"How to Change" is a limited series for “Southland Sessions” exploring the most critical issues facing Southern California culture makers in this pivotal historical moment. Each column will explore a question posed to a range of artists and culture workers, and include recommendations to address these concerns from a practical, action-oriented perspective.
For the third installment of “How to Change,” I asked, “How can artists bring attention to their work when the usual outlets like galleries and art fairs are inaccessible?”
Coronavirus has forced art galleries and museums to close. Art fairs are cancelled well into 2021. Deprived of venues to present their work, artists continue to create and to plan. Some are making their own platforms for art while the usual outlets are offline or hosting reduced programs. I asked Los Angeles artists and culture workers how they are getting their work and others’ out into the world while we’re all still mostly staying at home.
Peter Wu+ is the founder of EPOCH, a virtual art gallery hosting its fourth group exhibition since the start of quarantine. Unlike most online exhibitions that comprise mostly still images, EPOCH’s exhibitions have taken place in unique, fully modeled environments with atmospheric effects including daylight, water, trees and wind. Artworks have didactic labels that pop up when clicked, providing all the information one would have access to in a museum.
The gallery’s latest exhibition, Labyrinth, on view until Oct. 23, presents seven artists in a virtual, navigable art gallery that has been designed by artist Amir Nikravan based on a sixth-century CE Persian architectural glyph. Featuring works by Dorit Cypis, Lito Kattou, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Danielle Dean, Christian Ramirez and Paul Rosero Contreras, Labyrinth considers space and its absence — a chronic tension in our virtual atmosphere. Volume and flatness become metaphors for expansion and contraction, in politics as well as in our living ecological and biological systems.
Says Wu+, “When the quarantine started, we witnessed the galleries’ and institutions’ paralysis in adapting to an online world.” Wu+, a multimedia artist and COLA awardee, typically works as an exhibition installer for venues including Vincent Price Art Museum and 18th Street Arts Center, which have been closed since the spring. He explains how “EPOCH began organically from an accumulation of transformations within my own practice and from experiences gained from my many different roles within art institutions. From this perspective, I set out to create something that challenged the status quo while providing artists with a critical platform for people to engage their works virtually.”
For Wu+, EPOCH is not only a critical forum but a political one. “The Black Lives Matter movement unlocked some deep personal trauma in dealing with systemic and intergenerational racism, and I felt future exhibitions had to reflect this sentiment,” he says. The previous exhibition, Fallen Monuments, addressed racist art history and racial profiling. Labyrinth contains references to police brutality, gun violence and internet incitement from incisive video artist Huffman, as well as soothing, generative words in an audio piece from artist and conflict mediator Dorit Cypis. Christian Ramirez’s painting “Bounty” (2019) shows a pile of severed hands in a barren golden landscape, a reference to the brutality with which the expansion of the United States was achieved. Danielle Dean’s 3D virtual installation, “Their Bed” (2020) addresses the gig economy from the perspective of the house-bound Amazon Mechanical Turk worker, whose condition of immersion in 24/7 labor without boundaries prefigures our larger social condition under quarantine. Meeting the present is part of the mandate: “EPOCH seeks to advance the momentum of this cultural moment and support BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists.” We can expect more socially engaged, provocative and anti-racist exhibitions in this space going forward.
Artist and art therapist-in-training, Nicole Rademacher, considers a virtual art gallery as a place to create communities of mutual support. Acogedor presents the virtual exhibition, home, until Oct. 3, the gallery’s first. Rademacher founded Acogedor as a conversation series in her South L.A. home in 2017, and later put it on hold as she returned to school and attended to other urgent life matters. “The events were sporadic,” she explains. “Until this year, I had only done one other event, which took place about a year after the first one.” The first event with artists Umi W.F. Hsu and Angela Waseskuk and midwife Debbie Allen explored themes of home and dislocation, addressing parenthood, adoption and transcultural experience from a range of perspectives.
Rademacher describes how, “As I went back to grad school to study art therapy, the space and the idea to do even one event a year was put on hold, and once the lockdown started, it did not seem viable to do an in-person event even if it were only a few people 6 feet apart. Programming events independently while also balancing paid work and child-raising became more manageable after the quarantine.”
Rademacher continues, “While sheltering at home, I started to look at more art online through online exhibitions and having the time to be able to virtually attend artist panels and screenings. Suddenly, these events became more accessible. I realized that I could now do more events because they can be online. And now, after six months in lockdown, people are more familiar with virtually attending shows and other events.” The exhibition, home, features 42 artists in five countries, presenting artworks and discussions as well as Instagram takeovers over the duration of the exhibition.
Acogedor is hosting an artist talk each week highlighting the four threads around which the works in the show are organized. For “Time” on Sept. 10, Evelyn Chávez, Óscar Abraham Corona, and Daniela Navarro spoke with Rademacher in a Zoom conversation that was simultaneously broadcast on Facebook Live. Corona described how his sculpture, “Strawberry Flavored Licorice” (2020) is an attempt to create a focusing object to transcend the sense of “looming fear and looming uncertainty” that has accompanied life under the stay-at-home order. Says Rademacher of the conversation program, “I wanted to continue my original concept of having a space that is inclusive and supportive, of having a space that investigates intimacy, belonging and identity. But through the virtual platform I wanted to question our whole notion of home as we now are all in our living spaces more than any other spaces we had previously inhabited. I set up an open call trying to reach as many artists as possible.” Rademacher brings communications skills honed in staff roles at nonprofit and civic arts organizations to her project. Though without a physical space, Acogedor has a comprehensive visual identity and a mailing list of arts supporters to help connect the artists who emerged through that call with a wide audience.
The artists who participated are diverse in style, medium, ethnicity, gender identity, nationality, age and sexual orientation. Acogedor is motivated by this inclusive spirit: “It was important to me, as the impetus of the space is to reflect on belonging and be inclusive, that I explicitly write in the call that the exhibition is particularly interested in supporting BIPOC, queer, disabled, female, gender non-conforming and the adoptee community.” Even when galleries and museums are in regular operation, artists from these groups are often overlooked for institutional support. “It was also important to showcase experiences of being home during lockdown –– all the work had to have been completed during the quarantine (since March 13, 2020) –– in order to address what is happening and how it is not only affecting how we view art but also how we make it.” Artists had to make their work inside their homes, with limited access to studios and workshops where they might normally produce their projects.
While galleries and museums gradually reopen, they will be presenting exhibitions and programs by appointment for the foreseeable future. Seeing art in person will always be a necessity, but the social dimensions of art may stay online for some time to come. Busy art openings will no longer be the place for artists to connect with peers, patrons and supporters of their work. Online platforms, public dialogues and virtual installations offer spaces of kinship where artists can build a deep investment in their work and a strong support system to help it circulate. The art world is made by relationships, not only by venues.