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Culture Shift

Fanny Singer is redefining how art, history, and climate change is viewed.

Art historian Fanny Singer admits that growing up in the Bay area, a perceived cultural divide between Northern and Southern California may have caused a late-blooming fondness for her current city of residence, Los Angeles. After all, Singer’s mother, Alice Waters, founded the iconic Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse 50 years ago, securing Northern California as the origin of California cuisine—a pioneering gastronomy characterized by the simple and intuitive preparation of sustainable agriculture, including the famous sun-ripened figs on a platter.

“The false dichotomy between the two ‘halves’ of California really prevented, in a weird way, my family from accessing the culture of Los Angeles,” says Singer, who now lives in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, a creative, indie haven. “It was only in my adult life that I really started to explore Los Angeles, because I was serious about contemporary art and I couldn’t ignore L.A.” Singer, who earned a doctorate in art history at Cambridge, writes about arts and culture for Wall Street Journal Magazine, T Magazine, and Artforum, among others.

L.A.’s emerging female abstract painters are currently blazing trajectories across the art critic’s radar, including Culver City’s Lauren Quin, whose layered, rippling canvases thematically feature tubes and cylinders, often to fleshly effect, and Maysha Mohamedi of Downtown L.A.’s fashion district, whose brushstrokes originate in calligraphic Farsi, her ancestral tongue.

Singer’s critical and artistic eye has been consistently fine-tuned. She writes in her 2020 memoir, serendipitously titled—pandemically speaking, that is—Always Home, about her mother’s constant curation of her surroundings, however temporary. For example, any distasteful décor in hotel rooms could be subject to banishment in a dark closet until checkout.

“My mom is very aesthetically attuned,” says Singer, whose hereditary taste for what she calls “the visual softness and generosity of beautiful objects,” is most evident in Permanent Collection, the Berkeley-based design brand she co-founded with architect and design historian Mariah Nielson.

With functional, artisan-crafted heirlooms as Permanent Collection’s north star, the titular assortment includes Alice’s Egg Spoon (hand-forged by Bay Area blacksmith Shawn Lovell, the long-handled iron spoon sizzles a single egg over coals or flame) and a salvaged-redwood salad bowl (hand-turned by West Marin woodworker Bruce Mitchell). “As we’ve become an increasingly industrialized and technophilic culture, we’re not touching things anymore and surrounding ourselves with beauty,” says Singer. “I know this is antithetical to capitalism, but I don’t want anyone to ever throw any of our objects away. One is enough.”

Such reverence for beauty in a curated environment like the home effortlessly extends to the natural environment, and as such, the subject of climate change—specifically, how these dramatic shifts in weather are interpreted in the arts—finds a rapt advocate in Singer. After all, nature’s high-vibrational overtures manifest as both sublimely edible and miraculously immersive—that is, of-this-earth, yet otherworldly, from the fractal splendor of Romanesco broccoli to the worshipful atmosphere of giant redwoods.

For her part in activism, Singer is currently pitching a television show that explores climate change through a cultural, rather than scientific, lens. “I like lightly educating in the context of other things I find interesting,” she says, citing a triumphant example of this paradigm, which she took in during a sold-out, recent engagement at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art: The 2019 Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion prizewinner, Sun & Sea (Marina), a looping, hourlong opera from Lithuania in which a sandy, indoor beach is transformed into a climate change spectacle.

Coastlines, of course, have a way of bringing horizons, literal or otherwise, into view. And from a glittering obsidian-hued shore at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, Singer’s awe for her home state always dawns anew. “It’s a stunning little pocket with an incredible view of San Francisco and the Pacific,” she says, wistfully. “Being there, I almost can’t believe that I get to be a citizen of California.”; ;