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Meet Tyler Stallings of Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion, Orange Coast College

Today we’d like to introduce you to Tyler Stallings.

Tyler, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I always knew that I wanted to be in the arts. It started with making Super-8, science-fiction films when I was in high school. Then I took a ceramics course in my last semester in high school, which really opened the doors to working with my hands.

And then from early in my life I was always searching for higher meaning. I was never attracted to religion, but I’ve sought ways to connect with the universe through science, math, art, or somehow bringing them altogether.

In undergraduate school, I double-majored in philosophy and fine art; first at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and then at The Atlanta College of Art (now part of the Savannah College of Art & Design). I then came out to California in 1990 to attend California Institute of Arts for graduate school, receiving my MFA in 1992, which I chose because of their incorporation of theory with artistic practice. In the end, these were the ways that I combined a serious pursuit of art as a portal to cosmic consciousness, I guess you could say. I continued my direction in fine art but also began to write and curate more.

While at CalArts, I began to work as a gallery attendant at the City of Los Angeles’ Cultural Affairs Department’s Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Art Park in the Los Feliz area of L.A. It’s most famous for one Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, for which I used to give public tours. The director/senior curator at the time, Noel Korten, was generous enough to invite me to write a catalogue essay for a show about humor in art. He took me along on studio visits too.

I’ve always kept in mind his generosity, that is, he gave me, a student, an artist, the chance to pursue professional curatorial work. Others have helped along the way, of course. But, I’ve always remembered his gesture and have aimed to do the same with others. My tendency is to believe that rules and gatekeeping are to be challenged and not accepted automatically; which is perhaps the essence of artmaking too. I realize that I’ve evolved into a gatekeeper myself so I keep in mind to being inclusive as I make decisions.

While at Barnsdall,  I began to curate some small shows for the gallery and later worked in the Public Art Division in the Cultural Affairs Dept. After graduating, I remained there a couple of years while showing my art in Los Angeles and New York. But, eventually, I needed a full-time job. I applied as the director of programs at a then new space called the Huntington Beach Art Center around 1994.

The director there, Naida Osline had a vision for the place, viewing it as a more of a kunsthalle, that is, more than just a city-operated community art center. She is now a practicing photo-based artist and documentary filmmaker that ranges from exploring hallucinatory plants to expatriates in Mexico. I was able to do some amazing solo shows with artists like Kara Walker’s first solo show in Southern California in 1997 and Ruben Ortiz-Torres’ first survey exhibition that traveled in Mexico. It was these kind of shows that formed the foundation of my curatorial trajectory, which is a focus on social and political themes, for the most part.

I also did a lot of shows stemming from popular cultures such as

Grind: The Graphics and Culture of Skateboarding (1995) (co-curated with Ed Templeton), Deadheads, and alien abductees, which was titled, “Are We Touched? Identities from Outer Space” (1997). (As a side note, I will soon be interviewing  a former professor of mine from Sewanee for a documentary that I’m making, who was the subject of one of the case histories in John Mack’s book, “Abduction,” published in the early 1990s, and is a seminal book in the field.) Then, Laguna Art Museum was looking for a new curator. The director at the time, Bolton Colburn, also had an interest with the intersections of contemporary art and popular culture, so it was a perfect fit after what I had done at HBAC.

I was at LAM from 1999 to 2006, eventually becoming the chief curator. Some of the more important shows that I did there were “Ruben Ochoa and Marco Rios: Rigor Motors,” (2004) “Whiteness, A Wayward Construction,” in 2003, and co-curated with Colburn and Craig Stecyk “Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing” in 2001. The “Whiteness” exhibition was the first major exhibition in the U.S. to explore whiteness as ideology and not biology. Likewise, “Surf Culture” was the first major show to show the intersections of the Light & Space, and Finish Fetish or L.A. Look artists from the 1960s and 70s, with new developments in the surfing industry, such as the resins that were developed. I was still exhibiting my artwork while I was at LAM, but eventually, I flipped how I saw myself to being a curator who is also an artist, instead of vice versa.

I also realized that my curatorial vision was being supported and that, in essence, I was having a public voice in this context, rather than through being an artist. From LAM, I went to the University of California, Riverside, where I was the director of the Sweeney Art Gallery and the artistic director of the Barbara & Art Culver Center of the Arts; and on two occasions interim executive director.

