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World of Wonder Gallery, Where Camp Meets Vamp

Say sleaze: James St. James and robot pal at WOW’s Hollyween. (PHOTO BY THAIRIN SMOTHERS)

Remember when Hollywood was about freaks and hookers and druggies and dreamers? Hot messes like Britney and Paris notwithstanding, the Tinseltown has become hopelessly homogenized in the past few years. But despite the glossy façade of velvet-roped hot spots, chain restaurants and shiny cineplexes along the boulevard (depicted so dubiously as what L.A. is really like on drivel like The Hills), Hollywood’s underbelly not only still exists, it’s fueling a zany art scene and gallery that both celebrates and skewers the industry town’s mystique.

Double WOW: Curator Lenora Claire in the flesh and on canvas at “Merry Titmas.” (Photo by Mark Mauer. Click here for more from the event)

Populating this wacky new wonderland? Pop-culture vultures, drag queens, club kids, indie thespians like Giovanni Ribisi and Vincent Gallo, purveyors of TV and film, and, yes, serious art collectors, who converge monthly to experience the seduction of “Golden Gals Gone Wild” (imagine Joe Francis with a granny fetish and you get the idea), “Hollyween” (Mean Girls actor Daniel Franzese’s meshing of the famous and the fiendish) and “Just Britney” (with works depicting nearly every Spears look and tabloid reference imaginable, nobody left this one saying “Gimme More”).

The creative carousing goes off on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Cherokee, the former site of a sex shop and ground zero for World of Wonder production company, makers of oddball films like The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Party Monster, not to mention guilty-pleasure reality TV shows Tori & Dean: Inn Love and London Ink. The acronym for the company — whose offices are right upstairs from the World of Wonder Storefront Gallery — ain’t WOW for nothin’, and really, who else would have the wherewithal to inspire and attract such a carnival of camp and vamp?

{mosimage}A little background here. Wonders’ founders Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato met at NYU film school, and first gained notoriety as Pop Tarts, a hot dance duo in the Big Apple club scene during the mid-’80s. Around the same time, they came up with Manhattan Cable, a clever compilation of clips from New York’s public-access television shows. It became a huge hit in the U.K., and soon the pair were focusing their attention behind the camera, helping to launch the career of another dance diva, statuesque pal RuPaul, producing her music videos and high-rated VH1 TV show. The rest is (size-13) high-heeled history.

“The gallery and the company definitely have the same sensibility. Randy and Fenton have always been about discovering new talent, and I really get to do that here,” says co-curator Thairin Smothers, also a consulting producer for gossip-blogger Perez Hilton’s VH1 program, What Perez Sez. “We’ve been establishing real relationships with the artists, and the space allows us to execute any idea they — or we — can come up with.”

One dynamic art denizen who’s definitely developed a relationship with WOW is crimson-tressed bombshell Lenora Claire. Claire is known for her depraved “Apocolipstick” events, and her show gave the gallery its first taste of real media frenzy, both for its subject matter and its outrageous opening-night bash.

“‘Golden Gals’ literally stopped traffic outside,” remembers Claire (also curator of December’s boobalicous holiday ho-down, “Merry Titmas”). “That storefront window is so great. Most galleries wouldn’t be able to afford such a visible space like that. We had go-go dancers with big papier-mâché heads that looked like Bea Arthur and Betty White dancing in them.”

The interactive element is what really sets WOW’s gallery apart. Performance art is one thing, but the opening displays are truly in your face. “We had this electric razor set up at the Britney show so you could shave your head just like her,” Smothers says. “Nobody was doing it, so I let Perez and Jeffree Starr shave mine, and then people were lining up.”

