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It’s Chinatown 

Something new, something old

Wednesday, May 3 2000

Polanski & Towne‘s lasting cinematic mythology notwithstanding, something good appears to be happening in Chinatown. Over the last year and a half, the picturesque, dilapidated neighborhood, tucked under the northeast armpit of the Civic Center, has seen a curious influx. A collection of young art galleries has taken advantage of the modest rents and high vacancy rate in the tourist quarter to stake their claim, effectively taking over the mantle of energy and risk forsaken by the Michigan Avenue Galleries in their relocation to the “Pentad” 6150 Wilshire complex.

Clustered mainly on Chung King Road, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare just west of Hill Street, the galleries occupy various boarded-up businesses. With the renewed artistic and academic enthusiasm for Orientalism and exotica, this seemingly incongruous melding of a rickety but still-kicking theme neighborhood with a self-organizing enclave of hip cultural entrepreneurs possesses a perverse logic. And it’s one that‘s paid off.

Just a few blocks from MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary, the Chinatown galleries benefit from the relative geographical isolation of the freeway peninsula they occupy. Chinatown mixes the weekend bustle of downtown, Latino Broadway with the pedestrian-friendly, restaurant-riddled funk of Venice. Conspicuously absent is the spill-over desperation from the Nickel that has interfered with other attempts to reanimate the downtown art scene: none of those scary street people that LACE escaped by moving to Hollywood Boulevard.

Creative types have always hung around Chinatown. Mike Kelley re-created the famous outdoor Wishing Well for a 1999 piece entitled Frame & Unframed (which has never been shown in L.A.). The Hong Kong Cafe is arguably the most legendary of the ‘80s L.A. punk clubs, a legacy acknowledged in a limited-edition print, by Frances Stark and China Art Objects partner Steve Hanson, based on an old Chinatown post card which, on close inspection, reveals the Black Flag logo graffitied prominently on the side of a building.

China Art Objects was the first of the galleries to open, and it was calculated to make an impression on the art world. Founded in January 1999 by Art Center alums Hanson, Giovanni Intra and Peter Kim, along with Kim’s landlord, Mark Heffernan, China Art Objects has enlisted high-profile locals like Pae White (who designed the space and the inaugural show), Jorge Pardo, Laura Owens and Sharon Lockhart in order to garner attention for the space and its lesser-known artists. Among these, Christiana Glidden, Eric Wesley, Ruby Neri and Jon Pylypchuk have been responsible for some of the most interesting and entertaining gallery shows in the last year. Pylypchuk is currently attending UCLA graduate school and is part of the same “Royal Art Lodge of Canada” group that produced Marcel Dzama and Neil Farber, whose cartoons pay the rent at Richard Heller Gallery. A.k.a. Rudy Bust, Pylypchuk hot-glues gnarly fabric samples, wiggle eyes and doodled-on matchsticks in loopy narrative concoctions (last seen at Works on Paper, in January); he has a show opening May 6.

In fact, four in five of the Chinatown galleries have scheduled openings for May 6, Sigmund Freud‘s 144th birthday. Directly across the way from China Art Objects, Goldman Tevis is the latest addition to the Chinatown scene, and its appearance is slightly unsettling, with its dyed-in-the-wool credibility and polished presentation standing out from the shagginess of its predecessors. Co-directors Mary Goldman and John Tevis come from international curatorial and East Coast investment-banking backgrounds, respectively, and moved to L.A. specifically to collaborate on this gallery. While this sudden swooping into the midst of an essentially artist-run milieu has generated some understandable anxiety, the inaugural show by Andrea Bowers contained the best drawings I’ve seen in a while. Tom Baldwin‘s upcoming installation at Goldman Tevis, consisting of a suspended plywood lagoon and various phenomenological extrapolations thereof (e.g., a window in the shape of a human head, photos of reflections off an actual lagoon -- you know), sounds promising as well.

