On View at the Stark Bar: Brian Bress’s “Idiom (Brian, Raffi, Britt)”

December 24, 2013

LACMA’s Rita Gonzalez and Erin Wright recently invited artist Brian Bress to show his work at LACMA’s Stark Bar, which features a rotating program of video and time-based media. The piece, titled Idiom (Brian, Raffi, Britt), is a high-definition three-channel video. Three different “characters” are depicted, which show Bress’s interest in the ambiguous zone between figurative representation and abstraction. The characters fill the screen, slowly emerging and revealing themselves to the viewer.

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Installation image of Brian Bress’s Idiom (Brian, Raffi, Britt) at the Stark Bar at LACMA

Bress plays against the expectations of moving-image work by offering his inventive portraits on flat- screen monitors encased in frames. The slow-motion actions on the screen make his work appear as conventional photographs, or even paintings. Through the use of masks and costumes, Bress’s images depict one or more figures in the abstract. They have been described as inventive, humorous, and “discomfortingly complex.”

Erin Wright and Rita Gonzalez: Let’s start by talking about your studio. You work in a dense, active space in which you’re surrounded by an emporium of the costumes, sculptures, and props that have populated your work over the past almost 10 years of your practice. How has that workspace influenced the choices you’ve made in your videos and installations?

Artist Brian Bress creating Idiom in his studio.

Artist Brian Bress creating Idiom in his studio.

Brian Bress: I’m wrapping up four years in my current studio, and I’m about to move into a larger one, so the idea of how the space I work in changes the work I make has been on my mind. In my current studio, I’ve been mostly restricted to small sets that can contain the upper body of a costumed performer— though like many constraints that artists face, it’s turned out to be a helpful one, as it’s forced me to consider and focus on portraiture and smaller, more intimate performances.

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And keeping the props and costumes around the studio is a way of having a sort of physical timeline of past works sitting on the shelves as a reminder of how things have evolved. That timeline is simultaneously a challenge to try different things and a reminder of solutions and ideas that might be worthy of further exploration.

Wright and Gonzalez: Has knowing that your work would be in such a publicly accessible space had an impact on your approach for this commissioned project?

Bress: The type of broad access that a piece gets in the Stark Bar is different from the type of access it would get only a few feet away inside the walls of the museum. But knowing that the work would be in such a publicly accessible space didn’t change the kind of work I was going to make. There are physical qualities of the space that I took into consideration, however.

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Wright and Gonzalez: How did the idea for Idiom evolve as you went through various scenarios for using the three monitors in the Stark Bar?

Bress: As ideas for the work developed, I began to think about the advantages the three monitors in the bar/cafe setting offered. Initially, I wanted to make a very different triptych that used masks based on collages, with performers wearing the masks while acting out synchronized movements. But the masks for that piece were all a monochromatic grey, and I was afraid the subtlety of the forms and qualities of the masks might be lost in the given context. And the more I noticed the far distance from which you could see the monitors, the more I considered a more graphic approach to the image. I decided I wanted to work with broad shapes that were readable from afar and that revealed the method of their construction not only through the time a viewer spent looking at them, but through the space leading up to the bar as the viewer came closer to the monitors.

Wright and Gonzalez: You mentioned that your recent residency in Rome [at the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Roma (MARCO), in the spring of 2013] and the work that came out of it were on your mind as you developed this project. Can you tell us a bit about that body of work?

Bress: That residency was another opportunity for me to make work specifically for a museum context and to know exactly where the work would be seen. It wasn’t quite site specific, but it was in conversation with the space. [At LACMA], I took that attitude about being in conversation with the space of the museum and the existing architecture, and decided to consider elements around the bar and the museum—from the bar’s red and white chairs to the shows that would be up at the museum at the same time.

Wright and Gonzalez: What’s intriguing about Idiom is how the video uses a reverse form of green screen. Rather than keying in a background using green screen technology, you produce a flattened foreground with the reveal being a backdrop that suggests an animated setting. What is your interest in animation and special effects? Can you talk about the process of making these videos and your use of real-time action with costumed performers?

