Too Big to Fail: Painting in Place at the Farmers and Merchants Bank

Site-specificity in art, as a term, claims some heritage from the specific site of Los Angeles itself. Robert Irwin was one of the main proponents of the idea in his own writing, and one the earliest mentions of it apparently comes from a 1975 Art News article by Peter Frank. The term is modern in the general sense, post-minimal (and therefore postmodern) in the terminology of contemporary art. However the idea is as old as art itself – page one of art history often describes the site-specific cave painting of early humanity. Art, it would seem, began with the intersection of painting and site-specificity, and everything else follows. An exhibition of contemporary painting by an organization that is “committed to curating site- and situation-specific contemporary art projects, in Los Angeles and beyond,” has sought to bring these two not-so-estranged notions together again, and the results offer much to ponder. Painting In Place is a group exhibition curated by LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division), an organization directed by curator Shamim M. Momim, and takes place inside the historic Farmers and Merchants Bank in downtown LA. – Jason Ramos, Los Angeles Contributor

Installation view, A LAND Exhibition: Painting in Place, 2013. Farmers and Merchants Bank, Downtown Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Robert Wedemeyer.

There is an array of reads into LAND's gesture with this exhibition. As I write, the Swiss bank funded behemoth known as Art Basel has begun its annual tradition. Writers and artists alike share chilling examples of stock-market like charts for artists, where the works of Richter, Warhol, et al, are used like currency, secured in vaults, and examined by…top men. The phenomenon of these fears may be at the heart of LAND's situating of artists who are united by the language of modern abstraction within the bank's Neoclassical walls. There may or may not be a position here; it could also be read as a 'capital-O' Occupation of the bank by the more benevolent forces of art (we'll have to decorate the inside of them with something in a post-capital world).

Julian Hoeber | Execution Changes #72A (DS, Q1, LRJ, DC, Q2, ULJ, DC) installation view), 2013, acrylic on linen over panel with string.  Photo by Jason Ramos.
Sara Cain | Runaway (view during opening reception), 2013, acrylic, vinyl and string on window and wall.  Photo by Jason Ramos.
Olga Koumoundouros | Possession; version 3 (detail)2013, acrylic on vinyl with mixed media.  Photo by Jason Ramos.

The only real clues we have are the works. Painting in this exhibition is treated more as a set of issues (that often overlaps with other sets of issues), than it is as a testable category or product type. The resultant strategies of the artists in the exhibition range from the obvious and forced to the smart and spectacular. What is left behind by the artists feels at its best like the frenzied remains of a painter-led takeover of one the temples of finance. Any fizzle of Painting In Place is when the desire to see some specific works in a more clinical space creeps up on you – ostensibly because much contemporary painting is done with the clean white space of the gallery in mind and then presented as discreet objects. The influence of that context is at conceptual odds with the precepts of the modern notion of site-specificity, and some of the conventions of that context are applied to the design of this exhibition. However, the works in the show that demonstrate this the most are doing so by virtue of their strengths as individual paintings. Repeated viewings and conceptualizing of the exhibition space as a whole, where multiple works foreground each other and the “backsides” of some of the works are revealed, are where many of the shows strengths are highlighted.

Installation view, A LAND Exhibition: Painting in Place, 2013. Farmers and Merchants Bank, Downtown Los Angeles.  Foreground piece by Mark Hagen.  Photo by Jason Ramos.
Installation view, A LAND Exhibition: Painting in Place, 2013. Farmers and Merchants Bank, Downtown Los Angeles.  Foreground piece by Monique van Genderen.  Photo by Jason Ramos.
Alexandra Grant | Model Self (2), 2012, Model Self (5), 2012, Model Self (6), 2013, (installation views), mixed media.  Photo by Jason Ramos.
Installation view,  A LAND Exhibition: Painting in Place, 2013. Farmers and Merchants Bank, Downtown Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Robert Wedemeyer.

