YoungArts Los Angeles showcases the clear-eyed visions of teen visual arts prodigies

By Christina Campodonico

Naya Chang’s “Unchecked Attack Power” confronts gun violence with news clippings, tinfoil, charcoal and paint

This weekend some of the nation’s most promising teen performers in classical music, voice, theater, dance, writing,
film and jazz will take to the stage at UCLA as part of YoungArts Los Angeles. The weeklong program organized by the National YoungArts Foundation, a scholarship competition and nominating body for U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts, convenes outstanding young artists from the West Coast to the Midwest — high school students from Venice, Santa Monica and Crossroads among them — for showcases, rehearsals and workshops directed by master arts professionals.

But first, visual arts prodigies get their turn. On Thursday, photographers, designers and visual artists ages 15 to 18 are the stars of a special YoungArts LA exhibition and reception at Santa Monica’s Building Bridges Art Exchange.

They’re a cohort that’s exceptionally attuned to today’s socio-political movements, yet also very introspective, observes Building Bridges Art Exchange Executive Director Marisa Caichiolo, who is also curating the gallery show.

“I see this group of youth really expressing themselves freely in how they sense and they see society today,” she says. “But also what I see in a lot of them is going back to their roots and analyzing where they’re coming from, somehow connecting with their own identity and connecting that identity to the environment, to society.”

One piece by YoungArts visual arts finalist Emily Cattouse, “Window Pains No. 5,” tackles the African-American experience and police brutality in a very head-on way, depicting the image of a bloody black man floating in a stain glass window with the immortal last words of police brutality victim Eric Garner — “I can’t breathe” — painted repeatedly in the background. Another piece, 18-year-old Isabel Kristensen’s film still of a biracial teen girl, declares boldly in big text: “I don’t need an excuse to be black. I am black. I am also white. You don’t need an excuse to be either one.”

“It’s not pretentious. It’s very direct and very free,” Caichiolo comments about the exhibit’s artwork overall, which also includes pieces commenting on gun violence and female empowerment. One photograph by 17-year-old Maya Gee-Lim depicts a young girl flopped over a chain link fence, which could be read as a symbol for teenage boredom or, more chillingly, the victim of a mass shooter’s schoolyard attack. (Such is the sad world in which we live.) A collage by 17-year-old Naya Chang features a piece of tinfoil made to look as if it has been riddled by bullets, a hand-drawn assault rifle gunning down two young people, and text that reads: “Attack unchecked power.” It’s a haunting nod to school mass shootings and a damning indictment of the powers that be.

Meanwhile, 16-year-old Mia McCarthy’s “Tangible Vibrations” shows seven adolescent girls in white button down shirts lying in an empty swimming pool or skateboard bowl, their arms interlinked. Their position on the ground brings to mind an act of protest (perhaps a die-in) and their white shirts recall the symbolic color of women’s suffrage; together, these elements create an image of solidarity that speaks to the rising activism of today’s young women, whose voices are coming of age in the wake of #MeToo, the ascension of a pussy-grabber to the presidency, and the rise of a global Women’s March movement.

Visitors to Thursday’s reception will have the chance to chat with the brains behind images like these, enjoy free Coolhaus ice cream sandwiches and sip on wine (if you’re over 21). Based on the images alone, there will be plenty to discuss.

The reception for YoungArts Los Angeles’ Design, Photography and Visual Arts Exhibition happens from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday (March 28) at Building Bridges Art Exchange in Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Ste. F2, Santa Monica. Admission is free. RSVP and view the full schedule of YoungArts Los Angeles events at