Upon first being invited to curate an art show within the co-working scene at WorkWell, I confess I felt out of place. It seemed to me that this desire to re-conceptualize the interior of the ‘ideal’ office, as provocative as it appeared, emerged none-the-less from a decidedly decorative-based perspective and had little to do with an urban-art scene or playing host to contemporary artists for that matter. How could this little corner of Irvine, located within a business complex, really capture the attention of modern viewers? How could I establish a sustainable practice in alternative ‘art’ spaces and responsibly provide the community with the education of and exposure to the art cannon?
After reading and re-reading WorkWell’s comments and questions, I saw that they envisioned art to be their tool to find harmony between daily-work life and the greater art world. The team at WorkWell aimed to bisect both the art world, growing businesses, and foster opportunities for interdisciplinary dialogue. For example, WorkWell invited me to literally “shake things up” in the city or “highlight the artists in Irvine to build bridges to a larger art scene.” All concepts and questions that must thoroughly be cast and deserve to be addressed when opening a new gallery space. As an academic, whose intellectual and professional life has revolved around historical art history, that is specifically events and processes occurring at least two centuries before 2018; it seemed to me, that I would have little to contribute to addressing those issues.
At best, perhaps I could come up with hackney platitudes, for example locating within the ‘beige’ city of Irvine an emerging art movement and providing a physical space for those artists to engage in a dialogue with the surrounding art scene and art market. But, beyond already well established and trodden ground, how could I productively choose the issues raised within the framework of WorkWell and the City of Irvine in my own emphatically pre-contemporary centered work. Ideally, I would like to make a relevant and maybe even thought-provoking contribution to the contemporary art scene in Orange County. Well, it took some effort and zooming out to come to, what now seems to be a self-evident realization. Namely, that the City of Irvine has always been and still is about much more than just a ‘masterplanned’ city.
The separation of art culture from the city of Irvine, by the carefully controlled decisions of our city planners, was the result of many complex responsibilities to the community to shape the urban environment into the growing metropolis that we love today. Yet more recently we have seen planners utilize art to develop a more visible, creative, and inclusive urban planning and place-making. This kind of active participation and promoting a role for galleries and contemporary artists in Irvine, is a focus on revival rather than invention. The key point I want to make is that Irvine has now arrived at a period where the boundaries between an art scene and urban planning are in convergence.
It is clear that the temporary mural by Zio Ziegler for Tilly’s, has had reverberating echoes. Not only on individuals and families, but also on commercial and private businesses located in the city. Just last month we saw muralist and painter Nate Frizzell complete a mural for Cadence Park and we also saw world-renowned artists Beau Stanton complete a mural inside Bishops hair salon. In small doses, we see residents embracing the art world and engaging with artists more directly. I am no exception.
Within the curious personal intellectual nexus that I, as an academic usually elide, as my profession, I too have come to terms with the fact that the art scene has played a pivotal role in my very professional speciality, namely the promotion of artists and facilitation of murals in urban spaces. Most recently, encompassing a project in Irvine that looks to break a world record for largest hand-drawn mural by artist James Thistlethwaite. Perhaps paradoxically, and admittedly in large part due to my contrarian nature, spending my childhood in Irvine, now among the many centers for emerging contemporary art, was the perfect circumstance for creating a private art gallery located within an alternative art space, a co-working business.
Indeed growing up going to museums has increasingly demonstrated to me how unflinching and simultaneously uncomfortable the institutional ‘white cube,’ a term coined by Brian O’Doherty, can be when confronting art and the art canon. It was this unerring child’s gaze that for me demanded the interrogation of institutional spaces and search for an alternative way to engage with art. I would say that my current profession is the direct outcome of the indelible sensory stimuli of childhood. It seems to me that the current ‘space’ for art has been defined as requiring a quest or excursion from its viewers. It has erased or occluded a daily interaction art if one is not a collector or patron. By housing paintings and sculptures that people can experience and engage with on a daily basis, co-working spaces really have the capacity to train a new generation of patrons of the arts. This alternative space could offer a way to become more willing and able to engage with profound questions of history, culture, and identity in the world and mediascape that surrounds us.
It was sometime between my morning coffee and the second tour of the day that I received a message from a good friend. The message said, ‘let’s grab coffee’ but the subtext read ‘how are your applications going?’
We met later in the week and discussed her completion of her first year in her PhD program, my current work, summer plans, etc. Then I walked outside, I gave her a hug and made plans to meet again the following week. Nothing like staring at 12 months of advanced art and feminist theory to make you want to go back to school. Two hours later, just like her text, my head and mouth were disconnected. I said that I want to get a PhD, but I knew my current path was going in a different direction.
Our coffee date happened almost a year after we both submitted our MA theses together and I still haven’t gotten around to applying to PhD programs. I’ve written a few papers, curated a show, helped with mural installations, and managed a few artists careers. The wheel has come full circle and the deadline I gave myself to go back to grad school is here.
The most challenging aspects of my year after my MA submission has not necessarily been academic requirements. I have been incredibly fortunate to have received a year-long internship at the Getty Research Institute within a week after graduating, but the internship recently ended after a workshop and larger questions begin to loom ‘what next?’ There are so many options and my path begins to fork more than it used to, but the destinations are never undesirable, so I can live with that. My five-year plan is slowly coming together in my head, I just need to flesh out all the details besides just saying ‘become Torrey Cook’ (which just means be a successful curator for emerging artists in my locality) or ‘become Alka Patel’ (which means be a professor if the planets align).
