Hollywood was then a small town, quiet though excited. Just across our meadow, and across one more open lot, was a movie studio where they were using a troop of lions in pictures. The dreamlike romance of the place came vividly to mind in the mornings when we would be wakened by lions and meadowlarks roaring and singing.
Beth Gates Warren’s Artful Lives tells the story of a group of artists living in Los Angeles at the beginning of the twentieth century. It focuses on the artistic and personal growth of photographers Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston over the course of ten years, from their meeting in 1913, until Weston’s departure for Mexico in 1923. Mather, though a talented photographer with an undeniably rigorous and progressive vision, has remained in relative obscurity, and this book attempts to correct her omission from the history of photography. In doing so it also sheds light on the group of artists, actors, activists, and socialites who were a part of dreaming Los Angeles into existence.
In one tantalizing vignette, a pair of lovers—an artist and an actress—relate hearing the roars of the on-set lions from a local picture company blending with the song of meadowlarks in their backyard, painting a bizarre and idyllic picture of 1920s Los Angeles—a land of wild and exotic ambition, fueled by deep pockets and artistic dreamers. The romantic vision of a young Hollywood, with animals roaming the lot and artists frolicking in their rural studios, may feel far from the contemporary urban landscape, but the tension between fast-paced ambition and sun-drenched creative freedom still holds Los Angeles’s sprawl precariously together. We are both the home of the mainstream—a city decorated with strip malls and billboards—and a renegade network of backyard studios, converted garages, and performance artists out on the frontier.
One of the trail-blazing studios was the Selig Polyscope Company. Founded by William Selig, the studio made a host of jungle movies and in order to populate those movies, Selig needed a menagerie of lions, tigers, elephants, and apes. To house—and presumably profit from—these animals, Selig built an ambitious zoo. A precursor to Disneyland or Universal Studios, Selig envisioned an amusement park complete with performing animals, a Ferris wheel, and games. The project never quite reached the heights that Selig dreamed of, and the zoo, along with the name of William Selig, has slipped from memory. But even Los Angeles can’t completely erase the past.
Artist Carmen Argote now lives and works in a converted storefront in Lincoln Heights, across the street from what was once the zoo’s site. As we drove to her studio, she pointed out the street, Selig Place, and the 7-Eleven that now sits on the triangular shaped lot where the zoo’s gates used to be. Remembering and reshaping the past has been a part of Carmen’s practice since graduate school—in one piece she removed the entire carpeting from her childhood home and transplanted it to g727 Gallery in Downtown Los Angeles—and over recent years she has become more and more intrigued with what she calls “the haunting presence of the absent.”
I knew that Carmen was playing with the Selig story, and after reading Warren’s image of early nineteenth-century Los Angeles, I was eager to see Carmen’s interpretation of the time period. Fittingly, her space now felt more like a movie-prop shop than a fine-art studio: a giant eyeball peered at me from across the room, absurdly large balls of cotton candy sat bloated in the corner, and some form of circus performance contraption looked ready for any passing lion to jump on and roll around. Behind these props, images of the zoo’s formidable stone lions being rescued from the dump, stills from Tarzan of the Apes and photographs from the zoo’s heyday peppered the studio walls.
The supersize balls of cotton candy are crafted from tumbleweeds that Carmen transformed through flocking, a crafting technique that involves covering the branches in a fine dust of textile particles. This process renders the surface soft and colorful but allows the gnarled and jagged structure to remain clearly visible. The tumbleweed conjures images of the vastness of the American West—the dry harsh landscape and the wandering loners who roam it. Carmen described these sculptures as “something natural that has rolled down the hill and gotten caught up in the glamour; its freshness becomes something gross, sticky.” But the pieces are not a straightforward critique of Hollywood, the elusive dream of the West or our distraction with entertainment—the tumbleweeds are too beautiful and absurd for that.
As it turns out, the white wooden cylinder was not waiting for a lion, but for Carmen herself to hop on top, dressed in black pumps and a tiger-print jumpsuit. In her video Over the Waves (Sobre las Olas), Carmen recasts herself as the performing tiger. The story of tamed wild animals, grandiose ambitions, and consumerist lust all converge in the figure of Carmen, proudly astride the wooden cylinder and gazing triumphantly into the distance. By inserting herself in this position, Carmen suggests that it is artists, not the movie industry, who have inherited Los Angeles’s renegade vision.
In the gallery, the video will be shown next to the cylinder, with the jumpsuit displayed across it. Exhibited in this fashion, the costume is tied into the larger phenomena of penny-pinching consumerism that drives Los Angeles’s constant stream of swap meets and garage/lawn/I’ll-just-drape-some-stuff-over-a-fence sales. Another grand dream becomes ready-to-wear and disposable.
Carmen clearly admires entrepreneurship and spectacle, and through the Selig body of work she explores the darker sides of our preoccupation with entertainment and beauty, without demanding that we abandon those pleasures. She tells a story of longing—Selig’s longing for fame and fortune, her own vanity and dreams of success, and Los Angeles’s continued longing to grow into the paradise it set out to become.
After exploring her studio, Carmen showed me where she collected the tumbleweeds for her sculptures, just up the hill from the zoo’s site. Here, a set of crumbling Victorian steps decorate the hillside—part Roman ruins, part Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, they are a surreal reminder of the neighborhood’s past life. Last year, Carmen washed a set of these steps to nowhere (there are multiple), in a gesture of simultaneous futility and reverence. It was an artistic performance with an audience of two—her sister, who documented the project, and an angry landowner worried about insurance and uninterested in the poetics of the gesture. The water flowing down the steps in the arid landscape is yet another reminder of Los Angeles’s tenuous existence and the constant resources, both mental and physical, that go into creating it anew.
Though the cityscape has changed, the dynamics of the lives described by Warren in the Angelino bohemia of the early twentieth century feel unnervingly familiar. The life of an emerging artist is still a constant flux between the expansive energy of creative possibilities and the deflating realities of professional rejection, personal doubts, and nagging bills. Even with an impressive showing record or a long list of residencies and grants under your belt, artistic success is a constantly receding horizon line, and Carmen’s work embraces this with humor, sensitivity, and a dash of bravado.
On the slopes behind Carmen’s studio, it seems possible that wild cats and meadowlarks are still roaring and singing in Lincoln Heights. Or at least, I can imagine that they are, and in Los Angeles that amounts to almost the same thing.
Alex Moore is a writer and artist living in Los Angeles. You can read more of her musings about art and artists on her blog, Fantastic Heliotherapy.