California Open exhibit, with pieces hand-selected by ‘Art Talk’ host, will feature several local artists
By Michael Aushenker
“I’m moving in the wrong direction,” Melissa Mahoney said, laughing. “Usually people say they’re moving to Santa Barbara.”
But after eight years, the painter felt she had outgrown the affluent seaside enclave’s art scene.
“It’s sophisticated in terms of they like representational,” Mahoney said. “I’m not sure there are people making a living as contemporary artists there. I needed a change.”
Santa Monica has become Mahoney’s adopted home and the site of TAG Gallery’s California Open 2013, which runs Aug. 14 through 30, with an opening reception Saturday, Aug. 17.
Mahoney, along with Venice’s Eva Andry and Rohitash Rao, and Reiko Niwa Berg of Westchester, are among the Westside artists hand-selected by KCRW radio’s resident art critic, Edward Goldman, who told The Argonaut that he chose the finalists based on flat JPEGs, admittedly “not my preferable way to judge quality and originality of art. Welcome to the 21st century.”
Despite not being one of the California Open artists wielding an X-acto knife or a pair of scissors, the National Public Radio personality had his work cut out for him: Goldman had to select 50 pieces from some 500 applicants.
“I did my best by choosing works that I only saw in digital form, yet still captured my curiosity,” Goldman said. “And now, I am intrigued to see if my experience viewing the actual artworks will match my first impression of all the sculptures, paintings and drawings that caught my eye while I sat in front of a computer.”
“In a city with a thriving art scene,” Goldman said, “no one can say for sure how many artists are living and working in this sprawling city of ours. A thousand? Many thousands? When I was asked to be the juror, I had no idea how many artists were going to submit their artworks.”
There’s also June E. Kim, who recently relocated from downtown L.A. to Mar Vista. Her entry, Knots: Red Thread Sculpture (2010), is inspired by a Chinese concept of pre-destiny. The installation features a “you are here”-type starting point preceding concentric layers representing social circles – be it family, friends, lovers – that one is preordained to meet across a lifetime.
Both Kim and Mahoney hold creative day jobs: Kim designs title sequences and video backdrops for concerts for the downtown L.A.-based Possible Productions while Mahoney has a design and branding firm, Indigo Creative. Kim’s Possible portfolio includes design work for concerts by Nikki Minaj, Big Bang, a popular boy band in Asia with Japanese and Korean members, and 2NE1, an all-girl K-Pop group.
Financially, Kim does not need the migraine of trying to make it in the art world. But what drives the artist to create her art is a motivation for innovation: “I want to make something innovative. Something I’ve never seen before.”
A woman in touch with her Korean heritage, she also wants to give back to her parental lineage. “I want to do something for history,” Kim said. Her upcoming forays in artistic experimentation will involve a short film, a 3D program, and lately, she has been “thinking a lot about sound design.”
As an artist, Kim has been on her own trip, developing avenues into art that she could not possibly have foreseen as a kid growing up in Busan, drawing her (increasingly abstracted) figures, or even during her time attending Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design.
Prompting Kim’s move to the Westside was the culture, including Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station (home of TAG Gallery) and Culver City’s lively fine arts scene. Once in Mar Vista, she began creating “experimental food photography” – abstract art out of the funky, bacteria-produced granular landscapes appearing on grains of rice left out for days. She replicated this with overwrought bread, cheese and ice cream.
With the artistic process, the invisible (the gestation and germination of ideas; the revisions and discarding of concepts) is as important as the visible, she says.
Take Kim’s installation, Knots: Red Thread Sculpture. The first version took Kim six months to complete. She made five previous experimental models in different materials and sizes.
“I spent three months conceptualizing my ideas through writing and sketching and researching symbolic meanings behind everything,” Kim said. “I went to various fabric stores and plastic stores in Los Angeles to collect samples and (searched for) more samples online.”
To realize her piece’s abstract notion symbolizing a lifetime of encounters, Kim took on a battery of manual phases, at once intellectually challenging and mechanical.
“Technically, I learned how to cut plexiglass sheets by using the laser machine when I was a student in Art Center,” said Kim, who illustrated her sketches and finalized her estimations on her computer. After inputting her files into a laser, the machine cut the actual plastic sheets. She layered those sheets on a wood base and, with a sewing needle, tediously threaded between the three-dimensional sheets.
“It sometimes got tangled up, so I had to cut and redo it many times,” Kim explained. “Mentally, I wanted to give up so many times, but I’m glad I completed it.” Her second like-minded sculpture came about much easier. Kim hopes to mount a large-scale version of Knots in which “people can actually walk through.”
Process also excites Berg, who cites, as her primary influences, ceramicist Beatrice Wood and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Her simple directive: to create vessels doubling as sculptures yet remaining functional.
Born in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture, Berg, by her own account, rebelled against her conservative upbringing (which suggested she should settle down early and start a family) by coming to Los Angeles for college (Burbank’s Woodbury University, where she earned her B.S. in interior design). She never returned to live in Japan again. “I respect Japanese culture but not Japanese society,” she said, only half-joking.
The former interior designer, who worked at the now-defunct Marina del Rey firm Cole Martinez Curtis and Associates in the 1980s, told The Argonaut how her ceramics evolved from taking bonsai and sumie (Japanese ink brush) classes at the Venice Japanese Community Center to attempting to master the art of Japanese tea ceremony.
“The pieces are very expensive to buy – $1,000, $2,000,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I make my own?’”
Recently, Berg ‘stirred the pot,’ so to speak, at a Japanese tea ceremony by creating an organic, off-the-cuff, hyper-contemporary take on the traditional pot. But her technique landed the decades-long Marina del Rey and Westchester resident The James H. Jones Memorial Purchase Award at the Pomona University-sponsored Ink and Clay 38 in 2012.
“It was the first time I applied and I won!” said Berg. And now, California Open 2013; not bad considering Berg, wife of Culver City Symphony French horn player David Berg, only started creating her ceramics seven years ago after taking some extension classes at Loyola Marymount University.
For Mahoney, it took returning to California to literally find her balance – in the form of the enso, the Japanese circle character symbolizing strength and enlightenment which has become one of the painter’s biggest motifs. The University of Georgia art school graduate, who once studied calligraphy in Italy, singled out LA Louver Gallery’s current Rogue Wave exhibit and Abbot Kinney Boulevard. She finds Venice’s art vibe “more of a street graffiti influence; more representational (than Santa Monica’s) and more expressive of how maybe people are feeling.”
Even as she faces a handful of uncertainties ahead with her art career, Mahoney, whose next group show will be at Galerie Métanoïa in Paris in November, is glad she relocated to Santa Monica, where she lives a bike ride away from the beach and an enso’s throw from Bergamot, the Hammer and the Fowler museums.
Where these artists go from here, not even Kim’s Knots installation can tell. Meanwhile, the respected critic who made these artists’ inclusion in California Open possible sees much promise ahead for these Westsiders.
“These five artists share a quality of very good skill,” Goldman said, “And a lack of desire to seduce. Their art has an element of surprise and challenge, and even a touch of mystery.”
TAG Gallery is located at Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., D-3, Santa Monica. Information, TAGGallery.net.§