They were part of a consortium of arts venues, along with the California Museum of Photography, under the name, UCR ARTSblock. They were located on a pedestrian mall in downtown Riverside, about three miles from campus. They were a bridge between the campus and the community through the arts.

Some of the important shows that I organized or co-curated while at UCR were “Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art,” (2009) “Your Donations Do Our Work: Andrea Bowers and Suzanne Lacy,” (2009) “The Great Picture: The World’s Largest Photograph & the Legacy Project,” (2011) “Mexico at the Hour of Combat: Sabino Osuna’s Photographs of the Mexican Revolution,” (2012) “Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration,” (2013) and “Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas,” (2017) (co-curated with Joanna Szupinska-Myers and Robb Hernandez) which was part of The Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. It is traveling to the Queens Museum in New York, opening on April 7, 2019.

I’m particularly proud of initiating and co-curating “Mundos Alternos.” Like many of the exhibitions that I’ve organized, I aim to contribute scholarship to the field. In the case of this show, like the “Whiteness” exhibition, the book that accompanied the show added to what was then a burgeoning field of research into Latin American science fiction studies. The show was a wide-ranging survey exhibition, bringing together contemporary artists from across the Americas who tapped into science fiction’s capacity to imagine new realities, both utopian and dystopian. Science fiction offers a unique artistic landscape in which to explore the colonial enterprise that shaped the Americas and to present alternative perspectives speculating on the past and the future. In the works featured in the exhibition, most created in the last two decades, artists employed the imagery of science fiction to suggest diverse modes of existence and represent “alienating” ways of being in the world. Drawing on UCR’s strong faculty and collections in science fiction, the exhibition offered a groundbreaking account of the intersections among science fiction, techno-culture, and the visual arts.

I was at UCR from 2007-2017, then I came to Orange Coast College as the director of the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion, where I’ve been for just a little over a year now. It’s a beautiful, museum-level space, my first big show there was “Amy Elkins: Photographs of Contemporary Masculinity.”

Currently, “Stargazers: Intersections of Contemporary Art and Astronomy” (2019) is up which coincides with the opening of OCC’s new planetarium. As you may have detected with several of the shows that I’ve highlighted, the theme of “outer space” is a thread.

Tyler, tell us more about what inspired your exhibitions concerning outer space over the past twenty years.
In the past couple of years, I came to the recent realization that a particular news story affected many exhibitions that I organized over the past twenty years, which touched upon outer space themes: it was the possible discovery of fossilized Martian bacterial life in 1996, based on the observation of carbonate globules in a small section of a meteorite called the Allan Hills 84001 (usually abbreviated as ALH 84001). It was found several years earlier in Allan Hills, Antarctica in 1984 by U.S. meteorite hunters, but it was not until much later that careful analysis was applied to it.

My first curatorial venture inspired by the Martian meteorite was “Are We Touched, Identities from Outer Space” (1997). It coincided with NASA’s first lander on Mars and the 50th anniversary of the reported U.F.O. crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The exhibition featured a range of artists, including those fascinated by the cultural phenomenon of U.F.O.’s but would not label themselves as believers, such as Southern California artists Deborah Aschheim and Connie Samaras, to artists who felt they may have had an unexplained experience that provided inspiration for their work, but would not admit to it openly for fear of rejection. And there were also people who would not call their work “art” but rather a visual representation of an experience that they felt they did occur, like with alien abductee and artist David Huggins.

The pop cultural highlight for me was when Huggins was invited as a guest on a daytime talk show based in Los Angeles, “Leeza,” which is no longer in production. The artist claimed to have interbred with an extraterrestrial that he named Crescent, as she came to him only when there was a crescent moon, producing upwards of 200-plus hybrid human/extraterrestrial offspring.

“Are We Touched” was followed by “Cyborg Manifesto, or The Joy of Artifice (2001), which featured twenty-six artists who explored changes in a tech-driven age. Theorist Donna Haraway coined the first part of the title, “Cyborg Manifesto.” I found kinship with her viewpoint of the cyborg as a metaphor for discussing hybridity, whether in terms of gender issues, genetics, or cross-cultural encounters. In other words, I was less concerned with thinking of the cyborg as a humanoid robot in which human and machine merged. Rather, I was interested in the impossibility of the notion of purity.

