Land of Artists
Exploring Los Angeles with the artists who embody it
When the British architectural historian Reyner Banham arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, he immediately took a liking to the city, cruising its boulevards in a whale-size Ford and examining everything from the Case Study Houses to a drive-in (where he ate a pineapple sundae with Ed Ruscha). Banham understood that L.A. wasn’t Hollywood, and it wasn’t the beach. It didn’t have a central nervous system. Instead, he wrote in his seminal book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, the city was an unwieldy amalgam of many places in one, a web of “ecologies” marked by their own landscapes and psychologies.
Art historians love the idea of one thing leading neatly to the next, but L.A. doesn’t cooperate. For more than half a century, the city has, all at once, played host to a ceramics movement, assemblage, conceptual photography, Chicano performance, feminist installation, Light and Space, multiple waves of muralists, and a unique strain of local graffiti — a jumble of artists and ideas fueled by the city’s renowned art schools and relatively cheap rent but also by its disparate ecologies.
In order to capture a cross section of the artists who inhabit the city today, the photographer Daniel Shea and I pulled a Reyner Banham. Over the course of several days this past summer, we drove into the horsy foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to visit with the longtime L.A. painter Jim Shaw, a maestro of the darker recesses of pop, then into sunbaked East L.A., where the sculptor Ruben Ochoa makes monumental constructions out of concrete and chain link. We visited Westlake, the dense Latin American enclave where the painter Carolyn Castaño showed us works that evoke the savagery of the drug trade, as well as Highland Park, where the digital artist Yung Jake revealed the contents of his studio: a laptop and an iPhone.
We walked the hills of Boyle Heights with the photographer and installation artist A.L. Steiner, then hit Chinatown for a tour of the studios of KCHUNG, a loose affiliation of artists and broadcasters who make art out of radio and radio out of art. Our last stop was a former drapery factory in Glassell Park, where the painter Annie Lapin produces abstract landscapes saturated by hypnotic L.A. light.
Among all these ecologies, there was no prevailing current. There was only Los Angeles.
“I’m really interested in painting that doesn’t call attention to its painting-ness,” says Lapin, who uses thin layers of paint and pigment in her abstract work. “The works I’m doing now are a lot made out of very little.”
Shaw, a founding member of the noise-punk band Destroy All Monsters, produces canvases populated by lascivious cartoon characters and corrupt superheroes. He mixes paint on plastic plates and uses old theatrical backdrops as canvas.
In large-scale sculptures like Get Off My Black (top) and Extruded Masses (bottom), Ochoa uses heavy industrial materials such as rebar, concrete, and fence posts. “My work is about showing the underpinnings, what sits underneath our landscape,” he says.
Steiner’s rambling and often raunchy installations mix photography, video, collage, and performance. Here, she wears a plastic suit from a performance she gave in New York in 2012.
Castaño fixates on the casualties of the drug trade, from the nameless dead depicted in her series Garden Heads (drawings in progress, shown) to the cartel-controlled soccer players featured in her series Asesinados United.
Yung Jake’s work incorporates rap, video, and social media. “When people ask what I do,” he says, “I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I can try to explain it, but you should just look it up.’”