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Painting Outside the Lines


By Susan Freudenheim, Photos by Michal Czerwonka

Published Oct 1, 2010 9:30 AM


Jeffrey Hastings M.F.A. '11 listens while Professor Hirsch Perlman critiques.

A Space to Commune

Get an idea of a day in the life of an M.F.A. at Warner Graduate Art Studios in this photo gallery of art, critiques, curators and more.

Twenty artists graduated in 2010, all of them entering an art market considerably downsized from the halcyon days of just a few years ago. Teaching jobs also are hard to get these days, yet on this evening the students exhibit a combination of giddiness and studied blasé.

"No, this isn't a trade school for making salable art," says Abbey Dubin M.F.A. '10, whose wooden-staircase sculpture served as a platform for the discussion. Nevertheless, she says, "I have had professors advise me to make drawings, because I could sell them."

Where once-cocky matriculating students could expect to immediately show their work in top galleries, currently, they say, their venues tend to be group installations and civic shows in public spaces. They also say this helps relieve some of the drive to be commercial and allows for more experimental work — a trend that, in previous art-market downturns, led to the flowering of conceptual art, site-specific installations and performance art — all still popular here.

"There's definitely a sentiment that there's been a bubble burst," says Wu Ingrid Tsang M.F.A. '10. His tiny studio airs his recently completed film, Damelo Todo: Give Me Everything, a hybrid documentary and fictional narrative about Latina transgender women who join up with queer performance artists at a bar in downtown Los Angeles. Hair up in a knot, high heels making him loomingly tall, Tsang, also a performance artist, stands out among his peers.

"Wu is our rock star," one of the group joshes — a glam persona who could easily have fit into the art factory of Andy Warhol, alongside Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith.

A Space to Connect

Though most of these artists are more mainstream than Tsang, all the work is infused with sharp-witted, intellectual curiosity — and the earnestness of the newly minted.

Sarah Dougherty M.F.A. '12, who before coming to UCLA was a social activist working with Latina mothers in the South, makes assemblages, mural-sized collages of images she's drawn or painted on the streets of her mostly Latino L.A. neighborhood. Dougherty explains that her mother is Bolivian, and though she grew up in Louisiana, she speaks fluent Spanish and identifies with her Latino neighbors. She's invited many of them to the show, and they're here, too, mixing with the crowd at the open studio.

Down the hall, an overflow audience gathers in the "Shoot Room" for a performance by Tejpal S. Ajji M.F.A. '12, an artist from Canada who writhes, twists and rolls across the floor. Across the way, Korean artist JungHwa Lee M.F.A. '12 explains that her large-headed ceramic figure oozing tears and eerily resembling Japanese anime comics is a self-portrait, with her own sad story inscribed on the figure's back in her native Korean. The work, she says, expresses the loneliness she's felt as a foreign student with few language skills.

There are also more purely traditional artworks here — among them some exquisite paintings of fire and ice by Greta Waller M.F.A. '11, who captured these fleeting visions by rapidly painting from life in one-shot sprints, finishing a painting in just 35 minutes once, 16 hours at the longest. Waller says she made her small bonfires behind the Warner studios, and then painted as fast as she could — "sometimes I'd hear a fire siren, and I'd think, 'Don't come, just give me 15 minutes so I can finish my painting,' " she says. The sirens, she says, were never really coming for her.

Waller could be one of the more salable artists in the group, and her work has caught the eye of a pair of longtime art collectors this evening, Michael O. and Sirje Helder Gold. The Golds say they regularly come to the open studios looking to add to the collection they've been building since the late 1960s.

"It has to be something personal for us to buy it," Michael Gold says.

"It's nice to get a feeling of the artists from the work, but each piece should be well made for us to buy it," Sirje Gold adds. Plus, she says, "This fits our budget."

A friend tipped off the Golds about Waller, and they left her their calling card.

Another collector, David Pullman, asks Tsang whether a light-box photograph is for sale, but Tsang demurs. Pullman leaves his card behind, too.

A Space to Stay

In the absence of sales, there's also talk of fellowships. Dubin is about to go off to Lake Como to the Antonio Ratti Foundation for a summer residency under the tutelage of the German-American political-conceptual artist Hans Haacke. She will discard the work she's made here when she leaves, she says. The black riser, she says, is just the last of a "bunch of large installations" she's made, always "cycling through the same materials." This one harbors a video installation beneath the stairs, a quiet bare-wood space sheltered from the conversation above.

The sense of moving out can be seen in Greta Svalberg's studio, too, where a mix of work can be viewed only through the plastic coating of packing materials, though a small handful of pieces are still in process. Svalberg M.F.A. '10 says that because her master's show on campus at the New Wight Gallery took place a month before, she's kind of in-between.

But like many here, she's hoping to stay in town. And as a trio of curators from the Hammer Museum stops by to say hello, chatting about upcoming possibilities, she muses: "People who run the galleries show up at the grad shows in L.A. And it's not unusual to run into an art-star professor at an opening."

It's a good place to get a start, she says.

The art of Matthias Merkel-Hess M.F.A. '10.