Frieze Projects: Against the Edge
February 13-19, 2023
This project takes its name from an interview between artists Fritz Haeg and Doug Aitken in Aitken’s book The Idea of the West. In a collection of 1,000 interviews conducted by Doug asking friends and colleagues “What is your idea of the West?”, Fritz responded: "To the American psyche: west equals movement, more space, resources, freedom... For those of us that do occupy this slim line along the Pacific coast, we have a unique sense of limits. For everyone else there's a vague sense of: no matter how much of a mess we're making here, there's more that way. But for us living against the edge, it's like, 'No, this is it. There's nowhere else to go.'"
This year, Frieze is continuing its move west from Hollywood and Beverly Hills to Santa Monica, settling in arguably one of the most multifaceted urban complexes in west Los Angeles: the Santa Monica Municipal Airport. The SMMA is a prime example of the multi-purposing of public sites that takes place in the rapid, often uncontrolled, evolution this city has undergone in the last century. Established in 1917 as the home of the Douglas Aircraft Co., the site currently operates not only as an airport (you might recall Harrison Ford crashed his plane on a nearby golf course shortly after taking off from there), but also as a public park with soccer field, a film set, entertainment venue, and a satellite campus for Santa Monica College’s ceramics program.
I know this airport well because I used to drive through it as a shortcut to get from my apartment in Sawtelle to Liz Craft and Pentti Monkkonen’s house, where they used to host exhibitions at Paradise Garage. Beginning in 2012, the garage-cum-gallery shed in the artists’ backyard hosted a number of exhibitions until Oscar Tuazon collapsed the structure in one fell swoop in a work called This won’t take long (2015). This marked the end of Paradise Garage. Liz and Pentti closed the gallery project in order to begin the renovation of their home and studio, but then left Los Angeles for New York and Berlin a few years later and haven’t really come back. There are only a few galleries left here west of the 405 – L.A. Louver, 5 Car Garage, and Le Maximum, and of course the Getty (Center and Villa), and the 18th Street Art Center, which used to be home to the Santa Monica Museum of Art until it relocated to Downtown in 2017 and became the Institute of Contemporary Art L.A.… The Westside has, in recent years, begun to feel a bit marginal to the pull of Los Angeles’ more weighty centers of art.
Because I grew up here and currently operate Del Vaz Projects out of my home in Santa Monica, I was invited by Frieze’s director Christine Messineo to curate a series of artist’s projects, installations, performances, and talks along the coastal Westside in response to the fair’s move (further) west. I took this opportunity to revisit some of my favorite texts on the City of Los Angeles at large, including Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, Norman Klein’s History of Forgetting, Chris Kraus’s Video Green, Peter Plagen’s Ecology of Evil, and Jean Stein’s West of Eden. I was inspired by Norman Klein’s “anti-tours” where, as a professor at Cal Arts, he would take his students to vacant sites that, because of L.A.’s tendency to erase memory, no longer exist: “a movie studio, a whorehouse, whatever.” The buildings had been demolished, Klein explains, because of L.A.’s penchant for self-erasure. Thom Anderson got it all wrong - L.A. doesn’t play itself, it forgets itself.
The sites that host Against the Edge, though, actually still exist. And their stories haven’t necessarily been erased or forgotten. They just haven’t really been shared. And that’s what provided me with the perfect theater to propose some new and imagined relationships between site and artist, history and fiction. Taking a cue from Jean Stein’s skill for recording oral history and joshing with its factual faultiness, I’ve used these imago-sites as an opportunity to mix history, urban myth, anecdote, and personal memory to create a story of not only what’s gone, but what’s left. Although a fraction of the community and cultural centers it once contained, there remains an incredibly vibrant constellation of culturally significant sites along the coastal Westside which have been and remain integral to the history of modern and contemporary art in Los Angeles. This is my anti-tour, my love letter to the Westside. This is also its swan song.
