RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now to the question of who is represented and who is left out, a controversy rocking the country these days in Hollywood and in politics. Here in California, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg found a gallery exhibition where representation is at the heart of 19 dramatic portraits, all the same size, all in the same colors, all making the same stunning statement.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Where are you?
ALEXANDRA GRANT: I'm right over here, but just behind you.
STAMBERG: Alexandra Grant is one of three artists who convened at L.A. Louver, one of LA's best galleries, for a show that shows them. OK, let's go meet her.
GRANT: OK. Let me introduce you to Alexandra, my alter ego.
STAMBERG: She takes me to Rebecca Campbell's portrait of her. In the painting, as in life, Alexandra has long hair, steady eyes and a slight smile. What about her?
GRANT: She's very calm. She feels very at ease with Rebecca and very honored to be working with her, I can tell.
STAMBERG: Alexandra Grant is one of the painters Rebecca Campbell invited to take part in a project that documents the talented women artists working right now in Los Angeles. Campbell felt they were overlooked, not getting shown in museums and galleries, becoming invisible.
REBECCA CAMPBELL: I thought well, what I can do is I make pictures. And I made it so they didn't disappear by making pictures of them.
STAMBERG: Nineteen of them so far, it's an ongoing project. Women of varied ages and races. What ties them together is they all make art. In her art, Campbell is not after precise representation.
CAMPBELL: You're trying to say something about this person, the personal history. But you're trying to do it with vocabulary of marks and tones and textures.
STAMBERG: In your language?
CAMPBELL: In my language, yeah.
STAMBERG: In bold, confident strokes with a brush or palette knife, in black, white and a salmon pink she mixes by hand, she captures the essence of her subject. Again, Alexandra Grant.
GRANT: What Rebecca's doing in a very beautiful, subtle way, is saying look, here's all these artist who are working right now in Los Angeles. Do you know them? They want to meet you. They want their work to be known in the public realm and considered on equal footing with male peers.
STAMBERG: Campbell's women are not only painters. There are sculptors, photographers, a dancer.
MPAMBO WINA: You arrive at her studio, and you sit.
STAMBERG: Mpambo Wina trained and performed at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She's small and elegant with vivid red lipstick and braided hair. Rebecca took her photograph. All the portraits are made from photos.
WINA: I started to pose. I'm not going to lie. I did start to pose and then she started talking to me, and I dropped the armor.
STAMBERG: The conversation swirled between them.
WINA: You talk about life or literature, architecture, traveling. And she's taking you in bit by bit.
STAMBERG: Then, Mpambo says, Rebecca started clicking, talking, clicking, then stopped talking and said I have it. The painting from that photo shows Mpambo in a white T-shirt, a bright cross on her necklace. Her face is open, thoughtful, engaged. She looks right at us, all the women do. Alexandra again.
GRANT: I think, with each one of these portraits, that the gaze of someone looking back at you confident, contemplative and holding their space, that's a really important position for a woman artist to be in.
STAMBERG: Mpambo says, as a model, there was even more to it than that.
WINA: You feel seen.
STAMBERG: At the show's crowded opening reception, Alexandra Grant felt community among the women on the walls and in the gallery, admiring Campbell's work.
GRANT: She is creating an index that will serve as a record of this moment in time in Los Angeles art history. And this is pretty funny. I had a couple people ask me - how do I get painted?
STAMBERG: The show, it's called "You Are Here," is up at L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice until February 13. It's the work of a dedicated artist who wrote this about what painting means to her. It's almost a poem.
CAMPBELL: (Reading) It's about tracking ghosts. It's about selling diamonds to poets. It's about that slippery little idea of a connection that is deeper than butter and as long as water.
STAMBERG: In Southern California, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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