Inside LA’s Art Battle, the Libertine Speed-Painting Contest That Makes the Venice Biennale Look Tame

The phenomenon has gone global, and some of its themes are pretty clear. Specifically, sex.

Frida Davidsson posing with her final canvas for Art Battle L.A. Image via @fridadavidssonart Instagram.

What is Art Battle? “It’s like a rap battle, but for painting,” I overhear Tuesday night as I walk through the doors of L.A. Arts District’s Boomtown Brewery. Tonight, 12 artists are pitted against each other in a three-round, live painting competition fueled by adrenaline, a thirst for glory, and beer. The raucous crowd, gathered around the dropcloth-floored arena, is the judge.

To be sure, this is not your typical decorous art-world competition, such as the juried global exhibition that occurs in Venice every two years. Artist Chris Pemberton and digital strategist Simon Plashkes started Art Battle with Sean Bono. The endeavor, Pashkes tells me via email the day before the event, was a way “to allow audiences to participate directly in that role which is normally reserved for the gatekeepers of art.”

The history of the Battle goes back to 2001 in NYC, but since they’ve gone global. Art Battles have raged from Manila to Amsterdam, New York to L.A. The artists they choose from an online applicant pool vary from “hobbyists, students, emerging stars, and established artists,” Plashkes says. “It’s a truly thrilling experience for most artists, that of having the audience cheer as they step to the easel, and go wild for the winner.”

And who are those cheering crowds? At the Brewery I meet a lot of couples at various stages in their relationships, one 11-year-old who is really good at rapping, and a user experience designer who “appreciates art,” but is there mostly to support his competing friend. There’s at least one grandma in the room, and one dalmatian. It’s not exactly the e-Flux crowd; these people are actually having fun.

The instruments of the Art Battle. Image: Janelle Zara.

The instruments of the Art Battle. Image: Janelle Zara.

“I have to say I’ve never witnessed anything like this, but it’s really electrifying to see different personalities in real time in front of an audience create a perception that only existed in their heads,” enthuses Michael Mando, an actor I meet in the crowd whose favorite artist is Stanley Kubrick. “To see it come alive in 20 minutes and to see such different incredible results is mind-blowing.”

There’s also music, drinks, and tacos grilling in the driveway. Really, what’s not to like?

The battle gets underway. The first of three 20-minute rounds goes by in a snap. Out of six competing artists, the audience will ultimately vote for two winners: Christopher Aubrey, who’s done a profile view of Batman (or actually the Joker disguised as Batman—subtlety!), and “Trap Art Terry” Wayne, who’s done an anthropomorphized sunflower with sunglasses on. It’s toothy grin is charming, and also kind of deranged.

A scene from round one with a painting by my personal favorite, Trap Art Terry, at the center.

A scene from round one with a painting by my personal favorite, Trap Art Terry, at the center.

“Who do you think is going to win the second round?,” I ask a cool-looking youngish guy and gal who might be on a date (“We’re not on a date,” they say).

They survey the six fresh Art Battle competitors. “Frida,” they agree.

I think they mean “Frida Kahlo,” because one of the painters, Amanda Harris, is summoning a unibrow on her canvas.

But no, they are referring to the other Frida in the room: fan-favorite Frida Davidsson.

“Her whole process is really captivating,” the guy, Adam Mantha, tells me of Davidsson. (Asked who his favorite artist is, he says a heart surgeon, “because there’s artistry in all aspects of life.”

Davidsson is a former makeup artist who moved to L.A. from Sweden four years ago, and she knows this crowd. (She is also a huge fan of Jeff Koons’s “Gazing Balls” series at Gagosian L.A., and her Instagram features her posing with Koons.) Unlike cosmetology, her current practice does not involve brushes.

“Oh shit! She just poured the paint all over herself!!” someone gasps. The Battle is on.

Using various creative parts of her body, Davidsson applies strokes of paint to canvas to the rhythm of a French Montana track thumping through the loudspeakers.

A frontal female nude forms on Davidsson’s canvas. Her black halter leotard and white Nikes are now splattered in neon hues of yellow, orange, and turquoise.

The painter to her left watches her work, then turns to his friends in the audience and mouths the words, “WHAT THE FUCK.” His eyes are lit up with fear.

Davidsson wins round two, and so does Amanda Harris and her portrait of Frida Kahlo.

The two pairs of winners from Rounds 1 and 2 are now set to square off for the Final Battle, and adrenaline is high. Crowds that had wandered off in search of tacos now surge back to see who will be named champion.

Unfortunately, at this stage, no one can find Trap Art Terry. So a painter named Art Barbie, who had painted a pink heart surrounded by dollar signs in the first round, is rocketed unexpectedly into the finals.

Taking cues from the evidence of the previous winners, Art Barbie abandons the profound symbolism of her earlier heart-based work and turns to the female form for subject matter: a pale green nude with a bag of money between her splayed legs on a vibrant red background. (Is she throwing shade at a fellow competitor’s process? We’ll never know.)

Paintings by Art Barbie and Chris Aubrey. Image: Janelle Zara.

Paintings by Art Barbie and Chris Aubrey. Image: Janelle Zara.

In his corner of the arena, Round 1 winner Christopher Aubrey also takes the female form route, giving us a three-quarter profile of a woman with an elaborate headdress and no pupils. Davidsson, who did a frontal view of the female torso in the last round, now focuses on depicting the backside.

Amanda is doing a portrait of a beautiful green-eyed woman who seems strangely familiar….

A portrait by Amanda Harris. Image: Janellse Zara.

A portrait by Amanda Harris. Image: Janelle Zara.

I takes a second, but finally it comes into focus for me: Ah, Rihanna!

The clock ticks down as the painters work feverishly to finish their masterpieces. Aubrey adds ringlets to his subject’s headdress; Art Barbie repeatedly fortifies the solid dark-green outline of her nude’s perfectly circular breasts; Davidsson turns one of her paint containers upside down and frowns. She has run out of yellow.

The emcee calls time. The audience casts its votes. Davidsson wins! In the crowd, lots of dudes start high-fiving.

“I came to get out of my comfort zone and start painting in public,” an elated, paint-encrusted Davidsson tells me. She reaches for a hug, but settles on a high five. She looks forward to competing in Art Battle’s City Finals. “When I paint, I’m in my spirit.” An audience member asks for a picture.

Winners of the evening: Frida Davidsson (by popular vote); Ginger Jarvis (whose Impressionist-y portrait had the highest bid in the evening’s silent auction, at $130); the female form (or the male gaze, take your pick); and anyone who came looking for a silly good time.

Art Battle winner Frida Johanssen posing with a fan. Image: Janelle Zara.

Art Battle winner Frida Davidsson posing with a fan. Image: Janelle Zara.

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