As the LA Art Show at Los Angeles Convention Center and Art Los Angeles Contemporary at Santa Monica’s Barker Hanger unfold this week, an exuberant trio of exhibitions has opened at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The works of Miriam Wosk, Peter Shire and Samira Yamin complement one another in surprising ways.
The late Santa Monica-based artist Miriam Wosk had a spectacular career as an illustrator in New York in the 1960s, when illustration was a major commercial art form, though not considered “fine art.”
Working for such publications as New York Magazine and Vogue, Wosk legendarily created the iconic inaugural cover of Ms. Magazine, the issue that Gloria Steinem credits for keeping the magazine afloat because it sold out unexpectedly within a week of its launch.
Wosk depicted goddess Kali, with eight arms balancing the many aspects of women’s lives, each arm holding an object representing wife, mother, homemaker, professional worker and other roles. Wosk also created the memorable fifth anniversary cover of Ms., a tree whose leafing branches hold the images of feminist pioneers.
The word eclectic is insufficient to encompass the explosive, exhilarating, and intricate work she did. Ranging from surrealism to fantasy collages bordering on the psychedelic, her work examines the dark and the light, the opposing poles of life and death. She had reason to express both.
She moved from New York to Los Angeles to escape the constraints of commercialism and find her own artist’s way. Famously creating a Beverly Hills penthouse with architect Frank Gehry, her homes themselves showcased her visual style, with brightly colored walls and floors, multi-patterned tiles, and collections of objects that inspired her.
Her final home, the bright yellow Santa Monica canyon-side casa, was another playground filled with the many materials that inspired her collage art, a phase that followed a period of painting oils on canvas.
Surviving a plane crash that left her in pain for nearly the rest of her life, Wosk’s repeated surgeries did nothing to help until the last one, when she was pain-free for a few years — during which she was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that would take her life far too early in November 2010.
Wosk explored spiritual and philosophical paths, from Judaism to Buddhism and beyond, which make their way into the woof and weave of her work. The collages are also filled with many material elements: antique wallpaper, metallic foils, pearls, costume jewelry, starfish and more, creating worlds within themselves in which to lose yourself.
Aptly titled “Abundance and Devotion: The Art of Miriam Wosk,” this is the first museum survey of her work. I highly recommend the catalog; it’s a straightforward read with a good biography and essays, including contributions from Gehry and Steinem, and an enlightening interview with Wosk’s son. In addition to beautiful color plates, there are fold-out images featuring three of the large works; they bear frequent re-viewing, both on the wall and on the page.
In SMMOA’s Project Room 1 you’ll find “Tea for Two Hundred.” Artist Peter Shire was a friend of Wosk’s who also collected his work. One of those pieces is on view here.
Shire is a Los Angeles treasure and internationally renowned artist whose sculptural works often focus on the form of the teapot — but unless you’re lucky enough to live in Alice’s Wonderland, these teapots are impossible to imagine.
Associated with the post-modern Italian design and architecture collaborative called the Memphis Group, Shire’s work has always had a constructed look, both artistic and industrial, melding materials like metal, clay, wood and found objects to create fantasy sculptures, large and small.
In “Tea for Two Hundred” he’s made eight large-scale teapots, ranging from 2 to 8 feet tall, one standing atop flamingo-thin legs, with a metallic potbelly and a “top hat” that gives it a figurative appearance. Another, called “Cherry Blossom Pink,” is a platform on pink wheels that supports Zen-like leaves and branches, within the confines of an invisible and abstract outline of a teapot or perhaps a tea house.
And in Project Room 2 you’ll find yourself moving in close to experience the exquisite intensity of Samira Yamin’s craft in “We Will Not Fail.” She has meticulously hand-cut tiny geometric Islamic latticework patterns into the pages of Time Magazine over an image of Osama Bin Laden and other photos of Middle Eastern subjects. In this way, she puts terrorism and aesthetic beauty into thought-provoking creative tension.
Santa Monica Museum of Art is based at Bergamot Station Arts Center. Find out more at http://smmoa.org.
Other arts around town
The much beloved Jazz Bakery, no longer located at the Helms Bakery District in Culver City, celebrates its 20th anniversary with a number of pop-up concerts in various locales while its new performance space in a Frank Gehry building is being readied for a 2015 opening. Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre serves as home to most of these evenings. On Friday, Feb. 8, hear “Three Brave Souls: Darryl Jones, Ndugu Chancler, John Beasley,” and on Thurs. Feb. 14, enjoy a Gershwin Valentine from Sue Raney, Michael Dees, Kurt Reichenbach and Pinky Winters. Tickets and more at http://jazzbakery.org/upcoming-events.
Santa Monica’s Ruskin Theatre Group premieres “Paradise: A Divine Bluegrass Musical Comedy” on Feb. 8. It’s an original satirical musical about a preacher and a stripper who try to save the American dream from being outsourced. Call (310) 397-3244 or visit http://www.ruskingrouptheatre.com
Pepperdine University Center for the Arts in Malibu presents the exciting young cellist Sebastian Bäverstam at Raitt Recital Hall, Sunday Feb. 10 at 2 p.m. Winner of the 2009 Concert Artists Guild International Competition, he’s been praised for his “consummate instrumental mastery.” Tickets and info at (310) 506-4522 or http://arts.pepperdine.edu.
And finally, at The Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown L.A., the musical “Backbeat” tells the story of The Beatles, pre-Ringo and pre-fame. It opens Jan. 30; I’ll be there and report back to you. For more information, visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for National Public Radio and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.