Painting the Town

Los Angeles

Left: Getty Research Institute director Thomas Crow with artist Thomas Lawson. Right: Artist Laurie Nye. (All photos: Andrew Berardini)

While the Irish-at-heart stumbled through Saint Patrick’s Day fueled by unnaturally green beer and endless Jameson whiskey, I meandered past the car wrecks and sobriety checkpoints while trying to discern something—anything—about the state of painting in Los Angeles. With the evening promising a pair of Toms and new exhibitions at a trio of galleries with complimentary acronyms (LAXART, 1301PE, and ACME), I opted to limit myself to nonalcoholic beverages in order to increase my chances of making sense of it all.

At LAXART, artist and CalArts dean Thomas Lawson was celebrating his first painting solo in, well, a really long time. Having helped a generation of students chart its course, it only seemed fitting that his triumphant return should feature a series of map paintings. Nearly a dozen canvases explore the fantasies and follies of cartography, and they are paired with small portraits of current political leaders and the victims of their decisions. To launch the exhibition, the nonprofit gallery sponsored a Tom vs. Tom battle royale, with Lawson going head-to-head with the Getty Research Institute’s Thomas Crow, who will soon depart Los Angeles for the NYU professorship recently vacated by Robert Storr. Sharing a microphone, the two Toms sat at a long wooden table and sparred sotto voce about geopolitical mayhem and the trouble with abstract painting.

Near the end of their cordial yet evasive exchange, the dogged Crow finally pinned Lawson down by asking, “Would you say there’s a bit of romanticism in your paintings?” Sipping from his Campari and orange highball, Lawson grinned and replied, “Yeah, I’d cop to that.” Punctuated by incessant camera flashes, the conversation felt like a press conference. A woman behind me mused, suppressing a giggle, “They look like a couple of TV anchors! ‘And back to you, Tom.’”

Left: Artist Charline von Heyl. Right: Artist Shana Lutker with LAXART curators Aram Moshayedi and Lauri Firstenberg.

After the talk, I inched northeast to the gallery complex at 6150 Wilshire, where a slew of painting shows opened simultaneously: Paula Kane and Laurie Nye at Karyn Lovegrove, Nicola Tyson at Marc Foxx, Charline von Heyl at 1301PE, and Monique Prieto at ACME. Every gallery I hit was crowded, and, seeing faces familiar from my Culver City stop, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one has yet launched an opening-reception car-pool switchboard.

Los Angeles loves to hate painters—whether homegrown or imported. A few years ago, I attended a CalArts panel where the quirky, delicate Laura Owens was nearly lynched by a mob of students that lambasted her for numerous alleged crimes—from her “lack of politics” to her palette—without acknowledging the anticanvas stance beneath their anger. True to form, a few twentysomethings, having never made it past the bucket of beer in the courtyard, panned Saturday evening’s shows with offhand sneers. Perhaps they were uncomfortable with the one thread connecting the work: It all teetered on the verge of abstraction, walking the line between fantasy and reality without committing to either. In a way, you could say Los Angeles does the same thing.

Passing a six-car pileup on the 10 freeway on my way to Prieto’s dinner, I decided to avoid snarled traffic by dropping in on the Chinatown “Art Walk” and a smattering of openings: Eve Fowler at Thomas Solomon, Drew Heitzler at Trudi, and a group show at Jack Hanley organized by Chinatown’s resident hard-edge abstractionist, Bart Exposito. If the 6150 Wilshire and Culver City openings draw the fine-suit-and-fur set, laid-back Chinatown remains pleasingly dedicated to jeans and sweaters.

Left: Artists Carter Mull and Nicola Tyson. Right: Artist Monique Prieto.

I passed through a drunk-driver dragnet—a disheartening reminder of the holiday—on my way to Cobras & Matadors, the hip tapas restaurant in Los Feliz where ACME was toasting Prieto. The celebration felt like a CalArts ten-year reunion, with Prieto’s classmates Ingrid Calame and Owens at one table. The painters and gallery staff were joined by “Undiscovered Country” breakout star Edgar Bryan; artist Joe Sola, accompanied by his wife, LACMA’s Erin Wright; and composer Michael Webster. With dreadlocks spiraled into a knot on top of her head, Calame rested her hands on her pregnant belly throughout our conversation, her beatific grin a disarming contrast to her sharp wit. With mussels and sweet endive salads before us, conversation roamed widely but always returned to the theme of my evening: painting. “At CalArts, most artists were poststudio, but there were a handful who weren’t fabricators. Monique, Laura, and me . . .” Pausing, she glanced across the table at her chums. “At the time, we received very little encouragement,” she remembered. “Except from Tom Lawson. Without him, everything would have been much more difficult.”

And back to you, Tom.

Left: Artists Allyson Spellacy and Justin Beal. Right: Artist Catherine Opie.

Left: Writer Eileen Myles. Right: Artist Karin Apollonia Muller.