Sitting on the outdoor patio of a popular coffee spot in Los Feliz, Danny Fuentes and I are trying to revive ourselves after our party-packed weekends. We're sucking down massive iced caffeine drinks (his has three espresso shots) through purple straws and hiding behind dark shades, trying to get un-hungover.
Like most of the people soaking up sunshine and sweetener around us, we are looking at a laptop. But instead of screenplays or Facebook, our screen depicts decidedly more deviant fare. We are looking at punk rock–style gay porn pics: gorgeous trans model crotch shots, blood-covered fellatio scenes, an amputee with an erection. I am suddenly extremely awake.
Fuentes, owner and curator of art gallery Lethal Amounts, is excitedly putting the finishing touches on what might be his most outrageous, in-your-face art show ever. "Faggotry" is a retrospective chronicling the work of infamous art-porn provocateur Bruce LaBruce, a fave of everyone from Terry Richardson to John Waters. The show, covering his 25-year film and photography career, is set to open July 15.
The exhibit is another score for the gallery, which in three short years has showcased the work of an astounding assortment of punk and art icons: Al Jourgensen, Lydia Lunch, Ed Colver, Nick Zinner and many more. Since opening Lethal Amounts with an exhibit celebrating eccentric L.A. billboard babe Angelyne — and hosting the club nights Pure Trash and Sado Maso Disco at the Monty Bar next door — Fuentes has become the go-to man for freaky, underground, outsider and music-driven events and exhibits.
Don't call Lethal Amounts a "punk gallery," though. "We got labeled that for obvious reasons, but I never want to embrace that title," says Fuentes, who's worn a mohawk on and off since he was a teen (he's 33 now). "The ethos is definitely there, but I don't want to get pigeonholed. I try to make sure we're not repeating stuff that's already been done. I don't want it to be automatically the place where you go to see those same pictures of Henry Rollins and The Germs. That's redundant."
Long before opening his own gallery, Fuentes consumed anything and everything punk, goth and fetish in L.A., from clubs like Kontrol Faktory, Helter Skelter and Cherry, to art shows and underground bashes. He was 11 years old when he went to his first concert (Oingo Boingo) and says he was "hooked for life."
Growing up in Glassell Park, as a baby punk who was also Latino and gay (though not exactly out at the time), he saw the scene as an outlet, a hub for audacious expression and visceral release, free from judgment or boundaries. "Music and specifically punk rock changed my view on the world," he says. "I found what felt like my religion and a whole new universe of cool and weird had opened up."
A pivotal professional gig came early, when he became a shop clerk at "my favorite store growing up, Retail Slut on Melrose, which was by far the coolest job I ever had."
Through his Retail Slut connections, he got a job as an assistant tour manager for Glenn Danzig, and later worked as Morrissey's personal bodyguard. He's maintained tight relationships with those enigmatic rock stars, and others in their orbit, to this day. "It still blows my mind sometimes," he says, smiling and sipping his coffee. "Like the day Siouxsie Sioux called me to talk about a potential project, and then my other line clicked and it's Glenn. Then Daniel Ash texted me."
Along the way, Fuentes created his own T-shirt line with a clever logo, a play on the L.A. Dodgers insignia using safety pins. He was shocked no one had come up with it.
"I was playing with some safety pins one day and there it was," he says. He got the image tattooed on his neck and immediately began receiving compliments. "I realized I had stumbled across a design that spoke to a lot of people. I would be waiting to cross the street and an old lady would compliment it, then on the other side of the crosswalk, a cholo would compliment it, then a punk dude. ... I was convinced real quick I was onto something. "
Response from retailers, however, was less effusive. "I didn't have much luck getting my line into shops," he recalls. "The response was usually something like, 'It's super cool but unless it's a popular brand, we can't carry it.' So I said fuck it and decided to open up a store of my own."
Because Lethal Amounts was off the beaten path, across the 110 freeway from downtown L.A., its art shows initially were designed to bring attention to the store. But after the wild success of the Angelyne show, and lines down the block for Colver's exhibit and Jourgensen's meet-and-greet featuring rare artifacts from his early career, Fuentes' knack for curating cool exhibits — and, not incidentally, throwing great opening parties — quickly generated word-of-mouth with scenesters, clubbers and art tarts.
Shows and events featuring Cramps memorabilia, the work of Christian Death's Rozz Williams and, more recently, L.A. punk princess Pleasant Gehman and White Zombie bassist Sean Yseult, solidified Lethal's status as a hub for underground pioneers and iconoclastic rock stars. Fuentes often incorporates live music, readings and performance art into his openings. The parties spill over to the Monty, so it was a natural progression for Fuentes to start hosting events there, too.
He began with Pure Trash, a "glitter, glam-rock and early punk"–themed DJ night on Fridays. "The idea was just asking friends in bands and people we have worked with in the past to come play their favorite music," he explains. "Then it sorta became the concept of the night: 'Come watch an icon spin their favorite music or what inspired them to make music.'"
Fuentes says most of his guests had never DJed before, which is part of what makes it all so special. Members of Blondie, Devo, Skinny Puppy, The Cure and Bauhaus have spun at Pure Trash, along with Danzig, Zinner, Lunch, Jello Biafra and Daniel Miller of Mute Records. (Disclosure: I DJed there not too long ago.)
Fuentes has added a second night, Sado Maso Disco, highlighting dark synth dance tunes. He's also hosted a few shows at the Teragram Ballroom. The addition of the Teragram last year helped make Lethal's block of West Seventh Street a destination, bringing better parking options and foot traffic to the neighborhood, to which Fuentes obviously feels a lot of loyalty.
"We've been offered numerous nights at other bars and clubs around town, but our home is here," he says "And the Monty is classy and trashy, just like we like it."
Speaking of trashy, my attention is focused back on the computer screen as Fuentes sips the last of his coffee and flips through more scandalous images for the upcoming LaBruce show: Asia Argento pregnant in a bathtub, performance artist Vaginal Davis sucking on toes, Kembra Pfahler's infamous "wall of vaginas." Both queer culture and punk culture thrive on grabbing attention and shocking the viewer, but that's not quite the point. It's more about not becoming clichéd as an artist, or desensitized as a viewer. Fuentes avoids these pitfalls because, unlike many art curators, he's a product of both cultures. Under his watch, Lethal Amounts will be never be redundant.
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"My only intentions have been to give the people I admire the respect they deserve. There was never really a goal to make some gallery that is competing to get the next big thing," he says. "I honestly don't care much about the bourgeoisie art world. It's fucking boring and phony and oftentimes temporary. I just want to do cool stuff for cool people."
Los Angeles native Lina Lecaro has been covering L.A. nightlife since she started as a teen intern at L.A. Weekly (fake ID in tow) nearly two decades ago. She went on to write her own column, "Nightranger," for the print edition of the Weekly for six years. Read her "Lina in L.A." interviews for the latest nightlife news, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
More from Lina Lecaro:
Goths, Galleries and Gentrification: The Year in L.A. Nightlife
Everyone From L7 to Nirvana (Yes, That Nirvana) Played '90s DIY Venue Jabberjaw
A Q&A With Gun N' Roses' Duff McKagan