Shoe boxes, flagpoles, elevators, earlobes, food trucks. These have all been sites for exhibitions across Los Angeles, whose rapid growth and ever-raising rent prices has created a situation where artists and gallerists are coming up with creative interpretations on what the format of a contemporary gallery might look like. While the tried and true structures of the “white cube” are alive and well in Los Angeles (and many New York and international galleries are opening supplementary locations here in L.A.), the smaller, artist-run outposts are also flourishing with a bootstraps mentality. As the editor-in-chief of Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles [Carla], a contemporary art magazine that focuses specifically on the dense array of activity happening across Los Angeles, I am tasked with mapping the city via its art spaces, each diverse in scale, curatorial vision, and structure. I sometimes think about art writers in this city as the silent travelers between worlds. While gallerists themselves are marooned to their brick and mortar slices of L.A. during open hours, art writers float between these discursive spaces, navigating across the city and traveling through various stratified neighborhoods.
For this article, I visited 4 spaces across Los Angeles, each representative of a type of art space in Los Angeles: an artist run gallery in an unconventional space, an artist-run gallery in a commercial space, a commercial bi-coastal gallery, and an international blue-chip gallery.
I pull off Venice Boulevard into a graffiti-coated alley, coaxing my car into an unmarked parking space in a dirt lot. I have arrived to Elevator Mondays, a gallery that is run by artist Don Edler and is housed in a freight elevator in the artist’s live/work space. My dog, husband, and I walk through the front doors of the warehouse into swirl of young artists ironically sipping on Bud Light and loitering around. We hug friends, and our dog purrs and pulls towards the other pups sprinkled throughout the room. Finally, beer in hand, I make it across the vast space, past the living room (where more dogs and artists lounge chatting) and kitchen (which mostly consists of a refrigerator and a hot plate) to the titular elevator.
Wedged in the far back corner of the living room, the thick freight doors are propped open, florescent light beaming from above. A barrage of pattern and color spills out of the miniscule space. At 4 feet by 6 feet long, Edler must enact a sort of jig saw puzzle in order to smartly hang work in the cramped space. In this particular exhibition, Ex Nihilo, six artists work is one view, and Edler has chosen a maximal approach, leaving relatively no wall space uncovered. The work of Adam DeBoer, hovers over a patterned wall paper by Molly Surazhsky. The dense florals of Sarah Weber edge in, filling most of the gallery’s right wall. The nature of the small gallery also means that only one or two people can see the show at a time, the rest of the crowds congregate and mill around chatting about job openings or upcoming shows, casually cueing to make their way into the elevator. In this way, the small space actually educes a sense of community as the primary amount of time spent at the gallery is not immersed in art, but rather people.
Gallerist Don Edler tells me more about the neighborhood “I moved to L.A. get out of N.Y.C. and to find cheaper rent/more space. I felt L.A. was the right place for me to be because of its proximity to the ocean and to Hollywood. What excites me most about being here is the weather and flora + the residue of Hollywood cultural production that litters the city. The gallery is located in Pico Union, a working class Latino neighborhood west of downtown L.A. I moved here because it was centrally located and one of the few places in L.A. that still had relatively cheap rent when I found the studio in 2015. Pico Union has a bit of a bad reputation because of it's history of gang violence but I have had a really positive experience living and working here, the local food is some of the best Mexican food in L.A. I worry that the neighborhood will be gentrified soon, DTLA is just under the Freeway at the end of my block, and I feel it is only a matter of time before big developers buy up the whole neighborhood.”
The next day, I drive north to Highland Park, to a newly opened artist run space, Odd Ark Los Angeles, run by husband and wife Dani Tull and Yvonne Bas Tull. A little more established in their careers, Dani and Yvonne see the gallery as a culmination of their hard work and a way to give back to the creative community. I spoke to the couple recently on The Carla Podcast. Yvonne explains, “When we decided to open this, it just became something that we knew we had to do. We are really hard working people and we put our soul into everything. We decided to just go for it because this is what we do best—this is what Dani does best.” With an exciting program of solo shows given to young emerging artists, Odd Ark’s exhibitions have been fresh and diverse.
The current show on view, “We're All Counting On You, Mike.”- Ben D, a solo show by artist Michael Decker, exposes a playful experimentation. A large figure looms in the gallery, leaning one arm against the brick wall—the man (presumably Ben D?) is made of thousands of bendable toy figures (Gumbi, Pink Panther, smiley faces, watermelons, and Jack-in-the-Box heads climb on top of each other to create the dense stiffly-postured figure. Their individuality is overcome instead by the collective whole: they are reduced to color and form needed to fill out a certain area of the large figure, each boldly performing for the greater good.
While Odd Ark is artist-run, they operate in a hybrid model—they haven’t nailed down an artist roster, and their programming is open and evolving. They understand the logistic realities of running a space: “It’s very important to us that the gallery is sustainable,” says Dani, “and the gallery can evolve and support the kind of programming we would like to support. So it’s a commercial space—the work is for sale. It’s kind of a balance and a combination and its really interesting to navigate those waters and come up with creative ways to let the gallery evolve in a creative way. And commerce is part of that.”
