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Hammer Projects heralds new artists

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Photo by Irene Fertik UCLA Today
Pae White’s delicate “sculptures” of colored paper shapes will be on view at the UCLA Hammer Museum through July 13. She is among 30 emerging artists with huge talent — but most with little name recognition — who have been given a showcase for their work through Hammer Projects. The Hammer exhibition has been White’s first solo show in an American museum.

ART NOUVEAU

In the spacious lobby of the UCLA Hammer Museum, dense masses of colored paper shapes hang from thousands of strings that rain down from a 21-foot ceiling. These three-dimensional “sculptures” hover just above the floor or float high overhead. Like flocks of birds or schools of fish, they have a life of their own, animated by imperceptible whispers of air, slowly tilting and quivering as they balance delicately on their long tethers.

What motivated Los Angeles artist Pae White to suspend these whimsical, airborne shapes here — in a marble-floored lobby rigidly defined by flat walls and hard angles — was the challenge of filling this “uninspiring space” with lyrical forms, the artist said.

“It was always about the space,” White explained. “I saw this as an opportunity to put my pieces in a more challenging viewing environment.”

Brought in to create a “Hammer Project,” White is the newest member of a dynasty of 30 emerging artists who have been invited to participate in this program over the last four years. They come to create something illuminating, innovative, experimental — and always temporary — in this challenging blank-canvas space through which visitors pass as they enter the museum from Wilshire Boulevard to reach the galleries.

Visitors can enjoy Hammer Projects for three to six months, depending on the installation. After that time, the works are removed. Wall drawings are painted over to make way for the next emerging artist.

Joining White, whose reign will end July 13, is Hammer Projects artist George Raggett, whose “Gazebo!” sits in a gallery just off the lobby. Instead of a romantic, garden gazebo befitting a formal English garden, Raggett has created a chaotic, unstable wood-frame structure that looks to be on the verge of collapse.

Before White’s pieces commandeered the lobby, German artist Markus Linnenbrink was there. He coated nearly all of the walls with alternating broad and thin horizontal bands in every imaginable hue. Allowing gravity to take over, he let the paint drip and dribble playfully down the walls in color-changing rivulets. Eight months later, Linnenbrink’s work was whitewashed, a process the artist said he would not — could not — watch.

Like White and Raggett, Linnenbrink had never before had a solo exhibit in an American museum. Most of those invited to participate in Hammer Projects have never shown in a museum or on the West Coast — or sometimes even in a gallery. Hammer Projects curator James Elaine typically invites rising stars with huge talents but little name recognition in the West to unleash their creativity for no commission and only a small budget for materials and travel.

Despite that, artists crave to be at the Hammer. “Everyone is talking about it,” said White. “Annie (Hammer Director Ann Philbin) has been able to push through some amazing programs here.” So successful has Hammer Projects become under Philbin’s leadership and Elaine’s direction that it has energized the entire museum and given it a new profile as a place that is willing to take risks on artists with little or no track record.

Photo by Irene Fertik UCLA Today
Rather than evoking the calming imagery of a formal English garden, George Raggett’s “Gazebo!” suggests a chaotic structure on the verge of collapse. The piece is installed in a gallery off of the museum lobby. The Los Angeles Times has called the Hammer Projects series “one of the most adventuresome in Southern California.”

The Los Angeles Times called the series “one of the most adventuresome in Southern California.” And writer M.G. Lord wrote in The New York Times that the exhibits have “transformed the Hammer from a sleepy university museum to a red-hot center of the local art scene. Crowded openings attract international collectors, eminent older artists and younger artists scrambling for recognition.”

Unlike other Projects artists, White had already garnered success with exhibitions all over Europe and Mexico. But even she was impressed with the buzz her Hammer exhibition generated in the art world. “It’s been pretty far-reaching,” White said.

More important to her than the publicity, however, is what the exhibition has done for her artist’s soul. Quietly testing the waters, White introduced a few experimental pieces into the lobby: delicate wire bird cages as well as ink drawings that take over a wall like the spidery root system of a leafless vine. “Doing these pieces has put me on a new path to new work. It’s kick-started my work into a whole, other trajectory,” White said.

