"I can't wait for it to be perfect," says Shaun Caley Regen, who has just led the way down from the roof of her still-unfinished new building at 6750 Santa Monica Blvd.
For more than 20 years, Regen has run Regen Projects, a gallery that melds smarts and style in a way that feels definitively L.A. but has an international reputation, in West Hollywood's modish design district. But she has never owned any of the Almont Street buildings she's occupied. Rent was month-to-month on one building, and her staff barely fit into the offices it had. She had been looking for a building to renovate when, in 2010, she found this one, a spacious former production complex built in 1947. She purchased it in January 2011 and enlisted Michael Maltzan, the architect behind the Hammer's airy 2001 redesign. Renovations began last October.
The new gallery opens on Sept. 22 with a group show, just three miles east of Regen's former location but in what feels like an entirely different world. Its intersection, where Santa Monica meets Highland, historically has been home to post-production studios and prostitutes. It's where Hollywood glamour has been polished and packaged and where seediness festers.
"I have no idea how it's all going to work," Regen says, referring to both the gallery's exhibition space and its surroundings. "Will I need 24-hour security? Maybe."
But she says this with anticipation rather than trepidation, as if the precariousness of the location is among its greatest perks.
When Regen Projects opens, it will be one of three contemporary art galleries new to the area, and more may move in soon. These galleries aren't emerging. Regen Projects is arguably L.A.'s best, with a roster that's a satisfying amalgam of precise, postapocalyptic L.A. pop (Lari Pittman, Liz Larner), unaffected New York conceptualism (Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham) and process-obsessed younger artists (Walead Beshty, Elliott Hundley). Perry Rubenstein Gallery is there, too, and while it's new to L.A., its program is by no means young. They join Erica Redling's 5-year-old gallery, Redling Fine Art, which represents thoughtful, youngish L.A. artists like Liz Glynn, and moved in late last year.
The trend seems strange on the surface. Go a few blocks up toward the spectacle of Hollywood Boulevard and you might run into a gaunt 20-something with a powdered face and hair done like Robert Pattinson's, walking alongside a guy dressed as Spider-Man. Wait at a nearby bus stop after dark and there's a chance you'll be solicited for sex by men in passing cars, regardless of your gender.
But artists working or even passing through this city have been obsessed for so long with Hollywood's gloss, its underbelly and the sprawl of L.A. streets that there may be no better place for them to show than right in the middle of it all.
The two busiest places on the corner of Highland and Santa Monica are the Honey Spot, a marijuana dispensary, and Donut Time. In late afternoon, the Honey Spot is especially popular. Young people who seem on edge keep driving up, parking laboriously and then rushing into the dispensary.
Donut Time, called "the Tranny Donut Shop" or "Tranny Time" by those in the know, is in the same strip mall, but it's a triangular, stand-alone building just a few yards back from the intersection. On some afternoons, a woman in a long striped dress, whose arms have an unmistakably muscular, masculine contour, wanders in and out of the Donut Shop, then maybe behind the shop to talk to some guy, or over to the nearby Subway to argue with some other guy. At some point, she might walk back past Donut Time and primp while looking in its front door as if the door is a mirror. The shop apparently is much rowdier in early morning: police raids, pimps holding court in booths, dancing in the parking lot. "Think Jersey Shore meets Trainspotting in L.A., just with trannies," wrote one Yelp reviewer. As in Trainspotting, lots of boxy, utilitarian buildings make up the backdrop.
Regen Projects' building, which the recently closed company Crest Digital owned through 2010, is directly across the street from Donut Time. Its front is a few yards back from a bus stop, and its easternmost side is almost flush with a newly built Walgreens.
Through the mid-'00s, the Walgreens was a Del Taco. It was a Del Taco in the early 1990s, too, when Shaun Regen lived just up the street and when photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, then just starting out but now an artist with work in the collections of many major U.S. museums, began his "Hustlers" series.
The Del Taco sign appears in one of these photos, glowing behind a young man who's staring intently at nothing in particular. DiCorcia had just received a National Endowment for the Arts grant. The U.S. Senate had recently reprimanded the NEA for allowing "controversial" projects that didn't reflect "American values." But what could be more American than using your limited funds to stay at the Landmark Hotel, where Janis Joplin overdosed, and heading down to Santa Monica Boulevard at twilight or sunrise to hire male prostitutes to pose melancholically with the movement of the traffic in the background? Each image diCorcia took had a cinematic romance to it, as if the camera had just stopped on its way to somewhere else.
DiCorcia's not the only artist to take this area as a subject — Bruce LaBruce made his film Hustler White along this stretch of boulevard, with the help of Rick Castro and Vaginal Davis.
