Mat Gleason curates “Fresh” at South Bay Contemporary – A year ago, none of this existed: All work is from 2014
Guest curator Mat Gleason has spent a couple of hours moving artwork back and forth, testing different combinations until the pieces begin to fall into place. He approaches the layout for “Fresh” like a field commander planning a strategic battle, the battleground in this case being the spacious South Bay Contemporary, a museum-sized gallery in the former homes of Border Books and the Palos Verdes Art Center.
“I’m trying to visualize the opening,” he says, “because if there’s 90 artists and each of them has five friends, there’ll be 450 people; and you know there’re some popular people here that are gonna have at least six or seven friends.”
Gleason’s a known quantity in the L.A.-based art world. He’s published the influential “Coagula Art Journal” since 1992 and his gallery in Chinatown, Coagula Curatorial, gets written up locally and nationwide. He’s also got hard-nosed views about art: If the Emperor’s not wearing clothes he’s the first to notice. And he’ll speak up about it, too.
For all that, it’s rare for Gleason to curate juried shows in other venues, but Peggy Zask has been able to get him out to the South Bay, and specifically to Rolling Hills Estates. It’s still a few days from the opening when our meeting takes place (and that opening in fact took place last Saturday), but the venture is looking beneficial for all concerned.
With 17,000 square feet at his disposal, Gleason says he probably chose more artists than he normally would have, and the press release puts the total selected at 97.
“Then I realized it would be better if the show was a cacophony that really reflected the wild times we live in, and the crazy nature of the L.A. art world, rather than trying to make a safe homogenous show. The space is so beautifully broken up into little rooms that I think each room can have its harmony outside of that cacophony.”
Question what you see
The show is titled “Fresh” because the one requirement for entries was that the artwork had to have been created in 2014. Since it was an open call with no specific theme announced, the submissions varied widely. Zask says that over half of what was submitted was rejected, but not necessarily because the work was inferior.
“Peggy and I sat down with all the entries,”Gleason explains, “and a lot of them were just not my cup of tea, straight out. The show I want to curate, obviously it’s going to have my name on it, so if there’s a more traditional painting as opposed to something that’s a little more contemporary or edgy…” – and Gleason indicates a portrait of George Washington with some abstract brushstrokes where the face would normally be. “See,” he continues, “something like that opens more possibilities, (and) I prefer art that opens the viewer’s imagination rather than ones that define a rigorous existence, like a traditional, realistic landscape painting that just says ‘This is what the place looks like.’ So, that’s my aesthetic.
“I think I’m well known enough now,” Gleason adds, “that anybody who entered this show should have known that: We had very few entries that were so traditional that you might mistake them for a Thomas Kinkaid.”
We pause in front of an assemblage (which hangs on the wall like a canvas) – maybe three dozen yellow taxis, probably Hot Wheels models, each one 2”-3” long, partially “submerged” in a sea of black.
“There’s something going on here,” Gleason says, “more than just somebody who put a bunch of taxi cabs, little Mattel cars, on a [backdrop]. There’s thought. And then is there form here or is it random?”
Peggy Zask thinks she sees the pattern of someone’s head. As usual, I see Jesus. On the other hand, since the cars are up to their wheel-wells in oil, or literally oil paint, perhaps the work is a pitch for ridesharing or fuel efficiency? Maybe the artist’s father was a cabbie? Fare game, and all that.
“I want you to have more questions when you look at this art,” Gleason says. “That’s the art that’s always excited me, and so I was really happy that there were enough people who at least knew my aesthetic enough to [submit] what I consider to be challenging work. Even in the abstract paintings there’s not somebody here trying to be Rothko or trying to be Pollock: They’re trying to find their own visual vocabulary within abstraction, and that to me is what I appreciate the most – an artist who’s really trying to blaze their own trail.”
