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Painting Outside the Lines

By Susan Freudenheim, Photos by Michal Czerwonka

Published Oct 1, 2010 9:30 AM

Where are tomorrow's art superstars? The freshest new work? For many in the Los Angeles art world, the answer is the Warner Graduate Art Studios facility in Culver City, where master's students in the UCLA Department of Art show their work and mingle with gallery owners, art critics and other supporters of the visual arts. One thing they frequently find: art out of the ordinary, like the work that featured 100 crickets and the conceptualist who offered visitors the opportunity to give each other electric shocks.


David Snyder M.F.A. '10 crawls into the space beneath the stepped sculpture, illuminated by the glow of a TV monitor, of fellow master's student Abbey Dubin '10.

Just before dusk on a Friday in late May, a half-dozen students are sitting on the steps of a tar-black wooden staircase that fills, floor-to-ceiling, a tiny, white-walled room — Studio 16 at the Warner Graduate Art Studios in Culver City. The year's second and final open-studio night for the 42 students in the UCLA Department of Art's Master of Fine Arts program is about to begin at this off-campus outpost, where students spend two to three years making paintings, sculptures and ceramic works, as well as video and film art, photography and a multitude of new genres.

Most people on UCLA's main campus don't know anything about this place, but within the art world — the professional, commercial art world — it's seen as a hotbed for burgeoning talent, a place to watch out for — and occasionally purchase — exciting new work by artists on the fast track.

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.

UCLA's graduate art program admits a total of 17-20 artists per year, admitting only 1.5% to 4% of applicants. Within the community of artists, curators and collectors, the visual arts graduate program is rivaled only by Yale's art school, the Art Institute of Chicago and perhaps Rhode Island School of Design, according to Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times' art critic.

Of course, the primary objective of the M.F.A. program is education. "It's not about selling at all," cautions Department of Art Chair and Professor Russell Ferguson. Indeed, M.F.A. students are drawn by a faculty filled with international art stars.

Among them are painter Lari Pittman, whose ornate, highly pictorial imagery mixes echoes of commerce and decoration; photographer Catherine Opie, who shoots urban neighborhoods or intimate portraits exploring gender and sexuality; and sculptor Charles Ray, whose larger-than-life works challenge the understanding of scale.

Also upping the star power in Bruin art education are conceptualist Barbara Kruger, whose highly political collage-like images mock advertising jargon; ceramicist Adrian Saxe, who makes elaborately sensual non-utilitarian vessels; conceptual artist Mary Kelly, who also explores sexuality and identity; and performance artist Andrea Fraser, known for her institutional critiques, including of the art world itself.

Still, while selling is not, nor should be, job number one for the program or its illustrious educators, good artists can't help but draw attention. And for decades, Bruin artists have gone from UCLA straight to gallery shows, including the most prestigious in the country.

A Space to Surprise

The building at 8535 Warner Drive is nondescript and located in the middle of a neighborhood that houses many design studios and an increasing number of galleries. The space, filled with a web of small, white-box studios for each of the artists, first became home for the graduate program in the 1980s because there wasn't room available on campus. But its isolation, 7.5 miles from Westwood, provides students a laboratory without distractions, and the decision was made to keep the experience intact even after the rest of UCLA's art department moved into the sleek Richard Meier/Michael Palladino-designed Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center at the north end of the main campus in 2006.

"The students love working independently in their own space off-campus," says Barbara Drucker '70, M.F.A. '76, associate dean of academic affairs and professor of art. She remembers a time when the graduate students' studios were scattered all over Los Angeles, and "when we got the Warner building, it was the first time they could all be housed together in the same place."

All of the students spend open-studio days undergoing sequences of 10-minute meetings with multiple faculty members, some of whom they've worked with closely, but others they've rarely spoken to — a kind of speed-teaching by the art superstars.

Open studios draw family and friends, along with some curators and a few collectors. Even for those uninitiated to the concerns of contemporary art, it's a fascinating scene, with some surprising twists: Jennifer Gradecki M.F.A. '10 is a conceptualist whose artistic experiments in social science include a set-up where each visitor is invited to pair up with another and, using a remote control, zap their partner with electric shocks. (No one was buying in at the open studio, but she said she'd had many takers at an earlier showing.)

Along similar nontraditional lines, Derek Curry M.F.A. '10 displayed in his studio a box housing 100 crickets eating authentic dollar bills of various denominations — their satisfied chirping electronically amplified at increasing volumes to illustrate a point about how "money talks," an allusion to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding campaign financing by corporations.

Curry also displayed several works about tulips — drawing parallels between tulipmania in 17th-century Holland that brought on an economic crisis and the recent real-estate crash in the U.S. He's made various works with tulips, among them a video of himself planting bulbs, uninvited, around for-sale signs at foreclosed properties.


A curator viewing the work of Ragen Moss J.D. '05, M.F.A. '12.

 


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.