Accordingly, I thought it possible that Martian meteorites landed on an ancient earth and provided an important element to the primordial soup that gave rise to life. So, when looking through a telescope at planet Mars, we actually see an abandoned home. In this way, any human sense of feeling pure dissolves. Once we consider ourselves apart from Earth, we are all aliens and immigrants.

In 2009, I co-organized with artist Rachel Mayeri, “Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art.” It was a group exhibition of twenty international artists exploring human interaction with animals through a collection of provocative video installations, photographs, paintings, and sculptures. I saw this exhibition having a further development of the desire to make contact with other sentient beings. In this case, ones already present on Earth.

Artists in the exhibition collaborated with cockroaches, pigeons, dogs, cats, ants, bears, baboons, rats, spiders, and trout, which may have been domesticated, imaginary, laboratory, modeled, or wild. Curious about the animal’s point of view, artists designed their projects as a form of conversation or inquiry about the nonhuman world. Their artwork challenged the anthropocentric perspective of the world, placing human perception on par with other animals. Inspired by Darwin, the environmental movement, and species collapse, “Intelligent Design” envisioned a paradigm shift in which human beings are no longer the center of the Universe.

Another paradigm shift, this time in U.S. policy, that would allow private companies to go into outer space inspired the 2013 exhibition, “Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration,” which I co-organized with artist Marko Peljhan. Civilian space travel and space exploration represents a major political and cultural shift away from sponsorship by the federal government and toward a private enterprise model. The possibility of fulfilling the human dream to fly into space has been encouraged by a major political and cultural shift away from state-sponsored space activities, which were controlled by agencies such as NASA in the USA, JAXA in Japan and RKA in Russia, towards a private enterprise model.

Its presentation in 2013 arrived at a time when several private enterprise ventures had come to fruition. They included the successful launch in May 2012 of the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Dragon space capsule by Elon Musk’s Space X company based in Hawthorne, California, which rendezvoused with the International Space Station, the soon-to-be-completed spaceport in New Mexico that will be the launch site for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism program, and the burgeoning efforts of XCOR Aerospace, a Mojave-based company, north of Los Angeles near Edwards Air Force Base.

These developments signal that we are at a dawn of a new radical change in near-Earth space exploration. Engaging artists directly in this discussion at an early stage is extremely important: it is the technology and capital that allow for exploration, but it is the imagination and the spiritual capital that create a new state of mind open to a broader awareness of humanity and other life, both on Earth and beyond.

One of my favorite projects in “Free Enterprise” was by artist Richard Clar, based in northern California, which links back to my interests developed with “Intelligent Design.” He turned toward art-in-space in 1982 with a NASA-approved art payload for the U.S. Space Shuttle, “Space Flight Dolphin” (SFD). Approved by NASA, SFD was an interdisciplinary art-in-space SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project designed to be deployed in low-Earth orbit from the cargo bay of the U.S. Space Shuttle. The dolphin sculpture/satellite would have transmitted a signal modulated by dolphin “voices” that might have been detected or sensed by extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). As the sculpture/satellite orbited the Earth, the dolphin voices would have been monitored in various museums around the world and on the Internet, providing a link between different peoples and cultures on our own planet. The project suggested that humans might first consider trying to communicate with other very intelligent beings on Earth before considering extraterrestrial communication.

“Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas” represents the most recent project inspired by the 1996 Martian meteorite bacteria imaginary. Perhaps it is the meteorite’s transcendent materiality—an object likely older than humankind—that has stuck with me. “Mundos Alternos” focuses on the materiality of being present in artists’ studios and exploring science fiction, not through literature and film, but through the uncanny presence of an art object that seems transcendent too.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Perhaps the hardest transition was from switching how I perceived myself from being an artist to being a curator, and then a director of arts organizations.

However, after nearly 25 years of being a professional in the arts, I realize that I’ve always been making decisions from an artist’s viewpoint. In other words, I realize now how lucky I’ve been to have been at four organizations now that have, in essence, given me a lot of licenses to pursue the artists and themes that interest me in particular.

From an organizational viewpoint, the biggest hurdle is funding for artists who are lesser known, who are women, and/or who are artists of color. I’ve prided myself on attention to diversity and inclusivity. The additional hurdle with funding is that it’s easier to find money for projects but not for the general operation of an organization.

