Art goes west

Young artists are packing up their easels and moving to the burgeoning scene in L.A.

When young painter Edgar Bryan finished graduate school, he had a choice: Go to New York to launch his career as a professional artist or stay in Los Angeles, where he'd come eight months ago from Chicago to complete his formal art training.

"I decided Los Angeles was the place to start my career," says the Florida native. In the past two weeks, he's rented and renovated a small storefront studio in Eagle Rock, a working-class Los Angeles enclave.

"New York was a daunting prospect," he says, explaining his choice. "To go there and live and be one of a million artists, have incredible competition, and have two jobs just to pay an extremely high rent? That's just too much to do to myself, especially when there's a very viable, happy world out here."

Mr. Bryan is not alone. In fact, he is part of what some observers here call a sea change similar to what happened in the early 20th century, when the hotbed of artistic ferment moved from Paris to New York. Young artists from all over the globe began migrating to the Big Apple to join in the dialogue among serious artists and launch their careers.

Nobody suggests that New York is becoming a cultural desert. The art world is too globally interconnected today for a single center to dominate, as Paris did in the 19th century or New York in the 20th. "There's far more of a continuum," says Washington-based art consultant Sondra Meyers. "People travel back and forth."

But unquestionably, the West Coast has become a powerful artistic magnet. The diversity and vitality of this burgeoning art scene is the subtext of a current exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, "Snapshot: New Art from Los Angeles."

"There is increasing consensus in the art world that there is more exciting new work coming from young artists in Los Angeles right now than in any other city in the world," says Ann Philbin, director of the UCLA Hammer Museum. While no single show can capture an entire city of young artists, Ms. Philbin says, this show attempts to bring to the public a sample of the vast talent that resides here.

Strong art schools create a hotbed

Having arrived in Los Angeles just under three years ago, Ms. Philbin herself is a transplant from New York.

"I came here because I was seeing marked differences in the life of this city's art world," Philbin says. She saw indications that the shift was happening in earnest in the early '90s, when major New York galleries began opening Los Angeles branches or moving here altogether.

"The most obvious reason for this is that for many years, Los Angeles has been a hotbed of strong art schools," she adds.

A remarkable concentration of world-class art schools - among them UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California Institute of the Arts in Valencia (CalArts), and Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles - has given birth to a community of serious artists that have helped to turn Los Angeles into an art center, rather than a place on the fringe.

Perhaps most important, the region's top talents teach in these schools. "There not being a system of galleries out here has meant that great artists on the West Coast have always taught," says Steven Lavine, president of CalArts, noting that the market to support galleries historically has been strong in New York, not the West.

"In general, on the East Coast, [artists] don't [teach]. That's led to L.A. having the strongest set of art schools of any city in the world."

Established talent in turn attracts young talent. "When young artists are choosing Los Angeles over New York, it's because of the great faculties and artists here," says Barbara Drucker, chair of the art department at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture.

All the way from Seoul, South Korea

Art world luminaries, such as performance and installation artist Mike Kelley and painter Lari Pittman, were the magnet for Yunhee Min to travel to Los Angeles from her home in Seoul, South Korea. She attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. After a brief stint in Germany to further her art education, she returned to Los Angeles to set up her first professional studio.

Ms. Min's attraction to the city is typical of many young artists in search of an artistic home. "I found L.A. to be a much more liberating place," she says. "It gives you space to move around, both physically and artistically."

Now a teacher at Otis, she sees Los Angeles as the embodiment of many of the best American values. "The history of art-making out here has always been more open-ended, much less in a continuum with the European traditions," Min says. "There is a spirit of freedom here, that you don't have to continue in any tradition."

Even the geography itself supports these values.

"It's so spread out here," she says. "There is no real center [of the city], so it feels more democratic somehow."

The explosion of artist-run galleries and alternative exhibition spaces has helped encourage this democratic feeling. Min has been in Los Angeles since 1994. She says she has seen the availability of exhibition spaces expand greatly during those seven years.

"There are a great number of artist-run spaces opening," says Min, whose storefront studio is in Highland Park, another small working-class enclave in the city. She points to a group of her graduate students who recently got together and opened a combination storefront exhibition and production studio to display their work.

Washington-based art consultant Meyers agrees that a sense of freedom is important for innovation. While serious art and Los Angeles may not seem like a perfect match to the casual observer, the belly of the beast of popular culture is a logical locale for many young artists. For one thing, Hollywood money follows young talent. Many of these young artists' most ardent fans are top film and TV executives, willing to spend money on untested talent. That, in turn, encourages young artists to stay in town.

An intersection of pop culture and art culture

Equally important, "as popular culture and art culture cross one another," says CalArts president Lavine, "in some ways, artists based in L.A. are better prepared to grapple with the fact of popular media than [those] who live in the sheltered culture of New York, which still basks in a sort of 1930s musical version of itself."

"Popular culture is what they're interested in," agrees UCLA's Ms. Drucker. "Artists are making really strong work critiquing popular culture, commenting on it. That's what they think about, that's what they're surrounded by...."

Drucker says as artistic boundaries blur, "There's no communication gulf, because the public knows the [pop culture] references the artists are dealing with. It's not a hermetic conversation anymore."

Aesthetic as well as practical considerations drove Mari Eastman, whose parents still live in Japan, to Los Angeles. "I just felt that, aesthetically, my paintings would be a good fit with Los Angeles," says the 30-something artist, who landed here after attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "They're representational, and I know that it sounds simplistic, but I just had the feeling that my work would go over well in L.A.

"New York can tire you out," she says. "Almost everyone I know goes through this stage of asking, 'Maybe I should go to New York.' Then they go visit, and they come back and say, 'I'm so glad I live here.'

"A lot is just plain livability."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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