the LA Art Show by the Los Angeles art movement, Dark Progressivism.
Dark Progressivism: Metropolis Rising
Dark Progressivism: Metropolis Rising presented by Cartwheel Art was curated by Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebera and Lisa Derrick, which featured works by Abel Alejandre, BIG Sleeps, Chaz Bojorquez, CRYPTIK, Daniel Gonzalez, Roberto Gutiérrez, Ed Gutter, Jesse Hazelip, Jason Hernandez, Juan Carlos Muñoz Hernandez, Alex DEFER Kizu, Jack Morris, Rafael Reyes, Joe Prime Reza, Michael Ulrich and Gary Wong. Additional to the LA Art Show’s curation there is a documentary film in the works, Dark Progressivism: On Rupture to Rebellion.
The monochromatic work is based on Southern California’s urban network of street sub-cultures comprised of gangs, graffiti, and tattoos and how this culture influenced and was influenced by movements such as Kustom Kulture, Light & Space, Pop Surrealism.
Scholar and author of Urban Politics: The Political Culture of SUR 13 Gangs, Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre, took Beautiful Bizarre through the progression of the artwork, explaining how each painting tells a narrative of transcendence. It is this philosophy found in Dark Progressivism that reflects the essence of darkness throughout the LA Art Show and what I find in the struggle to move contemporary art forward in general. In the interview below, Rodrigo elaborates on the concept of Dark Progressivism with a message that I believe will resonate with many people, even those who do not relate to the external circumstances that Rodrigo discusses.
Please explain to me the meaning of Dark Progressivism.
Dark Progressivism is a concept that originates in Los Angeles. But it’s a certain kind of art that is not representative of glamorous Los Angeles. It’s not sunshine, film, and orange groves. This is a subculture of a philosophy of how some of us grew up—on the other side. And so the monochromatic theme represents the origin of that work that comes from growing up in a bleak, somber, unsettling urban environment. We took it back to the roots of that origin that comes from German Expressionism and film noir and hardboiled literature that’s representative of Los Angeles as well.
The actual pieces represent the artists that are in the documentary film that I wrote and directed, which is going to be out in October. We were approached by the Art Show to curate a booth based on the film and based on some of the artists’ work—not that the artists don’t do other work in other colors, but this was specifically meant to establish monochromatic style to look at the origin. If you look at black and gray tattooing, if you look at a lot of these concepts (the lettering) they came from Los Angeles, they were developed here. And a lot of them had a criminal element to them when they first originated. A lot of us grew up seeing cement carvings like this and then that transformed into people doing something of a block letter that also has its origins in Bauhaus and German Expressionism—to something that looks a little like this now, where Alex Defer Kizu, who was from some of the original graffiti crews of Los Angeles, has now taken some of the hand styles and lettering to a much more abstract style.
The mainstream has been influenced by street artists, but what has the mainstream left behind that they still don’t quite get?
I think that mainstream doesn’t understand the social conditions that we experienced that produced this kind of work. So most people look at it and say, “It just looks like gang stuff.” But what people really don’t understand is the multiple marginalization that a lot of us experienced growing up being a minority where you didn’t have tools, you didn’t have resources. And now that the work is more mainstream it’s attracted more of the masses and you see people getting black and gray tattoos, which was originally prison work, that was prison style and it was done in prison, and then that was done in the streets by most of the street gangs. But then in the late 90s and mid 2000s it started becoming much more popular to the masses because of celebrities. When celebrities get a hold of a specific sort of culture it seems to be co-opted by the masses as well.
The film itself is supposed to represent and tell these social conditions that we experienced and where this work originates from, and not, “Hey this is some cool lettering, and so let’s go ahead and copy it.” Because that’s what some of these other artists that see this work around the world do. They’ve seen these guys’ lettering, they buy Sleeps’ lettering books and they start copying his style. He feels, a lot of us feel, that our story needs to be told of how these things originate. So who better than us as a collective consciousness to tell this story of people who are doing lettering.
What is the response from the art community?
