Questions for Joel Mesler of Greater LA

by Heather Corcoran, June 2011

The elevator opens onto a stretch of the California Freeway, the side of the road. Ruben Ochoa’s shape-shifting Lenticular print is the opening image of Greater LA, a survey of contemporary art from Los Angeles, an exhibition located—curiously—in the heart of SoHo. His highway is an iconic image of a city built on iconic images: the beach, the blonde, fast cars and movie stars. (For the art set it’s more like Burden, Baldessari, Ruscha and Chicago).

Organized by a collector, a curator and a gallerist (Eleanor Cayre, Benjamin Godsill and Joel Mesler, respectively), Greater LA imports new work from about fifty West Coast artists to New York City. Featuring established artists—Amanda Ross Ho, Brendan Fowler, Kori Newkirk—and newcomers, the exhibition is filled with similar only-in-L.A. images: Alex Israel’s assemblage of faux-Classical statuary and other junk rented from a Hollywood prop house, Alex Prager’s seductive film-still photos and Technicolor collages by Justin Lowe and Matt Lipps. In one piece, a sculpture by Ry Rockland, the backside of a wall of sunglasses reveals a collection of chewing gum, glassine bags and other beach detritus.

With so many artists dealing in different issues and media, the show can be a bit unwieldy. But what this survey lacks in narrative, it makes up in excitement. Could Los Angeles be the most important cultural capital in America today?

To find out more about the current state of West Coast art, Artwrit spoke with Joel Mesler, one of the show’s organizers and co-owner of New York’s UNTITLED. As a veteran of the California culture scene, Mesler served as ambassador for this cross-country conversation.

HC: Tell me about the exhibition Greater LA. What was the goal?
JM: It’s just people working right now in Los Angeles, artists working right now.

You worked with two other curators (Eleanor Cayre and Benjamin Godsill). How did the show come about?
We just sort of got together one day and came up with the idea. Just one of those things, you get together and realize that it was actually a good idea and you start the follow-through.

How did you choose these artists?
I think all three of us had a group of artists in mind, and then just being in dialogue with those artists, about what other artists that they were looking at, that they were excited by a very organic process. Being fairly familiar with that city, it wasn’t too difficult of a process.

As the show came together did any themes emerge among the artists?
I would say that the thing I noticed the most was the materiality of the artists—using materials in an interesting way, and formulating new languages. Due to the landscape of L.A. and the size, there’s a sort of organic scrappiness that exists in the work.

There were so many works that seemed they could have only been made in L.A.: People are dealing with subjects like film—whether it’s through props or imagery. It’s really striking. Taking a broader view, how would you characterize the current art scene in L.A.?
I don’t think that there is an art scene; I think there are several different art scenes co-mingling right now. That’s what we were hoping to accomplish with a show like this, to sort of capture those different art worlds within Los Angeles. Back in the beginning, you had Ferus Gallery and the majority of artists showing, exhibiting in dialogue coming out of that galley. Whereas now you have so many relevant galleries that are exhibiting very different approaches to art-making in Los Angeles. Back in the day, it was West Hollywood, then it moved to Venice, and you had a very core area where the artists primarily had their studios. Now, you have artists in Venice, you have artists in Culver City, spanning all the way east to Chinatown, Downtown and then even further.

Aside from geography, how about ideas or trends or issues? Are there certain tendencies you’re seeing?
I think every group is dealing with different issues in their work east into Highland Park. It’s a very horizontal landscape. I wouldn’t say there’s one overarching manifesto that is happening or coming out of Los Angeles. I definitely think that they have more time away from the market; the market is not as overarching as it is in places like New York, so there’s a connection. The city is like Berlin right now, where artists are a bit more market-removed. Which I think, for the majority of artists, only helps the work.

Is there a starting-point you recommend for someone looking to get familiarized with the art scene?
For more established galleries you have Blum & Poe, obviously; you have David Kordansky, Suzanne Vielmetter. And then you have Mandrake Bar, which is co-owned by different artists in Los Angeles, in Culver City. Then, when you start to move East you have more the recent graduates from CalArts and Art Center moving to Chinatown, which has actually been a relevant emerging art scene for about twelve years—it started with Chinatown Art Objects that moved to Chinatown in 1999. A lot of those galleries have moved to Culver City; I started in Chinatown and I moved to New York. But you still have very cheap rent in Chinatown so you see a lot of young artists and young entrepreneurs opening spaces in Chinatown and artists getting studios around there.

You mentioned CalArts. That institution has been such an important force in West Coast art; does it still play a big factor?
Oh yeah. I think CalArts, Art Center, USC now, UCLA. Black Dragon Society was started by two UCLA professors, and the majority of the artists that they showed were all UCLA students; that was very relevant in the early 2000s. An artist in the show, Aaron Wrinkle, he started a gallery called Dan Graham, he’s from CalArts and he brought a lot of the CalArts sort of post-school dialogue to Chinatown.

Could you see yourselves curating a similar show for a different city?
That’s sort of where the dialogue is headed for us right now.

Any places in mind?

Is there anything missing in the conversation about the show?
I think any time you do an exhibition on this scale, and without institutional support, that’s the story. Three private individuals mounting an exhibition on this scale, doing it because the institutions can’t do it at that kind of pace. There are always going to be holes and problems with an exhibition like that. I think that should be part of the conversation.

Greater LA
15 May—10 June 2011
483 Broadway, Second Floor, New York