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The art factory

The crew at Carlson & Co. makes artists' large-scale visions a reality, but they're not big on taking credit.

August 31, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Some of the best art being made today isn't being made by artists.

Painters often hire specialists to stretch their canvases and assistants to help out in the studio, though it's still their hands that hold the brush.

Sculptors don't have it so easy. Hardly anyone carves marble anymore. Casting works in metal involves so many intermediary steps that it's difficult to distinguish the artistry from the craftsmanship. And the newfangled materials made available by computer technology often require the expertise of engineers and scientists.

New York-based artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen turned to Carlson & Co. to oversee every detail of the design, construction and installation of their 65-foot-tall sculpture of a bow tie and tuxedo collar for the front of Disney Hall. (The sculpture will not be installed when the hall opens in October. A delayed street-widening project on Grand Avenue has pushed plans for its unveiling to October 2004.)

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 90 words Type of Material: Correction
Large-scale art -- An article about art fabricator Carlson & Co. in Sunday Calendar incorrectly reported that the firm built the binoculars at the former Chiat / Day office in Venice. While Carlson & Co. has fabricated numerous large-scale sculptures for New York-based artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, the binocular project was not one of them. Also in that article, a photograph of a chandelier in a lobby at UC San Francisco's medical school was incorrectly credited to Ken Hively. The photographer was Jeff Bennett of The Times.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 07, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 88 words Type of Material: Correction
Large-scale art -- An article about art fabricator Carlson & Co. in Sunday Calendar on Aug. 31 incorrectly reported that the firm built the binoculars at the former Chiat/Day office in Venice. While Carlson & Co. has fabricated numerous large-scale sculptures for Claes Oldenburg and Coosje va Bruggen, the binocular project was not one of them. Also in that article, a photograph of a chandelier in a lobby at UC San Francisco's medical school was incorrectly credited to Ken Hively. The photographer was Jeff Bennett of The Times.

The manufacturing firm, whose offices and workshop are housed in a generic warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, fabricated the couple's giant binoculars, which turned Chiat/Day's former Venice office into a landmark. Their engineers, designers, draftsmen and fabricators also have completed projects with such sculptors as Ellsworth Kelly, Jeff Koons, Charles Ray and Lita Albuquerque.

Founded 33 years ago by Peter Carlson, the one-of-a-kind company is a boutique. But it's hardly esoteric. No one on its 70-person staff harbors any delusions of grandeur about their role in the creative process.

Jeff Bennett, the director of engineering, puts it simply: "We're glorified contractors. We make highly finished objects. We specialize in making large-scale artworks. But we are not artists."

It's clear that Bennett has thought long and hard about what he's saying, and that it's grounded in hands-on experience. "Our role is to help someone who says 'I want to make an 18-foot-tall chair' make it. Or to make a 9,000-pound Faberge egg that's 20 feet tall, and then get it from here to the other side of the world in pristine condition. We are creative problem solvers. All of the clients we have are incredibly precise. They use us to get what they want. We just make it possible."

These days, when it's increasingly difficult to tell the difference between art and design, and it's common to say that anything done well is a work of art, Bennett insists on distinguishing what he and his colleagues at Carlson do from the work of artists.

"In general," he states, "I hate the word 'collaboration.' It's overused and misused. We do not collaborate with artists. We work for them. We are intimately involved with every stage of a piece's production. But I don't feel any need to oversell or over-pitch our role in it. We're very lucky we get to work with great artists."

This attitude appeals to contemporary sculptors. Liz Larner, who has twice contracted with Carlson & Co. to fabricate large outdoor sculptures, says: "It's this weird parallel universe for artists. We see things a certain way. The people at Carlson get it. You don't have to educate them or fight them every step of the way. They know about art and respect it. They understand what artists are up to. It's a sensibility. It's different from working with a manufacturer who is used to producing things in runs of 100,000, where it's common to run up against the attitude that art is stupid, or frivolous."

Jennifer Pastor agrees. In May, she completed an elaborate landscape sculpture based on the tunnels and conduits buried beneath Hoover Dam. Just after shipping her muscular yet lyrical work to Italy for this year's Venice Biennial, she said, "There's nobody else in the country like Carlson, especially for artists who know exactly what they want. Other fabricators negotiate with you. Not only on their fees -- that's normal -- but on how you should make your work. I can't tell you how many times I've presented my plans to a shop and been told, 'I've been doing this 20 years, little lady, here's how you do it.'

"Those old ship-hands don't understand sculpture. It's not that I don't know there's another way to do it, a way that's probably easier and cheaper. It's that I want it this way. One thing that's great about Carlson is that they appreciate this."

Working big

If any artist knows exactly what he wants, Jim Isermann does. Over the last 20 years he has built furniture, crafted stained-glass windows, woven fabric wall hangings, braided room-size rugs and designed vinyl wallpaper and window coverings, as well as modular relief sculptures made of vacuum-formed plastic. Until recently, he lived by the adage "If you want something done right, you'd better do it yourself." Today he'd probably add: "Or hire Carlson & Co."

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