I'm not a morning person, so, fortified with plenty of coffee, I usually start the day off slowly by paging through the newspapers to catch up on the latest. Sometimes, a headline jumps off the page with such a good vibe that it instantly snaps me out of the morning doldrums. Today is one of those days: the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times reported on this year's recipients of the MacArthur Grants, each of whom will receive $500,000, no strings attached. Among the winners are scientists, journalists, performers, and, of special interest to me, visual artists.
So you can understand my excitement at reading that a fellow Angeleno – well-known artist Mark Bradford – was selected as one of the recipients of this grant, popularly known as the "genius award." Two months ago, while in London, I stood in front of his large-scale mixed media paintings on display at the Saatchi Gallery and marveled at the ingenuity with which the artist uses his trademark material – small squares of endpapers collected from hair salons – which serve as a foundation for his dynamic, abstract compositions.
Close to these works were displayed the impressive, monumental works of another Los Angeles artist, Jedediah Caesar, who shares with Mark Bradford an affinity for discarded materials. I talked about Jedediah's work a few months ago, comparing his artistic process to cooking with all sorts of junk that he stuffs into a crate and then pours resin over. Once the resin hardens, he proceeds to cut this gigantic ‘fruitcake’ into thin slices to be served not on a platter, but on the wall, thus seamlessly transforming the mundane into poetry. The resulting abstract compositions can be described as both paintings and sculptures, and the extremely humble nature of the materials used by the artist, rather than being a distraction, becomes an irresistible draw.
A lot of artists are trying to incorporate 'leftovers' into their work, but only a few succeed in pulling off this magic trick. Here's another example you might want to check out, this one in the lobby of the UCLA Hammer Museum. Swiss-born artist Nic Hess, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Zurich, transformed the rather banal corporate space into a theater stage full of mischief and adventure. And the material, once again, is as ordinary as it gets – hundreds and hundreds of yards of basic masking tape of various widths and colors. The artist shows himself to be an extraordinary draftsman who has traded the traditional tool of the trade – a pencil – for an eyebrow-raising novelty item: humble masking tape. Looking at his works, I couldn't help but giggle at the wonderful sense of humor with which he pulls the rug out from under your feet, turning the stairwell into a roller coaster ride.
And if you find yourself in Pasadena, you must stop by the Armory Center for the Arts, which celebrates its 20th anniversary with a large group show of southern California artists. Once more I found myself staring with disbelief at a large wall piece, this one by Carl Cheng that initially I mistook for an aerial photograph of city streets, only to realize that it's constructed from hundreds of discarded electronic PC boards on aluminum. Even after I realized what it was, I continued to see it as an amazingly elegant image of an unknown city observed from above. Coming home, I did some research on the artist, whose name sounded familiar, and realized that there is a monumental work of his here on the beach next to the Santa Monica pier. With the help of a special tractor, his gigantic concrete roller is supposed to be periodically pulled along the beach, leaving an intricate imprint on the sand. But alas, it's been idle for many years, which is a pity. Let's bring the magic back.
Nic Hess: Automatic Crash Response
On view on the Hammer Museum's Lobby Wall through November 5
Installations Inside/Out: 20th Anniversary Exhibition
On view at the Armory Center for the Arts through December 31
Banner image: Carl Cheng, Paver Stones, Redondo Beach