Four years in, Superchief L.A. has evolved from a colonial outpost — a clan of New York artists camping in the urban badlands of DTLA — to a center of Los Angeles' underground contemporary art and culture. On Friday, June 1, the gallery’s annual group show — opening simultaneously in New York, Los Angeles and its new 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Miami — reflected both deepening local roots and its owners’ raw, disruptive ambition.
“We really did steal our way to the top,” says Bill Dunleavy, who co-founded Superchief with Ed Zipco in Brooklyn in 2012 “for the sake of doing a magazine and throwing parties.” The gallery was a fateful afterthought.
“I think the type of stuff we’re curating really resonates with people of varying backgrounds, whether we’re talking about graffiti kids from South Central or Westside art snobs. … I think we’re like a magnet for a whole different bunch of subcultures in L.A.,” Dunleavy says.
Most of the hundreds that streamed in and out of Superchief’s 4,000-square-foot Skid Row warehouse Friday skewed younger than typical art-collecting crowds; they were content with free beer and the best gallery party L.A. has to offer. Unconventional, approachable, Superchief excels at an elusive cultural capital and proven knack for launching previously unknown artists who blow up but remain loyal — “community building,” in Dunleavy’s practiced pitch. At least as much as art sales, this dynamic appears to be at the heart of their success.
“I think a lot of people start a gallery with a specific set of artists and a specific plan on what to do with them, whereas we really just figured it out on our feet,” he says. “We got everything up and then were like, ‘OK, it’s time to Google ‘how to run a business.’”
Originally from New Jersey (zero accent), Dunleavy spent time parking cars for Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casino and photographing punk subcultures in Mexico City before ultimately landing in New York. His jolly demeanor and earnestness are soldered at the edges by a quiet cunning. At 27, he’s evenly confident, articulate and mellow — the latter he attributes both to maturing and to “turning into an L.A. person.”
“I’m a hybrid. I’m like a young Jeffrey Deitch,” he says, only half joking. (Reached via phone, Deitch declined to comment on Superchief or the broader contemporary art scene in Los Angeles, citing the fact that he’s been away from it.)
Dunleavy moved here in 2014, seeking the metaphysical expanse of the Wild West and attendant square footage — which Superchief found in an airy industrial warehouse near Skid Row, which itself borders the Arts District. It nearly burnt to the ground in 2016 when 100-foot flames engulfed an adjacent building. Frequent burnouts from surrounding homeless encampments (“the justice of the streets,” he marvels) are part of frontier life, as are the rats, for which he keeps a BB gun.
Being a DIY pirate on the outskirts of the respectable art world has paid off — L.A. Art Fair, Art Basel Miami, benediction from Juxtapoz Magazine and a recent invite to Art Basel’s Scope Art Fair in Switzerland have raised the stakes. The challenge, at least until recently, Dunleavy says, was getting people to notice.
“There’s a lot of bigger fish out there. … But lately it seems like we’re one of the big players, especially in L.A. It just opens the door to better have access to artists and start to work with people previously out of our league.”
Friday’s show featured larger-than-usual works from Kristin Liu-Wong and Natasha Lillipore, and collaborative murals from Lauren YS, Steiner and Sheryo & Yok as well as local cult favorites. “Since we kinda got more famous this year, I just want to put them on in a big way,” Dunleavy says. “They’re already bigger than the gallery but still doing it, because they believe in what we’re doing.”
He sticks to a formula, mixing famous and unknown, and the lineup included artists Superchief has helped launch to fame (Bone Thrower, “plucked from obscurity,” per Dunleavy) as well as newcomers hoping to follow the same path.
Photographer Parker Day, who had several pieces in Friday’s show and is gearing up for a third solo show with the gallery, says Superchief was on her radar back when she was still developing the style behind her wildly original character portraits that would become "ICONS," her debut solo show in 2016.
“What appealed to me was the quality of the work they showed coupled with the raw energy of an underground arts movement. I saw an opportunity to link with kindred spirits and grow with them,” she says, citing Superchief's “DIY punk ethos” and the unique path it seems to be carving in the art world. “Superchief gives a great platform for artists who may not fit into the typical austere white-cube-gallery system.”
For street artist SICKID, 19, whose work can be seen throughout Eastside neighborhoods, it was a major step from street to gallery, and the promise of much more, with a solo show planned for next year.
“[Superchief is] extremely unpretentious and presents this element of playfulness with the things they do,” he says. “Most of the openings turn into fun parties, which is the complete opposite of people’s preconceived notion of what an exhibition opening is supposed to be.”
Open submissions this year resulted in hundreds of entries — “People are borderline stalking me right now,” Dunleavy laughs before the show. And while Superchief's 2014 L.A. inaugural show featured almost exclusively New York artists with a few locals thrown in, this year the ratio was inverted.
Dunleavy will tell you Superchief started as a “real deep New York thing,” and that L.A. was the “biggest thing we could imagine” — until it wasn’t. Somewhere along the way, that transformed in tandem with the L.A. art scene.
He's not the first Brooklynite to be lured by the romance of Los Angeles as a “psychedelic and cult enclave.” He says the move has broadened his tastes for psychedelic art, “because I feel people out here do a lot more drugs in the desert and the woods and get ideas for doing that kind of stuff.”
The climate also softened the Superchief aesthetic, he suggests, pointing to Bunnie Reiss’s recent solo show as “a good example of something that’s both psychedelic and feminine.”
“I mean, Superchief is really hard-edged, but I think the psychedelic pretty stuff fits really well with our general aesthetic,” he says, contrasting New York — where “our community is really into body mods and hanging themselves from hooks on the ceiling” — and L.A., where the tribe “is more into ambiguous gender-fucking fashion and makeup and stuff like that.”
While lamenting that developers have thoroughly ruined street art in L.A., Dunleavy is fascinated with the city’s gang graffiti culture. “I’m amazed by people who do grow up in that gang mentality that they just have an encyclopedia of history of all gangs programmed into their minds and are able to read a language written on walls that no one else knows what the fuck is going on,” he says. The fact that it’s frowned upon by mainstream society, he added, makes it more fertile.
“It’s totally underground, and a lot of times that’s where your artistic genius ends up happening. … So I wouldn’t be surprised if you start to see third- and fourth-generation gang kids innovating and changing the game when it comes to whatever the next fads in art will be.”
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Expect to see a lot more digital, VR and experiential are in the near future — “whether the poppy 3-D CGI stuff, or projection map sculpture and VR experiences, more installation-based experiential art is definitely getting more popular,” he says, noting L.A.’s June show will be followed with an all-digital show in July.
Dunleavy will stay until it’s “time to go and spread Superchief some more.” Currently, plans include a gallery in Asia by 2020, followed by Latin America and, ultimately, an omnipresent media platform.
“You can be tuned in to SCLA or SCNY. Something always going on. We have the case for a really cool 24-hour channel. We just work with crazy people all the time.”