“Where’s the Art?”: On Looking at the Venice Beach Biennial

This weekend I had the opportunity to be involved with a unique event in the Los Angeles art community, the Venice Beach Biennial. Presented by the Hammer Museum as part of the first Los Angeles Biennial, Made in L.A., the VBB was a playfully irreverent and light-hearted take on the “real” Venice Biennale in Italy. Curator Ali Subotnick chose a roster of 80-some artists she thought could hack the conditions of this weekend-long festival that tested not only creative bounds but also physical stamina. Subotnick imposed one simple constraint on the invited artists, they had to play by the rules of the Venice Beach Boardwalk, a grueling world where vendors arrive at 5am to vie for the best spots and sit in glaring sun and driving winds to sell their wares to an often-critical and apathetic audience. Needless to say, this was a new world for these nationally and internationally recognized artists, but it also turned out to be quite a culture shock for the collectors who ventured west-ward in the hopes of meeting and buying works from their personal darlings.

Where’s the Barbara Kruger? Look Down!

I personally had several roles in the event (hence my relative silence on this blog for the last month) but the most enlightening was my experience standing in the info booth at Windward, directly behind Barbara Kruger’s contribution, directly in front of works by Jason Meadows, Liz Craft, Alex Israel, Pentti Monkkonen, John Geary, Mark Grotjahn, Nery Gabriel Lemus and directly next to Kenyatta Hinkle’s performative installation. Surrounded by art, the first question 80% of info booth visitors asked was, “Where’s the art?”.

Easter Island heads by Alex Israel, behind the info booth at Windward

The entire experience was, of course, a little overwhelming for visitors who faced traffic, parking scarcity and heavy foot traffic to even find the starting line. These patrons of the arts often searched through a boardwalk filled with art, crafts, and, yes, some crap, searching for their idea of “fine art” and were often unable to see it directly in front of their eyes. Work given the blessing of fine art museums worldwide, when presented in the context of the boardwalk craft fair, seemed indistinguishable to people supposedly versed in the field. This says something important about three separate aspects of the art world: connoisseurship, curation, and contemporary art work in general.

Art today, and specifically works created intentionally to fit into this

Cara Faye Earl's Santos de Terrorismo were a critical success

Cara Faye Earl’s Santos de Terrorismo were a critical success

particular environment of a packed boardwalk filled with working artists and tourists, is meant to blend, to say something about our experience from the inside rather than the distanced gaze of the onlooker that so often characterizes art output historically. Many contemporary artists are interested in the subversive, the unexpected, the interventions into established memes of experience and convention, but perhaps they overestimate the general population’s relative environmental attention. Without traditional didactics and other viewership cues, interventions went completely unnoticed even among an audience with an expectation toward viewership and familiarity with the artists.

Burton Machen customizing prints from his Urban Evolution series in a vending space on the boardwalk

Perhaps our sense of connoisseurship is overrated? Without a price tag attached, it seems many collectors of contemporary art don’t have any idea the value or worth of an artist’s output. I wondered throughout the weekend why it bothered people so much not to know which art was brought in to the boardwalk by the Hammer and which art was created by veteran boardwalk artists. Perhaps collectors, having a stake in their “eye” for art, were wary of putting that expertise on the line by unintentionally enjoying a work of little value. Is it so frightening to look for the sake of looking, to buy for enjoyment rather than investment? Perhaps I sound a little skeptical here, and I certainly count myself among those who value the curatorial filter in my viewing experience, but I think it is also a valuable learning experience and life experience just to focus my eye upon the world and see what I find.

Thirdly I think the Biennial highlighted the value of curators in the museum context. Just as so many museums are consolidating and downsizing their curatorial departments (hello MOCA Los Angeles), the Hammer has given us a perfect example of what curators do and why their interventions are so essential to viewer experience. The word is overused today from pinterest to music shows to food, “curated” is used to modify a variety of groupings made by the uninitiated to suggest anything that is selected rather than the academic rigor and archival function of the trained museum curator. Collectors are not curators just as a reader who dog-ears the pages of a decorating magazine is not a designer. Curators like Ali Subotnick spend years training their eye through historical research and personal interactions with artists and art works, to be able to see the gems in the crowd and put them together in a cohesive unit which is then cared for and presented in a way that allows for dialogue between and within space and works. An environment like that of the VBB allows us to truly appreciate an exhibition like Made in LA, where similar artists are given the full and traditional curatorial treatment.