What began as a chain of artist colonies, entertainment districts, and laborer’s communities along the coast of west Los Angeles, the City of Santa Monica and neighboring communities of Venice Beach and Pacific Palisades have, with the help of real estate speculation and short-sighted urbanization plans, essentially “flipped” on themselves, making it inaccessible to creative communities like those that once found refuge on this side of a White Wall that was built by Downtown elites in the first half of the twentieth century. The truth is, art actually fuels that speculation, and even foreshadow it – in 1967 Ed Ruscha aerially photographed thirty-four parking lots; in 2011 he was forced out of his Venice Beach studio after twenty-six years because the City of L.A. was converting a railroad easement between Abbot Kinney and Electric Ave into a parking lot, probably for Gjelina and Intelligentsia Coffee customers.
Tony Cokes So to speak at Beyond Baroque
Ruscha was actually a late-comer to Venice, moving his studio from Hollywood in 1985. By then, artist Chuck Arnoldi and Frank Gehry themselves had already entered the real estate market fray, infamously developing a building backwards — apparently a fax transmission sent by Gehry from New York to Arnoldi in Los Angeles flipped the architectural plans. Don’t take my word on that though, I heard it during a talk between the two and neither of them were using microphones. Perhaps their redevelopment efforts were a way to protect what they saw as an already changing Venice. Since the early 1950’s, a succession of artists and art movements from the Beats to the Punks have moved in and moved out.
Following the opening of Stuart Perkoff’s Venice West Café in 1958 and the Gas House in 1959, Venice became a nexus for Beat artists and writers such as Wallace Berman, Jack Kerouac and Philomene Long. A number of visual artists began to settle in the neighborhood: Billy Al Bengston, Larry Bell, Cameron, Vija Celmins, John McCracken, Ed Moses, Lee Mullican, Ken Price, and John Altoon. In 1968, George Dury Smith began publishing the experimental literary magazine Beyond Baroque from a storefront in Venice, eventually taking over the old Venice City Hall building at 681 Venice Boulevard. Beyond Baroque would soon begin hosting workshops, readings and performances by a number of artists including Amiri Baraka, Wanda Coleman, Dennis Cooper, Simone Forti, Allen Ginsberg, Mike Kelley and Patti Smith over the next few decades. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, a cooperatively-run gallery devoted to exhibiting work by female artists, Womanspace, opened in a converted laundromat at 11007 Venice Blvd and the Point Gallery opened on 2699 Main Street, exhibiting works by Chicano artist collectives Asco and Los Four.
Against the Edge presents three works by Tony Cokes at Beyond Baroque: Evil.13.5 (4 OE), (2022) at the building’s entrance; Testament A: MF FKA K-P X KE RIP, (2019) in the library; and B4 & After the Studio Pt. 1 (2019) in the Beyond Baroque theater. The musicality and rhythm of Cokes’s work, its connection to vernacular forms of music and spoken word mirror Beyond Baroque’s historical context and thematic values. In the Beyond Baroque’s theater, for example, Cokes’s B4 & After the Studio Pt. 1 draws an uncanny connection between Manhattan’s East Village and Los Angeles’s Venice Beach.
In 2019, Tony Cokes produced B4 & After the Studio Pt. 1 for an exhibition at The Shed in Hudson Yards, famously a malappropriation of public housing funds that were then used to build former New York mayor Bloomberg’s pet redevelopment project. B4 & After examines the intertwined relationship between art and real estate development, repurposing a text on the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot and an excerpt from Sharon Zukin’s 1989 book Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. Zukin used the concept of revalorization to describe the effect the artists’ lofts of SoHo had on converting industrial space into cultural capital, and in turn converting downtown space into space fit for “high-class use,'' giving name to the process of culturally-aided gentrification that had come to pervade American cities. Paired with accounts of the city’s aggressive crackdown on homeless encampments in the East Village that led to the police-incited Tompkins Square Park Riot, B4 is a self-reflexive consideration of gentrification, “artwashing,” and the pernicious underside of what is generally termed “urban renewal”. There couldn’t be a work more fitting to reflect on the current situation of the “Venice of America” than Cokes’s removed but incisive visual essays that works through the traumas of displacement within the multiplicitous histories of a post-terror America.
