School of Thought

What underlies creativity? Every January a handful of students go to a bar in Chinatown to find out. Tuition is free (the drinks aren’t)


Illustration by Viktor Koen

“Language is data,” says Joseph Mosconi as he begins his lecture. “The meaning doesn’t matter.”

Mostly in their midtwenties to early thirties, the students look younger. Fresh faced and dressed in an easy style—some wear tennis shoes, others high-heeled boots—they sit rapt in a circle with notebooks on their laps. If not for the soft hum of an ice machine and the strains of New Orleans jazz wafting from the cocktail lounge below, they could be in a grad school classroom. Instead they’re upstairs at the Mountain Bar, the hipster watering hole on Gin Ling Way in Chinatown whose dimly lit, bloodred interior sports voluptuous light fixtures shaped like lotus blossoms.

As Mosconi, a poet and linguist who works for Google, talks about the rigors of his previous job—creating lexicons for semantic text processing and online advertising—and how that “work-work” bears on his creative process, Piero Golia meanders in and out of the room a few times before flopping onto a low black couch. A well-known conceptual artist, he is one of the cofounders of the Mountain School of Arts, the institution—if that’s an apt term for an enterprise housed in a bar—that has made Mosconi’s lecture possible. Golia is not your typical administrator, however, and this is not your typical art school.

The 13 students present are in week two of a nonaccredited, tuition-free program that is driven only by the teachers’ and students’ desire to take part. Though its curriculum is unstructured, with no course description or syllabus in sight, an average three-month session could include nude-figure drawing with Italian contemporary artist Vanessa Beecroft, a talk by conceptual artist Dan Graham, an overnight field trip to Joshua Tree National Park to visit the “High Desert Test Sites” of sculptor and installation artist Andrea Zittel, a visit from dancer Simone Forti, and a performance by punk bassist Mike Watt. There’s just one thing these art students won’t get to do. “At the Mountain,” says artist Eric Wesley, the school’s other cofounder, “you don’t make art.”


Part cultural salon, part grown-up summer camp, and perhaps—though Golia and Wesley deny it—part agitprop, the Mountain School of Arts has convened every January through March for the past five years. Twice a week during that time, 12 to 15 students gather at the Mountain Bar to consider science, philosophy, and cultural criticism. The setting is at once high- and lowbrow: The bar, the former home of Chinatown’s oldest restaurant, General Lee’s, has been renovated by the owners, artist Jorge Pardo and gallery owner Steve Hansen. (Hansen recently moved his China Art Objects Gallery, which helped reestablish Chung King Road as a destination, to Culver City.) The students, meanwhile, are culled from more than 100 applicants, some from as far away as London and Milan. They are mostly visual artists, writers, and curators or occasionally all three. But what students do outside the bar is largely beside the point, since the emphasis is not on their work. Those who wish to be considered for enrollment apply about six months before classes begin, submitting only a one-page application and a short autobiographical essay. Those who are admitted receive little advance information on courses or scheduling. After they complete the program, they receive no degree.

Because of its abstract nature it is tempting to think of the venture—whose acronym (MSA^) is adorned with a diacritical mark that’s intended to evoke a mountain peak—as more of a commentary on an art school than a school in its own right. When asked to describe the place, Wesley responds with something that seems intentionally opaque: “The Mountain School really borders on being elitist and populist. I consider myself both those things.” Though his statement poses a paradox, Wesley’s not wrong. Anybody can apply, regardless of pedigree or credentials or work sample. Once enrolled, students have a chance to meet some of the foremost artists in the world. Billed on its Web site, themountainschool, as an “amendment to the university system,” this experiment—or is it more of a jab at graduate school hype?—nevertheless has a lot in common with the MFA programs it seeks to satirize or supplement. Much of the reading material is the same, and the classes are discussion based and mainly led by artists without much teaching experience.

Los Angeles is home to some of the best arts-related graduate programs in the country, boasting heavyweights like UCLA and USC, CalArts and Art Center, as well as a host of alternative educational offerings such as the Public School, Machine Project, and the former Sundown Schoolhouse. Many of these were predicated on the idea that you can teach someone to make better art. The Mountain School founders seem to disagree, stressing that if you can’t teach creativity, at least you can provide people an outlet, a way to be involved in the culture—without burdening them with a lifetime of student loans.

That’s more or less how Golia and Wesley sold the idea to the bar’s owners. The school’s purpose seems aligned with a 1960s alternative education model, while its name recalls the famous Black Mountain College, the North Carolina program initiated in the ’30s that made the study of art central to a liberal arts education. But the Mountain School’s true spiritual forebear is, according to its founders, the Italian Renaissance. Golia, who is 36, with a thick black beard, an ever-present baseball cap, and a single diamond embedded in his front tooth, has a background in chemical engineering. He came to L.A. from Naples via New York nine years ago, bringing a certain romanticism with him. Wesley, a 37-year-old part-time instructor at Otis College of Art and Design, grew up in Los Angeles and has shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Whitney Biennial. His deadpan delivery would make him intimidating but for the sailor hat he often wears while brooding at the bar. Both he and Golia talk about artists as “knights questing for the Grail” and “fighter pilots.” This bravado mixes with humor in their art. A new work by Golia, installed last spring at the Standard hotel in West Hollywood, features a large white sphere on top of the building that lights up only when he’s in town. A recent show of Wesley’s at Bortolami Gallery in New York centered on riffs on the geometric ideas of René Descartes, including golf-cart-like sculptures titled D’Carts Blanche.

