Two years ago, when photographer John Purlia sent a photo off to one of the La Jolla Art Association's juried shows, he thought it'd be rejected. Purlia uses found objects in his photographs-old album covers as the backdrop, classic 45 vinyl records as the floor, and random toys, figurines, bottles and whatever else he can find in the foreground. This particular photo pictured a cover of an odd religious album from a seminary and hot little topless hula girls shaking their hot little grass skirts in the photo's foreground.
"So it looks like these young priests-to-be are getting down with hula girls," the La Jolla photographer said with a giggle. "I kind of thought, oh, it's La Jolla, they're not gonna get it, but, surprisingly, they did."
At the show's opening, one of the jurors, a man with intense, piercing blue eyes and a perfectly trimmed goatee and moustache to match, singled out Purlia from the other photographers who'd made it into the show.
"You're the only person I wanted to meet," said the man, vigorously shaking Purlia's hand. "What you're doing is real art."The man pulled out a business card and asked Purlia to enter work in one of his art shows.
The man with the 'stache turned out to be Steven Churchill, founder and curator of The Art of Photography Show and The Art of Digital Show, two of San Diego's biggest-and quickly becoming the most prestigious-juried art exhibitions held outside museum walls.
On the surface, Churchill seems like a businessman, not an art man-the type of guy who'd have no qualms about whipping out a business card and soliciting work in the middle of someone else's art show. He carries two cards with him at all times, one for his personal photography website and one for Animation Entertainment, the video and DVD company he founded 20 years ago. Promotional material for his art shows-the projects he holds nearest and dearest to his heart-are usually just a briefcase away.
With excellent posture and a steady gaze, Churchill says things like "it'll be a win-win situation for everyone involved,""proactive" and " tangible results."He speaks quickly and clearly, which makes everything he says that much more corporate-sounding and authoritative. But behind the guy's polished, button-up exterior is a creative and passionate artist as addicted to photography and digital art as Van Gogh was to prostitutes and paint.
Visit Churchill's photography website, www.stevenchurchill.com, and you'll forget about the man's penchant for corporate-speak. He's got beautiful photo series on everything from Corvettes, travel and nature shots to synthetic, water and digitally manipulated fantasy imagery. A scroll through his site lets you in on gems like The Exhibition of Computer Animation, a computer-animation film festival he held in La Jolla in 1986 and 1987-purportedly the first of its kind.
And on his company's website, www.animationtrip.com, you get a feel for Churchill's nerdier, digital-art side. The site sells computer-animated shorts and longer computer-animated films set to electronic and new-age music with titles like Planetary Traveler, Aqua Harp and Eternal Gaze. Churchill even produced a computer-animated film series himself, Mind's Eye, which he also hawks on the site.
So even if Churchill looks more at home with clean-cut CEOs than he does with paint-splattered artists, there's no denying the massive amounts of creative juices flowing through the man's veins. Churchill's just gone about the whole business of art in a different way-he's made art his business.
"People call me a connector,"said Churchill, "and I like that phrase because that's what I really do want to do, is try to connect art buyers, people who appreciate and want to own really nice art in their home, with creators, people who are creating art."
Churchill started the first Art of Photography Show in 2004. Held at a small La Jolla gallery, the show was wildly successful; people showed up, lots of people, and some even bought work.
That first year, Churchill played the role of organizer, curator and judge, but by the second show in 2006, he outsourced the judging responsibility to someone he thought would do a better job, Arthur Ollman, then the director of the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts. The second show was even better than the first; they received 9,500 entries from 32 countries and sold a quarter of the work. Pleased with the results, Churchill decided late last year to add yet another endeavor to his agenda, The Art of Digital Show, which features digital paintings, video works and digitally manipulated photos. He managed to get Hugh Davies, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego executive director, to step in as the judge, and, again, the show was a huge success; they received more than 2,700 entries from across the globe and sales were good. Needless to say, the business plan for both shows seems to be working.
This year's Art of Photography Show received exactly 9,876 entries. The judge, Tim Wride, founding executive director of The No-Strings Foundation, a nonprofit providing funding for photographers, and interim curator of photography at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art, took three days to narrow the entries down to 103. He awarded 14 of those photos plus one photographic series special awards (the exact places-first second, third, etc.-will not be announced until the show opens). Wride says people should expect to see more than just nicely lit, well-composed photos in this year's show.
"We're in a spot right now in art photography," Wride said, "where you have to put up or shut up. It's really no longer just about the image, although beautiful images have their place and documentary images have their place, yet in the art market there seems to be an expectation for more."
All of the high-profile judges Churchill's used in his shows seem to be looking for that same thing: "images with an idea that's expressed," he said.
"They really aren't looking much for pretty pictures, and they definitely aren't looking for something that's out there that's been done and redone and redone a million times. They're looking for something kind of novel and somewhat unique, but also has some sort of content."
Something kind of like Purlia's work, which offers subtle social commentary in whimsical and creative ways. Although Purlia didn't actually get in the year Churchill approached him at the La Jolla show, he entered again this year and his photo "Final frame at the Cuius Deo Optimo Open," a picture of a bowler looking like he's ready to knock down a choir of nuns, made the cut.
"Final Frame at the Cuius Deo Optimo Open" is on CityBeat's cover this week. The Art of Photography Show opens at the Lyceum Theatre Gallery in Downtown's Horton Plaza from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, April 14. The show will be on view through May 28. 858-793-0900 or www.artofphotographyshow.com.
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