Three individual painters, and yet a strong underlying bond is at the core of “Family Plot,” the Homeira Goldstein-curated exhibition that highlights recent work by Ed Moses, his son Andy Moses, and Andy’s wife Kelly Berg. The show opens at 6 p.m. this evening at the Manhattan Beach art Center.
Ed Moses doesn’t need much of an introduction. He emerged as a viable presence in the L.A. art scene during the latter 1950s along with Billy Al Bengsten, John Altoon, Craig Kauffman, Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, and several others, many of whom have died or curtailed their creative output. But not Moses. Last year LACMA gave him a show and right now there’s one through June 25 at the William Turner Gallery in Bergamot Station.
One thing about artists, though, they don’t tend to retire. As Saul Bellow once told Herbert Gold, “Don’t count any writer out while he’s still alive.” A couple of weeks before her death at age 93, June Wayne was showing off her Charlie Chaplin steps and telling me she still had other projects in mind.
At 90, Ed Moses remains consumed by his art. Passion? I ask; Obsession, he replies. And is it still the same as maybe 60 years ago? “It’s always the same. It never changes, my obsession.”
He paints outside, so his Venice studio is literally under (mostly) blue California skies, but Moses does have two viewing rooms, as he calls them, where paintings are mounted on the surrounding walls, and which he can mull over at his leisure. Or, to be more precise, so he can contemplate what he’s done and then grasp his next step. In some ways, he’s not the one calling the shots:
“Originality only comes as a by-product. I’m not trying to be original; I’m not trying to be not-original. I just do what the painting suggests.”
Ed Moses is pretty clear about the art process, at least as it pertains to him.
“I’m a researcher,” he says; “I investigate through paint, and I discover through paint things that I mutate to the next episode. I never have any goal intended, the goal is in the process. God created man, painters discover reality in the phenomenal world. This is the phenomenal world.”
But you work through intuition, right?
“Yeah, I’m very intuitive,” Moses replies. “I see something, it suggests something that suggests something (else), and they mutate ideas, place to place… I discover by chance, not with an idea, and what I discover is in the evidence that’s left on the canvas.”
In short, “The next move I make is based on the last move I made.”
As to how he gets started each morning, Moses says: “I look at what I’ve done the previous day. I have them (the canvases) outside or I have them in the studio, and I bring my moving transportation and I look on the walls and see what I have. I say, Oh, yeah, that’s not bad, how can we extend that, or do I want to extend it? Am I satisfied with it? Or do I want to reactivate the surface?”
Some artists work on a single picture and finish it before moving on, but not Moses.
“I work on eight or ten paintings every day, moving from one to the other in different states of development.”
However, it wasn’t always that way. While living in Spain with his family, his two young sons came down with food poisoning.
“The doctor came to me and said, You’re still a young man, you can have many more,” Moses recalls. “Being the spontaneous guy I was, I jumped up and grabbed him. But I learned something through that. The attitude with the Spanish, they had a large family, they lost a certain amount of them. So I used to work on one painting until I finished it. If I lost it I felt devastated. So I learned, why not work on five or six or ten things simultaneously? And if a few of them drop off along the way it’s not so devastating.” And so a Spanish doctor called in to remedy food poisoning ended up conveying a now long-held strategy of how to produce art.
If some of the canvases begin to head off in an undesired direction, they get pulled in via the whitewash treatment, and Moses begins anew. In one of the galleries, or viewing rooms, he points to recent work with a mirrored surface. Anything reflected on the surface is slightly distorted, as in a funhouse mirror.
“I like the reflections,” he says, “what it does to the paintings in the background; it changes the shapes. I put rocks on some of them and X’s on other ones to establish their two-dimensionality.”
These are quite singular works, but remember, with Ed Moses one piece leads to another.
“I could never have thought of this. The ideas come from the previous encounter.”
It all began with an art class at a junior college in Long Beach taught by Pedro Miller, while Moses was actually a pre-med student.
“He had everybody do an independent project, and my project was finger painting on a canvas. He came up and saw the one I had and he put it up on the wall, and he said ‘Now here’s a real artist,’ whatever that meant.
“I continued with the finger painting and then did things with my hands. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just exploring paint on a two-dimensional plane.”
And that’s what you’re doing now, you’re exploring.
“I’m still exploring.”
Parents tend to say good things about their children, even if some of it isn’t true. When Ed Moses is asked if he encouraged his son Andy Moses to become an artist, he replies, “Oh, yeah. I encouraged him. I said, That’s great, Andy. He’s a better artist than I am, in a sense; he’s more intelligent than I am. I wasn’t the brains of the family. I have another son (Cedd) who has many bars and cocktail houses. He’s brilliant, too. He could have been an artist easily.”
“He definitely tried to steer me far away (from art),” Andy Moses says a bit later in the afternoon. “He wanted both me and my brother to be doctors.”
This is when I mention to him that his father said he’d encouraged him in his pursuit of art.
“Well, maybe later,” Andy replies. “I went to film school at CalArts and it was while I was there that I got an interest in painting. But I think he didn’t like the idea so much just because he knew what a rough road it is.” He laughs. “And it turns out he was right.”
