Spotlight: Contemporary Art in Laguna Beach

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Peter Blake Gallery, Laguna Beach

Of the many coastal towns that line the West Coast, perhaps none is equated with the tradition of plein air painting as Laguna Beach, with the annual Sawdust Festival and Pageant of the Masters bringing in thousands of tourists each spring and the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association holding their annual member’s invitational each October. Therefore, it came as a surprise when the Laguna Art Museum announced earlier this year, that after 13 years, the museum would no longer host the fall event. The decision was not based on excluding plein air from the museum’s walls, says Malcolm Warner, who has been the director of the museum since January 2012; indeed, the institution has extensive holdings of the genre. Rather it was about opening up the museum to showcase the vast spectrum of historic and present day examples of California art.

 While the establishment of the Laguna Beach Art Association heralded the importance of art to the community some 95 years ago, the museum it became was often a battleground of clashing ideologies, as the “traditionalists” battled with the “progressive modernists” for control of the museum’s programming. However, the museum began exploring the legacy of SoCal’s art history as early as 1979, with a trio of shows under the name, “Southern California Artists 1890-1940.” “There are many fluid connections that can be made,” explains curator of contemporary art Grace Kook-Anderson. “Just as the early artists were being inspired by the weather, so to were the later Light & Space artists… For us, the staff of the museum, there is less of a division than the public may think.

Kook-Anderson came on board with the museum in 2008 following the tenure of Tyler Stallings, who had initiated the OcScene biennial in ’04 to support emerging and mid-career artists living and working in the vicinity of Orange County. However, as the number of biennials in SoCal has grown with the 2012 introduction of the “Made in LA” biennial at UCLA’s Hammer Museum and the upcoming Pacific Triennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, Kook-Anderson switched gears and last year initiated the series of exhibitions focused on a single emerging to mid-career SoCal artist, ex´pose. “There are so many great artists out there,” Kook-Anderson says. “I actually feel like I am being selfish, I love to work with the artists, and this allows me to work with them one-on-one.”

That “selfishness” is a major factor in the tangible buzz surrounding the museum’s adventurous programming. In June, LAM will offer a trio of summer shows slated to fill the museum with contemporary art. The upper level will feature a mixed-media installation, blurring traditional notions of craft and fine art, by LA-based artist Tanya Aguiniga; on the main floor will be “Faux Real,” a group show using cast-off objects to create illusions of the everyday; and in the Steele Gallery–the original building of the museum, where the floor tiles bear the names of its first donors, purchased for the tidy sum of $1.50 each–an ex´pose exhibition will feature multi-media work by Beatriz da Costa, who recently passed away after a battle against breast cancer.

Just across from the museum stand a trio of galleries dedicated to promoting the work of local as well as national contemporary artists, Sue Greenwood, JoAnne Artman, and The George Gallery. Greenwood’s figurative roster ranges widely from the haunting nostalgia of Northwest painter Anne Siems to the angst-ridden figures of Marianne Kolb, as well as contemporary landscape, such as Andrew Burgess’ Pop-driven take on urban architecture, and the Hopper-esque deserted beach scenes of Geoffrey Krueger. Next door, Joanne Artman, who will be exhibiting in the upcoming Dwell on Design expo at the LA Convention Center in June, also maintains a roster with a propensity towards figuration, but with a decidedly modernist slant–from the bold lines of America Martin, to stylized Pop-portraits by Anja van Herle, to the surrealist-influenced photo-based work of artists such as Brooke Shaden and Maggie Taylor.

Neighboring Greenwood and Artman, is Lisa Aslanian’s The George Gallery, named after the pseudonym George Sand. Aslanian, a former professor who spent over 20 years in the academic world, maintains a program focused exclusively on the work of contemporary female artists, but maintains a no-holds-barred approach in terms of media, technique or concept. “We don’t feel limited at all,” Aslanian says. “We are chipping away the paradigm.” That statement holds true in regards to presumptions of both the programming and location of her gallery. The gallery’s upcoming solo exhibition of Iranian-American artist Fatemeh Burnes, is a combination of photography, abstraction, and complex multi-media works united by her concern on process, and conceptually focused on issues of time.

