"I can't wait for it to be perfect," says Shaun Caley Regen, who has just led the way down from the roof of her still-unfinished new building at 6750 Santa Monica Blvd.
For more than 20 years, Regen has run Regen Projects, a gallery that melds smarts and style in a way that feels definitively L.A. but has an international reputation, in West Hollywood's modish design district. But she has never owned any of the Almont Street buildings she's occupied. Rent was month-to-month on one building, and her staff barely fit into the offices it had. She had been looking for a building to renovate when, in 2010, she found this one, a spacious former production complex built in 1947. She purchased it in January 2011 and enlisted Michael Maltzan, the architect behind the Hammer's airy 2001 redesign. Renovations began last October.
The new gallery opens on Sept. 22 with a group show, just three miles east of Regen's former location but in what feels like an entirely different world. Its intersection, where Santa Monica meets Highland, historically has been home to post-production studios and prostitutes. It's where Hollywood glamour has been polished and packaged and where seediness festers.
"I have no idea how it's all going to work," Regen says, referring to both the gallery's exhibition space and its surroundings. "Will I need 24-hour security? Maybe."
But she says this with anticipation rather than trepidation, as if the precariousness of the location is among its greatest perks.
When Regen Projects opens, it will be one of three contemporary art galleries new to the area, and more may move in soon. These galleries aren't emerging. Regen Projects is arguably L.A.'s best, with a roster that's a satisfying amalgam of precise, postapocalyptic L.A. pop (Lari Pittman, Liz Larner), unaffected New York conceptualism (Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham) and process-obsessed younger artists (Walead Beshty, Elliott Hundley). Perry Rubenstein Gallery is there, too, and while it's new to L.A., its program is by no means young. They join Erica Redling's 5-year-old gallery, Redling Fine Art, which represents thoughtful, youngish L.A. artists like Liz Glynn, and moved in late last year.
The trend seems strange on the surface. Go a few blocks up toward the spectacle of Hollywood Boulevard and you might run into a gaunt 20-something with a powdered face and hair done like Robert Pattinson's, walking alongside a guy dressed as Spider-Man. Wait at a nearby bus stop after dark and there's a chance you'll be solicited for sex by men in passing cars, regardless of your gender.
But artists working or even passing through this city have been obsessed for so long with Hollywood's gloss, its underbelly and the sprawl of L.A. streets that there may be no better place for them to show than right in the middle of it all.
The two busiest places on the corner of Highland and Santa Monica are the Honey Spot, a marijuana dispensary, and Donut Time. In late afternoon, the Honey Spot is especially popular. Young people who seem on edge keep driving up, parking laboriously and then rushing into the dispensary.
Donut Time, called "the Tranny Donut Shop" or "Tranny Time" by those in the know, is in the same strip mall, but it's a triangular, stand-alone building just a few yards back from the intersection. On some afternoons, a woman in a long striped dress, whose arms have an unmistakably muscular, masculine contour, wanders in and out of the Donut Shop, then maybe behind the shop to talk to some guy, or over to the nearby Subway to argue with some other guy. At some point, she might walk back past Donut Time and primp while looking in its front door as if the door is a mirror. The shop apparently is much rowdier in early morning: police raids, pimps holding court in booths, dancing in the parking lot. "Think Jersey Shore meets Trainspotting in L.A., just with trannies," wrote one Yelp reviewer. As in Trainspotting, lots of boxy, utilitarian buildings make up the backdrop.
Regen Projects' building, which the recently closed company Crest Digital owned through 2010, is directly across the street from Donut Time. Its front is a few yards back from a bus stop, and its easternmost side is almost flush with a newly built Walgreens.
Through the mid-'00s, the Walgreens was a Del Taco. It was a Del Taco in the early 1990s, too, when Shaun Regen lived just up the street and when photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, then just starting out but now an artist with work in the collections of many major U.S. museums, began his "Hustlers" series.
The Del Taco sign appears in one of these photos, glowing behind a young man who's staring intently at nothing in particular. DiCorcia had just received a National Endowment for the Arts grant. The U.S. Senate had recently reprimanded the NEA for allowing "controversial" projects that didn't reflect "American values." But what could be more American than using your limited funds to stay at the Landmark Hotel, where Janis Joplin overdosed, and heading down to Santa Monica Boulevard at twilight or sunrise to hire male prostitutes to pose melancholically with the movement of the traffic in the background? Each image diCorcia took had a cinematic romance to it, as if the camera had just stopped on its way to somewhere else.