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The evolution of art, Otis style

A retrospective of the art college's alumni reveals a vast array of media, styles and social consciousness.

January 20, 2006|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

After 77 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, mixed-media pieces and video installations had been unpacked at Los Angles Municipal Art Gallery, Executive Director Mark Steven Greenfield took a look around and tried to summarize: "This is a snapshot of the evolution of art in Los Angeles that touches on just about everything," he said of the works by artists who have studied at Otis College of Art and Design since its formation.

"There's no theme," he noted, "but I think if you look at it from the standpoint of representing the history of art in Los Angeles, this is a pretty good cross-section."

"Otis: Nine Decades of Los Angeles Art," which opens today at the gallery, was initiated by the school's director of alumni relations, Sarah Russin, who wanted to assemble a retrospective that would filter the city's visual arts output since the 1920s through the prism of Otis-trained artists.

"Part of the power of this show," she said, "is that there isn't one look or style that has emerged from Otis that the school is known for." Instead, "what you see is this strong history of faculty working with individual artists to help them develop their own personal voice. For that reason, the work is totally across the board in materials and approach and theme."

To select works for the show, Greenfield, along with Meg Linton, director of Ben Maltz Gallery & Public Programs at Otis, and Scott Canty, curator at Municipal Art Gallery, sifted through thousands of slides solicited from the school's alumni.

"We made this huge list and just went on gut reaction: We love this person's work," Linton said. "And then we had to get real."

Budget constraints kept a lid on out-of-state shipping, so most of the works are on loan from California-based museums, galleries, collectors and artists.

The show's oldest artwork is "Self-Portrait," a 1920 watercolor by Tyrus Wong. Dressed in Western suspenders, Wong lounges languidly in the frame. "When you see something in traditional Asian art with these muted tones," Greenfield said, "normally this would be much more formal, but Tyrus has taken those elements and combined them with the contemporary look of this relaxed guy wearing the suspenders."

Wong wound up at Walt Disney Studios, where he helped create scenery for the animation classic "Bambi."

The symbiotic bond between artists and the entertainment industry is also represented in the work of John Hench, whose 1964 charcoal sketch, "Disneyland Space Mountain," is also in the show.

"Nine Decades" samples Depression-era social realism via Milford Zornes' somber 1936 oil painting "The Master Bridge" and Paul Landacre's 1937 wood engraving "Amateurs," which casts its portrait of working-class antiheroes situated on a rooftop in bold silhouette.

"The story behind this piece is that Paul had a leak in his roof, so he invited his artist friends over to patch the leak," Greenfield said. "It became very apparent after a while that none of them knew what they were doing, so they all got pretty frustrated."

In the mid-1950s, the then-radical craft-to-art movement took root at the Los Angeles County Art Institute -- one of a number of names in Otis' evolution -- courtesy of Postmodern artisan Peter Voulkos. He started the school's ceramics program after spending time at North Carolina's experimental Black Mountain College with John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg.

Voulkos' influence can be seen in adventurous ceramic sculptures crafted decades later, including Paul Soldner's exploding-in-midair "Pedestal Piece" from 1990, John Mason's 2002 propeller-like obelisk "Figure, Blue" and Ken Price's sensuously curved 2002 sculpture "Bags."

Greenfield, curator for "The Inspired Vessel" ceramics exhibition two winters ago at Municipal Art Gallery, said: "There were a number of artists who came out of Otis that changed the face of ceramics, and Paul Soldner was one of the first. When you think about traditional ceramics, it's always very finished and polished and glazed. In many ways, Soldner's work is a revolution against all of that. He gives you something that has a rough surface that grates against your fingernails."

California-based abstract artists John Altoon and Billy Al Bengston generated buzz in the '60s through their affiliation with the cutting-edge Ferus Gallery. Paintings from Altoon ("Untitled," from the mid-1960s), Bengston ("Bossea Draculas," 1975) and Don Totten ("Abstraction," 1961) retain their power to intrigue, Greenfield says.

In the 1970s, Otis become a hotbed of activity for muralists such as Alonzo Davis, Eloy Torrez and Kent Twitchell, who were fascinated with engaging community issues via public art.

"Kent Twitchell took mural painting a little beyond what it had been in the past and really developed a whole technique about how to apply this polymer medium to the surface of a wall and create a mural," Greenfield said. "He was thinking ahead because he wanted to make a mural so it's going to last for 50 years."

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