Cesar Garcia is a product of his environments - all of them. They've influenced his epic new undertaking: the latest star in the expanding downtown art gallery firmament, the Mistake Room, where he is director and chief curator.
Born in Mexico City, Garcia was raised in L.A. from age 6 in a part of town close to the gallery's industrial-fringe location. As an art professional, he has always sought out places and experiences that express the transitional, cross-pollinated nature of L.A.'s urban palimpsest - especially ideas about the movements of goods, immigrant populations, manufacturing and labor forces, and how those might be expressed in art and architecture.
In pursuit of those ideas, his projects have encompassed the global art fair and biennial circuit as well as the halls of higher learning - where his combined résumé from UCLA and USC goes all the way up to Ph.D. and includes foci like political science, Chicano studies, curatorial/public art studies, museology and experimental critical theory.
But don't let all that hard-core scholarly stuff create the wrong impression. Garcia, who's 28 and lives in Palms (with plans to move downtown), is not at all about the ivory tower. Eternally boyish and brimming with contagious enthusiasm, he was translating his studies into real-world projects while pursuing those degrees. He planted the seeds for what would become the Mistake Room during his time working at avant-garde art hubs such as LAXART (where he was associate director and senior curator) and on the curatorial team for the Hammer Museum's first Made in L.A. biennial in 2012.
During those experiences, Garcia found himself, as he says, "lamenting L.A.'s relative lack of nonprofit public art spaces," the kind that can navigate the middle path between the demands of institutional work and the temptations of a commercial enterprise - thus freeing its programmers to just bring important, experimental and "hard-to-sell" work to new audiences. It's a common enough European model, and Garcia figures there's an audience for it here, too.
Officially founded in 2012, the Mistake Room is about to break ground on the full-scale architectural renovation of its 4,500-square-foot industrial warehouse, which will be ready by the time the September season rolls around. But the space has already caused a minor national art-criticism dust-up with the reaction to its soft-launch exhibition this past spring, Oscar Murillo's installation, Distribution Center.
Murillo's work involves issues of manufacturing and architecture, which interest Garcia as well, so the artist requested a show during the pre-renovation phase. It was messy and conceptual, and between the planning and execution, Murillo became the subject of much art-world consternation when, at a very young age, the market for his paintings turned wildly speculative and his prices skyrocketed at a dizzying rate. By the time the show opened here, the artist's work was greeted with a skepticism Garcia and many others felt was undeserved, which Garcia attributes largely to local audiences' relative unfamiliarity with Murillo's work. Garcia was nonplussed but remained sanguine, pointing out, "Bringing the work of artists who are making waves around the globe but have never shown in L.A. is exactly the kind of gap we are trying to fill."
But, hey, it's called the Mistake Room for a reason, and now everything is going according to plan. "We have been making lists of the most impressive projects, from biennials, for example," Garcia gushes. "Things that have never been seen in L.A. - and you'd be surprised at who is on that list."
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