11 artists, one year, and $10,000. These are the bare bones that have remained constant over the course of the 18 years that the City of Los Angeles (COLA) Individual Artist Fellowships Exhibition has taken place at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG) in Barnsdall Park. While the mission of the show has remained the same, to give mid-career artists a chance to create and show their work, the pieces found in this year’s exhibition have never been seen before as they embody the art of craft and the sensibility in simplicity.
No where else you can be met with a 16-foot tall twisting, white sculpture bathed in undulating light, or find that just to its left, a colorful waterfall of afghan teardrops seems to flow out of the grey wall it hangs from. In the same space, a smattering of images forms a collage that seems to recede into the surface, creating a world of it’s own, almost as if in an optical illusion.
Starting in May, the chosen artists began their work on a variety of projects exclusively for the COLA exhibition. Each artist was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. To be chosen, the artists had to be based in Los Angeles, and also had to be established artists with at least 15 years of active production or exhibition under their belt.
The artists being featured in this year’s exhibition include: Miyoshi Barosh, Baumgartner + Uriu (B+U), Jeff Colson, Marcelyn Gow, Alexandra Grant, Harold Greene, Sherin Guirguis, Elizabeth Leister, Alan Nakagawa and Barbara Strasen. Working in a variety of mediums, from sculpture to performance art, the artists were given creative freedom with the works they conceived.
“This is what I get: whatever walks in the door or whatever I see at the studio. Sometimes I’ll know an artist [because] they do beautiful photography, and then when I see them they go, ‘You know, I decided I want to start doing drawing.’ Never did drawing before, and… as a curator I get to play with their minds and say, ‘Let’s do something different, let’s try this,’” Curator and Director of Exhibits at LAMAG Scott Canty said.
While the overwhelming size and stark simplicity of some of the artwork may be what draws the viewer in, it’s the small details that stand out. Looking closer one can find a stack of pennies holding up one of the legs of Colson’s piece, or the screws and rivets that hold the towering metal sculpture by artists B+U together at the seams.
It’s these fine details that Canty focuses on when creating a show around each cohort of artists for the COLA Exhibition. There is no theme or rules that Canty imposes on the artists, rather the uniting force that ties together each piece to build a cohesive show is the fact that these artists are given the opportunity to simply create.
“That’s what COLA’s about. They get a chance to do anything they want that’s on their mind,” Canty said.
The COLA artists not only create, but explore new areas, with many of the artists mixing traditional methods and craft with modernity. Barosh takes discarded afghans, sewing them together into a cascade of colorful tears, while Greene salvages wood from the surrounding Los Angeles area to shape into functional woodwork.
It’s grant programs like these that can be career-changing for the artists featured in them. COLA alumni Henry Gamboa Jr. was featured in the inaugural COLA Exhibition in 1996 to 1997 for his photo series titled, “Chicano Male Unbonded.” Exploring the cultural identity of individuals in the diverse city of Los Angeles, Gamboa reflects on what the COLA Fellowship meant to him.
“The support of COLA allowed for a bit of creative freedom, and for me to pursue some of the things that were affecting me, sort of causing some level of intellectual curiosity regarding certain events and situations,” Gamboa said. “[It] provided me a little bit of time to develop that, and I feel that that’s part of many of the other kinds of things that have taken place since then, and most likely [they] either would have been delayed or possibly might have never even happened.”
An LA native, Gamboa often witnesses the difficulty artists have in Los Angeles to balance creating artwork with making a living. Support from the city affords artists a certain level of creative exploration that can’t always be found in commercial work.
“To have sort of the rare support for the arts in Los Angeles allows for things that most likely wouldn’t occur if an artist would have to then take time to make a living,” Gamboa said.
Grant programs not only give artists more opportunity, but helped to revitalize the LAMAG when audience attendance started to decline with the opening of many new museums and spaces, such as The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Hammer Museum. Listening to the appeals of many local LA artists, the COLA Fellowship was created in 1997, taking funds from the Tourist Occupancy Tax (hotel bed tax).
In its eighteenth year, the COLA Fellowship has grown into itself as a distinguished opportunity for artists. With the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the COLA Fellowship in 2017, there are plans to curate a show and produce a catalogue that invites all the artists featured in COLA Exhibitions in the past 20 years to showcase one piece of their past work.
When that comes around Canty will be 61 years old and will have spent over 30 years at LAMAG.
“I can’t imagine being somewhere else. There is no line that says, this is art, and this is not. So this show, what I like about it, [is that] it stretches [that] idea,” Canty said.