Looking back on the art world in Los Angeles in the latter half of the 20th century, there’s only one gallery that rivals the sheer cultural impact of the Ferus Gallery in the 1960s, and it’s one that a significant portion of the art-going public has probably never even set foot in: the much-imitated but ultimately incomparable La Luz de Jesus. Founded in 1986 on the second floor of Wacko, an irreverent Melrose Avenue gift emporium since moved to Los Feliz — you’ll find it today tucked inconspicuously between the girly post cards and the inflatable furniture — La Luz didn’t merely launch artists but fostered an entire movement, carving out a space between high art, folk art, illustration, comic books and tattooing for those who found themselves falling through the cracks of any one establishment.
The man behind this legend, Billy Shire, has an appropriately legendary bearing. He’s an imposing, even daunting, figure, with unruly salt-and-pepper hair and a devilish countenance, though his demeanor in conversation is mild and generous. Art dealer, entrepreneur, collector, designer of the fantastic mural on the Wacko storefront and onetime creator of stage costumes for rock stars, he’s worn many hats over the years, most of them with remarkable success. The Wall Street Journal called him “a revolutionary influence in the gift industry,” and Juxtapoz Magazine famously dubbed him “the Peggy Guggenheim of Lowbrow.” In his own city, however, he remains something of a fringe figure.
“I still see myself as a bit of an outsider,” he says. “The art I show, I think, is still quite a bit different from what your bigger galleries are showing. I guess ‘outlaw’ is what comes to mind. I still want to be a challenging force in breaking new stuff and bringing interesting art to the forefront here.”
That said, his newest endeavor — Billy Shire Fine Arts, which opened in April — has a strangely established ring to it. Is Billy going legit?
“Part of the impetus for the gallery in the first place,” he says, speaking of La Luz, “was to kind of challenge the gallery system, but it didn’t really work, because I’d build up an artist and they’d leave. I was breaking the artists and not getting the payoff, basically. Helping them along for years when they’re struggling, and when they hit the big time, they’d dash off to more-legitimate galleries.”
So Shire wanted a legitimate gallery, both to catch the artists who outgrew that venue and to bring in others he felt unable to show there in the first place. The breakdown, he says, is about 50-50. And the result, so far, is promising: The gallery sold about 98 percent of the art in its first four shows.
Which points to one of the most intriguing aspects of the Lowbrow phenomenon: It sells. Like crazy.
“Why does it sell? Well, it strikes a chord in people,” he says. “They’re attracted to it. We get a certain number of people who buy as an investment, because definitely we are getting artists who are emerging and on the way up, but one of my main selling points is don’t buy it if you don’t like it. And that’s it — people just love it. We have a tremendous growing clientele. I’ve been around 19 years, I’ve had these people who have grown with me and have become more affluent, and are now older and more established and have money and more of a disposable income. I’ve got so many people who have become first-time collectors with me, who were buying $200 pieces and who are now buying $5,000 pieces, and that’s a tremendous boon to the whole thing around the country.”
For the record, Shire dislikes the term “lowbrow,” both for the negative connotation and because he finds it too narrow, applying primarily to a Robert Williams–esque comic book base. He would expand the scope to include illustration as well and prefers to describe the focus of his galleries as “figurative narrative.” But somehow “the Peggy Guggenheim of Figurative Narrative” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.