Going to Corey Helford Gallery felt like a hunt for a rave. The signs of downtown nightlife — a bustle of people hopping from crowded restaurants to hip bars — faded a few blocks before the right turn onto Anderson Street. The city lights grew distant and wall art sparse on a street marked by warehouses and dilapidated fences. The scene gave me deja vu, but this time I wasn't listening for bass rattling the windows of an anonymous building to signify that I had reached my destination. On Friday night, the party marker was a mural. Specifically, it was a Ron English elephant with monarch butterfly skin created for the artist's show "NeoNature: We Are the New They" at CHG's new downtown space.
Launched in 2006, Corey Helford had long been at the center of the Culver City art world, inhabiting spots along the Washington Boulevard art gallery crawl. One might assume that this move places it in the midst of L.A.'s downtown renaissance, but that's not yet the case. Its neighbor isn't a gastropub but rather a lot full of beer trucks. Galleries are moving onto Anderson Street, as Catherine Wagley pointed out in a recent L.A. Weekly article, but it hasn't achieved the same saturation that the neighboring Arts District has. However, if you've been to a Corey Helford show, you'll understand why such a move makes sense.
Owned by Jan Corey Helford and husband Bruce Helford, the gallery has been an art-star magnet, bringing in the likes of Shag, D*Face, Natalia Fabia and many more. It's the kind of gallery that attracts lines at the entrance; even when the couple operated two spaces on the same block, openings were often packed. Space was a major factor in the decision to relocate.
"Jan and I thought about how we could take this to the next level, and we agreed that we really needed a bigger space," Bruce Helford says. They spent a few years looking for the gallery's new home and finally settled on the Anderson Street building. It's massive and divided into three separate galleries. Helford estimates that the main gallery is about 5,000 square feet, with side galleries that measure close to 2,000 and 3,000 square feet.
For the artists, that's a lot of space. "It's a little intimidating to try to fill that kind of space," Ron English said by phone prior to the opening. His show "NeoNature" hangs in the main gallery, something he describes as closer in size to a museum exhibition than a typical gallery collection. In English's case, it was a perfect fit. He said that he wanted a "big, epic show," and that was certainly accomplished.
Helford describes the new space as "labyrinthian," which is apt. Winding hallways and sharp turns lead into galleries within galleries. On Friday night, the hallway leading into English's show was candlelit (a group exhibition, "Between Worlds," opened in a side space the following night), heightening the anticipation leading to the bright main gallery. It features an expansive collection of his work. Included in the show were hefty sculptures of cereal mascots Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam; large paintings of creatures like the Monarch Elephant, which English describes as a "mashup of animals"; and paintings of highly detailed scenes. In a third gallery, there were two installations that were part of English's show. One featured a Bigfoot family in a vacation setting. The other featured two bronze deer painted in brightly colored camouflage. Both made for interesting backgrounds for party photos. There's also room for the crowd to do more than look at paintings. Friday night's event included a brief performance from Michelle Shocked.
English, like many other artists who show at Corey Helford, got his start as a street artist, which makes this neighborhood a good fit. He says he only had to walk to a nearby studio when he needed spray paint. "It's an incredible scene down there."
Helford says that street art wasn't a problem when the gallery was in Culver City — in fact, D*Face painted a mural there in connection with a Corey Helford show — but wall space was lacking. Downtown's street-art scene is "a bonus," he says. "Downtown, there's just an endless amount of wall space. It's wonderful to have that going on because it creates an environment that people really enjoy."
There's an underground vibe that runs through L.A.'s industrial neighborhoods, which seems to jibe well with the Corey Helford aesthetic. It's a high-end gallery — pieces in English's show range from $1,500 to $100,000 — but the artists it represents frequently have ties to various subcultures, be it English and street art or Shag and tiki bars. "It's very populist," Helford says, noting that many of the artists they work with are better known to the masses than blue chip artists. He adds that the gallery has a social element that they can better foster in the bigger space as well. "We encourage people to bring their families," he says.
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CHG may have moved to Anderson Street because it needed more room, but it's a good branding move, too. Judging from the crowds both at Friday's press opening and Saturday's public opening, the art-party crowd seems to agree.
"NeoNature: We Are the New They," Corey Helford Gallery, 571 S. Anderson St., downtown; through Jan. 9. (310) 287-2340, coreyhelfordgallery.com.