Besides being in between academic scenes, I am also in between careers. It has been the largest challenge for me, something that my former cohort has spoken about time and time again. When starting a new path, or if you get put on a different path, the life lessons that one has learned seem to filter away. As I look at the prospect of creating a new art scene in the city of Irvine, I am also staring at a different focus in my research. This shift in worldview is not easy to navigate. I am constantly struggling with balancing my research interests (South Asian textiles) with career goals (become a curator for contemporary artists).
When we work on a project for so long it is easy to attach these romantic ideas to what will happen next. When I look at my calendar and the monthly to-do lists, I feel like I am saying ‘If I make it to October, things will be clearer, I will know what I want to do.’ This virtual pause that I have placed on my project deadlines means that when I am reminded how quickly plans can change, I could be left with feelings of regret for letting my life become vanilla.
I am constantly reminded by the people who surround me how there is never only one way to achieve something. So, moving forward, as my PhD application deadlines approach I’m trying to work on a little bit from each of my interests; Trying to find a way to merge a little from column A with column B. A way for me to think small and large picture all at the same time.
I recently visited the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA to explore the recent exhibition In Search of New Markets: Craft Traditions in Nineteenth-Century India. I was drawn to this exhibition because unlike much of South Asian peripheral art, the objects on display for "In Search of New Markets" were created for commercial purposes and not for religious or courtly settings. My personal research interests focus on the ‘dress-up’ experience in souvenir photographs during the nineteenth century: a curated presentation of worldliness, that is supported by the commercial world of collections, decorations, gifts, memorabilia, journals, and other objects of cultural show.
As I walked through the exhibition, albeit limited to six or seven pieces, I became engrossed in a blue and white vase. The decoration of this vase, a common characteristic in the palette and floral style of Multan tiles, seemed disjointed and unfamiliar in comparison with the shape and size of the vessel. I was struck by the way the umbrella of the oriental, or imagination of the foreign consumer, informed the production of ceramics and wooden furniture in colonial India. In each object, I could consider first-hand, points of connection—and tension—between established Indian art forms, the commercial ambitions of the colonial vehicle, and Indian artists trying to find new buyers for their work.
Before I visited this collection, I spent a few months reading Saloni Mathur’s book "India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display" (2007). To all museum visitors I would say that this exhibition seemed to draw upon Mathur’s points on the crafting and aestheticizing of cultural wares. Like the textile pattern paisley, these objects reveal how India was made fashionable to Western audiences within the popular cultural arenas of the imperial metropole. They also reveal the distinctly modern modes of promotion and distribution that were used to generate demand for them.
The installation project has really transformed the Norton Simon for me, even though the floorplan and collections have remained, essentially, the same. The objects on display seem representatives of traditional Indian craft, but they are certainly not without western inspiration.
“I don’t want anyone to see me put the mural up. I want the mural to suddenly appear. We just need to get a plaque to let people know it’s hand drawn,” says artist James Thistlethwaite in an interview in May 2018
From New York to Los Angeles, and now in Laguna Beach, the idea of painting a public mural is a truly ubiquitous one today. James Thistlethwaite’s mural Aya, by contrast, addresses street art as a site to explore the progressive possibilities between medium and the exterior wall. To begin to understand Thistlethwaite’s body of work is to grasp a desire to both centralize the role of charcoal and graphite in large-scale art and explore the mystery of the jacket or hoodie. James Thistlethwaite’s mural expands the genre of street art by returning to the simplest of tools and operating within a void in street art.
The experience of seeing his mural includes shedding one’s own assumption of what street art is made with. The twenty-six-foot mural depicts a female figure dressed in a yellow raincoat and is made with thirty-six hand-drawn panels carefully arranged and pasted to the wall like movie posters. The way the viewer moves to see the mural, first from a distance and then up close, resonates with the idea of discovery; each step a process of espying more detail. Thistlethwaite’s process is not only labor intensive, but also transformative. By combining charcoal and a mystery sealant, Thistlethwaite dislocates the medium from a state of temporality to a state of semi-permanence, on par with spray paint.
Aya anchors herself within the Summer of Color initiative in Laguna Beach, by the usage of the yellow raincoat. A hoodie or jacket, a central motivation of the artist, occurs often in Thistlethwaite’s work. The hoodie is representative of the idea of multiple narratives. In this mural, it can act as an imaginative catalyst into an inhabitable utopian world. The viewer finds themselves asking: who is she? Where is she from? What is her relationship to the city of Laguna? Experimenting with medium and the clothing, Thistlethwaite’s mural embraces the art-driven city of Laguna Beach; hinting at the relationship between art and utopia—where a single emblem can convey the passage to a utopian world.
At the time of the interview, artist James Thistlethwaite had just completed the largest hand-drawn mural in the nation, possibly the world. Privately funded by the Honarkars, with partnerships with [seven-degrees] and Montana Colors, Thistlethwaite joins five other artists in Laguna Beach, CA in the Summer of Color. The Summer of Color initiative is focused on invigorating the creative spirit and providing additional brilliant temporary pieces of art for visitors and residents to see and appreciate during the summer months. Thistlethwaite’s mural will be on view until 2023.