What began as a seaside resort development project in 1905, was then surrounded by an oil field in 1929, and later became by a haven for European immigrants escaping World War II, a patchwork of redlined neighborhoods, and a hub for counterculture artists, has become today one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Los Angeles, all the while failing to solve its decades-long homelessness crisis. John Baldessari’s Venice home is currently for sale for $7,000,000; Dennis Hopper’s former compound, known as the “Art Barn” is available for lease for $21,000/month; Judith Baca still has her studio in Venice though, (just next door to Beyond Baroque), made possible only by a long-term lease negotiated between SPARC and the City of L.A. According to a recent count, more than 2,000 homeless individuals are in Venice, and this month the Cadillac Hotel, the only remaining westside site of Project Roomkey, a city initiative to house the unhoused in motels, is closing.
Since its heyday in the 70’s and 80’s, Beyond Baroque has continued to advance the public awareness of and involvement in the literary arts, providing a challenging program of performances, readings and publications that promotes new work by artists and writers, the latest alumna of which is Amanda Gorman. Furthermore, it has played a leading role in advocating for the historical protection of the Westminster Baptist Church, the first Baptist Church in Venice, and a symbol of place that resonates greatly with the community of Oakwood. In 2017, the pastor sold the church for $6.3 million, without the knowledge or approval of the broader community, to media giant Jay Penske, who wanted to convert the church into his private home. Penske Media, you might have heard recently, just dissolved literary digest Bookforum weeks after acquiring the publication’s parent company Artforum International Magazine.
The Oakwood community is one of the few remaining Black communities in Los Angeles within a mile of the beach, dating back five generations. The Belmar Neighborhood, the only other seaside Black community in the vicinity (and the oldest, dating from the immigration to California after the Civil War) was literally set on fire on July 1, 1953, to make way for the current Santa Monica Civic Center, Courthouse, and freeway. Eminent Domain by flame. Today, there is a large effort to educate the public about this injustice with the Belmar History + Art initiative, founded by the City of Santa Monica.
Monday Evening Concerts Action 3 at the Merry-Go-Round at Santa Monica Pier
A few months after the Belmar Neighborhood went up in smoke, a young curator by the name of Walter Hopps organized his first major group exhibition titled Action in the Santa Monica Pier’s Merry-Go-Round building. Hopps, in fact, had been spending quite a bit of time on the Westside, running Syndell Studio with Jim Newman, Craig Kauffman, Michael Scoles and Ben and Betty Bartosh in Brentwood at 11756 Gorham Ave. After attempting to mount the group show in a Hollywood supermarket on Sunset Boulevard and then Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House at Barnsdall Park as well as other city owned parks and venues, Hopps settled on the Merry-Go-Round building at the Santa Monica Pier, renting it for $80 a week. Apparently, the City of Santa Monica had been much more welcoming to the idea of a contemporary art exhibition in one of its public venues than the City of Los Angeles.
Hopps wrapped the carousel in fabric and suspended paintings by a number of California abstract painters including Sonia Gechtoff, Craig Kauffman, Jay DeFeo, and Richard Diebenkorn, to name a few. Hopps included a musical component to the exhibition, recorded jazz music, the carousel’s soundtrack, and his own renditions of works by John Cage.
It was his choice to accompany the exhibition with music which I found most interesting. Hopps was passionate about jazz in particular. So, when I was attempting to find a setlist of music Hopps might have played at Action, I thought to contact Jonathan Hepfer, Artistic Director of Monday Evening Concerts (MEC).
MEC was founded in 1939 as “Evenings on the Roof” by Peter Yates, music critic for Arts & Architecture magazine, and his wife Frances Mullen, when they began to host Sunday evening concerts in the Schindler-designed rooftop studio of their home at 1735 Micheltorena Street in Silverlake. Eighty-four years later, MEC has continued to build upon its history of presenting contemporary music concerts throughout Los Angeles. The program at Peter and Frances’s home was originally intended to provide displaced European emigres such as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg with a platform to perform challenging works, and would eventually grow to welcome distinguished performers such as John Cage, Leonard Stein and Sol Babitz. Coincidentally, Hopps would later have an affair with Babitz’s daughter, Eve. When Hopps didn’t invite Eve to the 1963 Duchamp retrospective he curated at the Pasadena Art Museum, she slighted him a few days later by sitting for a photograph playing chess with Marcel Duchamp, nude.
