This Secret Stage Is Impossible to Find — and People Are Desperate to Perform There
Max Baumgarten and Nina Tarr
Photo by Danny Liao
When you step into Basic Flowers, a multipurpose gallery and performance space on the northernmost span of L.A.'s Historic Theatre Row, you might have to duck under the metal roll-up door.
Inside this concealed, converted warehouse/commercial space, pipes jut out and main veins are exposed, blurring the line between studious art direction and holdover disrepair.
It's a place of inherent serendipity and commanding grandiosity, in no small part thanks to Basic Flowers' floor-to-ceiling adornments. Recycled and found materials encompass the space, transforming it into a "living installation," like a physical representation of Gustav Flaubert's extinguished imagination, in the "junkyard opera" The Temptation of St. Antony, which played here earlier this year.
The space, in turn, informs the semiweekly events hosted within. "Happenings" may be a better term, due to their collaborative, multidisciplinary nature.
Perhaps the chief operators of Basic Flowers, Max Baumgarten and Nina Tarr, determine the day's metal roll-up height by the weather or, in naming their establishment, by the principles of a 20th-century reactionary art movement. Baumgarten laughs as he explains how Basic Flowers earned its quizzical moniker: "It's Dada, really. Found poetry. Basic Flowers was literally the name of the last business."
"It's a funny name for a business in general," Tarr says. "And we didn't have to get a new sign."
Until 2013, the space housed a flower shop, and the Basic Flowers sign came with the building — along with the detritus of a quinceañera shop. But for Tarr and Baumgarten, how the space comes together is a matter of improvised reassemblage.
Basic Flowers is about turning forsaken junk into enchanting objects, and the partners live this ethos so well that their space is truly "junk" recycled into an art space that Angelenos can frequent (if they can find its address; the operators did not want it included in this story due to its under-the-radar nature).
Upon entering, you pass through a sort of paper birthing canal. An accordioned array of antique display cases, turned 30 to 45 degrees this way or that, memorializes doodads and bejeweled whirligigs, the shiny leftovers of previous tenants. This is essential Basic Flowers: a conscious, considerate remaking of what's been discarded.
Paper, paper and more paper flood the perimeters — wrinkled, torn, crinkled, yellowing. This isn't poesy, though. The painstakingly rigorous, sublimely oversized installation wraps around every turn, spanning the walls of three exposed partitions, as though seeking every available surface, culminating in the cavernous rearmost chamber that contains the stage.
Large swaths of archival blueprints — from a contact at UCLA — drape from corners like fictional lateen sails. More paper rectangular patches and long skinny frills hang from suspended wires to create separate rooms, a literary take on the bead curtain.
On the floor, along the walls, are copious stacks of hardcover encyclopedias. It's like a 3-D take on traditional wainscoting — or if someone went to Oxford, then pretended to be in The Sims and started clicking every possible square. At least 150 knee-high stacks of reddish, fabric-bound encyclopedias follow the concrete foundation.
The third and rearmost section functions as an angular theater space seating about 75 (or about 150 standing). A gray-carpeted riser serves as a stage. Behind this stands a 20-foot-tall wall topped by a catwalk.
Here, the encyclopedias are less regimented, and the paper installation climaxes in overlapping strokes of genius. A sloping "modern junkyard" about 8 feet deep climbs at an angle up from the rear stage to the full height of the back wall. Tables, chairs, silver-gilded TV sets, treacherous stacks of books — all pile up and up. The slope, with nooks and crannies that can function as dangerous steps, rests against the catwalk. It all seems a twee depiction of today's climate of mass production and forced obsolescence — a world where meaningful things are made with meaningless alacrity, a bullet train to its final destination, a festering global trash heap.
It would be dangerous for anyone to scale this sprawling construction, but this happened in February, when The Temptation of St. Antony premiered in what was branded a "nondescript secret downtown location."
Created by Four Larks, which comprises artistic director Mat Diafos Sweeney and producing director Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, Temptation starred Flowers proprietor Baumgarten as the title's hermit. It conjured the tortured saint's inner demons and ecstatic asceticism. Regan Baumgarten, Max's sister and an L.A.-based mixed-media artist, created the "paper cave" that still graces the space.
Four Larks, an experimental opera troupe, has produced seven pop-up opera experiences as site-specific, time-based installations. Realtime aptly describes these as "fully fledged operas growing from the detritus of contemporary culture."
Temptation made a phantasmagoric, transmedia spectacle of Flaubert's neglected "fantasia of the library." It was meant to come to life, and be extinguished.
"There's a lingering charm; the residue of the initial show invoked this ... longevity," Tarr tells the Weekly. "Whatever you can imagine, you can do it there. It can really hold anything."
Temptation "was so warmly received," Baumgarten says. "That was impetus to maintain the space. Nina and I had so many projects in mind, so many friends we wanted to collaborate with."
As Four Larks celebrates seven Ovation Award nominations, Basic Flowers is achieving resonance within an enclave of aloof and reactionary L.A. performers.
In October, Matt McCarthy (The Pete Holmes Show) begins a monthly talk show whose debut guests include revered Simpsons writer-producer Dana Gould (The Aristocrats). This live show may go anywhere, and these places will not be child-friendly. Tarr will host Frown Town, which favors progressive and absurdist stand-ups like Rory Scovel (The Pete Holmes Show), Brent Weinbach and Johnny Pemberton (Broad City). Nu & Approved is hosted monthly by former Body Actualized Center cofounder Andrew Sellers, featuring primarily side projects and solo acts of working musicians.
When L.A. Weekly spoke with Tarr's friend Ariel Rosenberg, the outré pop artist asked not to be mentioned, then said, "I don't want to distract from what Max and Nina are doing." It says something that he had nothing to say. Basic Flowers invites makers of music but prefers they leave their promo materials at home.
Intentionally or not, the florist's sign embodies this burgeoning space. It's thin, neon green, in rounded, monospace type, and hangs about 15 feet from the unassuming entrance. It's easy to miss on a commercial stretch of Broadway still out of reach of downtown's hesitant frontline of gentrification.
That hot-button issue raises an interesting philosophical distinction: Is busting ass to throw $5 comedy, music, theater, performance art and visual art happenings in a once fully downtrodden district a refutation of class division? Or, alternatively, is this a reaction to DTLA's paltry $17 restaurant portions and exquisitely manicured marketing of midquality staples?
Only time will tell. And if Basic Flowers' creators have it their way, time is sure to elicit unforgettable mementos.
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