Please tell us about Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion, Orange Coast College.
The mission of the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion is to present transformative experiences through the arts by focusing on contemporary visual culture and creates dynamic programming that inspires interaction and dialogue between artists, students, scholars, and local and international communities.

The key phrase for me is “… through the arts.” In other words, reminding viewers that when the world is viewed through the arts, there is a different kind of problem solving that occurs. Also, being reminded that meaning is multi-faceted, and can resists labels; which is especially important in a culture that is always trying to apply and enforce labeling in order to streamline for a consumer-based society.

Within the context of the Southern California art scene, The Doyle is creating a niche by presenting in-depth solo exhibitions along with major books. Presently, I’m working on a solo exhibition of the photographer Amir Zaki for Fall 2019. “Empty Vessel” will be an ambitious show that expands on Zaki’s ongoing dedication to photographing the built and natural landscape.

The new work explores the sculptural qualities of concrete skateboard parks whose urban landscapes assume an extraterrestrial quality with their undulating, bulbous, curvilinear forms when viewed out of their context.

“Empty Vessel” will be accompanied by Zaki’s first internationally distributed monograph, a hard-cover book of approximately 100 pages and 60 color plates, with an essay by renowned architect Peter Zellner, a foreword by world-famous professional skateboarder Tony Hawk, and published by Merrell Publishers.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
Going back to when I mentioned making Super-8 films as a young teen in the late 1970s.

I remember when I got my first reel of developed film back from the local drug store, spooling it on the projector, and then being amazed that I had just created another world, just like the movies that inspired me; although much more crudely, of course.

Nonetheless, the magic of creating something that never existed before got me hooked onto making art.

Are you still making art now?
It’s been a while. My last major exhibition of paintings was at Newspace in Los Angeles, one of the decades old galleries that eventually closed. It was part of a generation of galleries that included those such as Margo Levin Gallery.

In the past years, I focused on creative non-fiction work. Some of these pieces were collected in a book titled, “Aridtopia: Essays on Art & Culture from Deserts in the Southwest United States” (2014).

The essays in “Aridtopia” represent a state of mind born in an arid region, when I was living in Riverside, while working at UC Riverside. It is a book that is both manifesto and commentary. It is a mash up of references to popular culture, academic discourse, and speculative ideas about society. An Aridtopian recognizes that the desert is a setting for so much that co-exists unexpectedly: survivalists, military bases, legacies of Native American and settler conflicts, water wars, love for open vistas, and full of people who go there to experience the desert’s openness in order to reconnect to the vast, cosmic spaciousness beyond this planet. The airiness between vegetation, mountains, and even people allows room for the mind, soul, and spirit to wonder. For centuries, spiritual seekers have gone into the desert. The openness allows for secrecy too. Doomsayers will sometimes set up their fortresses there, while the military will establish secret operations too.

The thread throughout many of the essays, and the source of the book’s title is my thought experiment Aridtopia. It is a speculative, secessionist community set in the southwest United States, an inspired concept after I read Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel, “Ectotopia.” That story’s setting is the secession of Washington, Oregon, and northern California from the U.S. in order to create what he called a “steady-state” society, a precursor to “sustainability.”

Over the years, I’ve written about the impact of hearing whistles throughout the day and night in Riverside from successive trains carrying goods from Long Beach ports to the rest of the country; to listening to the imperceptible sub-sonic sounds with special instruments around Area 51; to the science-fiction like terraforming of desert land into new developments; to viewing empty and full swimming pools as sites of masculine reconfigurations; to tracing a new golden age in the aerospace industry as entrepreneurs near Edwards Air Force Base invent new means for transporting private citizens into space at a low-cost; to the sacred geography of mountains and rocks that resonate still with living Cahuilla people and also inspire contemporary artists.

Hopefully, I have another book of essays coming out in the future. Perhaps, around my exploration of outer space. And maybe I’ll find myself making paintings or films again, returning to the magic of creating something that never existed until my hands and mind, working together, made it come into existence.


  • The Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion appreciates any financial support which will go towards its exhibitions. For example, there are many naming opportunities, such as having a gallery or a wall in the gallery named after you, which range from $50,000 to $500,000.

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