2.11 / Geography Lessons

In and Out of Context

By Art Practical Editors February 9, 2011

Image: Katie Grinnan. Rubble Division Interstate, 2006 (performance still at Rhyolite Nevada). Courtesy of the Artist and ACME, Los Angeles. Photo: Dawn Kasper.

On January 30, Art Practical hosted a panel as part of the Art Los Angeles Contemporary art fair that included artists Amanda Curreri, Katie Grinnan, Drew Heitzler, Conrad Ruiz, and Zachary Royer Scholz. Moderated by Patricia Maloney and Daily Serving contributor Catherine Wagley (whose writing frequently appears on this site), the conversation focused on how the five participating artists incorporate and reflect the material, topographic, social, and political characteristics of their respective cities in their work—how they lay claim to a place and are shaped by it.

What follows is an excerpted version of that conversation. The artists underscore the individual motivations that inform their chosen locale; Grinnan and Heitzler live in Los Angeles; Curreri and Scholz reside in the Bay Area. Ruiz, who currently lives in Los Angeles but earned his MFA in San Francisco, is the only native to California; everyone else is a transplant. And so feelings of ambiquity and dislocation, as well as strategies for reconfiguration and even re-invention, permeated the conversation. Many spoke to the fractured nature and self-imposed sense of isolation that the two cities seem to share, but diverged around how one might benefit or be hindered by such sequestering. There is not a singular way to sum up their experiences collectively, but a persistent note sounded throughout was their desire to both integrate and disrupt the mythic, ideological, and physical space around them through their work.

See Artist Bios.


Support and Desire

Amanda Curreri: I'm not from San Francisco originally. I came from the East Coast and made a choice to come back to San Francisco about a year ago. I have a great gallery there [Romer Young], and they are super supportive and really bold. I don’t know if it’s easy to find a match like that. I came to San Francisco to put on my most recent exhibition, and I decided to stay, in a moment of making a decision about community. I feel like I'm at a point where my art and my life are intermatched, like a marriage. I've been mobile for a long time because of my art. And now I'm looking at San Francisco as a place where I can have a commitment to the place, and a one-to-one relationship with it, where I will give to it and I hope it will give to me.

San Francisco also has a really strong history of tactical living for social change, including queer and radical movements like the Black Panthers. And not to locate all that in the past, artists like Ted Purves and Susanne Cockrell are putting social art on the map in a really functional, beautiful way. So that informs why I'm in San Francisco.

Patricia Maloney: In the recent show that you had at Romer Young, you produced an interesting juxtaposition of the gallery space and the courtroom space. Maybe you could take a moment and describe that exhibition.

AC: It was called Occupy the Empty. I had spent some time in a courtroom for a personal case, to deal with my father’s death. It turned out that this courtroom was the exact same one where Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian American anarchists, were sentenced to death in 1927. My dad’s Sicilian, and I grew up with him pointing out where they lived, where the supposed robbery took place. They had a hold on my imagination. Being in a courtroom was just like being in theatre. Everyone knew what to do. There are all these sculptural cues as to where you walk, and it was just too close to home as to what a gallery is and could be, in that we all share its vernacular and know how it works. So I set up an architectural situation just like a courtroom. I wanted to highlight people performing democracy, performing desire. So each piece in the show had some element of that.

Democracy is so intimately connected to desire. In this idea of occupying the empty—even right now we’re occupying an empty space. We’re a bunch of people here in real time making meaning, and like democracy, art inherently is set up that way. There’s an empty space in it and it’s shifting at all times, but you can always occupy an empty space. I think that’s really powerful.

PM: Desire also comes strongly into play in Conrad’s work.

Conrad Ruiz. Multiple Peaks, 2010; watercolor on canvas; 80 x 80 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

Conrad Ruiz: I might even take it back to the Bay Area being supportive—that’s one of my feelings about the differences between L.A. and San Francisco. No matter what happened [in the Bay Area], I felt like I was always riding on somebody’s shoulders and the support wouldn't stop. In L.A., there is that too, but it seems a little bit more serious. A little bit more black tie. But in San Francisco—in terms of that city providing a really good backdrop about my work—I was really interested in the social and sexual politics and how that idea of desire informs what I do.

The reason why I actually came back down here was because I saw my work as having a backdrop of Hollywood cinema. I've always been looking for that, the sixteen minutes of fame, with the last minute being extremely annoying to everybody. That was something that was left out in grad school, where we were talking about how this is art for the art world, and I was the squirrely kid that wanted to be Lady Gaga. I want the reality show. It’s extremely loud like that, but maybe that’s why I felt like this is the home for it.

