9 Standout Artists at L.A.’s Felix Art Fair
Installation view of Felix Art Fair 2019 at the Roosevelt Hotel, Los Angeles. Photo by Eric Minh Swenson. Courtesy of Felix LA.
The appeal of Felix Art Fair, which debuted in 2019, was always the intimacy of its setting: Initially built in 1927 along Los Angeles’s Hollywood Boulevard, the Roosevelt Hotel is still outfitted with some of its vintage charm, despite multiple modernizations. Founded by collector Dean Valentine and dealers Al and Mills Morán in a bid to do something different from Art Los Angeles Contemporary, the L.A. Art Show, and Frieze L.A., Felix is now in its third iteration after being postponed due to COVID-19.
While the first edition was international in scope, the 2021 fair includes 29 local galleries (a few, like Tanya Leighton, have L.A. satellites but are primarily based elsewhere), and makes use of poolside cabanas rather than rooms, inviting a different kind of intimacy than its inaugural version did. And indeed, many galleries chose to feature work that rewards close, slow looking: Ben Sakoguchi’s detailed acrylic excoriations of American consumerism are so much better in close quarters, as are Fiona Connor’s bronzes of familiar objects—which tend to be easily taken for granted in larger settings—and Melvino Garretti’s idiosyncratically detailed ceramic masks. Here are nine standout artists whose works will be exhibited in Felix’s cabanas this weekend.
Ben Sakoguchi at Bel Ami
Ben Sakoguchi, Skinner’s Box Brand, 1995. Courtesy of the artist and Bel Ami.
Ben Sakoguchi’s history paintings are unflinching and omnivorous in the way they traverse American racism, consumer culture, immigrant experiences, the military industrial complex, and, more recently, Trump-era punditry. There is nothing resembling didacticism about them, though. Even when Sakoguchi is directly pillorying racist stereotypes, there’s so much sensuality, curiosity, and precision to his storytelling that one feels like they are gazing into a world that is large, deep, and humorously textured, albeit also terrifying and intermittently violent. The 2001 canvas East is East Brand,depicting an Asian woman who appears to have become an anglicized version of herself after consuming a lushly depicted orange, is a perfect example of the artist’s deft ability.
For decades, Sakoguchi, who has exhibited sparingly since the early 1960s, has used orange crates in his work as a template for loosely exploring American culture, politics, and consumerism. Each orange-crate painting always includes at least one orange and a perfectly stenciled brand name. Bel Ami, a small, Chinatown-based gallery, will show a handful of these works at this year’s Felix. In the ominously funny Skinner’s Box Brand (1995), gorgeously detailed, unpeeled oranges hang over a baby in a wooden box, a reference to since-debunked rumors that the famed behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner put his infant daughter in the “operational conditioning” box he famously used to experiment on pigeons and rats. The image has an innocuous sweetness to it at first—the deep purple background is almost velvety, and the baby doesn’t look terribly distressed—before its darkness settles in.
Sharif Farrag at François Ghebaly
Sharif Farrag, Casanova Frankenstein Jug, 2021. Photo by Paul Salveson. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly Gallery.
Sharif Farrag, Juggler Jug, 2021. Photo by Paul Salveson. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly Gallery.
In a recent interview with Cultured Magazine, artist Sharif Farrag described how symbolic objects he grew up around in a Syrian Egyptian household (hamsas, bakhoors) continue to influence his sensibility. “Why am I obsessed with my Mom’s way of decorating the house?” he asked. Raised in the San Fernando Valley and currently enrolled in UCLA’s MFA program, Farrag manages to fold domestic ritual, long-standing tradition, and familiar kitsch into ceramic vessels that feel simultaneously reverent of the craft’s history and wildly unrestrained, overflowing with fantastical references to pop and graphic novel aesthetics.
In striking this balance, Farrag aligns with a number of contemporary artists like Em Kettner and Julia Haft-Candell who are fully fluent and knowledgable in the medium’s history, yet are not limited by the craft-versus-art debate that dominated contemporary art discourse for far too long. In Sore Eyes, Tasting Strawberries (2020)—one of Farrag’s more intimate, vessel-shaped sculptures—a sunglass-wearing cartoon face holds a cigarette between full pink lips. It’s as if this character were peering out from a surreally overgrown hedge, as strawberries hang, green vines twist, and flower petals, along with strange, colorful orifices, fill the space on all sides of the object. Such density turns these artworks into worlds unto themselves. Consider the much larger Abu Foul Jug (2019), measuring over five feet tall: a creature-slash-vessel with four hairy feet, cartoon faces on each knee, and long chains hanging down from its torso. Small alien figures emerge from and peer into slits below the creature’s neck, suggesting an entire ecosystem in its dark interior space.
Mosie Romney at Nicodim
Mosie Romney, Kiddy Pool, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim, Los Angeles.
Mosie Romney, Take care of yours, I'll take care of, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim, Los Angeles.
