Off-Ramp

A weekly look at Southern California life covering news, arts and culture, and more. Hosted by John Rabe

Good intentions, bad art: a Crawford Family Forum discussion

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp

Artist Jill D'Agnenica at her studio in Lincoln Heights Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

I imagine this scene: Thousands of years ago, a guy and his buddy – we’ll call them Fred and Barney – drive down to Fairfax and Wilshire. They find parking, and then after they pick the bugs out of each other’s hair, they poke around. They go look at the big rock at PreLacma. It’s not a rock, somebody tells them; it’s art. They don’t get it. Fred says, “I got one of those. I use it for a dining room table.”
They go get a bagel at PreCanter's. It’s as hard as a rock. It is a rock.

And then Fred hears Barney yell, “Hey, watch this!” Famous last words. Barney has a stick and he’s teasing a saber tooth tiger. Fred rushes home to his cave, grabs a piece of charcoal, and sketches a picture of what happened.

This was the first front page newspaper photo: "Saber Tooth Tiger Bites Man." And ever since, artists have been interpreting the news. For better or worse. As a journalist who specializes in arts coverage, I’ve seen a lot of bad art. And what bothers me most is not art that’s poorly rendered – if there’s heart in it I generally like it. What bugs me is when it’s message art where the message predominates. Usually, the message is so obvious, there’s nothing left to wonder about. But worse, you can’t criticize the art without seeming to be criticizing the subject. "Oh, he hates that painting; he must hate orphans."

At the Crawford Family Forum Thursday (July 26), artists Jill D’Agnenica and Robbie Conal -- who do it well -- joined me to explain their process, which includes figuring out how to keep the message from overwhelming the medium. In other words, how to make sure their art, which is often made in reaction to politics and current events, is good art.

Jill is most famous for her sublimely simple idea of – one year after the 1992 riots – placing thousands of angel statues around Los Angeles. You know Robbie from his scathing caricatures of the rich and powerful. After talking about their work, we turned to the most famous "message art" in the world: Picasso's "Guernica," commissioned specifically as an anti-Franco piece. It depicts the mayhem of the bombing of the town of Guernica.

"Why does it work?" I asked Robbie and Jill. They were at first a little stunned to be asked to evaluate the master, but the part of their answer was that Cubism -- a shattering of reality -- is the perfect way to depict the shattering of a town and a democracy.

Why does it work - or not - for you? Please leave your comment below, and be sure to attend the Crawford Family Forum soon to engage in conversations like this one.

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