Jonathan and I never found the setlist that Hopps played at Action, so instead I asked him if he wanted to think of a program of music to play in homage to Hopps’s exhibition as part of Against the Edge. On Thursday, February 16th at 7:30 PM, Hepfer and a cast of notable figures from the worlds of visual art and music will perform John Cage’s Speech, composed the same year as the Hopps exhibition. The Cage work is a performance for five individuals, each holding a radio, and one newsreader. As the performance progresses, each performer is given the liberty to walk-around the room, or stay still, adjusting the volume and tuning into different radio stations. The result is a cacophonous and chaotic palimpsest of sound, spoken word, and news, replicating Against the Edge’s web of real, imagined, and mythic relationships through history. We’ve named the happening Action 3 (“Action cubed”) since Hopps would later curate a show titled Action 2 (“Action squared”) in 1956.
Nicola L. Nous Voulons Entendre at Thomas Mann House
The Santa Monica Pier, in fact, was built in 1909 to carry the city’s sewer pipes beyond the breakers. For nearly fifty years, raw sewage was discharged, untreated, directly into the waters of the Santa Monica Bay, until the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant was built in 1950. One account has it that upon his arrival to Los Angeles in 1941 as a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany, Thomas Mann was walking with Aldous Huxley in the Santa Monica Bay “miraculously alone and rapt in discussion of Shakespeare” when they suddenly noticed “ten million condoms… as far as the eye could reach in all directions” which had made it past the city’s simple screening mechanism that was installed in 1925 and washed up on the sand of the beach.
Mann, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, arrived in Los Angeles with his family from Princeton in 1940, after spending seven years in exile. “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles,” said Frank Lloyd Wright at the time, probably in response to the influx of European emigres in Los Angeles escaping World War II and the Holocaust. By the time the Manns arrived in Los Angeles, a number of their friends and colleagues had already settled in Los Angeles’s Westside – Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Christopher Isherwood, and Salka Viertel in Santa Monica; Arnold Schoenberg in Brentwood; Marlene Dietrich in Westwood; Fritz Lang, Hedy Lamarr, Sergei Rachmoninoff, Igor Stravinsky, and Billy Wilder in Beverly Hills. Weimar found itself against the edge of the Pacific.
In 1941, The Mann’s decided to make their move West permanent and commissioned architect Julius Ralph Davidson to build them a “moderately modern” house at 1550 San Remo Drive in Pacific Palisades. Much to the dismay of Davidson, the interiors were furnished to resemble the Mann’s Villa in Munich, rather than with modern furniture more fitting to the home’s exterior (Mann even managed to have his desk shipped over from Germany for his study). The house came to embody the exile — California modern on the outside, dignified German bourgeois on the inside.
The legacy of California Modernism has often been subject to that kind of eccentric disparity. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked into a mid-century home (often designed by a world-renowned male architect) with carpet over hardwood floors or laminate over cast concrete walls. There’s no doubt that most of this is a result of downright disinterest in protecting architectural heritage in Los Angeles, and hence the small number of homes that have survived demolition since. But there’s a few examples when that isn’t the impetus behind the stark differences between exterior and interior design in California Modernist homes. Ray Eames, who lived in the shadow of her husband’s fame throughout a great deal of her career, diligently decorated their steel and glass home with layers upon layers of lush fabrics, textiles, rugs and floor pillows, innumerable objects and tchotchkes, and elaborate floral and food arrangements. When Pauline and Rudolph Schindler divorced but still lived in their home on Kings Road together, Pauline painted her half of the house salmon pink. As curator Mimi Zeiger once brilliantly put it, these examples of “softening” are actually manifesto — “softness as resistance.”
Moroccan-born, French artist Nicola L. (1932-2018) spent her life softening the built environment, often challenging Modernism’s hegemony of vision with a call to touch, hear, breath, and even become one with the spaces we enter and the rooms we live in. Her functional sculptures like the giant vinyl hand and foot sofas, lip and eye lamps, and escargot tables and body-shaped bookshelves (examples of which are all on view at the Thomas Mann house) resist, or even disrupt, the notions of desensitization and sterility in minimalist art and modernist architecture. This couldn’t be clearer than with Nicola’s series of Penetrables, wall-sized “paintings” with body-part appendages sewn onto their surface, as well as the Fur Room or The House for Fifteen People (1969/2020), a free-standing, purple acrylic-fur room lined with fifteen Penetrables on the walls, floor, and ceiling for individuals to enter through, collectively becoming one with each other and with the structure.