That is exactly what Philbin envisioned when she conceptualized the Hammer Projects. As an extension of a major research university, the museum created the Hammer Projects as a lab where artists can explore new ideas and techniques. “We like to consider ourselves a research-and-development arm for the arts at UCLA,” Philbin said. “We want that aspect in our programs, as well as the historical perspectives that are inherent in our collections.”

This ability to offer visitors a range of cutting-edge contemporary and historic art that is regularly exhibited “is a fundamental part of what we do,” Philbin said. But it’s the Hammer’s yearning to explore the newer terrain that has excited artists in this country and in Europe. In Los Angeles, the Hammer is credited with giving local artists a prestigious West Coast launch pad for their careers.

Philbin initiated the Hammer Projects when she was brought in from The Drawing Center in New York to UCLA in 1999 to infuse vitality into a museum that had gone slightly stale. There’s nothing stagnant about the Projects. Artists typically have years to prepare for a full-blown exhibition, but Hammer Projects artists may have as little as two months’ notice to do one piece for a program that Elaine keeps nimble, adventurous and flexible.

Sometimes it’s a risk. “With some artists, we really don’t know what we will end up with,” Philbin said. “But we have to trust our instincts.” And Elaine, who worked for her at The Drawing Center, “has some great instincts,” she noted.

Elaine, a Texas-born artist, has his antennae up wherever he roams. From his experience at The Drawing Center, he learned that half the battle was simply letting artists know he and Philbin were eagerly seeking new talent. “In New York, the climate for artists can be pretty harsh. So we took the opposite tack. We were accessible. We welcomed people,” he said.

In Los Angeles, Elaine has reached out in similar ways, plugging into the grapevine, visiting galleries, snagging invites to artists’ studios and attending showings in storefronts, lofts and temporary art spaces.

“We felt these were the most vital places to start to build a program that shoots out through all the arteries of the art community,” Elaine said. “In the early days, people in the art community were scratching their heads, wondering, ‘What’s the Hammer doing?’ This was a whole new role for us. They reacted by graciously welcoming us with open arms.”

In his four years as curator of Hammer Projects, 30 artists have shown their work, and Elaine has made some major scores. Among his discoveries was Francesca Gabbiani, a 1997 M.F.A. graduate from UCLA, who creates huge, room-size paper collages, at the Karyn Lovegrove Gallery in West Hollywood.

“I was so excited — this was the first time that someone like him had shown any interest in my work,” Gabbiani said. “No one had ever asked me to make a piece for a museum.” Four months later, her gigantic paper collage turned one of the museum’s galleries into a forest, complete with giant insects. Today, she is reaping the fruit of her triumph with gallery shows in Los Angeles, New York and Switzerland.

Another artist, a Los Angeles muralist whose comic-book superhero-inspired piece took over the lobby wall two years ago, calls his showing “a spectacular jump in my career.” Encouraged by what he heard of the Hammer’s interest in emerging artists, Aaron Noble sent Elaine images of the large-scale wall paintings he’s done on buildings in San Francisco. The pictures piqued Elaine’s interest, and he and Noble went off to Inglewood for a look at the artist’s only L.A.-area wall.

“Talk about adventurous curating,” Noble recalled. “We couldn’t see the wall that well from the street, so we climbed up the side of an auto garage next door to get to the roof. Here was James, dressed elegantly as usual, and he had to pull himself up this building in pursuit of art.”

Months after Noble’s large-scale fantasy, drawn with violent lines and sharp angles with metallic textures, was removed from the lobby wall, the artist is still basking in the thrill of the moment, having captured a review in a British art magazine, a show at a posh Santa Monica gallery and other important leads.

That’s what Elaine wants to hear.

“I’m just trying to show work that I believe in, that I love,” he said. “I’m not trying to make anyone’s career. The thrill of this job for me is to mentor when I can, to encourage, to exhibit and hopefully to see something happen for them. So far, I’m very encouraged.”

To find out more about the Hammer Projects, visit www.hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions_hammer_projects.htm.

Admission to the museum is free for students, staff and faculty.

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