Historically, the display of art was controlled by wealthy and powerful non-artists and limited to specific institutional settings, whether churches, palaces, or Academic Salons. It was not until 1855 that French realist painter Gustave Courbet, bristling from being rejected by the Exposition Universelle, went out on his own and created the independent "Pavilion of Realism," a temporary structure he erected next door to the official venue. Nineteen years later, a group of young French rebels exhibited their paintings in the storefront that had been Nadar's photographic studio. The first group to exhibit outside the academic domain, the rebels were dubbed the Impressionists that year.
Artists have curated exhibitions in alternative spaces ever since. Think of the 1913 Armory Show that introduced avant-garde Modernism to the United States, which was organized by American painters Arthur B. Davies, Walter Kuhn, and Walter Pach. Or think about the New York Society of Independent Artists that committed to show any artworks submitted. (Marcel Duchamp resigned from the group when they refused to display his "Fountain" of 1917.) Or think, more recently, of the excellent series of exhibitions organized by sculptor John O'Brien in the Brewery.
This weekend, two groups of artists continued that fine tradition by presenting exhibitions in alternative spaces, one a private home, the other a storefront that serves, primarily, as a center for photographic education
The home show was titled "Pretty Vacant" and organized by artist Yvette Gellis. When two of her friends decided to radically remodel the interior of their Westwood home, Gellis suggested that they invite artists to install works in each of the many rooms before demolition began. Thirteen artists were included in the show: Joshua Aster, Kristin Calabrese, Walpa D'Mark, Martin Durazo, Mark Dutcher, Chuck Feesago, Michol Hebron, Kelly McLane, Megan Madzoeff, Constance Mallinson, Jared Pankin, Christopher Pate, Eve Wood, and Alexis Zoto.
As with most large group exhibitions, "Pretty Vacant" was variously successful. Gellis's reworking of the living room was stunning. She created large, gestural paintings on the walls, on the wall-to-wall carpeting, and on large plexi panels angled throughout the interior. The space was transformed into a handsome dripped-and-poured Abstract Expressionist masterpiece.
Chuck Feesago used a room at the top of the stairs, lining the floor with air-filled plastic bags illumined by flashing neon lights. Bisecting the room was glowing wall of fabric, in front of which was suspended fragile red house form. Feesago's room had two doors. The doorway nearest the stairs was flanked by a poem written in silhouetted words against a smudged graphite cloud, "Uncertainty/It is a landscape of questionable belief/fueled by anxiety." Around the corner, the second doorway was hung with one of Feesago's poured grids. The entire space was alternatively lit by green, then purple, then pearly white lights. A disco-flashing, rhythmically pulsating house heart.
Constance Mallinson went through the house to remove squares of wallpaper and floor covering. She transformed all the squares into painting surfaces and hung them in one of the bedrooms. She collaged on some, painted on others, and left still others blank, allowing viewers to see them as "ready-made" artworks a la Duchamp. One of Mallinson's "assisted ready-mades" was a pale rectangle of aged wallpaper. On it, she painted four rippled tulips, allowing their petals and leaves to drip and run down the textured paper's surface. Gorgeous.
Other artists repurposed parts of the house or hung their paintings on the empty walls or installed videos against the bathroom mirrors. (I watched one video through a shower stall, while drinking a shot of tequila that was--I was assured--part of the installation.)
Of course, other artists have taken condemned dwellings and transformed them. Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro famously turned an abandoned Hollywood home into Womanhouse in 1972. A major icon of feminist art history, Womanhouse allowed artists to transform rooms into installations (Chicago's "Menstruation Bathroom" was probably most notorious) and enact domestic-themed performances (Faith Wilding's poetically evocative "Waiting").
More than forty years later, artists are still taking Los Angeles area homes and turning them into evocative spaces for Post Modern artworks. They are also following in the footsteps of the Impressionists, using alternative photographic spaces for curatorial projects.