When artist and Signal Tribune managing editor Cory Bilicko walked into the Long Beach Depot for Creative Re-use one Saturday afternoon last spring, he was seeking inspiration from the bins of odd objects. Among the well-organized containers of empty pill bottles, 1980s clothes patterns, vinyl LPs and old-school postcards, it was a small box of discarded family photos that really resonated with him.
“As you browse this store, you become so stimulated by all the colors, textures, patterns and nostalgic items,” Bilicko said. “But, when I came across these vintage photos from various families, it saddened me. How did these pictures end up in a second-hand store? Why weren’t they in someone’s photo album or framed on a grandmother’s wall?”
Bilicko bought about a dozen of the photographs, not yet knowing what he’d do with them.
A few weeks later, Greenly Art Space in Signal Hill presented him with their first Fellowship Award, in recognition of his support of local artists. Bilicko profiles a different artist from the area each week in the newspaper, featuring their work on the front page and an interview with them, along with more images of their work, in the Culture section. To date, he has featured about 160 different artists in this weekly column, “Imitating Life.”
As part of that award, Kimberly Hocking, Greenly’s founder and gallery director, offered Bilicko the opportunity to curate a show based on his own concept.
“Immediately, I thought of those old photos,” Bilicko said. “I just wasn’t sure exactly what I’d do with them.”
After some rumination, he decided the best way to honor the forgotten images, as well as the individuals in them, was to either invite various artists to create their own interpretations of them or have children interpret them in their own way. Vacillating between those two ideas, he eventually chose to incorporate both approaches: adult artists and kids.
After scouring other second-hand shops and purchasing more photos, he assembled a group of 30 artists from the Long Beach-Los Angeles area and had each choose an image to re-interpret. Then he worked with a first-grade class and a fourth-grade class, conducting visual exercises related to perception and examining how different individuals see things differently.
Once all 60 students had completed their drawings, he narrowed those down to the 30 that he found the most arresting and compelling, so that each adult artist’s piece would be accompanied by a child’s work and they would both be displayed next to the original photo.
“This is my first time curating, and, although this is a multifaceted project, which will also include a film I’m making about the entire process, I think the most exciting part for me will be the weekend before the opening, when all the artists drop off their work at the gallery,” Bilicko said. “I can’t wait to see how these old photos have inspired this diverse group of talented individuals, which, by the way, include seasoned, well-established artists and art educators, as well as shy, creative types who have never shown their work before. I have a well-studied sculptor who has been working for the famous artist Jeff Koons, a punk photographer who’s snapped early shots of the likes of Nirvana and Social Distortion, a successful children’s book illustrator, and a professional middleweight boxer, to describe just a few of them.”
Hocking said Bilicko’s concept is perfectly aligned with her gallery’s vision.
“When Cory came to talk with me about his idea for this art show, I was very excited and impressed,” Hocking said. “His concept brilliantly combines the many values we have at Greenly Art Space in the way that it encourages the production of original art by both professional and children artists. His concept encourages contemplation of ‘discarded’ photographs and gives them new life through art. He is mentoring young artists and encouraging them by teaching art in two local classrooms and putting their artwork up alongside professional artists. He is also utilizing his extensive network of artists he has interviewed over the years to encourage creation of new, original work by artists working from many different perspectives.”
Dorte Christjansen, an artist originally from Copenhagen, Denmark with an ample résumé and who works primarily in watercolor and batik, is one of the people Bilicko wanted in his show.
“I was invited to participate, was intrigued by the proposal, thinking it would push me out of my comfort zone by introducing the figure into my usual botanical or landscape content,” Christjansen said. “I find myself speculating about who these people were, their relationship to each other, what their lives were like, who took the photo, where they were, what the circumstances of the photo were, etcetera. I also contemplate the passage of time when I look at the photo– all that has happened over the years since it was snapped, how we are alike, yet different.”
On the other end of the experience spectrum is Juan Garcia, a Los Angeles artist who has, until now, never shown his work in a public setting. He has mainly created very personal portraits as gifts, but Bilicko was impressed with his techniques and offered him a place in the show.
“The idea of creating a piece of artwork for public display has really challenged me to think about my artistic interests and about how I want to communicate to people as an artist,” Garcia said. “My portraiture work has always been tailored to the recipient, which has been the extent of my experience practicing portraiture. Participating in this show has allowed me to break away from that tendency and challenged me to make this opportunity a reflection of my interests, my passions, my technique, and my state of mind.”
For Relative Aperture, Garcia left behind a comfort zone and opted for the only available vintage photo that did not include any people.
“The photo I chose is an aerial photograph of numerous subdivided farmlands and properties,” Garcia said. “Upon close examination, you see the variety of uses of land and the different stages of crops that are represented as variations and texture and gradation. The roads wind organically through these divisions of land, and you can faintly see trees, houses and other man-made structures. Given all the other photographs are remnants of anonymous people celebrating and living life, this photograph represented the land and how it was used then. My submission will be based on my interpretation of this concept and my interpretation of how we utilize our surroundings today.”
As Bilicko continues organizing the exhibit and creating his own piece for it, he keeps relating the old pictures to how we capture moments and people in today’s world.
“If you want to be rosy about it, you could say we’re taking a short break from our all-consuming realm of instant social-media gratification to honor these physical mementos from the not-that-distant past,” Bilicko says. “But, on the somewhat pessimistic side, we’re acknowledging the reality that, just as we are temporary beings granted a limited existence on this planet, whatever forms of sentimental preservation we currently cling to, be it digital photos or blogs, are possibly just as fleeting. As I work hard to develop a painting that does justice to my chosen vintage photo, I can’t help but ponder the question, Will all our digital photos even still exist 50 years from now?”
Relative Aperture will open Saturday, Sept. 6 from 7pm to 10pm at Greenly Art Space, 2698 Junipero Ave., Suite 113, in Signal Hill, and will be exhibited through Oct. 11. The gallery is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 11am to 2pm, or by appointment at (562) 533-4020.
Participating artists are Andres Alarcon, Caryn Baumgartner, Cory Bilicko, Dorte Christjansen, Kirk Dominguez, David Early, Mojgan Edalat-McClusky, Cynthia Evans, Alex Garcia, Juan Garcia, Melanie Gottlieb, Susan Hawkins, Rhett Johnson, Brigitte Johnston, Nate Jones, Leslie Lay, Nate Lubben, David McKeag, Lara Meintjes, Leighanna Nierle, Cathy Pavia, Vinny Perez, Sergio Piña, Richard Romero, Joan Sanders, Annie Stromquist, Emily Kiwa Tanaka, Kellie Thomas, Mackenize Woolvett and Danelle Wulc.