By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
5:00 AM AKST, January 26, 2013
Invited to provide a table-setter for the L.A. Art Show, a sprawling and mind-bogglingly diverse annual marketplace and smorgasbord for the eyes, Marilyn Lowey delivered an installation that's cheekily site-specific. Titled "Translating Transitions #4," it's possibly the biggest — but most obscure — price tag ever seen.
It occupies 8,000 cubic feet of the cavernous entrance pavilion of the Los Angeles Convention Center's South Hall, through which attendees pass en route to displays from more than 140 exhibitors, including this year a large contingent of galleries from China.
Lowey's piece looks like an arena-rock lighting grid (Lowey has created concert lighting schemes for Neil Diamond and Cyndi Lauper, among others), housing 52 meter-long, frosted-Lucite video display tubes that flicker gradually from white to cool pink to a hotter reddish glow.
Lowey said she laid out the tubes to spell the piece's price in Morse code: "thirty-eight thousand."
"You've got to have a sense of humor in your work," she explained.
Aiming to top last year's announced attendance of more than 50,000, the show, which runs through Sunday, is a pop-up temple to the ever-counterintuitive art trade. In virtually all other business realms, red ink marks a loss. Here, when something is sold, the gallerist celebrates by putting a red dot on its demure white pricing card.
An incomplete eyeballing on Thursday turned up prices ranging from $400 for a small piece that the King Space Gallery of Shanghai was showing in its U.S. debut, to $375,000 for "Jewelled Hills" by Joseph Kleitsch, one of the stars of the early 20th century California Impressionist movement that's a main focus for its seller, George Stern Fine Arts of West Hollywood.
Unlike other art shows that are strictly for contemporary work, just about anything goes at the L.A. Art Show. That differentiates it from Art Contemporary Los Angeles, running through Sunday at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, where it's hoping to top last year's draw of about 10,000, and Art Platform Los Angeles, which announced that it attracted nearly 13,500 visitors to the Barker Hangar for its most recent run in late September.
One wing of the L.A. Art Show houses "historic and traditional" booths, where the floors were carpeted and walls tended to be coated with felt in deep, royal colors.
The modern and contemporary section's booths had bare concrete floors and plain white walls.
There, Shepard Fairey, a star of 21st century political postering and street art, was debuting a series of prints flecked with diamond dust, and a museum-style special themed exhibition, "Letters From Los Angeles: Text in Southern California Art," had been assembled by L.A. gallerist Jack Rutberg. It gathered works featuring words or letters by contemporary luminaries such as Ed Ruscha, Raymond Pettibon, Alexis Smith and John Baldessari.
Rutberg said that besides documenting the importance of the written word to the L.A. art scene, the show aimed to comment on the self-concept of the only major city he can think of that commonly goes by its initials alone.
And then there was the debut of Norman Rockwell's sculptural work.
Well, not precisely. Deborah Murry of L.A.'s Murloge Gallery of Fine Art said she got permission from the widely if not critically beloved illustrator's heirs to create bronze sculptural renderings of scenes he'd painted for magazine covers.
The actual artist is Joey Orosco, who's done special effects sculpting for films, including "Avatar" and "Jurassic Park." Now, for $16,500, one may acquire a three-dimensional, table-top-size avatar of "The Connoisseur," a 1962 cover for the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell placed a balding, middle-aged man in a gray suit in front of a Jackson Pollock drip painting, the artist's way of winking at Everyman's struggle to understand abstract art.
For a not-so-amused but extremely passionate commentary along similar lines, one could buttonhole Steven Diamant, owner of Arcadia Gallery in New York City. Diamant said he's done gangbuster business at the L.A. Art Show for nearly a decade because the precisely drawn, emotionally dramatic and rather glamorous portraiture by living artists that he mainly shows is missing from L.A. galleries, and he's happy to supply what he sees as a considerable unmet demand.
Diamant said he'd been rebuffed when he tried to rent a booth at Art Miami, one of the leading satellite contemporary art shows that have proliferated each December alongside the nation's most prestigious annual art fair, Art Basel Miami Beach.
"It seems that representational painting has to be disturbing or ugly" to be taken seriously, he complained, adding that he wouldn't even think of trying to be included at the Art Los Angeles Contemporary show.
Most of the tastemaking critics and curators have "a need to find something new, and as far as they're concerned, representational painting is not new," regardless of its skill and impact, said Diamant, who priced his wares from $3,000 to $70,000.
With 13 paintings sold by the end of the fair's first full day, he said he would probably surpass his haul of 23 sales in 2012. After showing for years in the historic and traditional section, he'd moved into the modern/contemporary neighborhood, hoping to make a statement that his kind of art deserves the contemporary realm's respect.
Diversity also held true for the attendees. Sharing a box lunch with George Stern at a small table in his booth was one of his regular customers, Lenore Shapiro, who at 92 has been collecting art avidly for more than half a century, switching in the 1990s from the likes of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to California Impressionists. She said she loves the fact that she's been to many of the places envisioned on her walls.
Nearby strolled Heather Hale, who said she was "playing hooky from writing," gorging on art instead of working on a TV sitcom she hopes to pitch soon, debit card handy in case something not too far outside her budget demanded an outlay.
Adam Gamboa, a thick-bearded, curly-headed aspiring auto mechanic, passed through "China: Fusion," a special exhibition from eight Chinese galleries. Gamboa, 24, said he never goes to museums or galleries, but when the art show mailed him a flier, fond memories of his high school art classes kicked in and he decided to check it out.
He had no intention of buying anything. But on Thursday, at least, not even the highest-rolling connoisseur was likely to buy from the "China: Fusion" show. Most of its pieces had been sent by ship and gotten hung up in Customs, and near day's end, attendants were feverishly installing paintings that hadn't arrived until midafternoon.
The 6,000 opening night attendees on Wednesday had seen photographs from the show's catalog, hung where the paintings should have been. Curator Sun Qian hadn't lost her sense of humor over it, managing a smile and joking in Chinese — relayed in English by the show's promoter, Li Jiangyi — about fusion being difficult to achieve in art just as it is in physics.
The mass-mailing promo gambit that had drawn Gamboa came from L.A. Art Show's new owner, Florida-based Palm Beach Show Group, which runs several other art, antiques and jewelry fairs. It bought the Los Angeles show last summer from the Fine Art Dealers Assn., the nonprofit group that had launched it somewhat inauspiciously in the basement of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1995.
Stern, a founding board member, said the dealers' association could take the show only so far because the members have their own galleries to run. With Kim Martindale, the show's general manager from the beginning, still on board as a minority partner, Palm Beach Show Group's president, Scott Diament, said spending on advertising and marketing has eclipsed previous levels, bringing new wrinkles such as a television ad buy.
Diament said his company bought L.A. Art Show for a seven-figure sum because "it has the bones of a world-class event. L.A. is one of the best art markets on the planet, and my plan is to put it on people's calendars worldwide, like Art Basel. It may take me 10 years, but one day people will talk about this show as a must-attend event."
The L.A. Art Show
Where: Los Angeles Convention Center South Hall, 1201 S. Figueroa St.
When: Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $20 or $15 purchased online