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To Live and Create in L.A.

Four artists included in a new survey explain why moving here proved to be a creative choice.

July 29, 2001|DAVID PAGEL | David Pagel is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Los Angeles art schools have always attracted an impressive pool of applicants. In the 1960s, the recipe for success was simple: Get to L.A., get a degree, get a cheap studio in Venice and get to work. With a little luck, careers took care of themselves.

Things changed in the '70s. As enrollments grew, the art-market slumped. Graduates moved to New York in increasing numbers, beginning a migration that continued well into the '80s.

Then things changed again. Upon graduating, more and more artists stayed in Los Angeles. Some rose to international prominence, putting to rest the idea that living in New York was necessary for success.

The art market flourished, reaching all-time highs. Then it crashed in the early '90s, and artists educated in L.A. stayed put. As the economy improved, an unprecedented development has occurred: Artists with advanced degrees from schools in other cities began moving here.

Currently on view at the UCLA Hammer Museum, "Snapshot: New Art From Los Angeles," a survey of works by 25 young artists who live in Los Angeles includes paintings, sculptures and drawings by four who came here just because they thought L.A. would be a good place to be an artist. Although Mari Eastman, Thomas Eggerer, Robert Stone and Amy Wheeler based their decisions on unique mixes of personal and professional reasons, they generally agree that low rents, great weather and unsurpassed career opportunities give L.A. an edge over other cities.

"I can't imagine any young artist choosing to move to New York today. It's so hard to make a living there. I really can't see it," Eggerer says. At 38, he is the oldest of the four.

Born in Munich, Eggerer graduated from his hometown's art academy in 1994, when a grant from a German academic institution allowed him to move to New York. He recalls, "After I got that grant for my paintings, I stopped painting. Being a young gay painter, I felt that my work was trapped in an '80s format--big and basically abstract. I needed something else."

For three years in New York, he made installations, wrote theoretical essays and was a member of Group Material, an activist collective whose politically oriented work took art out of the gallery and into the street. "The New York art world is less accessible to newcomers," he says. "It's more stratified, more dominated by the gallery system. I worked hard just to make a living. I was a waiter in a celebrity restaurant. I enjoyed it for a while, but eventually it was not satisfying to spend so much time doing that."

The desire to paint returned. "I hadn't abandoned painting out of frustration or anything like that. I always liked to paint, and I still love looking at paintings. It had just felt right not to do it for a while.

In 1997, he moved back to Germany, this time to Cologne. Living expenses were lower, and Eggerer could spend more time in the studio. He started painting modestly scaled pictures of loosely rendered figures whose contemporary settings often dissolve into abstract forms. Depicting such leisure activities as soccer practice, tennis lessons and sightseeing trips, his acrylics-on-linen are suffused with the intangibility of daydreams.

Eggerer describes Cologne as "a breeding ground for artistic existences, a small place with a very high concentration of very informed, very smart and very weird people--the likes of which don't proliferate in New York." But he also found its small-town feeling claustrophobic.

Two years later, he moved to Los Angeles. His Silver Lake apartment, which overlooks Glendale Boulevard, doubles as his studio. Attributing his decision to his "unrestful character," he says, "I was attracted to L.A. for the simple reason that it is a big city. While I knew that there was an art scene--I guess it's necessary to have that--I didn't care about it being hyped as the next big thing.

"I'm generally suspicious of such fanfare. I always have been more interested in a group of middle-aged and older artists, Conceptualists like Ed Ruscha, Larry Johnson, Stephen Prina and Christopher Williams. I'm surprised to see that their work doesn't seem to connect to a lot of the painting and photography that gets shown. Right now, L.A. is so L.A.-oriented. It is self-obsessed to the point of being unaware of its own history.

"Anyway," he continues, "I like to do my own thing. I like that in L.A. you don't have to have the intense, day-to-day exchanges that you do in Cologne, hanging out in the bars, socializing and drinking. Plus, the art world has become so international that it doesn't really matter that I live in Los Angeles. Of course, it helps that I had a gallery [Daniel Buchholz in Cologne] when I arrived. That made getting a gallery here [Richard Telles Fine Art] so much easier."

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