Image Shaping Form

Catherine Wagley: Katie, there’s so much in your work that also has a strong performative element, or at least, performative in relationship to the objects that you're producing.

Katie Grinnan: It’s true. I came to L.A. from New York. Originally, I would spend a long time building these pieces and then I'd put them outside for a day, and I was really invested in the public interaction that was available to me in New York.

And then I moved to L.A. to go to UCLA. When I got here, I realized that the public landscape is totally different than the one that I found in New York. The way space is delineated here is just very different. For example, the beaches are public, but other than that there’s not a lot of public space. People hang out in their cars. I’m constantly moving and nomadic. I go back and forth between Topanga [Canyon] and Washington Boulevard, a little east of Culver City.

It took me a long time to figure out how to engage that kind of space in my work, and it made me turn to photography and become interested in image and physicality, because of the “scopic” nature of L.A. It’s so much about film in a lot of ways.

Rubble Division (2006) was a piece that circled back to some of the earlier work that I had been doing in New York. There was a group of seven artists who drove across country; we rode in a van pulling this sculpture and performed at these many different sites. A lot of the sites were abandoned or ruins, and in these cases, I thought we were performing for the past. We covered so much area and had so many different experiences that it was interesting to think about how that ends up being translated. How does that conversation keep going?  The experience became larger than the actual object, and I became interested in the way that communication shapes form.

I'm getting into that more and more with the work I'm working on now. I used to think about physicality and image, and now I'm thinking a lot about image and information.

Drew Heitzler: You mentioned image shaping form. I came out here six years ago from New York as well. But I chased a girl instead of coming out [for school]. What interested me the most about Los Angeles was that it was nothing like what I had been told, or was shown it was going to be. And more and more, we find that the image shapes everything. Aestheticization shapes history, and it shapes politics, and it shapes the way information is delivered to us. It’s done in a way that has nothing to do with these ideas of truth that you're brought up with.

I grew up in South Carolina and, moving from South Carolina to New York, you quickly learn that everything you were told is just wrong. There’s nothing true about how you were raised. It was a similar experience when I got to Los Angeles. The thing that really astonished me were the oil wells everywhere. I was living in Culver City and we were building an art gallery so I was going to Home Depot a lot, and I kept driving through this oil field. It was just fascinating to me that right in the middle of this giant metropolis, they're pumping oil.

They never tell you that. They never tell you that Los Angeles is an oil town. They tell you that it’s a movie town. But, in fact, the reason people came to Los Angeles was because of the oil boom. That was the first land boom at the end of the nineteenth century. That was really fascinating to me. I started digging into this history of Los Angeles that you're not told about. It’s a great history, and it’s a strange one that’s full of these really odd stories.

And the fact that Hollywood’s in Los Angeles creates an even odder thing because it’s a place that keeps aestheticizing its own history incorrectly. Chinatown is the best example of that. Great film, but it sets the water wars in the 1940s, when they actually took place in 1910. So you're dealing with an actual historical fact of the location, but putting it in the wrong time period, which makes it a fiction. It’s not purporting to be true, but L.A. does this a lot.


Zachary Royer Scholz: I like what Drew just said about the re-inscribe-ability of L.A. I think this quality is quite magical and a large part of why people come here is to reinvent themselves. It’s also why I didn’t want to be based in L.A. I think we continually re-author ourselves and the world around us, in much the same way that L.A. re-authors itself, but we don’t get to do it in a blank, overriding kind of way. History matters. We get to reconfigure what already exists and reinterpret what has come before, but we are always working within preexisting structures. This kind of context-based reenvisioning is not only central to the work I make, but also part of why I chose to base myself in San Francisco. San Francisco’s deeply rooted history functions not so much as a cultural anchor, but more as fuel for its continual reinvention.

My interest in context probably comes from growing up in Washington, D.C. D.C. is a rather strange place to be from. In Washington, our national history overlays the whole city, but that history is very foreign to its residents. In fact, the daily experience of residents is that of weird, non-voting citizens. You sit next to the power that shapes the country, and yet are excluded from it. Growing up in Washington you can’t help but see the subtleties that lie beneath and construct the broader strokes of history.

My particular attachment to San Francisco is in some ways very coincidental. I originally moved to the Bay Area to study mechanical engineering and geology. California is a good place for geology, but it is also terrifying because you learn that moving to the Bay Area is perhaps the most risky and least sane thing you’ve ever done. Now that I've rooted myself, and now my growing family is in San Francisco, there’s a certain level of anxiety about the possibility of everything suddenly changing. And yet, I think that metaphorically this instability is what’s really fertile about San Francisco.

