Bringing art to the people was the founding principle of the Fine Arts Program of the L.A. County Fair when it opened in 1933. The Millard Sheets Gallery is proud to continue this mission with the exhibition Fair Exchange, which provides this year’s Fair visitors a special opportunity to experience innovative contemporary art by leading Los Angeles artists.
The practice of “showing and telling,” that is, exhibiting artifacts and specimens as a way to communicate cultural meaning and values, is common to both fairs and art galleries. Despite this shared approach, boundaries have been drawn that distinguish one tradition from the other. Historically, the mainstream art world has not considered fairs a legitimate venue for fine art—a view that was definitely not shared by Millard Sheets himself. As we develop our vision of the Millard Sheets Gallery as a diversified center for the arts, we want to challenge these barriers and open a meaningful dialogue between artist, fairgoers, and art audiences.
At various times during modern art history, artists, curators, and critics, among others, have tried to break down the walls that separate the fine from the applied or domestic arts, to encourage art to escape the confines of the traditional museum or gallery and integrate with everyday life. Yet few artists have successfully crossed the art world boundaries to create more relevant work and see what were often mundane activities like knitting, quilting, or canning fruit, to be creative acts. Given the existing constraints, I was concerned that many artists, particularly prominent artists, would be somewhat reluctant to exhibit their work at a county fair.
However, I was reassured after discussing the possibilities of producing a fair exhibit with curator Irene Tsatsos, who enthusiastically accepted the project. She immediately saw the potential strengths of the Fair as a venue. Not only is the audience vastly larger than that of a typical art exhibit; the opportunities to connect artists and new audiences, to offer visitors a chance to see artists and themselves in a new way, and to suggest that people make aesthetic decisions—and art—every day, are unique at the Fair. If Irene’s enthusiasm for the project wasn’t enough to convince me that we were on to something special, the artists themselves and their work have confirmed that there is a new dynamic movement within the art world that does in fact integrate art and everyday life.
-- Dan Danzig, Director of the Millard Sheets Gallery
I admit to having a moment of hesitation after accepting the invitation to curate an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Fair. People go to county fairs for a variety of reasons—for amusement, to consume, to compare and compete, and to find and engage others who share their interests in horse breeding, demolition derbies, giant milk-fed pumpkins and more. But not many people go, per se, to experience contemporary visual art. Although the Fair has a rich history of showing fine art in the Millard Sheets Gallery, and myriad recent examples exist of exhibiting art in all kinds of alternative venues, on balance, contemporary art and its denizens, myself included, remain ensconced in safe and familiar settings—the pristine white cube, the cluster of like-minded galleries, the urbane, international lifestyle, the state of mind that assumes the above conventions. The prospect of presenting contemporary art at the Fair insistently conjured images of mobs ambling the midway through the heat and haze of September in Southern California’s Inland Empire, seeking out the drag races and too preoccupied with dripping ice cream cones to be interested in experiencing anything else. How would an exhibition of critically-engaged contemporary visual art, such serious work, after all, fit into this context of carnival barkers, thrill rides, pie-eating contests, and big pig competitions?. . .
And yet, despite the Fair’s flagrant commercialism, the exhibitions, performances, and competitions it hosts are based wholly upon submissions by the public. Competitions are strictly among amateur exhibitors; any products that are the result of an active commercial enterprise are not allowed. You—anyone—may submit for consideration your homemade fine wine, boutique cheese, or biggest garden vegetable. You may pet farm animals, enter your rooster into competition, and, if you’re there at the right moment, watch calves being born. Additionally, you may at little or no cost, avail yourself of countless workshops and demonstrations, all conducted by volunteer hobbyists, of knitting, pottery throwing, cowboy cooking, storytelling, sheep shearing, and more. These events and competitions celebrate and promote civic pride and engagement in the communities in which they are held; by their recognition of the handmade products of artisanal proto-industries, they can actually be considered radically free-market on a micro-economical level. The Fair is democratic, populist, and a genuine public arena. Once a year, it is the closest thing there is, aside from voting, to grass roots, civic engagement on a large scale. . .
Fair Exchange mirrors the County Fair itself by exhibiting some of this region’s freshest, most interesting art—the best examples of what life in Los Angeles County can yield. To many annual L.A. County Fair visitors, the artwork in Fair Exchange looks very different from the artwork they have come to expect at the Millard Sheets Gallery. rarely is the work “framed” in any traditional sense. Like artist Mel Chin’s surreptitious insertion of artworks into the set of the television show “Melrose Place,” many of these works will reveal themselves only with careful scrutiny. The artists in Fair Exchange, regardless of medium or discipline, are engaged in efforts to understand and represent the commonplace. In one way or another, they provoke us to reconsider the ordinary, and what we see or do ordinarily, perhaps daily. Using a wide range of media and strategies, the artists in Fair Exchange observe and translate these aspects of daily public and private life into the subject of their artistic inquiries.
-- Irene Tsatsos, Curator for Fair Exchange, former Director and Curator of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), currently the Director of Communications at Carlson & Co.
Artists and art collectives participating in Fair Exchange:
- Lisa Anne Auerbach
- Enid Baxter Blader
- Nao Bustamante
- Jeff Cain and Shed Research Institute
- Gary Cannone for Outpost for Contemporary Art
- Civic Matters, Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn
- Karl Erickson
- Fallen Fruit: David Burns, Matias Viegener, and Austin Young
- Robert Fontenot
- Fritz Haeg and Gardenlab
- Institute For Figuring
- Adrià Julià
- Martin Kersels
- Karen Kimmel
- D’nell Larson
- Los Angeles Urban Rangers
- Daniel Marlos
- Jamie McMurry
- New Chinatown Barbershop
- Julie Orser
- Jessica Rath
- George Stoll
- Mercedes Teixido
- Melissa Thorne
- Rubén Ortiz Torres
- Elizabeth Tremante
- Andre Yi
The essay excerpts above, written by Dan Danzig and Irene Tsatsos, can be read in their entirety in the Fair Exchange full-color catalogue available upon request through the Millard Sheets Gallery. Please refer to the Store link on the sidebar for more information on purchasing a catalog.