Photo: Jonathan Griffin
Los Angeles - On a noisy and unlovely street at the southern end of downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District, across from the Greyhound bus station and a few doors down from a 24-hour McDonald’s, Range Rovers, Teslas and at least one stretch limo lined up for valet parking on Friday night. Their destination: a yellow-painted warehouse, formerly a clothing factory, that is the newest addition to the city’s art scene. Among the diverse crowd at the launch of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (or ICA LA, as it is known), LA art world luminaries such as George Herms, Kenny Scharf and Betye Saar mingled with younger figures including Jonas Wood, Rafa Esparza and gallerist Honor Fraser.
ICA LA is the reincarnation of the former Santa Monica Museum of Art, led since 2000 by director Elsa Longhauser. The kunsthalle-style space operated for 17 years in West Los Angeles’ Bergamot Station gallery complex until it closed in May 2015 after disagreements with the Santa Monica City Council over the complex’s redevelopment. After two years in the wilderness (a core staff working out of a temporary office, the institution rebranded as SMMoA Unbound), Longhauser triumphantly threw open the doors to the new ICA LA this weekend [9 September 2017], in a building thoughtfully renovated by Kulapat Yantrasast of LA architectural practice wHY. Longhauser is backed by a reinvigorated team that includes curator Jamillah James, who moved from the Hammer Museum in August 2016.
Elsa Longhauser, director of ICA LA. Photo: Jonathan Griffin
The first aspect of the new institution revealed to the public, last October, was its visual identity, specially conceived by native Angeleno Mark Bradford, an ICA LA supporter who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale this year. Bradford’s design for the ICA LA’s yellow and black logo was inspired, he said, by the brightly coloured letterpress merchant posters seen in working-class areas of the city, which he has frequently incorporated into his own artworks.
© Sarah Golonka/SMG Photography
The yellow-painted façade of the ICA LA shares the logo’s eye-catching colour scheme; Longhauser describes the building as “a lighthouse, a beacon that signals entry into this dynamic neighborhood”. The institution’s inclusive vibe is felt as soon as you walk through the building’s front door. To the left, the reception desk recalls the old Santa Monica space, surrounded by high shelves displaying books and items for sale. To the right, some tables – created by wHY designer Bob Dornberger – in front of shelves housing a library of Spanish-language children’s books, available to read or to buy. Architect Kulapat Yantrasast points out that “there is no back of house in this building”. Visitors immediately see the offices, the education space and the café; Yantrasast says: “I want you to walk in and feel the power of people.” The timber-ceilinged, light-filled main gallery is accessed past two smaller project rooms.
© Sarah Golonka/SMG Photography
The ICA LA’s first main exhibition, of the late Mexican self-taught artist Martín Ramírez, was timed to coincide with the Getty’s region-wide initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, devoted to exhibitions by artists from across Latin America. Ramírez, a major figure in the outsider art canon, left his ranch in rural Mexico in 1925 to find work on the Californian railroads. After he was made destitute by the Great Depression, he was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital by police who were convinced he was insane.
Martín Ramírez, Untitled (Train and Tunnel). Collection of Mary Lee Copp and Peter Formanek.
Ramírez remained institutionalized in California for the rest of his life, treated by doctors who spoke no Spanish, and diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia. In 1948, Tarmo Pasto, a professor of psychology and art, visited Ramírez’s hospital and noticed the remarkable drawings that he was making. He began supplying Ramírez with materials, and saving the results. Five years after Ramírez died in 1963, the Chicago Imagist Jim Nutt began teaching at Sacramento State College, and encountered Pasto’s collection. He persuaded his gallerist, Phyllis Kind, to purchase it in 1972, and subsequently acquired half of it himself.
Nutt and his wife, Gladys Nilsson, have lent 32 of the 51 pieces in the ICA LA’s show, including a monumental scroll, 18 feet long, never before exhibited. While Ramírez’s work commonly depicts autobiographical motifs including trains, animals and figures on horseback, much of this exhibition – subtitled ‘His Life in Pictures, Another Interpretation’ – is given over to his less widely known abstract line drawings.
Although she often paints on walls as well as on canvas, Los Angeles-based Sarah Cain says she is not a muralist. Her improvised, abstract site-specific painting for the ICA LA entrance, which includes deconstructed stretched canvases, drop cloths, floor tiles, sequined backpacks and a bench, is titled now I'm going to tell you everything, after a line in a poem by her friend, the septuagenarian avant-garde poet Bernadette Mayer. “The way she experiments with language and morphs the everyday into her work is a lot like how I paint,” Cain told me. When local youths threw a bench Mayer regularly sat on into an adjacent creek, Cain bought her a new one, and included an identical one in her installation for the ICA LA, on which visitors are welcome to sit.
Sarah Cain, Now I'm Going to Tell You Everything, 2017. ICA LA. Photo: Jeff McLane
When Bronx-based Abigail DeVille visited Los Angeles to research her commission for the ICA LA’s project room, she heard that “the centre of the city is really Skid Row”, according to curator Jamillah James. No Space Hidden (Shelter) is a maelstrom of found materials gathered from the streets in the area surrounding the ICA LA, spiralling out from what James calls a “black hole”. James says that she intends the concurrent installations by Cain and DeVille to “create dialogues and different points of entry” to the main Ramírez show. DeVille’s installation is especially sympathetic to the issues of cultural erasure and marginalisation expressed in Ramírez’s drawings.
Guests immersed in Abigail DeVille's No Space Hidden (Shelter). © Sarah Golonka/SMG Photography