Photog Austin Young’s “Celebritism” show saw skinny femme-boys and buff queens in Marilyn Monroe drag prancing and posing behind the glass, which sounds festive, but was actually quite imposing. Perhaps to signify the dark side of stardom, they were covered in a black substance that made ’em look like monsters. Bewildered passersby (a mix of tourists and skimpily dressed clubgoers) gathered on the sparkly sidewalks to stare at the spectacle, and some even ventured inside to join the fabulous fête and partake in a cocktail. Entertainment, including a pink-haired, cross-dressing opera singer, amped up the already wild atmosphere, which was diverting even without the vibrantly lit nudes (one a not-quite-complete female-to-male tranny) and ornately framed headshots of local luminaries. It was avant-garde gathering meets gaudy after-dark attraction, with nary a drop of pretentious artspeak heard all night.

{mosimage}And lest you think WOW cares more about parties than getting artists paid, think again. Smothers, whose background documenting the NYC club-kid scene informs his “fancy to freaky” visual aesthetic, says that though it’s tough to predict what will sell, he and co-curator Steven Corfe try to choose pieces that are as accessible as they are audacious. Prices range from $50 for a mini-portrait from local fave Plastic God to $5,000 for Jamie Boling’s infamous “Snake Charmer” piece, depicting Spears’ much-seen, out-of-the-car crotch-shot. Both sold for their asking price.

Claire’s “Golden” stuff sold well too, with pieces going not only to locals lovin’ the kitsch factor, but to out-of-towners and straight older women who identified with the “celebration of seasoned sexuality.” After all, why bring a piece of crap home from a souvenir shop when you can have a handcrafted memento that explores the entertainment industry, what people know best about L.A., by an L.A. artist? It’s buying a piece of the dream.

“Hollywood Boulevard in itself has a kind of emptiness,” Bailey says. “People come here and they always seem disappointed because nothing is sort of really real here. This isn’t Hollywood Glamour 101, but it is what is truly Hollywood. I mean, everybody’s on Brit watch, and everybody’s got an opinion about her and what she’s doing and what she should be doing. We’re a part of that conversation.”

WOW’s productions, in fact, often start the conversation, and not just on celluloid. Its Web site boasts a biting blog called the WOW Report, edited by former Details scene king Stephen Saban (with frequent contributions from Party Monster author James St. James), a broadband Web destination showcasing videos and entire channels created by viewers, plus WOW’s own edgy programming (including the popular phone-in show Ring My Bell, during which viewers can call and ask about any subject they like).

{mosimage}“We’ve spent about a year developing the software program for WOW TV,” says Barbato. “There’s probably over a thousand channels that different people have created for it. It’s really designed more for artists and people who have stuff that might get booted off YouTube.”

The gallery space has definitely had its share of WOW TV time, and there are plans for a lot more. Barbato says they’re in the process of wiring the entire gallery so that viewers from around the country can be part of the action.

The multimedia menagerie should be in full effect for the next art show, “Warhol Dead at 21,” which marks the 21st anniversary of the pop artist’s death with works inspired by him and a silver-covered Factory makeover for the space.

Yes, Warholian environs have been done before, but exploring the eccentric icon’s obsession with fame and sex should be second nature for the company whose current and past projects include Pete’s PA (documenting former Dead or Alive singer/plastic-surgery junkie Pete Burns’ search for an assistant), One Punk Under God (about Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker’s punk-preacher son) and Sex Change Hospital (no explanation necessary).

“The gallery is part of this larger thing for us,” says Barbato.

“It’s an ongoing experiment. We’re definitely interested in stuff that is provocative and we’ll always identify with those who seem to be misinterpreted or misjudged by the mainstream. It’s a place to bring them all together — and those who slip through the cracks.”

With cracks in the most famous sidewalk in the world just outside the door, the irony should continue to be just as prevalent as the provocateurs. If WOW has its way, the Walk of Fame might never be tame again.

“Night of a Thousand Warhols” opening reception for “Warhol Dead at 21” show, Fri., Jan. 11, 8 p.m.-mid. Silver fright wigs provided. Show on display through Feb. 21. World of Wonder Storefront Gallery, 6650 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd., (323) 603-6300, www.worldofwonder.net or wow-storefront-gallery.wowtv.tv.

More photos from WOW's "Hollyween" exhibit here.


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