The Mercury News
Tracing L.A.'s changes
Karla Klarin weaves together 40 years of memoir and paintings of her beloved city and its skyline
In 1975, Karla Klarin was an emerging artist who, like others of her generation, gravitated toward Los Angeles' downtown, where large spaces were available for cheap. During the years that she lived and worked in the industrial area that would, much later, become the Arts District, Klarin began a series of works based on the downtown skyline.
For decades, Los Angeles has been a favorite subject of Klarin's paintings. In “L.A. Painter: The City I Know, the City I See,” which will be published Tuesday by Angel City Press ($40), the Santa Monica-based artist weaves together a memoir with her paintings of the city.
These paintings were, she writes, her first “serious and mature body of work.”
Several years ago, Klarin, who has work in the collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hammer Museum and USC Fisher Art Museum, launched a blog with short essays about painting. When she'd amassed a good amount of material, she thought about writing it as a narrative.
“I pivoted and started writing in a narrative way, but I'm not a writer; I'm a painter,” she says. Based on some advice, Klarin's writing evolved into the biographical essays that make up “L.A. Painter.”
Klarin's essays are accompanied by her paintings, primarily those of Los Angeles. By the time she started writing, Klarin notes, she already had 40 years' worth of L.A. paintings in her body of work. “It's all interwoven,” she says of the connections between the visual art and her essays. “It really can't be separated. What I saw and drew and painted and what I experienced, all of it is interwoven.”
Klarin grew up in the San Fernando Valley and, as a child, spent a lot of time downtown, where her grandfather worked as a butcher at Grand Central Market.
“When I was 22 or so and I moved downtown, I began to really see the city in a different way, as an adult,” she says. “I have so many memories from childhood that when I moved to downtown L.A., I would be someplace and a memory would come back to me. It was very odd and it went on for quite a while.”
The downtown that kick-started Klarin's career has changed quite a bit since she lived and painted there. “I just can't even believe my eyes,” she says of today's downtown Los Angeles. “All
“Over time, I think that I became almost protective of L.A. and more appreciative of how much I loved this city and how much it had given me over the course of my life.”
— Karla Klarin
the buildings and the density. It's a different city.”
And she admits that the signs marking the Arts District make her laugh. “It's great and it's cool — wine bars and all of that is great — but how do you pay for it?” she wonders. “How do you get a 2,000-square-foot studio?”
For years now, an L.A. irony is that the downtown neighborhood named for artists remains largely beyond the budget of the average artist. When Klarin was there, in the 1970s and '80s, it was a different scene, one where artists had to devise ways to get kitchens, bathtubs and heat into old factory spaces.
“Part of the challenge of being an artist is that it's really, really unlikely that you're going to make any money at it and, somehow, you've got to pay your bills,” she says.
But it was also a time when a young artist like Klarin could work a parttime job and be able to cover rent, food, a car and painting supplies. She recalls the years when she worked as a bartender in Beverly Hills, a job that allowed her to work at night and paint during the day.
“I would come home at 2:30, 3 in the morning on my funky industrial street and I would be all by myself, pulling up in my VW bug,” she says.
“There would be nobody around and it was spooky,” she says. “It was uncomfortable and it was kind of scary, but you could do it. When you're young, you can do a lot that you don't really want to do when you're in your 40s or 50s.”
It was in this environment where Klarin's paintings of Los Angeles emerged. In the beginning, she made her art using paint on constructed 3D images. Later, she moved to canvas. From the skyscraper skylines she constructed in the early 1980s to the geometric landscapes painted in recent years, she gives a local's perspective of the city.
“It hadn't occurred to me before, but it just occurred to me now that L.A. has taken so much abuse. New Yorkers love to make fun of us and put us down. When I was going to art school in San Francisco, San Franciscans loved to put it down,” says Klarin. “Over time, I think that I became almost protective of L.A. and more appreciative of how much I loved this city and how much it had given me over the course of my life.”