Bress: My background is in animation. I have a love of drawing and watching drawings move on screen, and this piece follows other pieces in which the viewer gets to watch drawings evolve and “animate.”

And it’s really interesting that you mention green screen. That’s a technology to which I’m not a stranger, and that I’ve used a lot in other types of videos. But I’m always trying to figure out how to avoid it—or, more to the point, how to replace it with practical, in-camera effects that could, in the end, be more special and unique to the process than an effect whose “magic” is tethered to a technology that we all know, and whose mystery is, in my opinion, therefore lessened. The other benefit to using practical effects instead of VFX done with a computer is that, for me, there’s a sense that nothing is filtering the experience of the performance, therefore maybe just generating enough trust or interest to keep a viewer invested in watching what feels like an authentic document.

Wright and GonzalezIdiom is up during our Turrell and Calder exhibitions [James Turrell: A Retrospective, through April 6, 2014, and Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, through July 27, 2014]. Did the presence of these exhibitions influence your approach?

Bress: When I shifted to the cutting/more graphic approach to this piece, connections to the work in those shows became obvious. However, I think the approach I took was more allowing those shows to have a passive influence on what I was doing, rather than consciously going through the shows and the works of Turrell and Calder and picking out moments to parrot. And in hindsight, the connections are even clearer than I had imagined they would be when I started.

See Brian Bress’s Idiom (Brian, Raffi, Britt), on view now at the Stark Bar.

Rita Gonzalez, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art
Erin Wright, Director of Artists Initiatives


What’s in a Name? The Story Behind Four Abstract Classicists

December 23, 2013

One of the interesting trends in recent curatorial practice is to restage or revisit important historical exhibitions. These shows typically take one of two approaches: faithfully reconstructing an exhibition from the past (such as New York gallery Zwirner & Wirth’s 2008 redo of Dan Flavin’s 1964 exhibition at Green Gallery), or conceiving of a new project that uses a past exhibition as a conceptual jumping-off point (for example, When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes at San Francisco’s CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in 2012, a contemporary riff on the famous Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form at Kunsthalle Bern in 1969).

Four Abstract Classicists, which opened this past Saturday, organized by curator of modern art Carol S. Eliel, falls somewhere between these two tactics. Taking its title from an exhibition of the same name mounted in 1959 at the Los Angeles County Museum in Exposition Park (the institutional predecessor of modern-day LACMA), the show brings together works by the same four Southern California painters who were in the 1959 exhibition: Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin. Despite the two exhibitions’ shared title and artists, however, the new show is not a reconstruction; in fact, only one painting from the original grouping—Frederick Hammersley’s Around a round (1959)—appears in the upcoming presentation.

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Frederick Hammersley, Around a round, 1959, bequest of Fannie and Alan Leslie, © Frederick Hammersley Foundation

Following the 1959 show, the term “abstract classicism” (a designation meant to signal these painters’ differences from the abstract expressionism of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline) continued to be used in reference to Benjamin, Feitelson, Hammersley, and McLaughlin. Interestingly, however, the question of who actually conceived of the 1959 show and its title has been a subject of some contention.

Lorser Feitelson, Hard Edge Line Painting, 1963, Anonymous gift through the Contemporary Art Council, © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation

Lorser Feitelson, Hard Edge Line Painting, 1963, Anonymous gift through the Contemporary Art Council, © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation

In 1975, an innocuous essay by Paul Karlstrom (who was then the West Coast–area director of the Archives of American Art) for LAICA Journal, a magazine published by the now-defunct Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, mentioned in passing the archives’ acquisition of papers belonging to Jules Langsner, the Los Angeles critic who served as curator of the original Four Abstract Classicists. In response, art historian Peter Selz wrote a letter to Karlstrom asserting it was he, and not Langsner, who initiated the show and suggested its title. Selz’s letter was published in the following issue of LAICA Journal, along with a response by June Harwood, Langsner’s widow (in which she refuted Selz’s claim), and a reprint of a 1959 letter from Benjamin to art critic Sidney Tillim crediting Langsner with forming the idea for the “abstract classicists” group.

