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L.A.'s artistic iconoclasts

The Hammer's biennial 'Nine Lives' exhibit reveals how local artists relate with their world.

March 08, 2009|Sharon Mizota

All artists inhabit worlds of their own making to a certain extent. Van Gogh's ecstatic swirling stars, for example, or Munch's tortured scream are raw expressions of rich, deeply eccentric visions. But some artists take this impulse to obsessive extremes. Their desire to construct alternate universes, act out fantasies or probe psychological undercurrents drives them to conduct extensive research, spend years working on a single painting or build life-size environments that rival the scenic follies of Hollywood.

Opening this weekend at the Hammer Museum, "Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A." explores the relationship between such fanatical artistic endeavors and the psychic and physical landscape of Los Angeles. The exhibition is the latest in the biennial "Hammer Invitationals," a series that since 2001 has focused on various aspects of Los Angeles art. Featuring nine local artists known for their idiosyncratic, often incredibly detailed work, "Nine Lives" celebrates the fanciful extremes of individual creativity and delves into some of its darker, more troubling corners. It also blurs the line between fact and fiction, which has been an increasingly familiar, sometimes disturbing trend in literary memoirs, reality TV and online communities such as Second Life.

Julie Becker's multimedia work traces an imagined, if macabre, connection between herself and the deceased former tenant of her apartment. Charles Irvin's video mimics the style of conspiracy theory documentaries to examine another kind of fiction -- False Memory Syndrome (in which psychiatric patients develop convincing but unfounded memories of abuse). And Victoria Reynolds' voluptuous, glistening abstract paintings are actually close-ups of raw meat. The exhibition also includes works by Lisa Anne Auerbach, Llyn Foulkes, Hirsch Perlman, Kaari Upson, Jeffrey Vallance and Charlie White.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Ward Kimball: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about L.A.-based artists referred to Llyn Foulkes' former father-in-law, one of Disney's original "Nine Old Men," as Ward Kimbell. His last name was Kimball.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 15, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Charles Irvin: An article in the March 8 Arts & Books section about the Hammer Museum exhibition "Nine Lives: Visionary Artists From L.A." said that Charles Irvin had made a video about false memory syndrome. It was about the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 22, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Charles Irvin: An article last Sunday about the Hammer Museum exhibition "Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A." incorrectly said that Charles Irvin has made a video about False Memory Syndrome. It was about the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

"There's both a critical engagement with the stuff of the world and a fantastical retreat or projection," says Los Angeles writer and critic Jan Tumlir. He curated an exhibition last year at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Gallery that drew a link between the region's wide-open vistas and themes of illusion, utopia and apocalypse. "This kind of thinking -- about whole new worlds rising from the ashes -- is helped along by the landscape."

According to "Nine Lives" curator Ali Subotnick, the city's sprawl also exerts a more practical influence. Upon moving here from New York in 2006 to join the Hammer's staff, she was struck by L.A.'s relatively plentiful and inexpensive studio spaces. "These artists can have these huge spaces and don't have to work nonstop, 9-to-5, in order to supplement their income," she says. "They can actually take the time to really get into their work."

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From personal to protest

A month before the show's opening, Llyn Foulkes was still in the thick of it. His surreal paintings and assemblages often deal with highly personal psychological issues, and the wiry, 74-year-old artist was struggling to finish "The Awakening," a painting he began in the early '90s in response to the breakup of his marriage.

The image depicts Foulkes and his wife in bed -- he's sitting bolt upright with a book; she's curled in a fetal position around a large egg that he says symbolizes their children. Characteristic of his work, the image blends illusionistic, painted space with 3-D elements; he had embedded two sparkling metal screws to represent his eyes and was planning to add locks of his own hair. "I'm trying to finish this bedroom picture that's extremely personal," he says. "I'm not somebody who's just kind of following the art scene, you know? And that's probably why my things seem so unusual."

Foulkes, who is also a musician (see accompanying story), has cut a fractious path through the Los Angeles art world, in large part because of his uncompromising independence. In the late '50s, he joined the influential Ferus Gallery but was "kicked out," he says, for criticizing another gallery artist's work. In 1969, at the height of his commercial success, he abandoned the large landscape paintings that made him famous and began a series of intimate self-portraits. "I was losing my soul," he says, "So I got back into some kind of investigation rather than just hacking out the same things." "Nine Lives" includes a selection of works from his more than 40-year career; the earliest is from 1961.

Subotnick says the concept for the exhibition crystallized when she met Foulkes. She had originally planned the show around two other Los Angeles artists who subsequently declined to participate; Foulkes' intense engagement with his work was reinvigorating. "He represents to me what an artist should be," she says: He's "able to bring things out that maybe some people would be afraid to think about or talk about. He has no fear in that way."

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