The physical site is comprised of two main viewing areas. The main grand hall has the dimensions of a gymnasium, the entryway area featuring two Kim Fisher works. One is literally hung behind bars in an area where presumably the former bank's safe deposit and storage vaults were. Once across the threshold, two Julian Hoeber paintings free-hang high overhead. Islands of freestanding sculptural works comfortably fill the space, while alterations to the decoratively columned interior have been carried out by artists Sara Cain and Olga Koumoundouros. Three chroma-key green canvases by Amanda Ross-Ho surround the perimeter of the space in the seemingly inaccessible overhead balcony area. A hallway with more work connects to a second area, a rawer space that seems mid-remodel. There is a more satisfying presentation of individual works in this space – it does not have the unified aesthetic force of the main hall, and thus has less to add to the context of the work's presentation, at least visually. Some of the interior décor that is left is of the Neoclassical style of the main hall, giving the space something of the quality of ancient ruins. Many contemporary artists' first public works are often in spaces in a state of modern ruin, and much of art history has occurred in repurposed, raw, spaces. The single most responsive piece in this part of the exhibition is by Matias Faldbakken. His frequent theme of half-finished looking applications of ceramic tile grids both integrates with the space and creates an illusion. Faldbakken is an artist well versed in the physical integration of his production and its place of presentation, among a few others in the exhibition. Other artists with work in this part of the site, like Britton Tolliver and Allison Miller, command individual viewing by their own strengths, and seem almost designed to hold their own amongst whatever distractions an as-is exhibition space may have. Back in the main hall, Monique van Genderen's gold bricks made of gold leaf on linen (the pricier alternative to canvas) offer the most in terms of specific responsiveness to the site, self-conscious channeling of previous conceptual gestures, and directly commenting on a Kaz Oshiro-y material essentialism of what technically constitutes paintings as objects when the object is made of paintings as opposed to being a painting. Alexandra Grant's hanging pieces and neon installation feel like natural expansions of her painting practice, and Amanda Ross-Ho's green screen paintings seem to refer to something profound in their absence of imagery – the absence of imagery. There is a tiny bit of it in the exhibition, but as Ross-Ho is pointing out, the abstract painting surface is still a site of illusion, completed perhaps in the post-production of the viewers looking. Any more straight-forward representational imagery could perhaps skew the exhibition's concept into an even more editorial position, when presenting work by gallery artists inside a former Neoclassical bank within the context of site-specificity is arguably charged enough.

Installation view, A LAND Exhibition: Painting in Place, 2013. Farmers and Merchants Bank, Downtown Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Robert Wedemeyer.
Allison Miller | Drums, 2013, and Mirror, 2013 (installation view), both acrylic and pencil on canvas.  Photo by Jason Ramos.
Britton Tolliver | Pointless Whispers from a Sea Captain, 2013, (installation view) acrylic on panel.  Photo by Jason Ramos.
Mattias Faldbakken | Remainder XVII, 2013, ceramic tile.  Photo courtesy of Justin Lowman

There is a broad range of strategies and levels of experience with wider presentation models under the Farmers and Merchants Bank's roof for this exhibition. Any initial observation or critique regarding which pieces “work” within the space soon gives way to viewing through the contextual lens LAND provides with its stated mission and previous exhibitions. On the level of artist-run, alternative, and non-institutional contemporary art initiatives, as well as throughout modern art history, the role of pop-up exhibitions and repurposed spaces have often served to present emerging and less commercial projects of painting, sculpture, and all other medium-designations. LAND's evoking of this model within one of Los Angeles' oldest places of finance, the former home of a bank that was eventually consumed by Bank of America, provides one of the richest strains of further thought on the exhibition. Also interesting is how some artists engaged with ideas of site-specificity turn to the language of painting. Sara Cain, Faldbakken, Furnas, and others not included in the exhibition (Katharina Grosse comes to mind) seem to have a broad overlap in terms of site and installation. The possible direction represented by individual artists' strategies in the exhibition, as in Grant and van Genderen, offer further avenues of dialogue.  A comparison of the exhibition to Laura Owen's recent installation of paintings in the Gavin Brown-owned re-purposed space at 356 Mission in Boyle Heights, could also produce useful data.  LAND's opportunity to present an exhibition within the historic space of the bank could have taken myriad forms; Painting In Place could be read as a capitulation, an editorial, a mixing and matching of curatorial modes, or just a response by selected painters not so much to the site as much as to the situation. Art's current relationship to capital makes for an argument, albeit a cynical-sounding one, that today's art museums are banks themselves in the sense that they are storage vaults for personal wealth, earning their owners a type of priceless interest. With the bank as a specific situation to respond to, the exhibition has a rich vein to tap for allegory in the current dialogue without seeming overly-entertained with itself in regards to the novelty of the surface premise. LAND could perhaps have done a deeper investigation as to how painting and site- or situation-specificity intersect in the show (as they have in other projects). But allowing each artist to respond individually to the space is riskier and perhaps presents more of a challenge; the exhibit stands as an informative and interesting document of responses.


Jason Ramos is an artist, curator, and writer based in Los Angeles.  He earned an MFA  in painting from Cal State Fullerton in 2007.  He is the director of RAID Projects and current assistant curator of the Torrance Art Museum.  His art work has been included in numerous exhibitions in Los Angeles and beyond.