Cover of the April­–May 1975 issue of LAICA Journal

Cover of the April­–May 1975 issue of LAICA Journal

Weighing the various claims and counterclaims about who should get credit, art critic Peter Plagens, writing in the same issue of LAICA Journal, offered his assessment—and, it would seem, a final word on the subject:

“Although no one can say for sure who first put the bug in whose ear, especially (and perhaps deliberately) so long after Langsner’s death, it seems “abstract classicism” is nobody’s baby, dating from 1951 or earlier. As to the conception/organization, my understanding is that Karl Benjamin brought Jules Langsner to meet Peter Selz, then teaching at Pomona, and Selz offered the college as a site for the show; Feitelson countered that it ought to be done in a first-class museum in Los Angeles or San Francisco or not at all, the artists agreed, and Selz’s ‘participation’ ended there. As to his conceiving the show, I managed to contact two of the participants, and their answers were, in a word, ‘bullshit!’”

Jennifer King, Wallis Annenberg Curatorial Fellow, Modern Art


This Weekend at LACMA: Two New Exhibitions Unveiled, Free Tours, and More!

December 20, 2013

Visit LACMA this weekend and you’ll find two new exhibitions, Four Abstract Classicists and Hassan Hajjaj: My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume 1, 2012. Four Abstract Classicists is centered on the works of Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin, a quartet of artists that lead the evolution of Abstract Expressionism to the harder-edged sensibilities of Pop Art and Minimalism during the 1950s and 60s. Then, in Hassan Hajjaj photographer and video artist Hassan Hajjaj presents nine filmed performances of musicians from around the globe in sets and costumes that emphasize globalization and the blurring of cultural identities.

Still from Hassan Hajjaj, My Rock Stars Experimental Volume 1, 2012, 
purchased with funds provided by Art of the Middle East.

Hassan Hajjaj, still from My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume 1, Helen Venus Bushfire, 2012, 
purchased with funds provided by Art of the Middle East: CONTEMPORARY, courtesy Rose Issa PRojects

To learn more about our collections and exhibitions join in on any of the free, docent-lead tours. On Saturday at noon, walk through See the Light—Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection and learn about photography and its close ties to vision science over the years. On Sunday afternoon witness the beauties of Japanese netsuke or gain a broader understanding of the African Luba culture as demonstrated in Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Tours range from 15 minutes to an hour and are included with each general admission. What will you uncover?

Roberto Ayala


Beyond Paintbrushes: Creating Art with Kaz Oshiro

December 19, 2013

Watching while an artist uses a slingshot to catapult a paint-coated tennis ball onto a wall is a unique experience—but working directly with the artist, and being the one to actually launch the ball, is even more memorable. This was the realization a group of elementary school students arrived at recently when they worked with Los Angeles–based artist Kaz Oshiro in preparation for his LACMA-organized exhibition Kaz Oshiro: Chasing Ghosts.

Opening January 24, 2014, at LACMA’s satellite gallery within Charles White Elementary School near MacArthur Park, the show will feature new work from Oshiro, artworks he selected from LACMA’s collection, and collaborative paintings he made with the students. To create the collective artwork, Oshiro first met the children through grade-level assemblies, where he discussed ways that unconventional tools and processes could be employed to create paintings. To a score of involuntary gasps from the children, Oshiro demonstrated both invented and established techniques for making art, including blowing paint through a tube and sweeping pigment with a broom.

     Artist Kaz Oshiro works with a student on a collaborative painting project.

Artist Kaz Oshiro works with a student on a collaborative painting project.

The third-, fourth-, and fifth- grade students experimented with these devices, working directly with Oshiro to create paintings. In addition to using conventional art-making tools, the students swept paint over a canvas with cleaning brushes, poured acrylic from teapots, and, of course, operated the makeshift slingshot. As they worked, they compared the range of effects. Scraping a squeegee across a surface, for example, created thick, bold strokes, while squeezing paint from a bottle formed thin, organic arcs that dripped from gravity.

Students use brushes and squeeze-bottles to contribute to Oshiro’s collaborative wall painting.

Students use brushes and squeeze-bottles to contribute to Oshiro’s collaborative wall painting.

