On a Saturday night last month, Century Guild launched a solo show from Doc Hammer, co-writer of the Adult Swim animated series The Venture Brothers. The paintings, part of the artist's “Saints” series, have essentially nothing in common with the sci-fi/adventure cartoon. These were oil portraits of solemn-faced women with heads surrounded by halos.
They weren't new works; Hammer's fans have likely seen the images floating around Tumblr or DeviantArt over the years. In person, though, a good long stare could provide a completely different experience. Up close, in the gallery, you can see the precision of the brush strokes, the way flecks of light reflected off the paint. The absolute reverence towards both the subjects and the tradition of portraiture is apparent.
That difference between the online and IRL versions of art is, in part, why this small Culver City gallery exists. “I think that so much of what happens today is that we experience art through jpegs, compressed images on the Internet,” says Century Guild owner Thomas Negovan. “Things like paintings have layers of luminosity that don't translate in that way.”
But, it's more than just the intricacies of a painting that are striking here. The “Saints” hang alongside works by Gustav Klimt and paintings from a handful of contemporary artists. Inside display cases are vintage posters. Vases and other sculptural pieces from the art nouveau era are placed carefully on tables. One of Hammer's paintings stands before the “art nouveau room,” an installation from turn-of-the-century Belgium. It's a piece of furniture so large and so rare that Negovan only knows of a few others in existence, all in museums.
At Century Guild, Negovan isn't just selling art, or even simply displaying it. He's creating the context for it, showing the intersection between fine art, graphic design, home furnishings and film.
Negovan can talk at length about Clément Massier, a ceramist whose iridescent pieces were, he says, “the closest thing we have legitimately to alchemy.” He'll discuss the Weimar Republic and how a brief lull in film censorship led to the silent flick Opium. “I've seen the movie and it's kind of just naked women,” he says.
Still there's a massive poster on the wall, complete with naked ladies emerging from a cloud of smoke. The poster is extremely rare; most were destroyed when the Nazi regime came to power. He'll draw comparisons to artists past and present. Horror master Clive Barker is “like a William Blake or Jean Cocteau,” says Negovan. Century Guild recently released a high-quality, retrospective book of Barker's visual art, but Negovan isn't working a sales angle. His sense of curiosity and eagerness to share that knowledge shows. This is a guy who once figured out how to record a song with Thomas Edison phonograph and then gave a Tedx talk about it.
Originally from Chicago, Negovan was working in an art gallery when he began studying lithography. That led to an interest in symbolist paintings. He wanted to start a collection, but couldn't find any dealers who specialized in the movement. Negovan started digging for information. “It was all very Indiana Jones,” he says of the quest.
He made friends with the handful of experts he could find, all of whom were at least 30 years his senior. Long-distance mentors sent books and vintage exhibition catalogs, things he says he could never find otherwise. Negovan became something of an expert himself and did consulting work. Meanwhile, he pieced together his own collection. It was one $15 find, a lithograph for a pre-Raphaelite exhibition back in 1897, that launched Century Guild. He sold it for $150 and simply kept going from there. The business started as a private gallery in 1999. Eventually, it became a public establishment in Chicago. Two years ago, Negovan brought Century Guild to Los Angeles, where he saw a healthy clientele with a genuine interest in the art he champions.
Negovan shows his gratitude for those who guided his journey by educating others. For the past decade or so, he's been hauling the Century Guild collection down to San Diego Comic-Con. While a few of their contemporary artists — aside from Hammer and Barker, the gallery features work from former Sandman cover artist Dave McKean — have immediate name recognition on the show floor, it's often lesser-known, turn-of-the-20th-century artists who pique the curiosity of onlookers. It's the kind of reaction that Negovan says they don't really get at fine art fairs. He mentions a teenage boy who flipped for the art nouveau and symbolist pieces in the booth. Years later, the guy came back and told Negovan that checking out their conversation at the booth prompted him to go to art school.
Book publishing is another part of the gallery's educational component. In addition to the Clive Barker book, Century Guild has published tomes from David Mack and Gail Potocki. With Kickstarter, publishing high-end books has become easier, Negovan says, since they can essentially offer pre-orders to cover the cost of manufacturing them.
“It's not about the commerce,” says Negovan. “It's about the artist's big picture.” That's an attitude that permeates the gallery, from their intimate, salon-like openings to their presence at a massive, frequently youth-oriented pop culture convention. For Century Guild, the focus is on education. Commerce is just a small part of that.
Editor's note: The headline on this story was changed after publication.
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