For Both Nicola L. and Thomas Mann, the home was political. It was from his study that Mann would complete his novel Doctor Faustus as well as record his monthly anti-Nazi messages to the German people, broadcast by the BBC to Germany. Nicola, upon returning home to Paris in 1967, took to the streets with students and factory workers in the May 68 demonstrations, making a series of Penetrable protest banners. These banners were punctuated with entries for five to ten heads, with slogans such as WE WANT TO TOUCH, WE WANT TO SEE, WE WANT TO FEEL, WE WANT TO LOVE, and WE WANT TO BE LOVED stenciled across them. On view at the Thomas Mann House is an example of one of these banners with nine head-Penetrables and the phrase NOUS VOULONS ENTENDRE, or, WE WANT TO HEAR, this work resounds with Mann’s broadcasts, each of which began with the words “Germans, Listen!”
In 2016, the house at 1550 San Remo Drive was put up for sale by the descendants of Chet and Jon Lappen, who purchased the home from the Manns in 1953. Though the Lappens had taken pride in owning and living in the Mann House, one of the home’s listing agents was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying “The value is in the land. The value is not really in the architecture, I would say," immediately sparking concerns over the possible demolition of the home. A few months later, the German government stepped in to save the house, with plans to create “a cultural center for debate over major trans-Atlantic issues, including migration, exile and integration”.
Today, the Thomas Mann House is one of the brightest beacons of its kind in Los Angeles, not only for creating a space that encourages trans-Atlantic debate, but also operating as a residency for artists and intellectuals from all over the world. “In a conflict-laden world which is no longer sure of its own order,” said German foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the time of the acquisition, “we need more than ever places in which cultural and social exchanges take place free from external pressure.” Each year, the Thomas Mann House accepts a dozen fellows, including journalists, political scientists, writers, and curators, to take up residence at the house and to develop their personal research projects around the house’s annual topic. This year’s manifesto is “The Political Mandate of the Arts,” and I could envision Nicola L.’s head and hands reaching through her Penetrables in eager anticipation.
The Manns’ stay in Los Angeles was short-lived. With the rise of McCarthyism in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, the family's relationship with the U.S. deteriorated. Mann was called in for questioning as a suspected communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. "As an American citizen of German birth, I finally testify that I am painfully familiar with certain political trends. Spiritual intolerance, political inquisitions, and declining legal security, and all this in the name of an alleged 'state of emergency.' ... That is how it started in Germany." What was once a refuge for the Manns had now become hostile territory, and so they fled Los Angeles for Switzerland in 1952, where Thomas passed a few years later.
Kelly Akashi Heirloom at Villa Aurora
In fact, many of the Weimar exiles in Los Angeles were charged with suspicion and forced to return to Europe at the onset of the Cold War. Internationally-renowned author Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta, however, were of the few who decided to stay in Los Angeles despite being placed under surveillance by the FBI and repeatedly taken in for questioning. The Feuchtwangers had arrived in Los Angeles in 1941 after eight years fleeing from country to country in Europe. While Feuchtwanger was on tour abroad, Nazi Propaganda minister Goebbels named Feuchtwanger “Enemy Number One of the German people,” ransacking his home and setting his library on fire. In 1940, Lion was captured and imprisoned at Les Milles in France for several months and was only able to escape when he was smuggled to Marseille disguised as a woman. From there, with help of various American diplomats, ministers and journalists, as well as the insistence of Eleanor Roosevelt, Lion and Marta were able to flee to the United States.
Villa Aurora was constructed in 1929 as a spec house by the Los Angeles Times and investors Arthur Weber and George Ley, who had partnered on a real estate venture to attract wealthy buyers to settle in this remote part of Los Angeles that lacked public infrastructure. The houses would be equipped with all the modern comforts, and excesses, available at the time. At Villa Aurora, for example, an organ was installed so that future residents could provide musical accompaniment to the projection of silent movies. But when the market crashed in 1929, the investors abandoned the venture, leaving Villa Aurora vacant until 1943, when the Feuchtwangers purchased it for $9,000. Apparently, the home was so run-down after years of neglect that Lion and Marta spent their first nights in the garden in sleeping bags.
