Buildings stand as a city’s silent storytellers. They personify influences, cultural movements, and the assumed needs of a city. They tell of a specific time and mental space, history written across their walls. Their connections–and disconnections–with what surrounds them illustrates how we interact with our surroundings. Los Angeles’ architecture represents our inherent need to create but also our carelessness in creation. Artist Kevin Appel positions his art to makes viewers examine Los Angeles’ architecture as representative of our city. What does our city say about us? That is one of many questions his work seeks to answer.
Kevin is a native Angeleno who has been involved in the city’s structures since his birth. “My dad’s an architect and my mom is an interior designer: architecture became the subject of my work starting in 1994, before I graduated from grad school,” he explains. “Growing up in LA, we toured around and we looked at the Eames house and my father was always pointing out architectural landmarks, modernist architecture, and I grew up in a house that was a post-and-beam, as well (it wasn’t a Case Study house but it was from on of the Case Study firms). This town has always been hugely influential.”
West Los Angeles is mainly where he lived growing up and, still, is where he resides today. He’s relocated a few times, specifically to San Francisco after dropping out of high school. “I had a retail working job but I did start painting then,” he notes of his introduction to art. “I was young and it was mostly portraits of people I liked. I came back and went to Santa Monica College for a while and ended up enrolling at Otis, when it was still Downtown. I went there for a couple of years and transferred to Parsons, as they had an affiliation back then.”
Appel returned to Los Angeles to attend graduate school at UCLA after applying to several schools. His return was a homecoming and the city embraced him: he graduated in 1995 and has been showing consistently since 1997. The city was incredibly dynamic and coming into its own in the nineties, coalescing for Appel to be a perfect place for him to live and work. “LA and the art scene here has always been so intense and rogue in a way. In 1992, the Helter Skelter show happened at MOCA: it was a watershed moment. It was Paul Schimmel’s show and broke Charlie Ray, Mike Kelly, Paul McCarthy, and this whole dark undercurrent of Los Angeles noir really sealed the deal for me. It was great to come back and be a part of this art scene as opposed to New York art scene, which is much more comfortable with the idea of commerce and an attachment to history.”
The excitement Kevin has for Los Angeles and art is rooted in the city being unable to define itself. “LA has always had a bit of an identity crisis partially due to the external view of Los Angeles having this superficial mentality tied to the film industry. It doesn’t have a long lineage of a canonical or intellectual history, as opposed to New York. That’s why you get the Mike Kellys and the Ed Ruschas and the Robert Irwins: people who are outliers, who are liminal, who are thinking of art in different ways. I think LA is still like that and I find that there’s a really strong sense of community here: the art scene supports one another on all levels. It’s not as cutthroat as New York, in my experience.”
Given his personal history with the city and the community he became a part of, it didn’t take very long for the obsession of his artistic expression to snap into place: Los Angeles architecture. Around his return to Los Angeles for graduate school, he began using architecture as a metaphor, which has been building and building, leading his work to become layered, abstract examinations of how we live. “My work went through this relationship specifically with the Case Study project early on. I then started addressing other types of architecture in California, looking mostly at Central California and cabins and houses–more rural type structures–a different California–not a rarified, high end but more normative standards of living, which led to ecological cataclysms. That is basically where I am now.”
“The current body of work is about Salton Sea,” he says. “Again, we’re still in California and we’re still in this space of something that is a failed utopia, which really has been a baseline idea, even when I was doing Modernist structures. The Case Study program was a failed program–not aesthetically but in the terms of bringing that type of architecture to the masses. Of course it got co-opted immediately by upper class ideologies and money and it never really transferred into everyone getting these glass house structures, which was part of the initial thinking behind it.”
Los Angeles as a “failed utopia” is at the heart of Appel’s art. His work asks why these structures we make don’t work and why they were created. Are we too idealistic? Are we hiding something from ourselves? What do our buildings say about us as a city? As a people? It’s a fascinating subject.
“Failed utopias are very specifically linked to California and Los Angeles in particular. When you think of palm trees and bikinis and beaches and houses in the hills, there’s always also Raymond Chandler and James Elroy and Chinatown and the dark, undercurrents of this place. There is a ridiculous nature to the city, too: it’s this oasis in the desert…but not really because we borrow our water from other places. Los Angeles has a really complicated history, as most urban areas do. I am particularly enamored with this one right now.”
Appel is fascinated with Los Angeles and Southern California because, while being an expansive and beautiful area, it will never be perfect–and that fascinates him. “My focus has been on Imperial County and the complex environment out there: from migrant workers, Salvation Mountain and the Salton Sea to water issues and farming out in that area—what are the limits of Los Angeles – where does it end? It’s hard for me to imagine living somewhere else. How would I respond to that environment? Would it be as rich for me? It’s a feeling I have from being here. Part of that is tied to Los Angeles being my home: not only is it an intellectual pursuit and research but it’s research on this place that is very close to my heart.”
He continues: “There are certainly parts of [Los Angeles] that are more bleak than others –especially places like the Salton Sea. (Although, there was an article in the New York Times that there is going to be a development moving to Salton Sea for forty thousand people, to make a completely sustainable community out there). It was a hub for the rich and famous and then it failed several times over and it’s just so depressed now. Utopian failures are endemic in urban parts of Los Angeles – developed and undeveloped parts of the city; part of it is because it has this willy nilly, collage idea. Instead of San Francisco where the aesthetic building codes are so specific, everything is just pasted together here. Instead of that being bleak or negative to me it’s a failed utopia that is much more human, bringing an organic element to how the city functions.”
Layering in our city’s structure is a huge part of how Appel expresses these concepts, too. His current body of work features several plains of visual information, all speaking to the same idea in different ways. “It’s intuitive, for the most part,” he says of the act. “I am interested in the idea of collage and montage and the idea of alternate realities coming together as one object. Even now, when the collaging is much more tight (in that I’m not bring in tons of references like I did five, ten years ago) with one, two, or three things–but those three things represent three different ways of looking. One is the frontality of abstract paint in your face and the other is a photographic representation referencing another place and time, a moment in collapsed architecture: I like how these moments coexist. I try to force them together but I don’t try to get them to be happy together: there is a conflict in them being together.”
Appel won’t be straying from failed utopias at any point soon. In the future, he sees his work evolving to express the same concept through different subjects in Los Angeles. They’ll be presented in more and more complex ways, though. “There’s an increasing level of abstract gestures within the work that has opened it up. I’ve had the privilege of living a public life for a while so people understand the Los Angeles architectural base to it: even if I get increasingly more obtuse about how I address that is still in there because my history is still in there. I see myself being more open, to maybe not be so literal toward my subject matter, allowing the abstraction to put forth the feeling of what I’m trying to get at.”
“At the same time, I am really enmeshed in researching what is going on in Imperial. I see the Salton Sea going on for a little while longer. I have another project in mind that has to do with empty lots in Los Angeles that look like unkept bucolic settings but are in fact commodities and zones of depressed economy (meaning that someone bought it and didn’t have the money to build the house). That’s the next project in the back of my head, which has–again–to do with the real estate gesture in Los Angeles–not the built environment but the unbuilt. That’s there, too.”
Kevin also has no plans in the slightest to leave Los Angeles either. He’s an LA kid through and through…but he has considered relocating to areas outside of the city. “The closest I would come to [moving] is entertaining a curiosity and interest in outlying areas of the city, more rural locations that are in Southern California but not right here in the city. It interests me as a possibility: a big barn studio in the middle of nowhere sounds very romantic and nice.”
For more on Kevin, check out his website, Like his Facebook page, and give him a follow on Twitter. Also, you can catch Kevin’s work at Susanne Veilmetter in Culver City. His work will be on display through August 23.