Los Angeles

Maria Karras

Woman’s Building And Rtd

Although I guiltily tell the latest California joke—you know, the one about how many Californians does it take to change a lightbulb (one to do it and four to share the experience)—I am not metrocentric. Metrocentric: overweening pride in the city where you live, characterized by the syllogism, “If X is such a terrific city, and if I live there, then I am terrific by association.” It translates into obdurate provincialism when practiced seriously.

An Angelena relocated to Manhattan, I subscribe to the best-of-both-coasts principle: there are plenty of good reasons to go Atlantic or Pacific. It can all be reduced to degrees and rpms. LA is 78° at 33 1/3; Manhattan 45° at 78. The choice is simple. Some like it hot and slow, others cool and fast. Let the Yanks and the Dodgers slug it out, the Knicks and the Lakers match shots; I am a committed ambilittoral.

The only question that interests me in the so-called metropolitan contest between Los Angeles and Manhattan is, does geography influence the art? Well, yes and no. Visiting a dozen or so LA galleries and museums isn’t likely to uncover evidence toward any substantive conclusions. But clearly there is a different art climate in LA; it has nothing to do with temperature and everything to do with audience.

Since the LA County Museum of Art instituted an admission charge to its permanent collection, attendance plummeted from 1400 to 350 daily. These figures are small potatoes (and one could argue the same about the collection) in comparison with Manhattan museums. The difference between LA and New York is one of civic attitude: people come to Manhattan to see culture, they come to Los Angeles to see stars. Art means business in Manhattan, it means leisure in LA. Would attitudes change if the LA County Board of Supervisors adopted culture promotion as part of its tourism incentive? Possibly. But there are many who feel the biggest dinosaur ever dredged from the La Brea Tar Pits is the County Museum, which has been less than nurturing of the local scene as it has been forced to wage a three-front battle: survival, acquiring a permanent collection, mounting exhibitions to attract a public unaccustomed to museum-going.

Without a dominant institution as nexus for the city’s art activities, Los Angeles is at a disadvantage. But there are some pluses. LA’s galleries don’t have the let’s-trot-out-one-of-the-fillies-from-the-stable feel that Manhattan’s accelerated exhibition schedule engenders. None of the local museums focuses on the calculated crowdpleaser exhibition (although Tut slept here, too) concentrating, instead, on provocative, if sometimes difficult, contemporary work.

Let’s fact it, Los Angeles is a city of the expatriated.

A most ambitious project by Maria Karras is a paradigm of the Los Angeles solution to getting one’s art to the public: if the audience isn’t there for the art, the art finds the audience. “Both Here and There,” Karras’ photo portraits of women immigrants to Los Angeles, is on view at the Woman’s Building and on each of the 1,000 buses in LA’s Rapid Transit District. Thirteen subjects in all, the photos accompany brief statements by the women—in their native language and in English—and are arranged in triptychs, with a photo in center and statement and translation flanking it.

Karras combines the tools of the portraitist, the demographer and the ethnographer to adumbrate the lives of women who are caught between cultures and between old and new expectations of their gender. Each of the 13 women represented has made her home in Los Angeles; each is equally grateful for the cultural tradition of her own country and the lack of same in the United States: the combination of old liabilities and new freedoms has enabled them to achieve the best of both worlds.

If this sounds like a paean to the Department of Immigration, it shouldn’t. The official line on America’s melting pot, promoted by the Immigration Museum on Liberty Island, casts the U.S. in the role of Land of Opportunity. Karras’ respondents would have it that the U.S. is Land of Opportunism. What becomes clear about these women, and, by extension, immigration to the U.S., is that America, that last outpost of the open market, is a refuge for those fleeing the revolutionary changes in their native China, India, Thailand, Viet Nam, the Philippines, etcetera. Nearly each of the 13 remarks on the fact that in America she is allowed to act as an individual, while in her native country the government prescribes policy. Quoth Phoebe Yee, insurance executive, “In Chinese culture, women are not supposed to have minds of their own.” Which China is she talking about? The China of the Long March or the China of Coca-Cola negotiations?

The strong points of Karras’ presentation are that she’s chosen a target audience to reach (of the 102 million monthly riders of the RTD, 20 percent are foreign and 54 percent are women), and that she uses text in a way that complements the pictorial qualities of the photographs. Karras’ photographs are contemporary portraiture. Unlike photography’s first 100 years, where portrait sitters were placed in front of painted scenery or studio props, Karras’ women, more movers and standers than sitters, pose in their kitchens, on their stoops, in their offices, with their children, before their murals.

“Both Here and There” treads the line between advertisements for ourselves and an assemblyline exhibition of role models. It’s peculiarly appropriate that advertising space on the buses (Karras, a CETA artist, paid for the rental of the space on the RTD line with some grant money and a considerable out-of-pocket contribution) is used for these black-and-whites of local color, cheerful propaganda about livin’ in the U.S.A. and how the formerly huddled masses of immigrants are independent and gain- fully employed in their chosen professions. Meanwhile, back on the teeming shore . . .

Carrie Rickey