Shamin M. Momin

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A LAND Exhibition: “Painting in Place”
2013
Installation view at Farmers and Merchants Bank, Downtown LA
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer, courtesy of LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division)

The venerable Farmers and Merchants Bank on the corner of 4th and Main Street in downtown Los Angeles is one of those grand but crumbling spaces one might normally pass by without a second glance: staid, forlorn–a fading urban jewel. This summer, the bank was dramatically reinvigorated with works by 29 artists. Spanning a variety of unconventional approaches–from paintings mounted on scaffolds to kite-like pieces suspended from the ceiling, from works suggesting rainbow-hued graffiti to understated architectural interventions–the exhibition, titled “Painting in Place,” presented a dizzying panoply of inspired juxtapositions. With its unlikely setting, rigorous curation, and fleeting duration, the show is typical of the cultural programming presented by LAND–short for Los Angeles Nomadic Division–the ambitious, LA-based non-profit public art initiative founded by curator Shamim M. Momin in 2010. But like all LAND’s programs, it is also one-of-a-kind–in its conception, in its location, and in the choice of artists involved. “I realized that it would be a new and special project each time, that it would start from scratch,” Momin notes genially, when I sit down to talk with her at LAND’s modest office in a mini-mall off Highland Ave. “It’s a different relationship each time with each venue, a different relationship with each artist or artists. Putting these two together is the dynamic of what we do. It’s consistently changing, but also what we love most.”

In its short three-and-a-half years’ existence, LAND has presented an imposing smorgasbord of offerings, ranging from short-term performative projects, such as their Nomadic Nights series, to single artist/multi-site (or multi-artist/single site) exhibitions, including recent works by Katie Grinnan in Joshua Tree and LA, and Liz Craft in West Hollywood (the endearingly eerie Temple of Folly, up through mid-October), to sprawling, large-scale projects with numerous participants. Among the latter are LAND’s 2012 multi-artist homage to LA gallerist/provocateur Eugenia Butler, mounted in a West Hollywood strip mall as a part of Pacific Standard Time. The central element uniting all these disparate visions is Momin herself: her driving passion and commitment to thinking outside the typical art world box, and to the singular alchemy that defines each project. “What is it about the space? How does an artist see it? Why is it an exciting space?” she asks.

“We feel strongly about everything we do being free,” Momin explains. “We want this to be part of people’s lives. That’s the public art component. We want to be as rigorous, thorough and innovative as an institution, just not within institutional walls… I’m not anti-institutional, this isn’t the ’70s,” she adds. “I believe in institutional traditions, that’s where I came from.”

Momin’s path to the esoteric spaces of Southern California began in the heart of Manhattan’s art world: a prominent curator at the Whitney Museum in New York, where she worked for 12 years, she co-curated the Whitney Biennial in 2004 and 2008. The latter show was notable for expanding its reach to include a component at the Park Avenue Armory, featuring works by artists such as Eduardo Sarabia, Mungo Thomson and Marina Rosenfeld. “We ran the gamut from incredibly delicate interventions to vast, extensive installations.”

Momin moved to LA in 2009, and launched LAND over the next year. In January 2010, she inaugurated the first large-scale project, under the thematic “VIA,” bringing together the work of eight Mexican artists. Momin describes it as “like a thematic show at an institution, but expanded over time and space.” The initiative included “eight projects that took place over a year and a half. The viewer could experience each one individually, or all, or some of them.” She elucidates: the goal was to “let the artists do what they want on their own terms, but still group them together anyway. Sometimes it’s like a cumulative way of looking at a thing… It gives them some freedom, to make choices within the parameters.”

The next large initiative on the horizon, which she is co-curating with artist Zoe Crosher, is even more geographically ambitious. Called “Manifest Destiny,” the project will feature 10 artists, each of whom will create five to 10 billboards along Route 10 at specific sites between Jacksonville, Florida, and Santa Monica, California. This July, she did “a research road trip, with the whole LAND team,” taking pictures of every billboard on the route. Each artist’s installation will remain up for at least four to six weeks. The project begins in mid-October, in Neptune City outside Jacksonville, with works by Shana Lutker (“she has family there, it informs what she’s doing”); other participating artists include Eve Fowler and Mario Ybarra, Jr.

LAND’s current challenge is both timely and historic: the placement of Richard Artschwager’s blps around LA, as part of the Hammer Museum’s current retrospective. “They gave us the very pleasurable charge of putting them up and selecting the locations.” Although the show originated at the Whitney, the 89-year old artist died in the interim, in February. “There’s a sadness not to be able to work with him,” says Momin, who had worked with him in New York and assumed she would do so here. Instead, they picked “sites we knew he would like, in keeping with Richard’s way of thinking.” Among these are Union Station, the Dresden restaurant in Los Feliz, and Santa Monica Pier. The dark, lozenge-shaped blps come in three sizes, from 13 inches to five feet tall; without inherent meaning on their own, they entice the viewer into exploring the spaces they occupy with subversive wit, turning the act of observation into a playful quest.

In a way, the blps are the perfect enunciation of LAND’s own, over-arching intent, to weave the act of experiencing art into the fabric of day-to-day life. Thus, by definition, her audience often extends beyond the typical in-house, art-world crowd. “I like to give them the respect they deserve, people are incredibly visually sophisticated,” she says of her audience. “I want the word ‘appeal’ out of the conversation,” she adds. “What I would like of my audience is to bring whatever they want to it… I hope I can give the opportunity–not the directive–to see it as I do.”

Although one gets the sense she is always hugely busy, this summer Momin is busier than usual. In August, she is getting married, and she just moved into a new house, in LA’s Atwater Village. In September, she will be overseeing the public art component of Expo Chicago, the successful new art fair organized by Tony Karman, now in its second year at the historic Chicago Navy Pier. Her curated element, called “In Situ,” will defy expectation by incorporating its installations among the booths, doing things in walkways and other interstitial areas, working with artists whose galleries are showing at the fair. Among them are Glenn Kaino, Karl Haendel, and Jose Davila. She will be in Chicago for a week to oversee the installation. “I feel Tony has a very thorough approach,” she says. “Tony and I had a great conversation where he outlined his approach to the fair. He really has a curatorial sensibility.”

So far, despite its “nomadic” title, LAND seems to have laid solid roots. Momin works with a small but dedicated team, and in 2012, its benefit raised $300,000. Along the way, it has drawn the eye of some notable patrons and even a few celebrities. “Fund-raisers are great, but it won’t make you a sustainable organization. That’s flash, that’s smoke and mirrors, but it doesn’t give us our operating budget.” So, as with many non-profits, generating sponsorship remains an o
ngoing challenge. But Momin’s devotion to the project is unwavering. “LAND is my life,” she states. “It’s work, but it’s also fucking fun. We give artists the chance to do what they would never do.” Rephrasing the point, she says: “We have that beautiful opportunity to be nimble, responsive, to the artist… to create an experience of art in your day-to-day life. We’re giving the artist the opportunity, and giving the public the opportunity. We believe in both.”