PM: There is that sensibility about the Bay Area. Not just seismically and geologically, but also because it’s a forever fog-enshrouded city that it always has this sense of malleability around it. Every day the landscape is changing, and that fits in really well with this potentiality that exists socially and politically, in terms of the potential for reinvention.

ZRS: Reinvention for sure. I've come to believe that artists create their own sets of rules, which, over time, become their habits and more durable methodology. These methods are created partly by accident and partly through falling into a groove that feels right, but they are not invented in a vacuum. We have this idea of things being endlessly possible, that you can go to the store and buy a thing, and its identity is determined by however you want to inscribe it. This supposes that it doesn’t have its own material direction embedded in it already. In my work, I try to operate within this tension, producing an experience or an object that grows from its context, but then also have that object start to penetrate and reshape the space that it occupies.

Dancing between Spaces

CW: A question for everybody is how the location where you make your work informs who you choose to or want to have conversations with, or who you want to be informed by?

KG: Specifically where I make my work is in a really weird place. In Topanga, we have a series of trailers on our property. A mansion slid off a hill back in the day and the swimming pool is all that’s left from the mansion, and that’s my studio.

But I also have a studio on Washington Boulevard as well, and that’s predominantly where I make a lot of work because there are so many constraints in the pool space. [Teaching] is a site of working as well. And that’s where many conversations surrounding sculpture come from for me. You're constantly talking about issues and looking at work. That’s where the bulk of my community is in many ways.

Washington Boulevard is a very busy, city-oriented place, and Topanga is is a very insular place; there’s actually no one around. We’re in the middle of nowhere, we’re off the grid, and I like dancing in between those spaces. I do think a lot of people in L.A. try to find that dynamic because you kind of need a little space to get your head together.

DH: I live in Venice, and I moved there specifically because I didn’t want to be around artists. I had moved from Williamsburg when I lived in New York and there you can't get away from them. So I made a specific decision to not move to the east side, but instead to go to a place where the only artists that are still there are in their seventies. And that’s fine. Hanging out with Billy L. Bangston is awesome, but I'm not going to take a lot from him.

I own a bar and it’s near art galleries so people come through, and you find the people to talk to, but L.A. is interesting in that sense, because you're not constantly dealing with the art world. You have lots of space, and in that space you can build your own world that comes out of your brain as opposed to being constantly bombarded by all this information from other artists or curators or gallerists. That happens to a certain extent, but you can really remove yourself from it, and that’s something that I've always appreciated about Los Angeles. It might be different in San Francisco.

Amanda Curreri. Occupy the Empty, 2010; installation view, Romer Young Gallery, San Francisco.  Courtesy of the Artist and Romer Young Gallery.


AC: In San Francisco, there’s maybe even more remove, which can get dangerous, I find. I put together a small book, Color & Color, with a friend on a fairly regular basis just to get people together, and to have a connector. Both for local artists and then also to reach out to New York and other cities. Because San Francisco needs it. We need some connection to vibrant and critical thinking. I think San Francisco is really comfortable in a lot of ways, and sometimes that’s great for solo production, but then it does lead to flatline, where there are blips that come up, really amazing ones, but there is a general flatline.

DH: I feel like the space that I was talking about in Los Angeles does give room for a lot of things to bubble up. The woman I chased out here is my wife, Flora, and we had a gallery in Williamsburg called Champion Fine Art. We moved it here to Los Angeles for a year. It was all artist-curated shows, and it was always a two-year project. There are lots of those things that happen in L.A. The space that I was talking about gives room for those things to happen, whereas in New York, it seemed like it was much more of a difficult enterprise.

PM: One of the things that Amanda picks up on in terms of the comfort level of the Bay Area is the fact that the region’s primary institutions are academic ones, so people come to the Bay Area to get their MFA, which is something that it has in common with L.A. There’s a high caliber of institutions and many practicing artists are teaching, and it creates this great level of access. But while the Bay Area operates as a great incubator, which provides that nurturing and encouragement, what happens when you step out of that incubation period, and want to continue a trajectory around your work in this location?

AC: I've noticed there is a difference between L.A. and San Francisco, in that there are so many more successful models of long-term artists working in L.A. Older artists are more visible, and practices and trajectories are completely visible. In San Francisco there is a difference. The vibrancy is younger. And you have to search out the older people that you know are there. Maybe because the institutions down here support artists teaching.

