ALI SUBOTNICK steward of the strange
Image above: ©Elon Schoenholz. Museum photo.
ANDREA BLANCH: One hears a lot of generalizations about the LA art scene here in New York. A Wall Street Journal article contrasted New York’s “rapid fire pace and go-go market attitude” with LA’s “laid back vibe.” To what extent do you feel outsider perceptions of LA are justified and/or misrepresentative?
ALI SUBOTNICK: Well, generalizations are always just that. LA is a huge city and it’s very spread out. There are many different art communities, so you can’t characterize the art world in LA with one statement. It’s growing tremendously. It used to be easy to see all the gallery shows, but I’m finding it harder to see everything because there has been so much growth. This is something I’ve said since I moved here nine years ago: the difference between New York and LA is that New York is market-driven and LA is more focused on artists. The artists run the whole community. They set the program, and there’s more of a dialogue about making art. The schools are incredibly important, and the teachers at the schools are all important artists. There’s more head space. In New York, you walk outside and immediately you’re inundated with people, noises, and ideas. It’s hard to just stop and think. In LA, you can pull away from things, get away from the scenes, and retreat to your studio, or go on a hike and clear your head. That’s one of the magnets bringing artists here: the quality of life you don’t get in New York. There are spaces to make work and there’s a community with which you can have dialogue about work, without it always being about the market.
ANDREA: How do you think that shows up in the work?
ALI: That is much more difficult to pin down. Artists in New York have big studios in Long Island City or Red hook, and they’re generally more established. In LA, there’s more real estate, so it’s easier for a young artist to get a big space. There’s also access to Hollywood, prophouses, plastics manufacturing, and the porn industry; there’s a wide variety of materials that they wouldn’t have access to in New York. Also, because you drive here, it’s easier for an artist to throw things in a truck, rather than having to deal with getting it delivered or lugging things on the subway. Those little things make it easier to live here. If you want to have a family, it’s much easier in LA than in New York. There are always new neighborhoods for galleries. It used to be Chinatown, and then Chinatown died out. There was Bergamot before that. Culver City is still active but now there’s also the Hollywood area around Highland, and Santa Monica, there are a bunch of galleries over there, and there are even more on Sunset and Melrose. There’s a brand new area in Boyle Heights and the downtown arts district. In the industrial areas, artists and galleries can get huge buildings, former factories and warehouses. The spaces are quite innovative and impressive.
[Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13]
ANDREA: In the same Wall Street Journal article, you were quoted saying that “interest in LA is cyclical, every 10-15 years LA is in the spotlight.” What do you think accounts for interest in the LA art scene being cyclical rather than stable?
ALI: This moment seems like the players are bigger and the artists moving here are more committed, so it might actually stick. I don’t know why. I remember there was a Spin article in the mid-90’s about how UCLA was a great place for discovering young artists. At that point, artists still ended up leaving LA and moving to New York. Now, everyone that goes to school here seems to stay. Right now, the institutions are in really good shape, and having strong institutions makes a more committed market and community. The collector base is growing too. There’s always going to be competition with Hollywood, but that’s one of the things that makes it attractive, that these two industries can coexist. The art world doesn’t have to be the star industry. It can be under the radar.
ANDREA: In a conversation with Artforum, you said that L.A. is always perceived as the “heaven/ hell, dark/light, Helter Skelter, sunshine/noir model.” What exactly did you mean by this?
ALI: It’s the sense that, even though the sun is always out and on the surface it’s ‘La La Land,’ there’s a real dark side to it. You can disappear so easily. In New York, you’re never alone, really. There’s a density to the community. You bump into people. Here, you have to make an effort: you have to make plans, get in your car, and drive to go see people. The strength of the community here is its artists and schools. As long as there is support for those artists, it will stay a strong community.
ANDREA: When did you first meet Maurizio Cattelan and Massimiliano Gioni, and how did you come to collaborate with them?
ALI: I met Maurizio when I was working for Parkett in 1999. Soon after, Massimiliano moved to New York to be the Editor for Flash Art, and Maurizio introduced us. The three of us were hanging out a lot and decided to start a magazine, and then everything grew organically from there.
ANDREA: Would you talk a bit about how “The Wrong Gallery” came about?
ALI: That was 2002. There were a few little hings that led to it. We had been doing Charley Magazine, and we kept talking about doing shows. We were looking for alternate methods for presenting shows. We thought about putting a refrigerator in a parking lot, then Maurizio found this doorway and we asked the landlord if we could just put in a glass door. All of a sudden, we had a gallery. We had no budget, no insurance, no security; we relied on our network of friends to help us out when we were doing a show. It was really playful. We were thinking about how all the giant spaces opening in Chelsea were putting pressure on artists to make really big work. Here we had this tiny space, forty inches wide and twelve inches deep, and artists were excited by those limitations, and the idea that they could present something small but make a significant impact.
ANDREA: How did you get to the Hammer?
ALI: Massimiliano was a finalist for the Berlin Biennial. He proposed the three of us do it together, not necessarily as the Wrong Gallery, but as a team. We did that in 2006. Living in Berlin, I got a taste of having headspace again and, like LA, Berlin is a city about artists and making art and talking about art. It’s not a market city at all. Berlin was very grey, and I didn’t want to go to New York for my vacations, so I kept going to LA, I got really into the city. After that, I moved to LA. Six months after I moved here, a job opened at the Hammer.
ANDREA: What is the mission of the Hammer Museum?