Throughout the war, the Feuchtwangers used Villa Aurora not only as a cultural salon, but also as a meeting place to gather support and donations to help other German-Jewish and antifascist authors obtain affidavits and visas to escape Europe. But just as Lion and Marta, and their friends and colleagues, were finding refuge in Los Angeles, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066, ordering the forced relocation and incarceration of over 125,000 Japanese-Americans into internment camps. Over 35,000 Japanese-Americans lived in Los Angeles at the time, many of them in long-established communities in Santa Monica, Venice and Sawtelle. The dissonance is astonishing — one group escapes a fate and finds refuge in a city while the other is forced from that city into the circumstances the first escaped from.
For her project Heirloom at Villa Aurora, artist Kelly Akashi points to that dissonance and precarity, presenting a group of works that continue to build on the artist’s concerns with cultural inheritance, personhood and diaspora, and impermanence. The breadth of mediums in Akashi’s wider practice reflects this porosity, effortlessly shifting between blown glass, cast bronze and silicone, candle wax, carved stone, and photogram, she has directed this material investigation towards the story of her own family’s incarceration in Poston, Arizona following Executive Order 9066. Recent works integrate family heirloom jewelry as well as references to the soil, tree branches and tumbleweeds of the Poston landscape.
In the garden at Villa Aurora, Kelly has installed a bronze sculpture composed of hundreds of crocheted flowers, individually cast and welded together in the form of the artist’s body in repose, resulting in a kind of burial pall titled Heirloom (2022). In the weeks leading up to the exhibition, Kelly worked with Francis River, farm manager at Grow Good (an urban farm providing food and food education to the homeless), to “cultivate” the sculpture, installing it on a bed of soil and seedlings. Since then, the plants have begun to sprout from beneath Heirloom’s soil-filled void, covering the sculpture in a variety of plants and flowers including nasturtium, peas, fennel, calendula, sage, beets and lettuces. The installation is a breathtaking meditation on death and rebirth, ephemerality and the incorporeal. Included in the exhibition of works is Fractured Thigh Tooth (2022) partially submerged in water in the home’s courtyard fountain, as well as Twine Time (Red Poppy) (2022) suspended from the ceiling in the home’s gathering room and framing a portrait of Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger that hangs on the wall.
Although Lion made many attempts to obtain U.S. citizenship (stripped of his German citizenship in 1933) while living at Villa Aurora, his applications were constantly denied and he effectively died stateless in 1958. Marta spent the rest of her life forming and protecting the heritage of her husband’s estate, including what remained of his collection of books and manuscripts after the 1933 seizure and 1940 loss of his libraries. Today, 30,000 volumes remain in Lion’s library, with 22,000 at Villa Aurora. The remaining 8,000 are at USC’s Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, and contain treasures such as a Nuremberg Chronicle from 1493, Goya prints, letters written by Napoleon, and a signed first edition by Voltaire.
Along with the library, Marta had also bequeathed Villa Aurora to USC, with the stipulation that she be able to reside in the house until her death. Although Marta intended the school to maintain and use Villa Aurora for educational purposes, USC moved quickly to sell the house two years after Marta died. In 1989, a Berlin-based non-profit, Friends of Villa Aurora, was formed to save the home. Millions were raised across Germany and Los Angeles and the house was acquired by the organization that same year. Since 1995, Villa Aurora has also been operating as an artists residency welcoming 12 writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and composers a year, and is funded mainly by the German Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media. As with the Thomas Mann House, the public programming at Villa Aurora is quite robust and includes the two-day “Women in Exile” forum in partnership with the International Feuchtwanger Society (IFS) and USC.