Once you hear this you can’t help wondering: Is the Mountain School just an elaborate performance art piece? Or worse, a vanity project? Golia and Wesley say no to both questions and maintain that it’s not about them at all. Responsibility is shared among the many participants. The shifting ranks of the school’s teachers create their own curricula, while administrative duties fall largely on “Lawrence,” a position held by a different person each year whose name remains the same no matter who’s filling it, male or female. Lawrence helps Golia and Wesley sift through applications and find the right balance for each incoming class.

It’s no surprise that a program this anarchic has detractors. In a recent article in the art magazine Frieze, an ex-student writes “…[the Mountain School’s] lack of academic accreditation and agenda might convince you it’s either a hoax or out to hammer the question: ‘How do you form a school that provokes the idea of a school?’ But MSA^ isn’t parodic; it’s just free. And, being free, the big joke is that you get what you pay for.”


Amid a terrible downpour one afternoon, a group of students has gathered in Golia’s living room at his house in the Hollywood Hills. Visible through the balcony window are stilt houses jutting out of the freshly green hills and the lights from Universal City punctuating the gray afternoon with a bright lemon and emerald glow. As more students straggle in, Golia looks nervous. He is waiting for Thomas Demand, the internationally celebrated photographer, to show up for lunch.

A student named Tristan arrives, having traversed the hill from the Hollywood and Highland subway stop, a good two miles away, on foot. “I’m an Englishman; I’m not bothered by the rain,” he says as Golia fidgets, glancing at the clock. Just when it seems that the guest of honor has lost his way, he appears.

In town from Berlin to speak that night at the Hammer Museum and due to leave for Houston the next morning, Demand was only available to talk to the students over lunch. Golia regards the meal, which he’s hosting at his home because it’s more conveniently located than the bar, as a teachable moment for the students. “I want them to see that artists are normal people—they eat lunch, too,” he says in his mellifluous Neapolitan accent.

After Demand retrieves his laptop from his car, the students huddle around the table as he whips through images from his most recent exhibition, Nationalgalerie, at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. In a low and calm voice he explains the show, its hanging (constructed photos on thick wool curtains), his collaborator (the famous recluse writer Botho Strauss), and the topic (Germany). Once he finishes, Golia serves some pizza, salad, and eggplant that he prepared himself.

Between bites Demand discusses a lecture series he arranged in conjunction with his exhibition titled How German Is It? that included such speakers as architect Rem Koolhaas, BMW chief designer Adrian van Hooydonk, and Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen. Demand notes that the dialogue addressed everything from German politics to film but never his artwork. The students nod. It sounds a little like the Mountain School.

John Morace, a contemporary art collector and former New York businessman, became a Mountain School instructor in 2005, soon after it opened, when Steve Hansen, who also teaches at the school, invited him to discuss a mannerist painting,Poppaea Sabina, that he had in his collection. Back then, Morace recalls, “people would get the nights wrong, and the doors of the bar would be locked. Or we’d hang out until four in the morning.” Today, he says, the school is more organized, but “the spirit’s the same.”

Another teacher is Richard Jackson, a world-renowned artist who came to Los Angeles 40 years ago and was a contemporary of Ed Kienholz and Bruce Nauman. Often referred to as a neodadaist, Jackson has taught art at UCLA, where Wesley was among his students, but his class at the Mountain School is more pragmatic than the standard survey course. It focuses primarily on the difficulties faced by working L.A. artists who are past midcareer and who often toil without institutional recognition or reward.

“The school’s a little bit about that,” says Jackson, referring to the sacrifices artists make. “If you’re not going to get anything for it, why the hell are you paying so much for it?” he asks, referring to MFA programs. As for why he donates his time to the Mountain School, he says, “I guess that because my experience of school wasn’t very good, I want to change it to make it better, and I have a different take on how people learn.”

So what do students glean from their experience? Connections to L.A.’s artistic network and a chance to make friends, find collaborators, and gain allies. “Mountain School is the basis of my L.A. community,” says artist and alumnus Emily Mast. Another student, who wants to be identified only as Daniel (the pupils here seem to value their privacy), explains his choice to attend this way: “For some people, it’s kind of like school, and other people treat it like a residency.” He heard about the program through friends and was already living in L.A. when he applied. “For the people who come from out of state, it’s a reason to be in Los Angeles for a while,” he says. “It’s loosely academic. It’s nice to have a reason to do some reading and thinking. I got a lot out of it.”

Back at Mountain Bar on another evening, artist Channing Hansen is giving an introductory lecture on the history of science, declaring Isaac Newton “an occult nut job who sniffed way too much mercury.” He goes on to cite lesser-known female scientists he admires (Ada Lovelace, émilie du Châtelet). When class lets out onto Gin Ling Way, everyone is smoking cigarettes and making plans to get dinner. Golia advises students from out of town not to drink and drive, to call if they need something, and to keep an eye out for a list he will soon be sending of all the openings and events happening that weekend. If they have any problems, they should ask him for help, he adds. “But seriously, don’t ask for too much,” he says, half joking. “We don’t have that much to offer.”

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