LOS ANGELES — Lita Albuquerque is one of Los Angeles's more visible female artists. She has a big, often controversial presence because she makes large-scale art expressing an expansive vision and tons of panache that sometimes strike the folks around her as, well, overly ambitious.
A huge mural of the artist's face peers down at traffic from the underpass of the 110 Freeway, one of L.A.'s busiest downtown causeways.
On the other side of the world, Ms. Albuquerque has used transient materials like metal shavings, coal, honey, gold dust, and powdered pigments spread in careful designs over mile expanses of Egyptian desert to be blown away by winds.
Her projects have an ethereal quality, but the artist is a savvy competitor able to churn out rigorous presentations to those countries, cities, and corporations doling out the big commissions in the male-dominated arena of public art.
Whether working in intimate scale or monumental size, Albuquerque has doggedly addressed in ways poetic (she writes poetry) and learned (she's a science buff) her belief in the interconnectedness of our planet and its inhabitants (ancient, present, future) with the bigger cosmos.
"My life is an exploration, a lifelong meditation on who we are and where we are going.... I am committed to making works that trigger self-reflection and at the same time trigger reflection of one's relationship to the cosmos."
Businesswoman, world traveler
If it sounds flighty - forget it. Albuquerque is also a no-nonsense businesswoman. Though born here, she was raised in Tunisia, is world-traveled, and versed in French, English, and Arabic. She studied fine arts at the University of California in Los Angeles in the late '60s. Trying to decide between acting and photography, she spent the next few years learning from internationally noted artists like Robert Irwin and Jim Turrel, and the Light and Space movement they coined. Light and Space work uses transparency, reflected light, and empty space as media and subject matter.
In the early '70s, a few women were breaking down the gender barrier in art. Judy Chicago and a bastion of workers were busy in a warehouse in L.A. shaping the famous Dinner Party dishes. Albuquerque, meanwhile, was briskly selling muscular canvases worked with lush abstract surfaces of layer upon layer of iridescent organic pigments.
By the late '70s, Albuquerque moved, along with the cadre of men with whom she trained, into enormous public-art projects. For one artwork, she traced the pyramidal shape cast by the afternoon shadow of the Washington Monument in red-powdered pigment; she transcribed that red pyramid into a slick red sculpture installed at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. In Arizona, she is currently making a series of columnar glass fountains silk-screened with archival portraits of the states' first inhabitants - Indian, Spaniard, white.
"I have always been interested in public art because I want to affect people on a larger scale," she says. "I want people to have an empirical understanding, to experience for themselves directly through their bodies moving through space - without passing information through the mind - those connections between inner and outer space, in all the senses of those words."
Like many of her male counterparts, Albuquerque can be controversial. For the 1996 Sixth International Cairo Biennial, she proposed to inscribe her signature in lapis lazuli powder across 200 square meters of desert near the Great Pyramids in a honeycomb matrix that suggested the navigational properties the pyramids held for Egyptians.
A staff of more than 50 were helping her design the mathematically precise honeycomb grid (bees were sacred to the Egyptians) when a surveyor saw the six-point Star of David implied in the pattern. He alerted the press, and Albuquerque was called an Israeli spy. She later installed an altered design and won a prize.
Albuquerque envisioned the second part of the Pyramid Project to include a helicopter capping the three pyramids with temporary gold tips to be left there from Dec. 21 to 31, at which point the gold would be illuminated, heralding the millennium.
While archaeologists recover from the thought of that prospect, Albuquerque is on to the next idea. She is in the process of completing a fountain courtyard for the new Cathedral of Our City of the Angels being built downtown to include the artwork of some of L.A.'s best known names (world-renowned sculptor Robert Graham, spouse of actress Anjelica Huston, will create the doors).
Albuquerque did a mind-boggling amount of research into Old and New Testament references to water and purification, tying this theme to millennial symbols that linked the year 1000 to the year 2000.
The artist has designed a disk fountain bearing a biblical passage related to water inscribed in the language of all the races that use the neighborhood. "I encircled the fountain in an actual star map made from colored concrete, just to position our consciousness and this project in the very much bigger picture," Albuquerque says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society