I think the community in general is shocked by this kind of work. First of all because of how some of the artists might look and maybe because they associate it with a criminal element and that’s it. There was a show that was done not too long ago in Orange County and some of the artists represented in that show were Chaz Bojorquez, people like Big Sleeps, people like Prime, people like Divert. There was a big show that was closed down because law enforcement got involved. The county sheriff stepped in and put a lot of pressure on the museum staff, and other outside interest groups got involved and said there was a street gang injunction going on around this community. “These works represents gang culture and we don’t want it in our city,” and so they shut it down. And this is what we’re finding out. People are still rejecting a lot of this work and are not really interested in the narratives, not interested in the philosophy, the culture, the beautiful style that some of this work is done in, but just automatically look at it and shut it out. That goes back to the multiple marginalization. We’ve been marginalized for such a long time and they’re still looking for ways to marginalize our work, even when we’re doing something that’s artistic, such as the film, such as painting, such as being a world-wide tattoo artist, such as doing this kind of work that sells for $30,000 in Japan. We’re here to tell people, “We’re here. This is what we represent. You don’t have to like it. But this is our reality. This is our Los Angeles. This is a different part of Los Angeles that maybe you’re not a part of, but this is how we grew up. This is what we saw. These are some of our experiences, some of the social conditions in which we grew up.”
I think people would perceive people from gang culture differently given the opportunity to tell their narrative.
The way that it’s curated is a narrative as well. You start with the very typical barrio handstyle. Something that’s very common in the street gangs of Los Angeles. So then Prime takes it to an abstract, but you can still see the letters (Southland). And then Defer takes it to a much more abstract form, what he calls speaking in tongues. He obliterates language. He doesn’t even use lettering anymore. But the concept of the origin of lettering is still in there.
This warps into a more traditional neighborhood growing up with the roosters (moving along to the next paintings). It represents downtown and Chinatown where a lot of cultures originally existed in. This starts moving into the dangers of gangs. This was painted in 1993, but it was related to the front page of the LA Times of two women who had lost a brother to gang violence.
And this is supposed to be the redemption. And so you become redeemed and you go back to your creativity and your art. So these guys represent a much more metaphysical concept. Jason Hernandez does a lot of astronauts. And then Cryptic does very international work that’s representative of much more metaphysical elevated consciousness. Same thing with this one. It’s very abstract but it represents the rivers of life going in different directions. To the last one where it’s called the Cosmic Race, which was a concept that a writer in the 1920s, José Vasconcelos, wrote a book called the Cosmic Race in which in the American continent the Indian, the black, the white, the Asian was going to come together to create a new race that was going to be a cosmic race, and it was going to be based on the aesthetics of beauty and appreciation. Think about in the 1920s, to write that in Mexico City versus what was going on in the US at the time where people were completely segregated. Here in Los Angeles we had deep restrictions. A Mexican couldn’t even buy a house even if they had the money in this specific kind of environment, nor a black person or an Asian person. But in Mexico City this guy was writing about this universal concept in this city that was going to be created from this beauty that would be called Universopolis. And so how Chaz painted it—it’s too abstract and metaphysical to think of and so it doesn’t even fit on the canvas (the painting extends past the borders of the canvas), because it doesn’t fit in our mind. And that’s how this represents the evolution of the trajectory of Dark Progressivisim and Los Angeles itself. And that’s what Dark Progressivisim represents—growing up in a bleak somber complicated urban environment, yet we challenge the status quo. We do work that is thought provoking, that doesn’t succumb to commonplace narratives, because we’re progressive. We’re forward thinking people regardless or because of the environment we grew up in.
It’s underground, but underground is where the foundation is for the rest of society.
This is something I tell some of the artists. It’s okay that some of these galleries have turned you guys away and that people still don’t understand it, because we have to represent in a very intellectual way and we have to explain these things so they can understand. Because if we never have the opportunity to express our voice or to express what it is that we’re working on, or our narratives, or our trajectory, and how this all came about then you’re feeding into their limited perspective of you and a group of people. So it’s up to us to say regardless if you like it or not we’re still going to represent. We’re still going to do this kind of work.
Chinese Contemporary Exhibit
Event Photography provided by Ambrose Gardenhire