Mosie Romney’s facility with color and composition perhaps gives even more force to the supernatural flights and otherworldly moments that frequent their paintings. Romney, a Jamaican American artist based in New York and newly represented by Nicodim, often portrays figures who have something more—multiple faces, wings—or whose environments slip into loosely geometric abstractions or wide washes that make for an ethereal figure-ground relationship.
Romney has described their process of searching for photographs of Black people dating as far as the 1930s, and creating new stories for the individuals in these pictures, as one in which they are simultaneously working within an archive of documents of Black life and in a space of wide-open imagination. In Kiddy Pool (2021), two infants are depicted in a small swimming pool that, thanks to the large flowers that float around them, almost looks like a pond of lily pads. One infant has white wings while the other’s eyes are delicately, comfortably closed. A grid of saturated color bleeds down over them both.
Ishi Glinsky at Chris Sharp
Ishi Glinsky, Light Pink Jazz, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Chris Sharp Gallery, Los Angeles.
Ishi Glinsky, AKA Rickey the Rat, 2020. Photo by Ruben Diaz. Courtesy of the artist and Chris Sharp Gallery, Los Angeles.
The Zuni people of New Mexico, long known as master jewelers, began using the inlay technique in the 1920s. This technique involves placing specially cut and shaped stones into pre-crafted silver or gold channels, and made it easier to create figurative jewelry. In the 1970s, a number of Zuni jewelers became known for making cartoon-inspired pendants, rings, brooches, and necklaces, also known as “Zunitoons.”
L.A.-based artist Ishi Glinsky, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, often employs the careful study of First Nations’ craftwork as the basis for his paintings and sculptures. Recently, he has been making oversized sculptures informed by Zuni cartoon jewelry, using resin and aluminum rather than gold, silver, and gems. Glinsky’s Light Pink Jazz (2021), which will be on view at Felix, takes the form of an especially refined Pink Panther. The artist gives the cartoon character a multifaceted turquoise nose and especially smooth pink ears and tail. This sculpture, like Glinksy’s bolder work AKA Ricky the Rat (2020), captures the almost perplexingly perfect balance between exquisiteness and defiant kitsch that defined the Zunitoons trend.
Meriem Bennani at Clearing
Meriem Bennani, Clown chatting with sweet and sour B.O. puddle., 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Clearing.
Soon after New York shut down last year, artist Meriem Bennani and film editor Orian Barki began making quick animated films in a series called “2 Lizards.” In them, the titular lizards experience the pandemic in a New York inhabited entirely by other animated creatures. The very first video, released in March 2020, features one lizard talking about looking forward to time to just “make music, and listen to music, and not having any obligations,” adding, “in a fucked-up way, I’m loving this.” The other responds, “That’s such a quarantine week one thing to say.”
Since then, the two reptiles have experienced and reflected on protests, rent strikes, isolation, and financial insecurity. These videos were looser than Bennani’s sculptural video installations, though part of the charm of her work is always the way in which it moves between high production and loose, intuitive-seeming comic gestures. In her mostly live-action film Mission Teens (2019), for example, houses in the wealthier parts of Rabat, Morocco, have speaking roles: “I’m a fancy house in Raaabbaaat,” croons one animated overhang. In their narrative immediacy, the lizard videos recalled Bennani’s ongoing drawing practice. In Clearing’s cabana at Felix, Bennani will be showing the graphite-and-charcoal Clown chatting with sweet and sour B.O. puddle (2012), a comical drawing of two flattened, shadow-like characters sitting against a wall—one with hair big enough to be a clown wig—merging with a massive sticky, syrupy pool of liquid that flows away out of the picture plane.
April Bey at Gavlak Gallery
April Bey, Jervae From The Gilda Region (Green and Gold), 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Gavlak Gallery.
April Bey, COLONIAL SWAG: First Edition Atlanticans, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Gavlak Gallery.
In April Bey’s Phuck Your Protocol (Chewing Gum) (2017), the actress Michaela Coel from the television show Chewing Gum is depicted in shades of ochre under the words “Will Not Be Assimilated.” While this bold composition is ostensibly straightforward, up close, this image is dense with surprising texture. The words “will” and “not,” written in patterned fabric, are sewn into wood panel, while other letters are spelled out in thick epoxy resin. Bey’s work consistently grapples with power dynamics, while also reveling in the sensuality of a diverse range of materials.
Gavlak’s installation at Felix will feature work from Bey’s Atlantica series, which is also currently the focus of the artist’s solo exhibition at the California African American Museum. Inspired in part by Jewelle Gomez’s speculative fiction The Gilda Stories, Bey’s Afrofuturist works dissect American culture as if through the eyes of an observer visiting from an outer-space artist’s colony. The painting Jervae from the Gilded Regions (Green and Gold) (2020) depicts an Atlantican goddess in monochrome watercolor, her skeptical face framed by sequins. In COLONIAL SWAG: First Edition Atlanticans (2021), a Black supermodel wears a skirt decorated with the visages of astronauts and an elaborate headdress made of red and green cans of Royal Crown hair grease. This particular image, framed by soft pink “eco fur,” is part of a series of fantasy advertisements, peddling an Atlantica brand made from the “ethically mined” trappings of Earthly colonialism.
