In The Make: Fieldtrip to LA

Founded in early 2011 by photographer Klea McKenna and writer Nikki Grattan, In the Make is a collaboration that offers an intimate look at current art practice. Through visiting artists in their studios we learn about each artist’s space, process, influences, and the behind-the-scenes elements that are often unseen in a gallery or museum setting. We document these visits with the hope of revealing both the richness and the daily realities of creative work. Our aim is to raise interest in art practice, while simultaneously debunking the romantic myth of the artist. We recognize that creative work is real work, done by real, passionate people in all sorts of different spaces. We are not art critics, but rather deeply curious observers; looking for the ways that each artist’s aesthetic pervades their environment and reveals their perspective.

The following essay, “Fieldtrip to LA,” was originally posted on In The Make in February 2012. 

When Klea and I started In The Make we had a little dream that eventually we’d be able to hit the road and take trips to visit artists beyond the Bay Area. We hoped these future journeys would enable good old-fashioned adventure, novel experiences, and a more intimate understanding of the art coming out of different landscapes and communities. Well, we finally took our first trip and went down to Los Angeles for a week, and it was everything we imagined and more! Our inaugural excursion was sponsored by liveBooks, a Bay Area-based company that provides easy-to-use, feature-rich, and award-winning websites for photographers, designers and other creative professionals. Klea has been using liveBooks for her artist website for several years, so we are excited to be collaborating with a company we really know and believe in.

Over the course of five days we visited twelve different artists in their studios. It was a grueling schedule— we left early in the mornings and often didn’t get back until late in the evening. And though the friends we stayed with were bummed not to have more time with us, they welcomed us back each night with delicious home-cooked meals, glasses of wine, and good conversation. I don’t think we could have made it through some of those long days without the generosity and comfort of our friends.

We also couldn’t have gotten through our crazy itinerary without the accommodating and welcoming spirit of all the artists we visited. Our trip coincided with a very busy time for art in Los Angeles. Quite a few events were happening— LA Art ShowArt Los Angeles ContemporaryAffordable Art FairPacific Standard Time, and some of the artists we visited had upcoming shows that were fast approaching and yet they still managed to make time for us. There certainly was a reverberating electricity in the air, a palpable hustle and bustle. Ambition, energy, and throbbing momentum pervade the cultural landscape, and I think that enterprising push to always be moving forward has a lot to do with the physical sprawl of Los Angeles. This city lends itself to thinking big and to inhabiting space with an unadulterated freedom. A lot of the studios we visited were good-sized converted garages or wide, high-ceilinged rooms in old commercial spaces, and because bigger spaces can accommodate bigger work, much of the work we saw was in fact very large. Another common thread among the artists we visited was that many of them were working within abstraction, which created a particular visual experience for us— form and materiality took precedence, bright saturated colors burst forth, and shifts of light and perception were revealed. As Rebecca Morris (one of the artists we visited) plainly put it in her 2004 manifesto, “Abstraction never left, motherfuckers.”

The complexion of light, distinct architecture, and the far-flung sprawl of Los Angeles create indelible impressions; it’s a city that I’ve always experienced more viscerally than intellectually— the golden glow of light that falls across sidewalks and cuts through windows, the speed at which the darkness of night descends upon the horizon, and the intense colors of a bruising sky as day turns to night, the geometry of the low-slung buildings, the shifting textures and surfaces, and the feeling that everything is moving outwards, rambling and unchecked.

While we were out in Claremont visiting Sandeep Mukherjee, we checked out “Dividing the Light” a Skyspace by James Turrell on the Pomona College campus. The architectural installation increases the viewer’s awareness of light, the sky, and the act of perception. Essentially a metal canopy frames a window to the sky, and at sunrise and sunset the canopy is bathed in changing colors: pale lilacs, deep purples, turquoises, rich blues, fiery oranges, and dense reds parade across its surface, moving seamlessly from one hue to the next. We sat under that canopy completely awe-struck—suddenly watching a sunset became an entirely new experience, bringing to the forefront the subtleties of an everyday occurrence. Klea and I turned into little kids; we oohed and aahed our way through that hour, with wide-open eyes and mouths, completely steeped in a moment rife with imagination and wonder. Certainly, a favorite tick in time for me.

A recent Pacific Standard Time exhibition speaks to the kind of experience Klea and I had not only under the James Turrell canopy, but also just driving around, witnessing the changing light and how it interacted with the architecture and landscape, and how much it affected our moods and perceptions concerning our surroundings. The show, called Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface highlights artists in Los Angeles and Southern California in the 1960’s who pioneered approaches to art that focused on visual perception rather than discreet objects and who often used light as a medium. The influence of the Light and Space art movement was certainly prevalent among a few of the artists we visited, most notably Fran Siegel and Claude Collins-Stracensky, whose work plays with perception, the nature of light, and the innate physicality of materials. Both of them had amazing studios that I wanted to linger in. Their spaces were bright with light, alive with shadows, and readily revealed how their work is in direct dialogue with the environment that surrounds it.

Los Angeles is an immense sweeping city, endlessly reaching out for the land that surrounds it, encompassing hills and valleys, flatlands, forest and desert. Getting around isn’t easy; the network of roads and freeways that run through the city are complex, extensive and often very congested. It’s mind-blowing how long it can take to get somewhere just eight miles away, and how many hours people spend in their cars on average, and how even after years of living in Los Angeles people still have to map out directions. We became very familiar with the act of iPhone mapping— everyday we had to work out where different neighborhoods were in relation to each other, and how best to get from one location to the next and back again, while still maintaining our punctuality and sanity. To say it was a challenge would be an understatement, but somehow we pulled it off with minimal snags.

In a way, scrambling to keep up with our itinerary was fun. All the driving about took us into parts of Los Angeles we might not have otherwise experienced. We moved through industrial areas with ghostly side streets, under the towering and iconic silhouettes of palm trees, beneath the roar of traffic on freeway overpasses, up into hills dense with lush vegetation, and past little bungalows with tidy front lawns. We went to Echo Park, South Pasadena, San Pedro, Glendale, Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Glassell Park, Santa Monica, Silverlake, Downtown, out to Claremont, and all the places in between where we stopped for food or to re-map routes and sort out our confusion. In our mad dashes to eat lunches in between studio visits, we got lucky and stumbled upon some great spots and satisfied our often desperate hunger with memorable meals. These unexpected finds are places we hope to return to, along with the few but cool thrift stores and bars we managed to squeeze in some time for. We ate amazing bowls of lentil soup at Schodorf’s Luncheonette, found a few sweet deals at 8 Limbs, and had not nearly enough tasty cocktails at Mohawk Bend on our last night. Next time around we hope to stumble upon even more happy surprises.

Go to www.inthemake.com to see the full studio visits with the 12 LA artists we spent time with.

And again, we’d like to thank all the wonderful artists who invited us into their studios, and our awesome friends who wholeheartedly put out the welcome mat— we couldn’t have done any of this without you all!!

For full biographies on photographer Klea McKenna and writer Nikki Grattan please see here.

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