Although all located along the coastal Westside, the shared stories between artists, communities and sites in Against the Edge reveal the true nature of life in Los Angeles at large. Contrary to prevailing perceptions of this city as a paradise with idyllic weather and picturesque sunsets, here, between the mountains and the coast, one exists (literally) within a perpetual faultiness. Besides the obvious natural disasters like earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, and flooding, Los Angeles has continually shown how it can turn on its inhabitants. Real estate speculation, whack-a-mole urban planning, Hollywood, and water rights, are but a few of the causes behind L.A.’s precarity, not to mention a century’s worth of movement West and Manifest Destiny reaching its final limit, compounding on itself with nowhere else to go. There is perhaps no other visual artist who has been better able to capture the fragility and precarity of life in Los Angeles as Julie Becker (1972-2016).
Julie Becker (W)hole at Del Vaz Projects
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Becker had a unique talent for examining Los Angeles’s socioeconomic inequalities with an investigative lens that was more akin to children’s fantasy or teen-spy novels, rather than with the cynicism that often appeared in the work of her L.A. contemporaries. Supposedly, she was the youngest student to ever enroll in CalArts, beginning the program at the age of sixteen instead of finishing her senior year at Santa Monica High School. It was there that Becker began her first monumental work Residents, Researchers, A Place to Rest (1993-1996), a large-scale installation of miniature interiors meticulously filled with the belongings of a fictitious, semi-fictitious, and real-life cast of characters who inhabited these dollhouse-like interiors, including Eloise (from the series of children’s books about a girl who lives in a "room on the tippy-top floor" of the Plaza Hotel); Danny Torrance (a boy with psychic powers in Stephen King’s novel The Shining); and Voxx, the real-life Hollywood psychic who Becker would occasionally consult with. Residents, Researchers, A Place to Rest debuted at the 1996 Sao Paolo Biennale curated by Paul Schimmel and from there was shown at the Kunsthalle Zurich in 1997.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, and eager to build upon the stardom she had garnered with her debut project, Becker set her intentions on a work that would manifest itself as an inherently incomplete project, Whole. Taking as its protagonist the California Federal Building located at 1910 Sunset Blvd in Echo Park, which dominated the artist’s view from her studio window, Becker would use Whole to create a reflection of Los Angeles in the late 90s as it emerged from the revolts and convulsions that defined the city in the first part of the decade.
At Del Vaz Projects, we present a selection of works from Becker’s Whole as part of Against the Edge. Following her suicide in 2016, Becker’s work has gained renewed attention with retrospectives held at ICA London (2018) and MoMA PS1 (2019). This exhibition marks the first time parts and fragments of Becker’s Whole return to Los Angeles since they were shown at Ali Subotnick’s exhibition, Nine Lives, at the Hammer Museum in 2009.
Included in the exhibition is a replica of the curb in front of the CalFed Bank marked with graffiti, children’s chalk drawings, and the decay of Los Angeles. Much like L.A.’s neglect of its public sphere, this curb is cracked and disintegrating, the vibrant marks of Angelinos cover it, despite its crumbling (social) infrastructure, it’s lived on.
Federal Building with Music (2002) contains a miniature(ish) replica of the CalFed building being slowly lowered through a hole in the floor before being raised again, and lowered again. Calling up the euphemism of the “floor falling out” from under someone or something, but a model building being slowly lowered through a purposefully cut hole seems slightly more nuanced. Though the bank, having been purchased by Citigroup, went defunct the year Becker released the project on DVD, California Federal may have stood in for the recurring bank scandals and crises throughout the 80s and 90s such as the Savings and Loan Crisis or perhaps foreshadowing the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis. That this hole in the floor is a perfectly cut square indicates the purposeful structure for these falls, the video is even slowed down, its interlacing becoming apparent, like a slow-motion implosion, a gentle exit and return. A hand written sign with an arrow reads, “Going Down”.
A lively, bouncy mariachi, Banda Arkángel R-15, is used for the score of the 29-minute video. Becker may be joyously celebrating the demise of the bank that dominated her (world)view. It cuts between the building replica being lowered and raised through the floor and shots of the actual building before going to a scene apparently shot on top of the building’s helipad. The camera approaches the helicopter and then we take off over the city. Bubbles float across the screen, referencing both capital bubbles and childlike joy. These contradictory euphemisms around abstract capital develop the tension of the work as it's hard to reconcile the brutalist reality of concentrated capital or the damage it can do once the floor falls out, even if it is just a “bubble bursting”.
