Downtown L.A. Art Scene Reaches a Critical Mass of Cool

The Mistake Room opens with a show by Oscar Murillo.EXPAND
The Mistake Room opens with a show by Oscar Murillo.
Carol Cheh

Certain places at certain times seem to exert a gravitational pull. Last year, the small, cutting-edge Night Gallery raised their game by taking over a warehouse in the farthest reaches of downtown Los Angeles. That same industrial corridor on eastern Washington Boulevard recently welcomed two more avant-garde art spaces: The Mistake Room, the first nonprofit in L.A. devoted to an international program of contemporary art, and a cooperative warehouse venture that includes François Ghebaly Gallery, a French-focused curatorial and residency program called Fahrenheit, a media resource center called Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA) and two independent presses (2nd Cannons and DoPe Press).

All three of these spaces are within blocks of each other, with Ghebaly et al and Night Gallery sharing a parking lot, and all three had highly anticipated openings by important emerging artists this past Saturday night. The palpable excitement and sense of freshness that infused these openings, along with the hundreds of attendees who streamed in and out of the three large warehouses, announced without a doubt that downtown Los Angeles is one of the most exciting places to be right now for cutting-edge visual art.

The Mistake Room in downtown L.A.EXPAND
The Mistake Room in downtown L.A.
Carol Cheh

The Mistake Room is an ambitious new project launched by Cesar Garcia, formerly a curator at LAXART in Culver City. Following a year and a half of research and planning, the nonprofit has a board of 12 directors and a staff of four in place. They are leasing their facility from the adjoining print factory, and will be slowly renovating it over the next several months under the direction of young Tijuana-based architect Alfonso Medina, known for his innovative work with low-income housing projects. While the space is still relatively raw, Garcia invited the London - based Colombian artist Oscar Murillo to do his first American solo show, a site-specific installation called Distribution Center, now on view until April 12.

Oscar Murillo at The Mistake RoomEXPAND
Oscar Murillo at The Mistake Room
Carol Cheh

Filling the space with piles of abstract drawings on the floors and on tables, and projecting footage of mass production machinery on the walls, Distribution Center brilliantly draws parallels between artistic production and large-scale commodity production, mirroring the industrial history of the surrounding neighborhood. Investigations of local histories and extensive community outreach through educational programming are two of the things on The Mistake Room's vigorous agenda, along with book publishing, an international exhibition program and a visiting curators program, in which curators from around the world will be brought in and introduced to L.A.'s community of artists.

Joel Kyack's "Palm Tree Burial - High Seas" at François Ghebaly GalleryEXPAND
Joel Kyack's "Palm Tree Burial - High Seas" at François Ghebaly Gallery
Carol Cheh

The compound spearheaded by dealer François Ghebaly will also have a mixture of local and international flavors. Fahrenheit's exhibition program will draw on a variety of international artists, while its residency program will welcome French-focused curators and artists. DoPe Press primarily publishes the whimsical Paris, LA magazine, and 2nd Cannons is an artists' book project. LACA focuses its archiving efforts on local artistic production, while Ghebaly's program is also primarily concerned with L.A.-based artists like Joel Kyack, whose show "Old Sailors Never Die" opened on Saturday night.

Joel Kyack's "Megalodon" was a big hit at François Ghebaly Gallery.EXPAND
Joel Kyack's "Megalodon" was a big hit at François Ghebaly Gallery.
Carol Cheh

Big, exaggerated and cartoon-like, as Kyack is often wont to be, the exhibition seemed to play with themes of survival, being lost at sea and the duplicity of Hollywood set design. Towards that end, it deployed several humorous and crowd-pleasing sculptural installations, such as a wall-mounted set of shark jaws equipped with kitchen knives for teeth. In the center of the room, visitors crowded into a shack draped with a giant pair of worn denim cutoffs to watch a video of a man fumbling on a small boat at sea. The warehouse itself was looking good - clean and bright and ready to welcome the other tenants into its newly built, smaller rooms when the entire cooperative has its grand opening on January 31. 

Guests explore Samara Golden's "Mass Mirror" at Night Gallery.EXPAND
Guests explore Samara Golden's "Mass Mirror" at Night Gallery.
Carol Cheh

Now a grande dame of the local alternative scene, the for-profit version of the once scrappy Night Gallery maintains an amped-up version of the program they ran for two years out of a strip mall in Lincoln Heights. On Saturday night, they opened "Mass Murder," the most spectacular show yet from Samara Golden, one of the most promising artists in L.A. Golden, who is included in MOCA's well-received "Room to Live" exhibition, built on the bewitching themes that she began exploring in the 2011 show, "Rape of the Mirror." Again, there were many mirrors playing tricks on the consciousness in the midst of an almost-realistic domestic environment. A faux kitchen and a gleaming living room, all built out of flimsy R-Max, seduced visitors into relaxing and exploring, so much so that crashes were heard throughout the night as a few unfortunate souls attempted to sit down on the "furniture."

Samara Golden enchants at Night Gallery.EXPAND
Samara Golden enchants at Night Gallery.
Carol Cheh

There are multitudes of alternative, artist-run and nonprofit art spaces all over the greater L.A. area. The interesting thing that distinguishes this particular cluster of spaces, besides their ambitious programming, is their subversive appropriation of huge warehouses. Typically, such spaces are the domain of top museums and corporate mega-galleries, and their preponderance in the art world in recent years has been decried by many critics for their domineering, soul-crushing, small-business-killing effects. New York magazine's Jerry Saltz called them "Death Stars... hoovering up artists and money and monopolizing attention," while L.A. gallery owner and pundit Mat Gleason predicted this bleak scenario: "There will be no next-door start-ups. There will be no opportunities for artists outside of the international art style or [for] those who produce art on a more intimate scale."

What Gleason describes may well be the case right now in New York, where monied interests have indeed driven out artistic production, according to a recent slew of critical articles. But here in L.A., neglected areas abound and affordable space can still be had for those willing to stake out new territories. Thus, the warehouses of downtown are filling up not with bland corporate empires but with unique ventures like the ones above, which deploy an enterprising mix of commercial and nonprofit programming.

The three ventures described here are not alone. Mara McCarthy was the first to move her gallery, The Box, into a big warehouse in the Arts District section of downtown. Her programming emphasizes older, overlooked American artists like Barbara T. Smith and Judith Bernstein, alongside international artists who have not had stateside exposure. About a year ago, renowned painter Laura Owens, with the help of her dealer Gavin Brown, opened 356 S. Mission Road as a way to both create and exhibit an acclaimed suite of ten enormous paintings, each the size of a barn door. Since then, the space has evolved to encompass Ooga Twooga, the second branch of Wendy Yao's popular Ooga Booga bookstore, and an indefinable series of exhibitions, screenings, panels, workshops, book release parties, fashion premieres and other community events. 356 Mission, as it's popularly known, will open a major film project by artist Scott Reeder on January 25.

Downtown L.A.'s cool likely won't last forever, as the natural cycle of gentrification and rising rents will inevitably take hold at some point. For now however, it is the epicenter of everything that's wonderful and different in the L.A. art community.

The Mistake Room, 1811 E. 20th St., (213) 749-1200, François Ghebaly Gallery, 2245 E Washington Blvd., (323) 282-5187, Night Gallery, 2276 E. 16th St., (323) 589-1135, The Box, 805 Traction Ave., (213).625.1747, 356 S. Mission Road, 356 S. Mission Rd, (323) 609-3162,

Carol Cheh on Twitter:

Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter:

Use Current Location

Related Location

356 Mission

356 S. Mission Rd.
Los Angeles, CA 90033

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >