KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Media artist Ilene Segalove has spent much of her career casting television sets as leading actors; painter Sabina Ott says she would never even think of putting a TV set on canvas. Yet despite the creative chasm, both women were recently named winners of this year's County Museum of Art Young Talent Purchase Award.
Not surprisingly, the artists' reactions to receiving the prestigious honor are polarized as well.
"The award was a great vote of confidence and just what I needed," said Ott, who paints symbolic narratives.
"This makes my mother happy," said Segalove, a producer of witty video and radio commentaries on popular culture. "But it's made me think at 35 I'm not young anymore." (The prize is given to artists younger than 36.) "Does this mean next year I'll get a Middle-Age Award?"
The County Museum's Young Talent Purchase Award was established in 1963 to support and encourage young artists living in Los Angeles County. The annual award is administered by the museum's Modern and Contemporary Art Council and Department of 20th-Century Art. Winners receive $3,000, the promise of a solo show, and agree to give the museum one work for its permanent collection to be selected by curators within three years.
Ott, whose works are currently on view at New York's Brooklyn Museum, and Segalove, whose humor was recently heard on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," were chosen as the museum's 57th and 58th winners from among 120 contenders. They were interviewed at their work place/homes, which are also as dissimilar as their art.
Ott, 30, inhabits a canvas-strewn downtown warehouse. Her dark, brooding diptychs and triptychs are made with a thick application of paint and a saturation of color. They juxtapose images such as a moonlit seascape with a snake or a winding staircase, to bring each image new meanings by association.
One work, "Undertow," couples a cascade of gold coins and crashing waves so that the seascape looks artificial next to the more sensually and richly painted currency, Ott said. The painting shows that "the experience of money in our world is more real to us than the sublimity of nature," she explained.
Ott said her works are a link in the historical continuum of painting, yet couched in a post-modern idiom. "I use literary images and choose older, more archetypal objects that relate to the history of painting--like I wouldn't paint a TV set--yet I also want the works to be sensual and experiential."
Born in New York City, Ott was reared in Los Angeles and received her bachelor's and master's degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute before moving back here in 1982. Her work has been presented in numerous group shows and in solo exhibitions at such places as the Charles Cowles Gallery in New York and the local Davies Long Gallery.
Ott said her first local show (at the now-defunct Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art) "bombed because no one understood my work." The Purchase Award signifies a different response from County Museum of Art curators, led by Howard Fox, who made the final award selection, she said.
"I'm really pleased," she said. "They understood the work."
Segalove works in her Venice home, close to her creative tools--a personal computer, video and audio tape recorders and an electric typewriter.
Before she earned her undergraduate art degree from UC Santa Barbara (her masters in communication came later from Loyola University), she "ran into a video camera"--in 1971. Over the next 13 years she used that medium, photomontage and a hefty dose of tongue-in-cheek to address social issues, particularly the impact television made in her life.
For the last year and a half, however, after receiving several prestigious grants and taking part in exhibitions and film and video festivals around the world, she has worked exclusively in radio, collaborating with free-lance producer Stephen Proffitt. Together they have made programs on such topics as shopping malls, adolescent love, and "BodyParts," about the "hairs, hormones, organs, orifices, nodes and noses we all call home."
Since working only with radio "they call me a commentator on growing up in modern America," said Segalove, a Los Angeles native. "Suddenly I'm not an artist anymore, but I like this hat. like the way the radio works slip into people's lives instead of their having to go to a museum to experience art."
Ironically, though, the award may mean a switch back to an artist persona, Segalove predicted. "Maybe I'll be invited to do an audio piece or experimental sound installations in a museum.
"To be honest, I was surprised the County Museum gave me the award," she said. "They had never really been very supportive of experimental media works. I think they felt that if the work was accessible and entertaining and funny it wasn't art--it had to be mysterious--and I'm direct, I shoot from the hip."
"But now with (Howard) Fox around and the new contemporary art wing opening up this year, I think they're starting to say, 'Let's support the artists that are doing this work.' They realize, after all, that L.A. is a media center."