The Black Dragon Society, like China Art Objects, took its name from the still-intact signage of the previous tenant, in this case a kung-fu studio. ACE Gallery refugee Roger Herman and partners draw alternately on their pals from the downtown L.A. art scene and from their European connections to serve up heaps of that ’80s Sturm und Drang we all miss so much. The refreshing “nothing to prove” vibe is undercut by the gallery‘s weekends-only-if-that hours. They’ll be open May 6 for certain, though, with an exhibit of quintessential New Image paintings by Austrian Beatrice Dreux, which, due to scheduling issues, had to open a couple of weeks early.

INMO, the dealer-eponymous gallery, opened on Valentine‘s Day (also Inmo’s birthday) last year, making it the second oldest of the spaces. For May 6, INMO is hosting a group show of figurative art curated by artist-critic Chris Miles, featuring new works by painters Kelly McLane (pop-surrealist humananimal social critiques) and Patty Wickman (complex poetic allegories, and late of Dan Bernier Gallery) and three others. INMO is most remarkable for its commitment to the topical overlap between art and architecture. Three out of six upcoming shows are projects by architects, including a temporary facade by Michele Saee and work by the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Design‘s Greg Lynn.

Just across Hill and around the corner of Bernard Street is AH (for Acuna-Hansen) gallery. Another relative newcomer, and physically isolated from the herd, former Rio Hondo College gallerist Chris Acuna-Hansen has commended himself admirably, presenting works by (among others) Dave Muller, Martin Kersels and Martin Durazo, as well as recently proffering the curiously unheralded solo return of Dani Tull, who has been missing in action for several years. For May 6, Acuna-Hansen will be showing “White Plastic,” an exhibition of Loren Sandvik’s monochrome vacuum-form wall pieces.

Rumors abound about who will open shop next, ranging from disgruntled Mid-Wilshire tenants to Austrian Kunsthall proprietors, and there is some nervousness that the scene may lose its true grit and begin to snowball into some kind of art-boutique strip mall. The symbiotic relationship between the galleries and the neighborhood is a precariously balanced ecology and could easily take on the ugly colonial edge of yuppification it has thus far successfully skirted. Unfortunately, such dilution and spoilage seems inevitable for any happening scene. Chinatown, with its unlikely grafting of contemporary gallery art with a dilapidated tourist quarter, may be gathering tremendous momentum, but it remains, for the time being, adventurous and unpredictable. The public is cordially invited to discover as much for itself the Saturday after Cinco de Mayo. Hope they‘re serving menudo.

Imparting a somewhat different spin on pedestrian activity and the visual arts, Ginny Bishton’s dynamic new body of work at Richard Telles has been in production for a while. Bishton initially gained attention for her tightly constructed abstract paintings on paper, built up into seething caterpillar shapes from thousands upon thousands of impossibly tiny purple and green brush strokes. The artist made her first foray into photocollage with her dazzling, untitled 1997 fruit-and-vegetable piece, which stretched across 13 feet of wall space, organizing painstakingly excised images of all the flora she‘d consumed over a designated period of time. Since then, she’s had only one piece in a group show: a faux-digital translation of one of her daily perambulations into an eye-boggling mosaic of tiny, circular photo samples. The piece was almost immediately acquired by LACMA. Her current show consists of five equally delightful works from the intervening period, all constructed from her skewed version of Landsat mapping.

A gardener and habitual walker, Bishton takes copious low-level aerial photographs of the landscape that already occupies so much of her attention. She then cuts and glues each detail of rocks or plants to the pristine paper surface, gradually building shapes and patterns reminiscent of both landscape-gardening plans and ornamental decorative traditions, achieving a kind of dappled-light-on-water dizziness. These reassuringly sensual touchstones are balanced by a dark, seething organicism that verges on the predatory. Some of the pieces seem to have shifted or grown when you look at them a second time from across the room. And the work involved is, frankly, the sort of activity Western Civilization was designed to eliminate, smacking a little of the obsessive-compulsive scratchings of Jess, Bruce Conner and genuine outsiders like Adolph Wolfli. Far from detracting, these patches of darkness only add an element of personal psychological depth to what is already a formally dazzling and conceptually innovative reordering of the landscape tradition.

  • Something new, something old

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