One wall of the gallery—the one “Mike D.” rests his bendy-toy hand on—is made of brick and mortar, a potent reminder to Dani and Yvonne about the importance of running a physical gallery space. “I feel like it’s an important time to support a brick and mortar space. It’s important to me. It’s important to go to a real location, to see work first hand. To have that direct experience. I’m always encouraging my students to go see work because so many times they are showing me work on Instagram, the work of their ‘favorite painter’ but they’ve never seen the work in person. I also encourage my students through the years to start their own spaces, create their own community, do it yourself. So here I am taking my own advice and doing it.”
Next I head over to Hollywood, where a cluster of galleries congregates near Santa Monica Boulevard, and New York’s Tanya Bonakdar has recently opened an L.A. outpost. Many international and New York galleries have joined in the flurry of L.A.’s art scene in the last few years. Tanya explains their choice to open a second space here: "The new space has been in the works for some time now. We are delighted to be able to be a part of the unique and unparalleled contemporary arts community in Los Angeles. As an artist-driven gallery, the foundational motivation for our expansion was to provide a new platform for our international stable of acclaimed artists, and to further engage in a dialogue with the West Coast arts community. We chose to open the gallery, and our first two shows, on the heels of Charles Long and Olafur Eliasson’s exciting presentations in Los Angeles: Long at the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. Biennial, and Eliasson’s Reality projector at the Marciano Art Foundation. We felt the [Hollywood] location was perfect as it is right in the center of a vibrant arts community and destination for visitors both local and international.”
Eliasson’s recent installation at The Marciano Art Foundation (a privately owned contemporary art foundation, founded by GUESS? Jeans’ Maurice and Paul Marciano), was an expansive light and sound installation that filled the museum’s cavernous space with ominous projections and floating geometrics. Here at Tanya Bonakdar the work feels bite size in comparison, but not without transfixing moments. Particularly captivating was Retinal Flare Space, and per Eliasson’s signature style, he creates immense optical effect with very simple materials. A few circular color-shifting glass pieces hang in the gallery space as a projector shines light across them, roaming around the room like a helicopter’s searchlight. When the light hits the glass, sharp colored shapes and shadows flank the walls, moving across the wall in concert with the projector. The beautiful effect that belies the simple materials. For a second I placed my hand in front of the projector, and the magical cosmic light show totally disappeared—the effect is created through the simple medium of light alone.
Finally, I finish my circular jaunt across L.A. at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, which occupies a city block in L.A.’s newly-gentrified arts district. Upscale coffee, ice-cream, and designer clothing shops line the neighborhood, an apt setting for Hauser & Wirth’s austere and upscale vibe. While very much a commercial gallery (selling work by notable artists like Eva Hesse, Hans Arp, Pierre Hyughe, and Roni Horn), the space is museum like: a string of large gallery spaces circle around an open courtyard layout, complete with gift shop, upscale restaurant, and tasteful greenery. The courtyard also houses a chicken coop (the eggs are used by the restaurant’s chefs) and a small garden where herbs are cultivated to eventually top bespoke cocktails. Because of the sheer amount of capital that the gallery has at its disposal (with nine international locations ranging from New York to Hong Kong to Gstaad), the museum-like feel is expounded by world-class exhibitions, and ample space and programming to engage the community. “The site is intended to be activated day and night by the public and to create another area for the community to gather formally and informally," Evan Raabe, an architect at Creative Spaces who designed the building, told Dezeen, an online magazine. "The public garden, which will have raised planter beds and trees, will act as a place to enjoy a cup of coffee with a friend while not feeling you are in a gallery. These elements create a deeper view into everything that [Hauser &Wirth] has to offer beyond the art," he added.
Three large solo exhibitions were on view when I visited (Jack Whitten, Larry Bell, and Mary Heilmann), and the standout was surely the latter. Her minimal abstract paintings form a unique dialogue with her signature chairs (simple plywood constructions and woven strap backing, painted in bright playful colors). Across the exhibition, the artist’s geometric and simple paintings are underscored by a deep personal emotive quality and an insistence on individuality and playful experimentation. A simple blue and white grid is washed with a milky layer of paint, the transparent layer dappled with brush stokes and movement—traces of life that aren’t found in the modernist geometric abstractions of Mondrians or Albers.
Finally, I pull onto freeway and head west. Back home after a long day of navigating the city’s twists and turns. As the art world continues to morph, an engagement with the particular city that galleries choose to root to is vital to their survival. As our cities become more populated, more inundated, and in L.A., slowly more homogenized with wealthy developers scooping up city blocks, or opening up boutique hotels, art spaces will surely continue to adapt to the changing times. With gallery proprietors that range from young artists trying to survive amidst the city’s growing economy, and others that do business under massive operating budgets, unencumbered by financial concerns, galleries continue to come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Diverse and complex, just like the city we live in.
Header image: Olafur Eliasson, Installation view of The speed of your attention, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Los Angeles, September 15 – December 22, 2018. Photo: Jeff Mclane. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.