A block south is the Artist Republic for Tomorrow, or AR4T, founded by Torrey Cook who also publishes the OC Artists Republic online. The goal of each is singular and succinct: “to bring awareness to the Orange County contemporary arts community.” Cook does so with a program at AR4T geared towards youth culture, often in the guise of Lowbrow with a healthy dose of graffiti and surf/skate culture influences. The online collaboration includes not only some of Cook’s Laguna neighbors, but reaches inland to the Santiago and Fullerton art communities.

In the heart of Laguna, is the veteran Peter Blake Gallery, which will be celebrating its 20th year in Laguna Beach this year. Though Blake has been operating in Laguna for two decades, it was less than five years ago that he dramatically refocused his vision for the gallery into the concentration of minimalist, monochromes, non-objective, concrete style that the gallery is known for today. “I’ve always loved and shown this work,” says Blake, “along with great figurative artists such as Barcarci and McCleary… When the recession hit, I decided… nothing was selling (laughs) so I would surround myself with the work that I love.” He is also quick to credit those who helped him establish his first gallery, such as the highly regarded LA Louver gallery who lent the young gallerist work for his early shows, “Peter, Kim and Elizabeth at LA Louver do business right… everything is about a level of respect,” he states.

Talking with the longtime gallery owner, he clearly holds a pragmatic vision of both the advantages and limits of running a gallery outside of a “recognized” contemporary art center, but he also speaks of the dramatic changes that have been taking place over the last few years in Laguna and nearby Santa Ana and Orange County, beginning with excellent programming at the museum, new galleries opening, and an influx of people from major cities into the area. Another factor bringing the contemporary galleries more attention is their involvement with numerous art fairs, for example, The Palm Springs Fine Art Fair alone hosted Blake, Greenwood and Salt Fine Art.

Among Blake’s closest neighbors is CES Gallery, which opened its doors last fall. Although his space has been open only six months, founder Carl Smith notes, “I feel as though I’ve been training for this position for over 15 years.” This includes his own experience as an artist and designer, as well as the years he spent working in Prague. “I’m really interested to continue fostering younger artists, which began while I was in Prague,” Smith explains. “I like the process of searching for new artists, really starting at the beginning of their career and nurturing them.” In May, CES brings Czech artist Ira Svobodova to the gallery, followed by the oneiric geometries of Sacramento-based painter Val Britton in June. To further support this fusion, Smith established an exhibition exchange program with The Chemistry Gallery in Prague, which will introduce emerging SoCal artists to Prague this summer, and bring Chemistry’s artists to Laguna for Smith’s season opener.

“It’s a personal vision, which is something you could say about most galleries, right?” Art Cube owner Sanya Simidzija says with a laugh, “and sometimes I complain, ‘why am I not in LA or New York…’ you know, ‘where’s my violin?’ But here I can do something that I absolutely love, with art that has something to say… and I feel I can make a difference.” This drive is an undercurrent to Simidzija’s involvement with the Laguna art community, evident in her passion for working with collectors, developing her artist roster, and other projects she has operated, such as the experimental project space S Cube. Her excitement is absolutely contagious talking of the upcoming solo exhibition of new sculptural, or perhaps “skeletal” is more accurate, assemblages by the Laurie Hassold in June.

On the south end of Laguna, in a cluster dominated by plein air galleries, stands Salt Fine Art. El Salvador-born Carla Tesak-Arzente founded Salt in fall 2009, and has made quite a mark, the gallerist’s name garnering words of praise at just about every gallery visited on a recent trip to the area. Tesak-Arzente dedicated the gallery to the memory of her father, whose passion for all genres of art was a great influence. “Every inch of our walls was covered in art,” she recalls, “a Renoir hung next to a five-dollar sketch he bought on the street… and there were three closets full of what we had no space to hang.” She echoes his passion with her tireless effort at promoting the work of Latin American artists to a broader audience, traveling constantly to meet new artists. “New York and Miami know what is going on with these artists,” she explains, “but somehow in California, we don’t.” Tesak-Arzente seeks to remedy that situation, showing artists from over 11 countries–sometimes in a single show–from Mexico to Central and South America, such as the recent solo exhibitions by Cuban artist Esterio Segura and El Salvadorian Mayra Barraza, and an upcoming emerging site-specific installation by Mexico-based artist Anibal Catalan this June.

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