ZRS: San Francisco has a great sort of invisibility. There’s something really permissive that allows you to do wacky things. It’s like the art world isn't even watching. You can do something risky because the stakes are really low. People can often fall into a more conservative way of working when they feel like they're on stage. Unfortunately, San Francisco’s invisibility operates differently for many of the older artists based there. These artists have established international careers and like living in San Francisco because they can just hang out, and live a normal, un-art-engaged life, with a public presence elsewhere. If anything, that’s the divide. There isn't a paucity of great older established artists in San Francisco, it’s that very few of them are actively engaging what’s happening in the city. Even if they have galleries in the city, they may rarely show there, and sadly, you feel like the shows are phoned in because they think nobody’s watching.

CR: I won’t even say it’s generations. It’s the total mise-en-scène of the art scene in a city. I think the film industry operates this way in this town. You talk to young actors who are trying to break into the industry, and you get your foot in enough and then suddenly people will take your calls and want to talk to you, but before that, you're really struggling. There’s a threshold you pass when suddenly—not that the door swings wide, but you actually have some capital to play with. I feel that in L.A., at least in the art world, there’s more of a generosity between those layers, in which older artists are interested in hanging out or interacting personally, not even professionally, with younger artists and their students.

Drew Heitzler. for Sailors, Mermaids, Mystics. for Kustomizers, Grinders, Fender-men. for Fools, Addicts, Woodworkers and Hustlers. (Doubled), 2009; appropriated video, 53 minute infinite loop. Courtesy of the Artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.

DH: I would agree with that. Los Angeles occupies this interesting position of constantly and for a long time becoming like the next great art city. Since 1985, they’ve been talking about L.A. overtaking New York, right? So it’s this position where everybody is right on the edge. The old guys want to talk to the young guys because they don’t want to miss out. They don’t want people to forget about them when it becomes the big art capital. That’s a cynical way to approach it. But I do feel like that idea that somehow the place is constantly becoming.

KG: It’s true, though. There’s no center and it’s constantly evolving. You hear about the landscape of galleries, even in the ’80s, that are now closed. That feeling that L.A. is in constant flux does make you feel like there’s all this territory to do things. It has a sense of invisibility also, where you can find these pockets where nobody is watching! It’s easy to find those pockets.


Audience: I have had conversations with artists about how they relate to a city, how they perceive that relationship, and how relationship gets integrated into their work— how they try to perfect the relationship with their work and how they live with that relationship. I'm curious if one of you has ever experienced their relationship with the city in such a way—on a really personal level—and if you can say something about it ?

DH: I guess my answer would be like marrying someone and then discovering that that person is a guy. It’s something like completely different than what you thought.

CR: My next show is coming up in Mexico City and my family’s from there. I've never been there, so I feel like there is this circle that I'm making. Growing up here in Los Angeles as a teenager, I was very Latino. I was bald, I had a fuzzy mustache, and I used to run around with other Latinos and beat up smaller Latinos. That was an energy that I've always projected—this physical, dominant thing. I feel like I'm bringing all these ideas about my work, about masculinity, full circle, back to this city where I'm going to be hopefully learning a little bit, or maybe even a lot about myself. I am my family, and my family is from Mexico City. When you're talking about roots, you know, it sounds silly, but I don’t know what’s out there yet.


CW: I don’t think anyone has talked about being attracted to L.A. or San Francisco because of the landscape or topography, and I wonder if that factors into your practice?

KG: I definitely respond to the landscape in L.A. One of the most amazing things about L.A. is that you could go skiing one day and you could go to the beach the next. And then driving from Washington Boulevard to Topanga Canyon, you go through the city and into this really beautiful canyon by the beach, so there is a sense of diverse expansive space. Coming from New York, I felt like everything was packed so close together and in L.A. my work has become a lot about closing the distance on something, compressing space. So when you take a photograph and put it back onto an object, it’s like trying to get intimate with this expanse of space that’s everywhere around you. The landscape here really changed the way I deal with my work.

DH: I really didn’t like L.A. when I first moved here, but it was the place itself that got me to stay. Once you get past that it’s not New York City, you see the mountains in the winter and I surf. Being able to do that all the time—I don’t know if it affected my work so much as it made it my home.

AC: I smile every time I leave my house to go to work. Even as the weather changes. Even if it’s foggy. I live in Oakland, I go over the bridge, so I see like Sausalito, Alcatraz. It’s a beautiful place, and I also move through space on my bike, so in San Francisco I'm able to kind of have a daily relationship with the streets. Coming from Boston, you can't ride your bike year-round, or if you do, you really get depressed riding through slush and dealing with angry people. I went back over the holidays and people were so angry there. It’s a real difference. I like the happiness.

Zachary Royer Scholz. Shared Holding Pattern, 2010; installation view, We Have As Much Time As It Takes, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist.

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