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The Armory Center for the Arts reaches for the sky

'Installations Inside/Out' celebrates the museum's development.

September 20, 2009|Holly Myers

Stroll past the Armory Center for the Arts on any afternoon and you'll know that you've come upon a beloved institution. Children scurry in and out; teenagers loiter on the steps; parents and teachers confer on the sidewalk. The foyer is papered with schedules and announcements, and the hallways leading back to studios and offices are alive with the buzz of creative activity.

Established in 1947 under the aegis of the Pasadena Museum of Art (it's been independent since that museum closed in 1974), the Armory has a venerable history as a teaching institution, offering classes in drawing, painting, photography, ceramics, animation and other media for children and adults. More than 100,000 people pass through its doors every year.

For 20 of those 60-plus years, however -- since moving into its current Raymond Avenue location, a former National Guard building, in 1989 -- the nonprofit organization has been building a parallel reputation as one of the most dynamic exhibition spaces in Pasadena and a vital asset to the art world in this region. The program celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall with one of its most ambitious exhibitions: "Installations Inside/Out." Curated by director Jay Belloli and program director Sinead Finnerty-Pyne, the show presents 20 newly commissioned, site-specific works by artists the Armory has commissioned in the past. As the title suggests, roughly half of the works will be installed inside the gallery, the other half on public sites spread around Pasadena -- or, in one case, in the air high above it.

Balancing the interests of a community-based educational institution with the interests of contemporary art is a tricky task, often resulting in indignation and anger on the one hand, or cautious, watered-down art on the other. The gallery itself -- a mid-sized, high-ceilinged space nestled just beyond the foyer with a winding assortment of smaller rooms branching off and several nook-and-cranny spaces along a mezzanine upstairs -- combines elements of both poles: the lively, inviting air of a community center and the professional installation standards of a museum or commercial gallery. Nowhere are the high standards clearer than in the anniversary show's strong, multi-generational lineup, which combines heavy hitters Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman, Daniel Buren, Barbara T. Smith and Betye Saar with first-rate mid-career and younger artists Kim Abeles, Pae White, Sarah Perry, Edgar Arceneaux, Barry McGee and Mario Ybarra Jr., among others.

"We tried to have a range," Belloli says, "because that seemed like who we were. We've done famous artists and we've done mid-career artists, but we've also done artists who were just starting out, so we had to reflect that."

Directed since its inception by Belloli, the program has combined thoughtful, theme-driven group exhibitions, many of them organized by outside curators, with a selective handful of solo shows, including several pivotal mid-career retrospectives (Jill Giegerich, Eileen Cowin, Sarah Perry) and a number of historical markers, such as Tim Hawkinson's first exhibition in a nonprofit space (in 1996) and a survey of Robert Rauschenberg's largely unexamined work with Gemini G.E.L. print studio (upcoming).

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Fundamental values

The show is intended not as a greatest hits but as a fresh embodiment of the program's core values: to showcase the rich artistic climate of Southern California (French artist Buren is one of the few exceptions); to provide a stimulating environment for the Armory's own students; to support artists in the creation of new work by way of commissions; and to present a wide variety of curatorial positions.

Indeed, if there's anything the show neglects, it is the Armory's long roster of accomplished guest curators, which reads like a who's who of L.A.'s curatorial pool: Noel Korten, Josine Ianco-Starrels, Carol Ann Klonarides, Michael Duncan, Sue Spaid, Ann Ayres and Malik Gaines, among others. (Former LACMA curators Howard Fox and Tim Wride both have shows scheduled for next year.) The result has been an uncommonly contemplative and diverse array of group shows, exploring such topics as text, play, the cosmos, animals, food, environmental art, cartoon and comic-book imagery, Mexican street graphics, sensuality in abstraction and romanticism in landscape.

"Every show's different here," Finnerty-Pyne says. "That's what we hope for: That you walk in and you go, 'This looks nothing like what I saw when I was here last year.' "

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