Nathan Danilowicz created a new sculpture for each day of the Biennial in a vending space on the boardwalk, the last was offered for sale at $2,500 (installation included).

Overall it seems the reception for VBB was positive among outside art enthusiasts, artists, and the Venice community. I hope more patrons of the arts put themselves in these positions, there are a lot of great artists out there who haven’t yet been given the blessing of major institutions and we shouldn’t shy away from enjoying and even purchasing and displaying their works. At the same time, let’s all remember and take a moment to appreciate the environment and experience we are treated to in the museum!

2 thoughts on ““Where’s the Art?”: On Looking at the Venice Beach Biennial

  1. Loretta Ayeroff

    VBB artist Loretta Ayeroff checking in…..Having just vended my b+w photographs of the Venice Boardwalk, 1973, in spaces 131, 144 and 141, I must offer the outpouring of nostalgia people shared about earlier, quiet times. Older and newer members of the Venice community told stories of days spent on the beach with Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison; what the boardwalk felt like without vendors and only a handful of performers; grandparents, like mine, who took “summer rooms” in the small beachfront hotels; and positively identifying the building in my photographs as Westminster Ave. at the Boardwalk, albeit with the parking lot filled in. Overall, the crowds expressed a longing to return the boardwalk to those calmer, more peaceful times. I myself watched a metamorphosis, including my own, from Friday’s opening nervousness (“Will the Boardwalk Artists tolerate us?”) to achieving mutual respect, congeniality and in some cases – friendship, by Sunday. After all, most of us, working by hand, share the same dreams and goals of art production and expression, we can’t fault each other by our circumstances.

    Hammer Curator, Ali Subotnick, must have slept well last night (didn’t we all?) having brought to fruition her gigantic dream of the Venice Beach Biennial – I call her “Tenacious A” having watched as she put out “This is MY space” fires at 7:30 AM while delivering, via bicycle, delicious and appreciated baked goods, to her Hammer artists. We were covered with tents, clothed in VBB T-shirts, and discounted for boardwalk food by our pink wristbands. THAT alone took a lot of effort! Claire de Dobay Rifelj, the amazing VBB Coordinator, and her team of dedicated Volunteers fulfilled all of our requests with smiles and efficiency! And, the sales rush on Sunday, lined our pockets, as well. What not to like, beyond the ’60s vortex we were sucked into? Congratulations Hammer people, and to liaison Arthure Moore, for successfully producing this grand experiment – the question of “can we all just get along” has been, in part, answered.

    It’s a hard life when you choose to set-up on the Venice Boardwalk. Three days of getting up before dawn, staking out your small space and setting up your artwork products within strict guidelines and rules, dealing with keeping yourself fed and hydrated (whatever your beverage of choice is) is all I could handle. There could be no fourth day for me. Originally I thought the Boardwalk Artists would learn from us, the “Hammer Artists” about archival presentation (ha!) wall labels (ha!) artist’s statements and gallery books with reviews in them (ha!) all of which graced my overly precious space on Friday. But on Saturday morning, I joined the boardwalk style, slashed my prices, changed my signage, opened my print boxes for hands-on searching, put away my guest-list page, made everything clearer and easier for the art-hungry public. Actually, I felt a few VBB artists also transformed their spaces to conform with boardwalk merchandising! So, from my POV, on many levels, it was I, who learned from Them, not the other way around. It would be interesting to get the Boardwalk Artist’s opinions on our efforts…after awhile, some type of follow-up interaction. Now, to recuperate, and get back to “normal” life, whatever that was before VBB…

  2. Pingback: Wrap It Up: Venice Beach Biennial | Yo! Venice! Venice Beach, California

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