But, of course, none of that work ever showed right here. Instead, for decades this intersection has been one you passed by on your way to galleries, like the original batch on La Cienega, where Ferus first opened and Irving Blum gave Warhol his first solo show. It's possible you even pass by on the way to Overduin & Kite and Michael Benevento, all galleries with Sunset Boulevard spaces that are in Hollywood too, but tucked in among storefronts much more manicured than here.
Leron Gubler, president-CEO of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, suggests a practical reason for this current trend toward Hollywood's grittier part. As post-production goes digital and these big studios and storage units are no longer needed, real estate agents are eager to unload the buildings they've been saddled with. "That would ... be very attractive to galleries," Gubler says, "that they could find space that is more affordable."
There are other reasons as well. When gallerist Perry Rubenstein decided to move his gallery from New York to Los Angeles, Blum, formerly of Ferus fame and now based in New York, was among the people who suggested Rubenstein consider Hollywood proper as a location. "Do something different," Blum had said. "Don't follow the crowd."
Of late, the crowd has been moving to Culver City, a neighborhood that has become so full of galleries that people now refer to opening-heavy Saturday nights as "Culver City Art Walks."
"For us, in looking at the landscape from the perspective of New Yorkers arriving to build a new home," Rubenstein says, "we quickly determined that the majority of the artistic community — the artists themselves — live to the east."
The collectors live west, but nothing is gained by favoring one group over another.
"This [gallery] is a home to artists and a meeting place for collectors," he says.
In July 2011, Rubenstein found a film-storage building on Highland and enlisted Kulapat Yantrasast, the principal at wHY Architecture known for his work with art spaces, to spearhead renovations. Rubenstein opened almost exactly a year later, on July 26.
He didn't know Regen Projects would be moving in when he chose his location — the galleries are only three blocks apart — but, he says, "I'm thrilled. ... It's a fortunate coincidence."
But when Erica Redling wanted to move Redling Fine Art out of Chinatown, it was Shaun Regen who encouraged her to move to Hollywood. Redling's new space is "quintessential L.A.," she says, "an old prop warehouse whose front was sliced off to make a strip mall."
It has dark wood slats across its windows and it's in a mall directly adjacent to the one with Donut Time and Honey Spot, next to Holistic Apothecary & Preventive Acupuncture, another pot dispensary and a pawn shop that refuses entrance to anyone wearing sunglasses. The lot appears in a scene from The Big Lebowski, right before the underwear money drop.
"At first a strip mall seemed insane," Redling says, and she worried about being the only gallery in the immediate neighborhood for a year. "But ... it seems like almost everyone drives down Santa Monica Boulevard at one point or another during the month."
Recently, rumors have spread that Michael Kohn Gallery, which started in Santa Monica 25 years ago and then moved to West Hollywood, and Thomas Solomon, who currently shows old-school conceptualists and emerging artists in his Chinatown storefront, will be moving to the neighborhood. Neither Kohn nor Solomon confirms this, but the nonconfirmations betray a certain thrill at the prospect.
"With several notable galleries moving from west to east, there is certainly a cultural revolution under way in Hollywood," Kohn says. "It is practically the center of the city. ... It's a brilliant idea for art galleries to move [in]."
He adds, "You'll be hearing more from Michael Kohn Gallery on this."
"It's fresh for now," Solomon says. "Hollywood has the attraction of its historical name — the urban city and the aura of it."
The aura attracted Nina Garduno, the designer and owner of the Free City Super shop, which both Regen and Redling cite as a good neighbor. She moved her store and workshop to a space half a block south of Rubenstein's new gallery in 2010. "These basic, high-ceiling buildings that are between everything," she says, "lend themselves to these ... fantasies."
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She means fantasies about how to respond to and reimagine what's already there — but also just fantasies in general. The neighborhood, maybe because it's changing while still holding on to its seedy strip malls and lore, feels full of vague but palpable potential.
"You'd be remiss to be in this city and not take advantage of this," Rubenstein says of Hollywood.
When architect Maltzan renovated Regen's space, he left the original buttresses, windows and exterior wall on the west side of the building, and raised the ceiling on the east, to allow for higher walls in the gallery space and adjustable natural and track lighting. But he was careful to keep the roof level. It will be used for events and artist installations once the gallery opens, and standing on it, you feel you're in the city, not gazing out over it.
"From up there," Maltzan says, "it feels like you're at the same height as so many of the other roofs. You could almost have the fantasy that these rooftops are all a new, urban ground plane that spreads out in all directions. From up there, it's not any one individual structure that grabs you — it's the accumulation of the basin."