Melvino Garretti at Parker Gallery
Melvino Garretti, How Can You Help This Broken Man Make the World Go Around?, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Parker Gallery.
Melvino Garretti, Man Must Have a Mate, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Parker Gallery.
The ceramic masks that Melvino Garretti makes sometimes have more than one face. In Man Must Have a Mate (2020), one of Garretti’s recent masks that Parker Gallery will feature at the fair, has one eye and red, flame-shooting lips seen in profile on its far right, while a concerned face with big pink eyes and a furrowed brow perches on a stick body that stares out at us from the mask’s center. In another mask, How Can You Help (2020), a perplexed, cubist face is shown in profile, while a small figure perches inside the mask’s pink ear, standing on a pedestal, speaking into a microphone.
Garretti, whose art education started at the Studio Watts Workshop in the 1960s and continued at Great Barrington Pottery in Massachusetts and the San Francisco Art Institute, has shown relatively rarely since his first solo exhibitions in the 1980s. Yet he and his work, steeped in the traditions of earthenware, textiles, and assemblage, have been a constant presence in South Central Los Angeles over the past half-century. He worked alongside members of the Pan-Afrikan People’s Arkestra, who, like him, were interested in pulling histories of West African ritual into contemporary art. Garretti has also spent decades questioning whether “artist” is the right title for what he does. “I’m an urban and suburban anthropologist,” Garretti told Joshua Oduga of Art + Practice in June. “I mimic other artists, industry and products, so I don’t have to be that unique as much as being observant.” But perhaps this very questioning of the artist label, alongside the work’s voracious, spontaneous-feeling inclusion of its many studied references, is part of what makes it exciting and invigorating.
Fiona Connor at Chateau Shatto
Fiona Connor, Untitled (Broom), 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Chateau Shatto.
Fiona Connor, installation view of Untitled (Broom), 2019, in “Closed for Installation, Fiona Connor, SculptureCenter, #4” at SculptureCenter, New York, 2019. Courtesy of the artist, SculptureCenter, and Chateau Shatto.
One of the more quietly insidious effects of COVID-related shutdowns is the way urban landscapes have changed while we weren’t around to notice—businesses shuttering due to economic losses, developments getting pushed through while would-be protesters were busy with mutual aid campaigns, and gentrification continuing its slow creep. Amid all this, New Zealand–born, Los Angeles–based artist Fiona Connor’s ongoing series “Closed Down Clubs” felt all the more relevant. As clubs and community centers continue to close in both L.A. and abroad, Connor has been documenting their doors in detail, and recreating them with just as much precision. Her works are a reminder of how rewarding looking closely can be—details that you might have missed even if you frequented the space, like scratches in the wood and splotchy mismatched paint likely used to blot out graffiti, are now preserved in perpetuity.
At Felix, Connor will be exhibiting from another series, “Closed for Installation,” which is just as rich in detail and equally compelled by a desire to combat everyday erasures. Previously shown in 2019 at the Sculpture Center in Long Island City and at Secession in Vienna, the series consists of 21 bronze replicas of the tools and detritus often used for an installation or studio maintenance. There is a power drill, a level, a push broom, and a stool, all closely based on actual worn tools. As Connor recalled in a recent interview, a member of the Sculpture Center install crew mistook a bronzed paint tray for a left-behind tool, a kind of “slippage” between behind-the-scenes labor, the personhood of laborers, and the art object that interests Connor. “There’s an important part of the work that’s creating a monument to the process and the role of workers,” she said.
John Ahearn at Charlie James Gallery
John Ahearn, Freddy with Cigarette, 1989. Photo by ofstudio. Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery.
John Ahearn, Devon with his father’s last tattoo, 2019. Photo by ofstudio. Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery.
Devon with his father’s last tattoo (2019) is among Bronx-based artist John Ahearn’s more recent life-cast sculptures. The subject—a young artist named Devon, whom Ahearn has made portraits of in the past—had reunited with his estranged, tattoo-artist father. The father tattooed Devon’s arm before suddenly dying, and so Ahearn and Devon decided to collaborate on another portrait. In it, Devon stares out as if boring his gaze into the viewer, and holds up his sleeve so that we can see the bright monsters and scales emblazoned in his skin (Ahearn paints his plaster casts with acrylic, making them more lifelike).
Ahearn’s life-cast portraits, which he has been making since the 1970s, often have similarly layered and intimate backstories. Another work that will be on view at Felix, titled Freddy with Cigarette (1989), depicts a longtime neighbor who used to cut the artist’s hair. Freddy’s face is friendly and present, reflecting the surprising sincerity—not to be confused with naïveté—that Ahearn manages to capture in his subjects.