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Witnessing the work of art

At Lux Art Institute, visitors can look over the artist's shoulder.

November 24, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

ENCINITAS, Calif. -- At the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas, demystifying the creative process means turning it into a combination spectator event and audience-participation forum, playing live three days a week.

Invited artists get to settle into Lux's new $6-million, canyon-side retreat, usually for a month or two -- with all expenses paid, plus a stipend -- while creating their next piece. What's unusual is that on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the veil is pulled back, and the public gets to watch, question and comment while the artist works.

On Nov. 15, as Lux's first two paying visitors looked on, NASCAR was the spectator event that came momentarily to mind. Suddenly and accidentally, the relief-like piece that Chilean postmodernist Tomas Rivas was carving into a large square of drywall shifted on its makeshift easel and fell to the floor with a scrape and a thud.

"Oops," somebody said.

Dionne Carlson hesitated for a moment, then sprang into action. She'd been reading for years about Lux's plans in local papers. Now that the multicolored building of earth-toned concrete, exterior teak paneling and shiny steel finally had opened, surrounded by native gardens and a 60-acre nature preserve, she and her friend, Dolores Keyes, were checking it out. They had anticipated something different, but not this different.

Carlson squatted near the fallen, half-done objet d'art and made ready to give it a hoist. "I'm pretty strong," she said, looking up at Rivas, who calmly and wordlessly waved her off.

The 32-year-old artist with the long, ungovernable brown hair and intense eyes carefully checked his work, lightly strumming petal-like curlicue peelings to make sure they hadn't been marred. Satisfied, he improvised a more secure easel with a couple of plastic chairs. Soon, he was scraping away again. With no barriers between artist and visitors, the two middle-aged women stood back a few feet, looking over his shoulder as he cut craters and tatters into a decorative pattern he'd traced from an image of the scrollwork and leafy adornments on an ancient Greek temple. Crisis resolved, the artist could face his public.

The visitors were curious about his technique in several other works hanging in the room, pieces in which Rivas had smeared frosty-white lard over classical designs. He was pleased to fill them in on the strange practice of making art out of hog's fat.

"Your work is just magic," Carlson said with a smile.

Even with the compliment, some artists might recoil at such an encounter, their minds conjuring images of fishbowls and zoo enclosures. But for Rivas, mishap and all, there was no discomfort.

"I don't believe there's anything that needs to be hidden," he said. "I'm trying to demystify the world, break into all the illusions that surround artists and art."

Reesey Shaw, Lux's director and guiding force since 1998, is confident that the artists she picks will appreciate, or at least tolerate, working in the public eye. She tested the concept from 1994 to 1997 as the first director of the museum at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, where she occasionally commissioned artists to create as visitors watched and asked questions. Once, she recalled, the artist was taciturn and painted in silence. Even then, "people saw the seriousness of purpose, and it was compelling. And for the artists who are usually stuck in their garage or loft, it was stimulating and humanizing."

With Lux, Shaw has institutionalized that interaction. Artists make themselves at home in a swank, 900-square-foot apartment with a sweeping canyon view, just downstairs from the big, high-ceilinged, single-room studio and gallery where they work. With a selection of their past works curated by Shaw on display around them, they produce at least one more piece from start to finish so the public can see creativity unfold.

"Most of the public never meets an artist," Shaw said in an interview. She thinks opening the process will help doubters see that contemporary art is not "the emperor's new clothes."

Rivas departs after Nov. 29, leaving behind the 10-piece gallery show already on display, plus four additional drywall carvings he plans to create during his residency. There's also "Unobtrusive," a huge drywall installation of an ancient temple, framed by the sky on a hilltop overlooking Lux, where damage from the elements will help communicate Rivas' core themes of endurance and mutability. Landscape painter Astrid Preston will come for two months starting Jan. 31, followed by two-week stays for Julie Heffernan and Daniel Wheeler. For now, a floral pattern Rivas is cutting into the white wall of Shaw's office is the only art from the residencies that Lux intends to own -- at least until it can raise an estimated $10 million to $20 million to expand from 5,000 to 30,000 square feet. That would create room for bigger shows and possibly a permanent collection.

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