By far the most popular tool was the stationary bicycle, which required four people to operate: one to pedal, two to deflect splatters with umbrellas, and one to hold a trough of paint next to the wheel. Students suited up in plastic aprons, ponchos, and shoe covers, and took turns in each position. The children pedaled feverishly while Oshiro held shallow vessels filled with different colors just barely against the tire, spraying paint in compelling patterns.

The surprising marks the students generated through these devices defy the humble nature of the tools that created them. Drips, splashes, and smears serve as documents of the students’ experiments and the physical nature of their process. Inadvertently, the resulting artworks are also an expression of the children’s expanded mindset regarding the limitless possibilities for creating art and what constitutes a painting.

Students operate a stationary bicycle to create paint splatters on the wall.

Students operate a stationary bicycle to create paint splatters on the wall.

View this project, and more of Oshiro’s work, at the opening-night celebration of the exhibition Kaz Oshiro: Chasing Ghosts on January 24 from 6 to 8 pm. Discover more of Kaz Oshiro’s work here.

Sarah Jesse, Associate Vice President, Education


The Challenge of Installing Calder

December 18, 2013

Installing a sculpture exhibition—particularly one in which works are bound to walls, sit on pedestals, hang in the air, hover close to the ground, and vary significantly in scale—can be tricky. In developing this exhibition, I reviewed historical photos of Calder’s studio and presentations he designed and compared them with exhibition design from the past 40 years. During Calder’s lifetime, displays seemed to mimic those found in his studio: crowded together, overlapping, presenting a riotous cacophony of competing forms far removed from contemporary concerns of conservation and visitor-circulation paths. In the past few decades, museum exhibitions have had to grapple with these real concerns, which are exacerbated by increasingly large museum crowds. Extensive plinths, protective barriers, and pedestals mitigate intentional or inadvertent touching, but can hinder the viewer’s ability to relate intimately with the works. Clearly, decisions about density, space, light, and color would need to be weighed against concerns for the safety and protection of the art.

Alexander Calder, "Calder and Abstraction" at LACMA.

We were fortunate that architect Frank O. Gehry shared an enthusiasm for Calder’s work; his experience of seeing the artist’s 1964–65 exhibition in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York had made an indelible impression.

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The gently curved walls that frame many of the sculptures in LACMA’s exhibition emphasize the organic nature of Calder’s works, recalling the harmony between art and architecture found in the Guggenheim’s presentation. Furthermore, Gehry’s own method of developing architectural forms is inherently tactile, sharing some of the same hands-on techniques of a sculptor. I too remember the Calder show at the Guggenheim—it is the first show I recall seeing there—and when I worked at the museum in the early 1970s, colleagues still spoke fondly of it being the most perfect example of an exhibition combining art and architecture.

Gehry Partners, LLP, model photographs for Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013

Gehry Partners, LLP, model photographs for Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2013

Working through successive models—in paper, Gator board, basswood, and Plexiglas, and in a variety of scales—Gehry’s models are conceptual drafts, or three-dimensional sketches, integral to the final design of a project. It was fascinating to see how Gehry’s office prepared actual small-scale sculptures so that we could figure out how they would rotate in space and how to best protect them. From my early discussions with Gehry about Calder, it became clear that he could produce a remarkable and unique installation that could create a memorable experience for visitors. Although Calder was known to work with architects and luminaries from other fields during his lifetime, no exhibition of Calder’s work has engaged a major architect in three decades.

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Another aspect of planning the show that was critical to me was the desire to slow down people’s looking at the works of art. We purposely limited the selection to feature 50 objects—giving the art ample space to breathe. Gehry’s design underscores how to look at the works. We also wanted to encourage people to spend more time with individual objects so that the gentle movement can be observed. If you take the time in the show, you can easily understand the observation that Jean-Paul Sartre made in the 1940s after visiting Calder’s studio: “But suddenly, when the agitation had left [the mobile] and it seemed lifeless again, its long majestic tail, which until then had not moved, came to life indolently and almost regretfully, spun in the air, and swept past my nose.”

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Alexander Calder, "Calder and Abstraction" at LACMA.
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For the complete set of photographs of the installation, click here.

Stephanie Barron, Senior Curator, Department Head of Modern Art


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