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ART REVIEW

Can Artists Run Their Own Spaces and Find 'True.BLISS.'?

December 27, 1996|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Have you heard of Bliss? Not many people have--inside the art world or out. An alternative exhibition venue in a residential neighborhood in Pasadena, Bliss has been a well-kept secret these past nine years.

Artist Kenneth Riddle and a changing cast of cohorts, many of them recent graduates from Art Center College of Design, began to use the ordinary bungalow on North Michigan Avenue in 1987 as a place to show their own work. (Riddle lives in the house.) Frequented mostly by artists, their friends and those who heard of the place by word of mouth, Bliss has usually been open only on Sundays and its exhibitions have been held sporadically--often in the summer months, not so often in the winter, and every now and then in between.

Now Bliss is the subject of an exhibition at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in Hollywood--and a rather odd exhibition it is. Curators Riddle, Andrea Bowers, Mike Mehring and LACE director Brian Karl have created a kind of testimonial dinner without the food.

"True.BLISS." is an assembly of recent examples of work by four dozen artists whose principal connection to one another is that they have all shown in the Pasadena house. Eclectic is too mild a term of description for the array.

What makes the exhibition odd, though, is not the breadth of variety in the paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, computer animation and mixed-media works brought together for the show--art that also runs the gamut in terms of quality and interest. What's unusual is the idea of one artist-run exhibition space (LACE) organizing a show in which the subject is the history of another artist-run exhibition space (Bliss).

The work at LACE does stand as evidence that these artists are among those who participated in past Bliss shows, and because the work is recently made we know these artists are still at it. (We also know they're still working because a good number of them--Judie Bamber, Russell Crotty, Jacci Den Hartog, Sam Durant, Sally Elesby, Diana Thater and at least a dozen more--show with regularity in commercial galleries and museums in Los Angeles and elsewhere.)

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But, finally, it's the nesting of one kind of artist-run space inside another, older kind of artist-run space that's the show's most interesting feature. "True.BLISS." would have benefited from a more direct and challenging exploration of the differences.

LACE, as everyone in the art world knows, has been through tough times in the 1990s and has labored hard in the past year or so to revive itself. Many obvious factors had played their part in the downturn.

The mid-1980s exodus of galleries westward from downtown L.A.'s warehouse district, where LACE had been located, left the space isolated. The national recession that lingered so long in Southern California made always-scarce arts funds even scarcer. Indifferent internal leadership was damaging. And so on.

Less commented upon in diagnoses of past woes, however, has been the simple fact that the times they were a-changin'. LACE was an artist-run exhibition space of the old-fashioned, 1970s kind--and the 1970s were long gone.

In general, the format of nonprofit, artist-run exhibition spaces had been born for two intertwined reasons. They were designed to provide alternatives to, first, the commercial values of the new American art market of the 1960s and, second, to the status quo traditionalism of art museums.

By the end of the 1980s, though, strict traditionalism was gone from the museums and artist-run exhibition spaces had become feeders of new talent to a newly roaring market.

That is, they were feeders when artists eager for commercial venues weren't simply ignoring offers of shows at alternative spaces.

The 1980s changed everything. In its aftermath, though, LACE didn't change--except in rudimentary ways, like moving from the downtown warehouse district to pedestrian-friendly Hollywood Boulevard. One sign of the creakiness of LACE, with its cumbersome, museum-like trappings of membership rolls, exhibition committees, fund-raisers, newsletters and so on, was the emergence of a place like Bliss.

Quick on its feet, beholden to no one but its self-appointed curator (Riddle), marked by an enthusiastic spirit of "my father's got a barn, there's costumes in the attic, let's put on a show!," Bliss was of significance mainly because it represented a relatively small bunch of artists taking initiative on their own behalf. Which is, of course, the same artistic energy that had gotten LACE off the ground--in a very different way--in 1978.

In the small catalog to "True.BLISS.," essayist Julie Joyce frets a bit about the limitations commerce can place on art and she cites the noncommercial atmosphere of Bliss as one of its more salient features. But I'm not so sure.

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