Everyone who goes into “Fresh” should come out with their heart beating faster, because art needs to raise questions in the viewer, as Gleason asserts, and it also needs to provoke. My own idea of art is of something that, when you lock eyes with it, leaps down from the wall or springs up off the floor and chases you around the gallery (a new film that does precisely that is “Birdman,” with Michael Keaton). If the artist is afraid that he or she may offend you, what kind of artist are they? If he or she wants to depict ISIS fighters using human heads as bowling balls, go for it, but make it dynamic. If they want to chastise the Anti-Defamation League for denying us the opportunity to see “The Death of Klinghoffer,” do it with pleasure and gusto and a nice large canvas. However, political or religious edginess is always in short supply, or else very few artists with real talent are putting themselves on the line.
Station to station
“Fresh” crackles with energy, and it’s designed to pull in the viewer (gazing in from outside) with art that that should have a wider appeal. The first room mostly features what Gleason refers to as lowbrow art. That’s not a derogatory term, but one that often goes hand-in-glove with pop surrealism or storybook surrealism. “Lowbrow art,” says Gleason, “is basically realistic art that has the acceptance that cartoons are not real, but are real enough in our existence that they can be used as a point of departure to make art with. These artists have a desire to replicate that which we experience visually through the filter of a cartoon concept – and that to me in a nutshell is lowbrow.”
Although not in the show, Greg “Craola” Simkins, Robert Williams, and Mark Ryden would seem to be examples of the lowbrow genre. The point is, though, this sort of work is highly inventive and yet generally accessible to a large audience. Like a flytrap, it can lure in passersby, and that’s the idea.
“If you want kids to listen to classical music,” Gleason says, “you don’t play them classical music (right off the bat). You play something (else) and slowly integrate them into classical music. That’s how I look at abstract painting.”
And so it’s in the second gallery that more abstract work creeps into the mix. It’s like the viewer is being gently acclimatized as we move even further away from figurative, representational work.
“So if the first room was 101 this is like your sophomore class – not that these are sophomore artists,” Gleason says, clarifying a statement that could be interpreted wrongly and lead to his crucifixion. “Anybody in this show could be shown in a gallery in L.A. This is not amateur hour. I’m just talking about the viewer” – the viewer to be lured deeper and deeper into the exhibition space.
The third gallery – if one walks straight through from the entrance – contains a preponderance of abstract art, and perhaps now the viewer is ready for it. You see, Mat Gleason was pretty smart in how well he orchestrated all this.
All roads lead to the hallway and to the bar (and the restrooms) at the far end of the gallery. There’s also a side room not to be missed, although it’s a little darker than the others. This is where the photo-based work is hanging, and in some ways it’s a bit of an oasis in Gleason’s cacophonic overview of L.A. art.
As for the long hallway itself, it comes prepackaged with its own challenges.
“It was a bit problematic at first,” Gleason says. “This is gonna be a thoroughfare. If you’re in the hallway (as an artist) I have to make that special for you as much as I’m putting you anywhere else. Like, if you’re in the front room is that more special than being in the hallway? Well, some would say yeah, but what I’m trying to do in the hallway is open it up.
“So, if you have a piece in the hallway, nothing else is near it; it’s its own piece. It’s also like small solo shows.”
Gleason, it’s obvious, wants every artwork to shine, and that’s what I mean about him being like a field commander planning a strategic campaign.
We’ve made the complete circuit, room to room, and taken in all there is to see. Gleason is pleased at how it’s shaping up and says he’d stand behind each work (“It’s got my seal of approval.”). He feels that, right now, the pieces in the show are entirely representative of the art that’s being made in Los Angeles. Or, to give him the final word:
“This is a cross-section of what’s going on in L.A., in the studios. Absolutely.”
“Fresh” is on view through December at South Bay Contemporary, 550 Deep Valley Drive, #261, Rolling Hills Estates (below the Regal theaters). There’s a curator’s walkthrough with Mat Gleason on Friday, Nov. 21, from 8 to 10 p.m., and a fundraising Gala (with music, performance, and a silent auction) on Saturday, Dec. 6, from 6 to 9 p.m. Tickets available online. Hours, Tuesday through Friday from 1 to 6 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 12 noon to 4 p.m. Closed Monday. (310) 429-0973 or go to southbaycontemporary.com.