Big Upheaval in Arts Landscape
Indeed, in the visual arts the bite of change is in the air.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
THE EXHIBITION OPENING THIS FRIDAY announces that a new day has dawned at the Monterey Museum of Art (MMA). Christel Dillbohner, a German-born, Berkeley-based artist, has taken on the giant gallery at MMA’s La Mirada campus, with its challenging combination of dazzlingly bright cathedral-high and dimly lit lower-ceilinged spaces to create a site-specific installation called Skimming the Surface. MMA has never before shown an installation, nor invited an artist of international prominence to create a work within its galleries.
In Europe, Dillbohner was considered part of the New German Expressionist movement before she came to Los Angeles in 1986. Her artistic preoccupations and media have changed in the intervening decades, but she continues to work and exhibit both in Europe and the US. She finds that her desire to communicate through art has assumed the weight of responsibility as the need to create international dialog becomes more pressing.
“I carried the history of the past with me to Los Angeles, where I discovered it wasn’t needed any more,” she says. “My palette and materials changed as I worked in California. Here, in this space, I hope to create an environment where people will pause for a moment in their frenzied lives, and interact with the space itself.”
I watch as she installs fragile-looking cones that bounce gently on the tides of air at the floor level while suspended 60 feet or more from the ceiling. Her thickly-layered encaustic paintings surround the space. “Rest here and see what arises,” she says. “You might see something barely recognizable out of the corner of your eye, playing with memory and ideas. ”
Quite a departure for the quietly refined and faded Monterey Museum of Art. Last year’s arrival of Marcelle Polednik was an omen of change, as she joined nearly-new Executive Director Mike Whittington, who had arrived fresh from jolting the Hide museum in Yokosuka, Japan into a new dimension. They quickly delivered a new program, Monterey NOW, dedicating one of the major galleries to works of noteworthy contemporary local artists.
Meanwhile, MMA has exhibited works from its collection augmented by traveling exhibitions while the board and staff decide the museum’s future direction. They’ve taken steps to develop a new generation of museum audiences by creating a DJ salon atmosphere at opening events, and partnered with the Jazz Festival to package their Matisse: Jazz exhibition with a Jazz Festival poster exhibition and jazz performances onsite. Is this installation a sign of a new contemporary focus? “A museum should be a crossroads for all sorts of projects and a place for artists at all stages to have a dialog,” Dillbohner says.
Further south another innovative installation has just opened at the Center for Photographic Arts (CPA) in Carmel. Here Masao Yamamoto of Japan has filled the walls with exquisite photographic poems: a single tiny photo of a bird, a close-up of an ear, a narrative flow of images to be read like pictorial haikus. The artist flew from Japan to install the exhibition and attend the reception, where many prominent locally based photographers came to meet him. “The art world is an international exchange of ideas,” says Dennis High, CPA’s director.
Inland at the National Steinbeck Center, where literary and visual arts intersect within a broader cultural mission, a new executive director heads to Salinas and the center’s existing staff members “do a heroic job,” according to Trustee David Ligare, Salinas’ most prominent international artist. With new leadership and a commitment to vigorous development, he says, “the Steinbeck Center can become a very important cultural center nationally.”
Ligare exhibits and looks at art worldwide. I ask him about the health and future of the local art scene, wondering if a gallery that shows truly innovative contemporary work is possible here in Monterey County.
“Although we may live in the provinces, we can be connected to that whole world through exhibitions,” Ligare says. “For artists working here, it isn’t good to focus all their attention in this place. Steinbeck lived here, but he had a world audience in mind when he was writing. Here, Andrew Jackson of the Outer Edge Gallery is someone who has opened his gallery to world artists, and, through the Internet, to the world audience.”
Says Jackson, “For three years I’ve shown mostly new artforms, artists like David Choe and Shepard Fairey whom I promoted when they were unknown, but who now sell out their exhibits before they open in New York. They are doing me a favor when they’re in my shows here.”
Jackson also worked closely with the students of the Youth Arts Collective and offered a rare opportunity for young artists to exhibit. What kind of work does he see emerging? “Graphic arts. That’s because the colleges and universities just aren’t offering fine arts. OK then, graphics—it’s the new fine art: Click a mouse: no messy cleanup.”
But Jackson is turning in his shingle as a galleriste. “I established Outer Edge in the one last street in Monterey that still has character,” he says. “The lease increased 20 percent this year. I don’t feel wanted. It’s past the day when an artist can hope to have a studio in this county.”
Still, Jackson isn’t dissapearing. “Outer Edge Gallery closes and becomes Outer Edge Press, a fine art publishing company that does shows offsite,” he says. “I have a new process for capturing images—it’ll blow you away.”
Jackson isn’t the only local artist shifting focus. Lisa Coscino, a Pacific Grove galleriste who curated highly sophisticated exhibitions with a discriminating eye, is closing her Grand Avenue gallery.
“I’m not going away,” she says, “just downsizing the gallery, serving our clients and artists from our office, curating changing exhibitions at the Ol’ Factory Café in Sand City, a different kind of space: industrial, conducive to edgier kinds of artwork.
“I constantly travel to LA and other places to educate my eye, so that I can understand what’s derivative and what’s really new. But Pacific Grove is, well, I’ve never been to an art opening in the world in which you couldn’t serve wine, and don’t like the feeling that somebody might just come and try to shut me down. Sand City has such a cool vibe, an openness like there used to be in more of the county.”
Chris Winfield of Carmel’s Winfield Gallery, an 18-year establishment, is one of the handful in the gallery-packed hamlet that feels like every work reflects the owner’s educated taste and passion, rather than a marketing strategy. He’s also familiar with the problems the local arts community faces.
“There are tons of wonderful young artists around here, but most are driven away by the cost of living,” Winfield says. “In terms of edgy art, I see it and say, ‘This is city art.’ I don’t touch the city stuff, the sexy stuff. I want to see the artist understand technique, have a vision, good patinas, shapes, an understanding of the visual language. Much of the art in this gallery is decorative, work that people live with. What they have in common is craftsmanship and ideas. Art is about ideas.”
So the coming season is one of transition. Lisa Coscino tucks herself into a backroom in Pacific Grove but emerges with new energy to engage with new works. Outer Edge disappears as a gallery but emerges as a fine art publishing company, bringing internationally renowned artists into our community. Widely respected curators like Gail Enns of the new Anton Inn Gallery brings her stable of East Coast artists to her non-traditional exhibition spaces. Beacons like Youth Arts Collective, CSUMB, Hartnell and MPC give young artists the tools they need.
As institutions like Monterey Museum of Art, the Center for Photographic Art and the Steinbeck Center dedicate themselves to the international flow of ideas, they will develop and educate new audiences to demand and purchase art that offers ideas as well as craftsmanship. More galleries will arise that show art with content, and more artists will thrive.
A few weekends ago, Sand City studio doors opened for the West End Celebration and the town declared its hip live-work ambience to be the new center of artmaking in Monterey County.
This weekend, 60 artists from Big Sur to Salinas open their studio spaces, show recent work, demonstrate techniques and talk about their inspiration and their processes in the Monterey County Artists Open Studios event. It’s a great time to sample the work being produced in this county, and a time to ask, can artists survive here?