Becker’s view of life in Los Angeles, and perhaps America in the 90s in general, as LA was, arguably, at the height of its cultural influence, comes from floating around in a different world. Whole is often prefaced by a story Julie liked to tell: she got her studio with a view on the CalFed building by making a deal with the bank who owned the building. She could live in the space in exchange for cleaning out the belongings left by a victim of AIDS. Julie exaggerated things, Ralph Coon, her biographer, later found out. The apartment she lived in wasn’t owned by the bank that figured in her work as a celled monolith. There was no victim of the AIDS crisis that some cold banking institution refused to deal with out of irrational fear.
The story Julie told, assumingly, to Chris Kraus and others, was a very believable story, one that fit with the reality we lived in the 90s and continue to live today. And in some ways, it was more true than what actually happened; a house purchased with a mortgage is owned by the bank until otherwise. America failed the many, many people devastated by the AIDS epidemic especially gay men and people of color. Julie tapped into a metanarrative.
In Whole (Bar) (1999), she transforms a cliche American scene, the basement tiki bar — an object she revisits in her playful collage, Untitled (“Tiki Bar”) (from the Whole Series) (2001) — complete with textured olive-green carpet, into a kind of visual gate. Deck balusters for the post with a decorative, slanted lintel form this rudimentary architectural form, like a Torii gate of Americana. The wavy corner of a mirror in the background hints at irreality, reflecting a wooden placard that reads: “If you can keep your head in all this confusion, you just don’t understand the situation.” In Chris Kraus’s What I Couldn’t Write, a work of fragments originally published by CSS Bard as part of their curatorial program development, she quotes Julie as saying, “Some things in life are really harsh and troubling. And if you can find a way to be less cynical – well, all the better. Thinking, you know, can be completely suicidal. Sometimes it’s better to just zone out.”
Del Vaz Projects began in 2014 as a project space in the spare bedroom of my apartment in the Sawtelle neighborhood of west Los Angeles. The mission was to provide a space that would serve as an incubator for both emerging and established artists and their alternative proposals, preserving and nourishing the unique and vibrant pulse of the city's arts community. Through an organic, intuitive and open dialogue with artists, Del Vaz Projects quickly evolved into a dynamic venue that not only hosted exhibitions but also screenings, performances and workshops as well as informal home-stays for visiting artists, curators, performers and writers from around the world.
In 2020, my partner and I moved in together to a home in Santa Monica, in what was once Shirley Temple’s childhood home. And since 2021, Del Vaz Projects has been operating exclusively as an arts non-profit and curatorial platform, providing opportunities to artists and the public through a variety of activities that include but are not limited to exhibition programming; artist-stays; publications and public events and workshops both here in our home and throughout the city. The programming, unsurprisingly, has always concerned itself with the domestic and built environment, as seen with exhibitions such as How to Remove Stains (Jessi Reaves & Sophie Stone); Neighbors (David Gilbert & Rachelle Sawatsky); Sharing (Marisa Takal); Reflexions (Michael Henry Hayden & Anne Libby); Shell (Heidi Bucher, Olivia Erlanger & Nicola L.); Nightmare Bathroom (Sula Bermudez-Silverman, Nicki Green, Candice Lin, Roksana Pirouzmand & Bri Williams) and now Whole with works by Julie Becker. The projects here are constantly examining how “home” may take on new forms, different behaviors and functions, or even perhaps fail to perform as shelter.
When visitors come to Del Vaz, they often ask if this was really Shirley Temple’s childhood home, and I respond with a nod and show them a few pictures of Shirley standing by the courtyard fountain or the photo of her and her brothers in the house’s foyer. Sometimes I tell guests about how composer Arnold Schoenberg, who lived across the street from Shirley Temple in the 1930s, was constantly disheartened by the fact that the frequently-passing tour buses would point out on their loud speakers her house and not his.
Well, the truth is that’s not this house. That’s the house Shirley Temple and her family moved into after this house, a few blocks away on Rockingham Drive in Brentwood. I think Julie would have especially enjoyed me telling people that pseudo-fib. Julie knew the truth, and the truth is, people don’t want the facts. They want the myth. They want the sparkle.