Stronger Art, Lower Brows

Posted December 27, 2007 in Arts & Culture

“Nothing at last is sacred,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once penned, “but the integrity of your own mind.” There was certainly no concrete evidence of anything sacred in the burgeoning downtown LA art scene in the late ’80s except for money and name recognition, a rising artist’s scourge. Pomona-based artist A.S. Ashley paints a picture of late ’80s Los Angeles as an artistic cup that was ran over with talent but was in dire need of an affordable space for artists to showcase their craft. To give artists a space, he decided to throw an “art rave,” basing the concept on that of the underground dance parties. Ashley’s idea was to make his raves mobile, hosting each exhibit in a different venue to avoid a premium price tag. This savings would go into serving his larger purpose of making art affordable to the masses—it was a true symbiotic relationship.

“I walked into a restaurant in downtown LA with the most gorgeous walls [I’ve] ever seen,” Ashley says, “and I approached the owner and told him what I wanted to do and I guaranteed that he would make money. My first rave had about 20 or 25 artists and it was an instant success.”

But Ashley’s support of the arts didn’t stop with procuring cheap spaces for exhibitions; it extended to the conventions of the art show itself. His art raves are always specifically themed, a focal point that Ashley sees as beneficial to the artists and patrons alike. His idea is to make his raves as accessible as possible, not a cold climate for highbrows to twirl cognac. Ever the artistic populist—not unlike a modern day Duchamp—Ashley thinks that the pretentiousness of the art world alienates those curious many who aren’t well versed in the historical nuances and stylistic mediums that precede their knowledge. In short, no snobs—snobbery is for people who’ve grown tired of questions.

“My thing is that I want to get as many people involved as possible,” he says. “I want the artists to relax, play and have fun, and I want people to come and enjoy it. It’s all about familiarity and instilling that family feeling.” He says this last part with a fine veneer of ironic sarcasm, almost discounting the hours he put into fostering that family feeling. Humility, if you haven’t guessed, is a recurring theme in Ashley’s conversations. He’s been an idealist his entire artistic career, but he still harbors the anti-authoritarian bent of his younger days.

“I was one of the original OC punk rockers,” he says, still harboring warmth for his counter-cultural roots as his signature pork pie hat and rocker t-shirts indicate. Yet while he was busy imbibing the counter-culture of that emerging punk scene, he was at the same time working furious hours as an emerging painter. In fact, at 21 Ashley was accepted into the Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts and became the “youngest person with the highest score” ever accepted into the fest. He made such an impression that the following year, when he was ordered to leave the festival because of his art’s offensive content, his absence was conspicuous enough to cause a stir among the attending artists (he was, however, juried in the following year under an assumed name and a new medium).

As it’s never been in Ashley’s nature to go silently into that good night, he retaliated in true punk rock fashion by showing up anyway. Only, instead of using a brush to make his presence felt, he presented a piece of performance art entitled “Art Abortion,” in which he surgically extracted a bloody fetus from a map of Orange County. Laguna Beach was the point of incision and he used a scalpel to cut his hands and add his own blood to the disgusting mess.

“When I turned around after removing this bloody fetus—it had on a little beret and a tiny little paintbrush—there were a bunch of people watching me,” Ashley says about the performance that drew about 2,500 people. “The next thing I knew, the whole thing was a national story. Needless to say, I wasn’t invited back the next year. But the ACLU got involved and we took the case to the state supreme court, and it made the artists at the festival work to change its bylaws.” Ashley stuck around long enough to attend one more festival before moving to Los Angeles en-route to Bakersfield, where he also played a prominent role in the local art scene by running an underground art rag called The Random Times.

This past February Ashley moved to Pomona and never skipped a beat, saying, “I was in a show the first day I got there.” Two months later he was throwing his art raves at the Arts Colony’s Second Saturday Art Walk, and reconnecting with long-lost acquaintances—harmonic convergence, as he calls it—who are now the artistic establishment of the Pomona art scene. Fellow artistic denizens of the Pomona art scene like Andi Campognone, who runs the dba256 Gallery and Rolo, who curates shows at The dA Center For The Arts, were at one time on the artistic fringes with him in Los Angeles but have managed to attain rock star status and maintain their artistic integrity.

The irony of the old radical artistic new wave becoming the next generation’s gatekeepers isn’t lost on Ashley, who’s helping curate an exhibit called The New Traditionalists at The dA in January, with the focus falling on local artists who’ve shared Ashley’s fate.

Nevertheless he seems comfortable in his newfound niche as guerilla-artist-cum- madman-curator in the emerging IE art scene, mostly because of he knows he’s in good hands. “What you’ve got to do is have faith in the people around you,” Ashley says, “an almost automatic faith. Trust them, and they’ll trust you. That’s how you get work done—believe in it, then do it.”

And it’s more than just words—he does these things with integrity of mind.


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