Chinatown's brand-new Canton Art and Jazz Club is a peaceful, white-walled space on Hill Street, and looks somewhat unlikely as a gallery, wedged in among restaurants and tchotchke shops. Yet it's the showing-place for Johnny Cubert White, well-known for being the art director for Top Chef, who also happens to be a sharp photographer and avid street art fan. Quynh Nguyen, Canton Club's visiting curator-director-creator, approached White to put together the first show and kick off the gallery opening.
The result? A beautiful, sharply-edited look at how street art has evolved in downtown L.A., with photographs that document six years' worth of street art taking over a single wall.
White, who moved to downtown L.A. in 2000, is part of a rare subset of Angelenos who enjoys walking everywhere in the city -- he (shockingly) lives a car-free life. He totes around a large camera, and takes intricate pictures of his daily surroundings.
Take the wall of the American Hotel at the corner of Traction and Hewitt: when White moved into the neighborhood, he noticed that there was always a Shepard Fairey hovering on it. He began following the wall for 7 years, taking ten or fifteen shots as it evolved and the street art on it faded and was replaced with more. Another of White's personal favorites is a blue wall, also near Traction, that he calls the "Zip Fusion Sushi Wall."
"At first, the owner painted over the graffiti until Mr. Brainwash put up a gigantic Einstein. Einstein always has a spray can in his hand, and on this building it says, 'Love and Sushi is the Answer.' This was the first piece of graffiti that the owner left on. The weather rips it apart, but he's pretty much hard to see now," White says. Turns out, he managed to get a snapshot of one of Mr. Brainwash's earliest Einsteins, which now pepper the city.
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In 2010, the City of Los Angeles closed off one of the streets adjacent to White's downtown loft for the L.A. marathon. Street artist Jonny Fenix seized the opportunity, and when White woke up on the day of the marathon, he found a shot, bleeding swallow covering three lanes, spray-painted on the tarmac below. It was so large, White says, that "When you came over the Whittier bridge, you could see the bird." The city painted over it as soon as the marathon was over, but White immortalized it in his photograph.
White captures the sense that we live with this art, that it's part of our environment, and subject to the same cycles of growth and decay as the human life. Many of the photographs focus in on peeling layers of art, superposed on each other and worn down by time. The images become sharp studies of the landscape. White looks for "lighting and lines and depth of field. There's not much depth to a flat object posted on a wall. But if you have five layers, and you're up close, and they're peeling...There's a depth to it. It's rare to have depth in this kind of photography."
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