His father was correct about one more thing, too. Andy Moses is a pretty sharp guy. His paintings manage to look formless or errant and yet carefully directed at the same time. He says his work parallels his notion of alchemy, and one can glimpse this in the result.
“I’ve always been interested in this idea of paint as kind of a living thing, and to allow it to manifest into many different forms and shapes. And I like when these shapes start to parallel our archetypal or unconscious kind of images.
“So I’m looking for these images that are a little bit elusive,” Moses continues. “It’s never specific, but they’re very suggestive of many things simultaneously. And, equal to my fascination with alchemy, I’ve always been interested in fractal imagery. So, self-repeating patterns that could be on a microscopic scale, on a human scale, on a gigantic scale, but this idea that things repeat on all of these scales. And I basically look to create paint formulas that allow these paintings to manifest on their own, if you will.”
WINDS OF CHANGE
Perhaps there’s a critic or two who has speculated that the reason why Ed Moses is all about the journey and not the destination is because he was born while at sea, on a boat between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. After all, Hawaii seems to lurk in the Moses family blood, if not psyche. Andy says he’s been to Hawaii many times since he was a child (it’s where his grandparents met), and it’s where he and his wife Kelly spent their honeymoon.
“There’s something about the big island,” he says. “It’s the youngest and that’s where the active volcano is that’s creating new earth every day. Every time I come back from visiting the volcano you feel this magnetic charge or something in your body; it really feels like it charges up your batteries… The idea of molten earth and earth moving has always interested me.”
Such concerns appear to underlie much of Andy Mose’s work, with an often magma-like flow. It’s like the metaphysical meets the physical, I say.
“I like that, yes,” Moses replies. “I’m definitely interested in the metaphysical, but I’m very interested in nature and I’m very interested in the history of abstract painting and mark-making. I feel my work is at the convergence of all these ideas or notions. I want them (the pictures) to operate as abstract paintings relating to mark-making and color, but I also want them to be very suggestive of natural forms and how natural forms move and shift over time.”
That is, pictures that grab our attention but elude our grasp.
The visual effect in many cases is of strange, unfamiliar landscapes, where we can’t place our vantage point. But that’s just what Andy Moses wants to elicit from us: “This is about embracing the notion of change.”
Nothing stands still, that’s what we take away. People, the earth, the universe, and art, everything is in flux and on the march.
The third member of the Moses artistic clan featured in “Family Plot” is Andy’s wife, Kelly Berg. She has not yet established a notable presence in the local art scene, but she has some fine canvases that deserve our consideration.
Berg grew up in Minneapolis where she lived until she attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where she spent four years and earned her BFA. She briefly returned to Minneapolis, traveled in Europe, saved up some money, and in 2009 drove across the country to L.A. She settled in with her brother, who was pursuing his interest in music.
It was while assisting at the Black Cat Gallery in Culver City that she met Andy Moses, who had a piece in a show there. Afterwards, he called her up and said he wanted to see her studio.
Berg laughs. “At the time I was painting in my brother’s living room.”
No matter. They hit it off, and in 2012 they married.
“My work has gone through many transformations,” Berg says. “At art school I studied figurative painting and was doing mainly self-portraiture. That kind of informed my first body of work here in Los Angeles, which was combining figure with landscape, with some hints of abstraction.
“Throughout my journey as an artist it’s always been about building up a certain body of work and then breaking it all down again, kind of starting from the basics, and that’s what I did in about 2010.”
The walls of her studio are lined with recent work, some of it in black-and-white, some of it in color, but all of it sort of bursting off the wall, a quiet but visual thunder.
“What you see here,” Berg says, “really began after me and Andy took a trip to Hawaii, where we visited the volcano on the big island of Hawaii. I’ve always been fascinated by natural disasters and these great kind of epic landscapes. In Minnesota, I had close encounters with tornadoes, and a lot of severe weather. So, growing up, I had always been very connected with nature and very fascinated with meteorology and geology.”
We see the influences of these interests in her work, and also her attraction to Egyptology and ancient sites. While traveling in 2008 Berg not only visited Rome and Greece, but also Egypt, and what she saw made an impression that continues to reverberate and emerge in her art, some of which has a shard-like sculptural aspect:
“I would say one thing about the texture,” she adds; “it’s meant to mimic topography and in many cases rock formations and the geological phenomena that it’s portraying with the imagery.”
Berg’s interest in the long-term ramifications of time, geological and human, plus the recent widespread destruction of ancient sites, is balanced by her being inspired by contemporary music.
She points to a black-and-white painting that might bear some resemblance to a railway trestle seen from the inside.
“I painted this on the day that David Bowie died. He was a huge influence on my entire life as an artist. A lot of this work was born out of that time period remembering him and listening to his album ‘Black Star.’ And so this painting kind of began this whole new direction in the work.”
As with Andy’s painting, there is flux, and as with Ed’s work there is transformation and a focus on the journey. So we have three travelers, each of them on their own path, and fortunately with no end in sight. The road leads where it will, and that’s enough.