ALI: “The Hammer Museum at UCLA believes in the promise of art and ideas to illuminate our lives and build a more just world.” One of the things we like to say is that we don’t show the Blue Chip; we create the Blue Chip. We focus a lot on emerging artists. We give many artists their first solo museum shows with our Hammer Project series. Another thing we’re known for is rewriting history and rewriting the canon. We do major monographic shows with artists who have been overlooked, we’ve had an Alina Szapocznikow exhibition, we did Charles Burchfield, my colleague, Anne Ellegood, is doing a Jimmie Durham show, and I did the Llyn Foulkes retrospective. We often focus on artists that we feel have been left out, and need to be reassessed and reintroduced.
ANDREA: What do you feel your contribution to Hammer has been?
ALI: That’s hard to say. They always say something is “Ali-esque” when it’s sort of weird. I’m attracted to grotesque and surrealist art. I’ve brought in a weirder side to things. I did a group show called Nine Lives that featured artists who were under the radar and made work that didn’t neatly fit into any category. I’m interested in artists who aren’t following any trends and march to the beat of their own drum. Llyn Foulkes is a perfect example.
[Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13]
ANDREA: How do you become aware of these emerging artists?
ALI: I go to graduate open studios, and all kinds of established and alternative galleries. I know artists who are teachers at schools and often they’ll suggest I go see someone. I just get out as much as I can. When we did “Made in LA,” which is our LA Biennial, I was doing 5-10 studio visits a week and I still didn’t scratch the surface. There are so many amazing artists in this city. That’s why we’re able to do a biennial of just LA artists. It’s not like some cities where you would run out, and every two years you wouldn’t have enough variety. Here, we actually do.
ANDREA: Can we talk a bit about the artist in residence program?
ALI: We got a grant from James Irvine Foundation to start the residency program around 2006. When we started, we were bringing nine to ten artists a year. Then we downscaled it, trying to focus on two to three artists a year, who do longer stays. We try to find artists who have a specific interest in LA. For example, Johan Grimonprez was doing a film on Hitchcock and the Hitchcock archives are here. A lot of the artists go out to the desert and are working with Native Americans. Yuri Ancarani found a gold miner out in the desert that he’s going to make a film about. Also, we’re close to UCLA, so we like to connect them with resources on campus. Dara Friedman worked with actors from CalArts. It’s like a lab. We don’t require them to make anything. They can just come and think, if that’s all they want to do.
ANDREA: For the Venice Beach Biennial you created in 2012, you integrated established artists with outsider artists. How did this idea come about?
ALI: That idea came about when I first moved to LA. A friend of mine said, “Now that you’ve done the Berlin Biennial, you should do the Venice Beach Biennial.” That idea stuck in my head. Every time I went down to the boardwalk and looked at the artists there, I thought about the different conditions for making work and showing work. They’re legitimate artists down there on the boardwalk. There’s also been a struggle with the artists trying to get space to show their work because of the permit system. I got a grant from the Teiger Foundation. I didn’t want to give special treatment to the artists that I was bringing in from the mainstream contemporary art world. I wanted everyone to work under the same conditions. So, every artist we brought in had to be there like at five in the morning to claim their spot, stand with their work all day in the hot sun, pack up at the end of the day, and come back again the next morning. It was a completely different experience. A lot of people were complaining to me that they couldn’t find the “real” artists, and that was exactly what I was going for. They had to rely on their own instincts, and look at the art as art without any institutional stamp. That was what was most interesting to me. Everyone was treated equally, and I think the artists that I brought in learned so much, and it really changed the way they make and show their work. That was probably one of my most rewarding projects. My only regret is that it didn’t, in the long term, change the lives of the boardwalk artists. A lot of them had expectations that they would get discovered and would make a lot of money. They made money that weekend, but once the weekend was over, things went back to normal.
ANDREA: I would imagine you’re at the Hammer because it’s a progressive museum, but has there been anything that you proposed that they didn’t go with?
ALI: I had mentioned the Venice Beach Biennial several times and they just laughed at me. Then I got the grant and I said, “You can’t laugh at me anymore. We have to do this now.” I can’t think of too many things. Annie’s pretty open about trying things out. Sometimes she comes up with these crazy ideas, and we’re like, “Are you kidding me?”
ANDREA: Given your attraction to the grotesque and surreal, what feelings do you hope to provoke from the audience?
ALI: It’s not even “what feelings”; it’s just “feelings” period. I want people to react, whether it’s negative or positive, and to have some engagement with the work. I try to work with artists who I feel have something to contribute and whose work is provocative. I want people to engage and to appreciate the work. Whether they love it or hate it or are totally confused, it’s about engagement. Really, I’m just happy to provide artists with a platform to show their work. They slave away in their studio, and a lot of artists in LA don’t work with LA galleries, so it’s important for them to be able to put their work out there, connect with the public, and get some feedback.
ANDREA: What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
ALI: One of the crazy assignments that Annie gave me was to go to Afghanistan in spring 2014 with six LA-based artists. We visited weaving studios, and each artist came up with a design for a carpet to be hand-woven in Afghanistan. The carpets were shown at the Hammer last summer. Our collaborator, Christopher Farr, Inc. is selling them and the proceeds go to benefit a charity in Afghanistan for women weavers called Arzu Studio Hope. We just opened UHOH: Frances Stark 1991-2015, which I organized. It’s a mid-career survey, and it’s the most comprehensive exhibition of her work to date in the US.
ANDREA: Musée is a photo-based magazine. What are your feelings about photography?
ALI: I think it’s very active and vibrant. Russell Ferguson curated our summer show and it featured only photography. It’s growing and changing. Camera phones could be something people lament as the end of real art photography, but I actually see it as opening things up. More artists have access to taking photos, and the field is opening up in a lot of interesting ways.
Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13