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Afraid of Nothing: The Art of Miriam Wosk

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When Miriam Wosk entered a gallery or museum opening, no matter how glamorous or how crowded the event was, all eyes turned to her. With her impressive figure, beautiful face and abundance of exotic jewelry, she was a live embodiment of the spirit of the eccentric Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, one of her personal favorites.

This last weekend, the Santa Monica Museum of Art unveiled a retrospective exhibition devoted to the art and life of Miriam Wosk, the well-known Los Angeles multi-media artist, who passed away in 2010. For many of her friends -- and I was lucky to count myself among them -- this exhibition is a welcome reminder of the strength and courage with which Miriam handled personal and professional challenges.

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Born in Canada, Miriam decamped to New York in her early 20s and soon established herself there as a commercial illustrator. This exhibition presents numerous examples of her works from this period, including the famous first cover of Ms. Magazine featuring an eight-armed housewife. So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Gloria Steinem has contributed an essay to the exhibition catalog.

In 1979, Miriam uprooted herself once more and moved to Los Angeles, a city that she deeply loved, a city that helped her turn a page in her professional life. After moving to California, she walked away from a successful commercial career and embraced the freedom and struggle of life as a fine artist.

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Those who had the chance to see her work, to visit her home, to marvel at her large collection of photography and decorative art, will never forget the restless energy of Miriam's imagination, where songs of angels collided with the growls of demons. The main gallery at SMMOA presents a generous sampling of Miriam's mature works, created in the last decade of her life. This diverse body of large-scale collages, never shy of color, bristles with the energy and theatricality that became a trademark of her art.

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Miriam's collages often started with an anatomical print, painted over and then layered and embellished with jewels and sequins, reflecting her fascination with the intersection between the natural and ornamental world. Being a workaholic, Miriam would be up in her studio till the wee hours of the night - doing, undoing, doubting and, on occasion, finding a light at the end of the tunnel.

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When she asked you what you thought of a work, there was no beating around the bush. She expected nothing less than an honest opinion and was strong enough to handle it. When Miriam returned from a month-long sojourn as an artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome in 2004, her artwork reflected a new level of visual intensity and willingness to break the rules. I often teased her that acting like a proper lady was not the best way to achieve a creative breakthrough. Why not try to be messy, uninhibited, even nasty, while making art? The works of her last years, and even in her last months while fighting cancer, show not so much a struggle between light and darkness but, rather, an acceptance of both as essential and natural to the cycle of life.

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Throughout her life, Miriam was a voracious collector of pottery, glass, furniture, jewelry, and, of course, fine art. One of the artists whose work Miriam collected in depth was the Los Angeles sculptor, designer and ceramicist Peter Shire, whose works are currently presented in a small exhibition in an adjacent gallery of SMMOA.

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The crowning achievement of her collection was the acquisition of a massive copper and aluminum wall hanging by El Anatsui, whose art Miriam fell in love with well before his career and value skyrocketed in the following years.

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There is a famous line in Russian poetry, "Lord, keep us from losing close friends." But when these departed friends happen to be good artists, their spirit lives on in their art. And for those of us left behind, it's a welcome consolation.

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Abundance and Devotion: The Art of Miriam Wosk
Santa Monica Museum of Art, January 19-April 20, 2013

Peter Shire: Tea for Two Hundred
Santa Monica Museum of Art, January 19-April 3, 2013

"Technology and the Touch of the Hand:" Edward Goldman in Conversation with Mirian Wosk, Fluence, January-February 2010, pp. 18-25.

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Banner image: Detail of Miriam Wosk's Bones of the Golden Serpent, 2008, Paper collage, painted foils, and butterflies on canvas, 41 ¼ x 53 x 3 in, Courtesy of the Miriam Wosk Family Trust

Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.