The storefront is unmarked. Thick, white, metal grates hang from the windows. Tonight, just past midnight on a Tuesday, a crowd lingers out front, seemingly uninterested in the choice of Mexican restaurants doubled up on one side or the closed coin-op laundry flanking the other. Cracked and stained and wearing into gravel, the parking lot is the width of a single car but the length of 10 nosed in, with the whole sidewalk in front of it consisting of one long driveway, lining all the storefronts in the strip mall, all shuttered, seemingly abandoned, not far from the river on the edge of Lincoln Heights.
I wander through and pass Mark and tell him I want to visit his studio and give his girlfriend, Alex, a kiss on the cheek. Inside, the walls and the floor are painted black and objets d'art hang from the walls and sit in various spaces in the rooms, a kitschy queer take on Jutta-ish assemblage. I hear someone mention that this stuff is all the rage at UCLA.
The air is choked with cigarette smoke and the wall is lined with empty cans and bottles. I meet Edgar and Laura talking to David. Ralph and Mary say goodbye to me while I'm in the middle of a conversation with Lauren. Edgar disappears to relieve the baby sitter and Laura squats on the ground with David in the corner, chain-smoking cigarettes and talking about painting. I wave to Brooke, and then turn around and talk to Davida Nemeroff, the proprietress of this, a typical evening at Night Gallery. It isn't even an opening.
Night Gallery and artist-run space the Museum of Public Fiction in Highland Park are at the forefront of a wave of Eastside artist spaces that have been quietly, playfully, drunkenly redefining the landscape of art in the city. These spaces feel like the only growth in a stagnant economy, each with a different ethos, from the smaller but still fierce Actual Size in Chinatown, Workspace in Lincoln Heights and Monte Vista Projects in Highland Park, to the big kid on the block, Human Resources in Chinatown, already graduated to nonprofit status with a board to help keep the lights on.
The recession has hit the art world as hard as anywhere; while a rash of commercial galleries have closed since 2008, very few have started up to take their place. This lack of growth affords an army of recently minted MFAs and other far-flung recent arrivals few opportunities for exhibitions here in the city. With cheap rents for apartments and studios, the Eastside is where most of the youngish artists live at a low cost.
The context and philosophies for these spaces can be stridently different, but they all fulfill an important purpose: giving new artists space to show work and a built-in community to share it with. And without the market breathing down their back, it allows for welcome experimentation.
Night Gallery opened in February 2010, not long after Nemeroff graduated from Columbia University and moved West. She says, "I started Night Gallery based on trying to make a space to look [at] and hang out with art that was more comfortable. Under less bright lights, in a certain state of mind, closer to inebriated than not inebriated."
Her gallery (which she now runs with collaborator Mieke Marple) quickly became a headquarters/hangout for artists most weeknights after a long stretch in the studio, oftentimes after an even longer stretch at a day job. Unlike most artist-run spaces, Night Gallery keeps regular hours, 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., Tuesday through Thursday. Inconvenient as it may be for the workaday world, the odd hours help build a community, and people often show up in droves. Six-packs of beer in hand, they take a seat in the diminutive back office or even in the gallery on the floor. More than a few times, artists have called asked if we could go get beers and head to Night Gallery, as if we were going to a dependably open party. Though curatorially ordered mostly by group shows, the overall spectrum speaks to a more freewheeling sense of inclusion, undergirded by a down-market sexiness.
While Night Gallery serves as an unofficial community center for artists, Lauren Mackler's Museum of Public Fiction, though still social, is based around a new quarterly journal. "Everything that happens at Public Fiction is a way to create material for a publication," Mackler says.
Mackler founded Public Fiction in June 2010 on the principle that graphic design (her training) can be an editorial and curatorial venture, that the arrangement of visual elements on a printed page can be tied to the writing accompanying them and to the third dimension in the gallery, all emanating from her particular aesthetic.
Recently Public Fiction launched its journal (with funding help from MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch) with an issue that collates all the classes and meals, performances and exhibitions that went on at the space earlier this year, when it was briefly known as the Free Church of Public Fiction.
Like the events it documents and embroiders upon, the journal is a strange and beautiful testament to Los Angeles' tendency to host unusual religions, new age cults and the general sense of fantasy people derive from this crumbling stucco metropolis by the sea. It ranges from notes from a class taught by Adam Overton on the similarity between contemporary performance art and Anton Lavey's Church of Satan, to fiction writer Trinie Dalton's solar-powered treatise on rainbows, to advice from Maja D'Aoust, the self-proclaimed "White Witch of L.A." (See our story on D'Aoust's "Occult L.A." event at Cinefamily on the next page.)
Los Angeles, it seems, is a good place for experiments. "I think of Public Fiction as a cabinet of curiosity, getting a bunch of different ideas on one topic, taking the temperature, including the found along with the made," Mackler says.
Other spaces around town attempt other new models for showing and making art. Workspace and Monte Vista are more traditionally run artist spaces: open a couple hours a week, usually connected to someone's studio, with neither driven by so clear a program. That said, they've done their share of amazing projects, like Dawn Kasper's studio performance at Monte Vista and Lesley Moon's installation and Nikki Darling and Kate Wolf's reading series at Workspace.
Named after a famed Ed Ruscha painting from 1962 owned by LACMA, the collectively run Actual Size Los Angeles is off New High Street in Chinatown, and many of its curatorial ventures are defined by the limits of its microspace.
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Human Resources was the biggest and most serious of the new artist-run spaces, housed in a former movie theater on Cottage Home Street near Broadway. Though it has a robust exhibition program, the space's primary focus is on the intersection of performance and visual art, and how these two often disparate communities can come together and learn from one another. It has graduated from the humble beginnings of an artist-run space into one of the few possibilities beyond, a nonprofit where the stakes and the costs are much higher, and the rules (federal tax rules) much stricter.
With Human Resources becoming a nonprofit, it raises the question of how long Night Gallery and Public Fiction can sustain their artist-run status while also trying to grow beyond the short term. They are by their very experimental nature meant to effervesce briefly and disappear, leaving behind only a legend. While Mackler says Public Fiction is resolutely a no-profit, artist-run space, Night Gallery has plans to turn more commercial. In talking to Nemeroff, I offhandedly used the word "alternative," to which she quickly riposted: "It's not an alternative, it's a new standard."
THE MUSEUM OF PUBLIC FICTION | 749 Avenue 50, Highland Park | publicfiction.org
NIGHT GALLERY | 204 S. Avenue 19, Lincoln Heights| nightgallery.ca