Reviewer Magazine’s new Art Editor wants to reform San Diego’s dolphin-friendly image.

By Katherine Sweetman, Art Editor

photo by Michelle Bassler

Specifically, I hate dolphins that live on brightly colored canvases in the storefronts of local “art galleries.”

On occasion, the sight of these painted porpoises can drive me to fits of such feverish rage that I’m tempted to punch an unsuspecting dolphin in its smiling, half-opened mouth. This is just one of the many reasons I have to avoid certain La Jolla and Downtown art-selling venues. I’ve also been asked to leave more than a few of these locations due to my uncontrollable need to question the sales associates on the topic of “what constitutes art.”

I will admit that my particular breed of dolphin-art-induced-hostility may stem from a conversation I had with a pretentious New York-based artist one evening, just before I moved here.

“What would an artist DO in San Diego?” he asked, but he didn’t give me time to answer.

“Paint dolphins!?” he yelled, and then he laughed so wildly that everyone in the room had to turn and stare.

Contemplating this, I imagined a group of San Diegans gathered around a Sea World tank painting dolphin still-life portraits. Perhaps, inspired by Yves Klein, they could dip the dolphins in paint and roll them around on the canvas. The truth was, at the time, I didn’t know what artists would do in San Diego either.

Now, after ten years of working with and studying local artists, I contend that our artists create work that’s on par with art done anywhere in the world. We make irreverent, inquisitive, documentary, activist, playful, visionary, sometimes difficult or haunting, and frequently awe-inspiring work here. Immensely talented artists chose to live in San Diego, effectively debunking the myth that good art comes from the “tortured artist” living the hard-scrabble life in gritty inner cities.  Life here is pretty good; the climate, the sea and the relaxed atmosphere all make for a tempting place to set-up shop and many artists remain here in spite of the fact that we lack the press coverage, donors, subsidies, patrons and nurturing culture of our more art-friendly neighbors up north (Los Angeles and San Francisco). Sadly, San Diego isn’t known for placing much value on the contemporary visual arts, but that CAN still be changed.

Local arts writers have always been challenged to go out and find the key players and important characters who make challenging – even disquieting – art, and that is the particular kind of work in which I am personally invested. I don’t much care for abstract painting, landscape photography, artists who don’t have a purpose, or artists whose intent is aimed solely at the marketable prospects of the work (for example, most dolphin art).

Adjusting the outsiders’ perception of San Diego Arts is up to all of us. We all need to track down significant artists, talk about their work, buy their work, publicize their work, and help bring them to the consciousness of new, larger audiences. We should seek out the artists who make smart work, who push the boundaries of what “art” can be, and who conceive of artworks and projects that can change the rules of the game. I intend to showcase talented, provocative, meaningful, and thoughtful local visual artists — to ignite a wider discussion of the complex and stunning work that happens here.

When people across the country or across the world think of San Diego, I don’t want them to think about dolphins. Do you?


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