Down by the Boardwalk


This past weekend saw the “first and only” (a promotional brochure touted) Venice Beach Biennial, a festival of performance, sculpture and installation organized by Hammer Museum curator Ali Subotnick as part of “Made in LA” [through Sept. 2]. The event significantly expanded that survey’s mandate to present the work of locals, including vendors and artists in their own right who regularly sell their work on the beach.

Pink balloons led Sunday morning pedestrians past canopied tables with quintessential Venice wares—miniature carved totems, check; fluorescent-hued landscapes on canvas, check; hand-beaded jewelry, check. Non-beach artists opened their practices up to beach conventions. In some cases this meant artists forming underground economies of their own, as Erika Vogt did by circulating her own IOU currency among boardwalk merchants. (Vogt is a finalist for the American Idol-like Mohn prize the Hammer is awarding to one biennial participant.)

Exchange value and its accumulation in the rapid-paced Venice Beach bazaar was a recurring theme. Artist Carter Mull attempted to trade his watercolor-and-photo collage editions, telling A.i.A, “I tried to barter with some local vendors, but they weren’t having it. ‘Cash only,’ they said. I did manage to trade works with some gutter punks.” Mull also set up a step-and-repeat scrim printed with the word “everywhere” in a repetitive scramble, where visitors could have their picture taken and emailed to them later for the price of filling out a generic questionnaire that collected information about their favorite brands and foods. “I wanted to use the commercial site of the stall to create a sociological laboratory to consider the relationship of artistic production to production period.”

Asked how many passersby had taken interest, the artist replied, “Once they figure out they can tell me what their favorite labels and breakfast foods are, they are hooked in.” Mull’s dealer, Marc Foxx, stopped by and casually sifted through some completed surveys, noting that a younger and Asian crowd dominated the file, a group distinguished in marketing terms for their brand loyalty. A bystander stopped behind Foxx to ask, “What’s with all the Cokes?” pointing to the stacks of Coca-Cola cans arranged on the table in two-by-three-by-two-can blocks. “It’s for display,” Mull replied. He had been asked about Andy Warhol several times throughout the weekend.

Vlada Stanisavlevic, a veteran beach artist planted not far from Mull, indicated that the crowd was slightly larger in number than an average weekend. “But not twice the average or anything like that,” he quipped, adding, “the artists they brought in are good and are making us look bad!” Stanisavlevic showed graphite and airbrush drawings of recording artists like Drake, Steven Tyler and The Notorious B.I.G.

Towards noon, Subotnick coasted up on a black beach cruiser toting fresh juices, stopping to deliver one to painter Arthure Moore, the creator of the festival’s irreverent logo, Funky Pussy (2012), which shows an Art Nouveau pink cat giving the middle finger. Early in the project’s planning Subotnick connected with Moore, who became the unofficial liaison between the Hammer crowd and the boardwalk community. “Without Arthure, people were really skeptical about what we were doing,” Subotnick told A.i.A. “He talked to people, explained to them that it was something good and that we were going to bring attention to them and that we weren’t trying to just take over.”

Local beach artists were well represented in the festival’s pamphlet, and they were the only participants on the boardwalk to know where they would be installed. Spaces for invited artists were first come, first served. “We’ve come down here early every morning and have completely integrated with the veterans in a way that is seamless-people don’t even know which ones have always been here all along and which ones have been brought in,” said Subotnick.

Artists Kurt Mueller and Chelsea Beck collaborated with a former boardwalk artist, José Claustro, by working as his dealers, showing his papier-mâché figurative heads of Charlie Chaplin, Queen Elizabeth, Homer Simpson and the artist himself (with removable white fisherman hat), among others, on slick wooden pedestals. Mueller informed a potential collector, “Both of the Fridas are sold,” referring to the heads of Frida Kahlo, “but the Jesus is still available.”

Artists Kate Brown and Monique Van Genderen, mimicking the vernacular of local vendors, brought small-scale paintings and DVD bootlegs (made by the likes of Alice Könitz and Laura Owens) to sell. “We mashed two ideas together: abstract painting, as the boardwalk is heavy on figurative works, and bootlegs, but here of artists’ videos,” explained Van Genderen. Katie Grinnan’s work on view at their site, a YouTube capture projected on a slab of concrete, married their two concepts in a single form. Bootlegs were on sale for $20-$2,000. Brown remarked, “People are actually seeing these obscure art films. We have a portable DVD player, so customers have been able to get a preview. We hook them in thinking it’s some sort of pop film.”

The stand of Alexis Smith and Scott Grieger was rife with activity from passersby young and old, who fingered their screen-printed canvas totes of black-and-white happy faces superimposed on skulls, white plaster light socket sculptures containing skulls as outlets, and gold leaf miniature editions that resembled melting Almond Roca candies. Everything was going for $5, $10, or $20. Grieger joked, “We started at MoMA, and now we’re working our way down!”