Shopping malls make artists squirm. The garish lighting, endless corridors, blatantly lowbrow commercialism: It all seems set up to dull the senses and make you forget about the world outside the mall's fortresslike, windowless walls.

When malls appear as the subject of artwork, usually it's to foreboding effect. Just this spring, artists Claire Cronin and Stephen Van Dyck spent a night performing dirges for malls killed by the recession. “Come mourn,” they said, tongue in cheek, in the invitation to their event.

The Pacific Design Center, the gargantuan half-mall, half–business park at the corner of Melrose and San Vicente, is an elite version of the garishly lit, world-unto-itself commercial fortress.

Architect César Pelli designed the PDC in the early 1970s, creating the boxy Blue Building section, with glass walls outside and 750,000 square feet inside. It earned the nickname Blue Whale, but for years it was “as much a beached whale,” Pelli lamented. He had initially designed a green tower and a futuristic red wedge to accompany it, but the Green Building didn't open until 1988. The Red Building's opening was set for April of this year but then delayed until July.

The complex, now 1.2 million square feet, has towered over other, more modest Melrose storefronts from the beginning; it's the fanciest, most out-of-touch mall imaginable. So when, as part of the “Design Loves Art” initiative that began in 2009, the PDC started offering empty showrooms to galleries, artists found themselves in a weird spot.

Eli Langer has an exhibition opening at Wharton + Espinosa, a gallery on the second floor of the Blue Building, on Sept. 19, the same night 14 shows and projects debut at the PDC. Like other artists, he had a strong and confused reaction the first time he saw art in the PDC, long before gallerist Annie Wharton approached him about doing a show there.

“My experience of the windowless corridors and spaces has been unpleasant disorientation of my senses,” he wrote last week, emailing from the airport in his hometown of Toronto before flying back to L.A., adding that he gets the urge to take “a mad dash down the [PDC's] moving stairs through the lobby where relief begins, to outdoors.”

Now that he knew his own work would be in the space, he wrote, “[I] have had some moments of horror, but I am excited by exasperating differences.”

In other words, something that repels you that much is worth exploring.

Langer's show at Wharton + Espinosa will be the first since Wharton partnered with artist-curator John Espinosa and the first in the white-walled gallery space the two spent the summer constructing, mostly on their own, with occasional volunteer labor by family members, out of the trappings of the luxury showroom Wharton has occupied since 2010, when she moved into the PDC.

Wharton, who previously co-owned gallery The Company in Chinatown, rented a PDC space right at the top of the escalators; it used to be home to an Australian furniture-design company. She's not sure who installed the wall of mirrors and the 122-by-4-foot Corian plinth that stretched all the way down the far wall.

“It was fraught with architectural idiosyncrasies and logistical challenges,” she says of the space.

Only about 8 feet of wall got natural light, and there was little room for storage.

For the first year and a half, Wharton embraced the limitations, which she found quirkily beautiful and antithetical to the standard, white-cube gallery — in a good way. “Luckily the artists I worked with were … creative enough to sensitively — or maybe 'subversively' is a better word — address the daunting space,” she says.

Artist Monica Nouwens hung photographs on top of the mirrors. Davida Nemeroff printed photos as stickers that adhered to mirrors. Dennis Hoekstra and Noah Olmsted turned the space into a sort of showroom/shipping dock wasteland, shutting out all natural light, setting up design debris in the darkness and playing a self-help tape on a loop.

“The building's meant to be seen from the outside,” Olmsted said at the time.

“I think most of the artists who've shown in my gallery made great strides to simultaneously honor the integrity of the space and make their works look really good,” Wharton says.

But this spring, when John Espinosa, who met Wharton in the late '90s, when they were art students in Miami, proposed they partner, it seemed like it was time to stop subverting, or sometimes deferring to, the PDC. They wanted more freedom.

“Some artists, quite frankly, have trouble with mirrors and plinths,” Wharton says.

The renovated gallery has 60 feet of naturally lit white walls and a rectangular back exhibition space with track lighting set up to accommodate wall-hanging and floor work. You'll find pieces of Corian repurposed as the reception desk, as shelving in the supply room or as a bench in Wharton's office.

Regulation and codewise, the construction has been fairly painless. Wharton has renovated two of her own homes, and neither job went as smoothly as this one — probably because Helen Varola, who runs the Design Loves Art program, and Charles Cohen, owner of the complex, want contemporary art in the PDC.

Cohen, who owns three other design centers, including the D&D Building in New York, acquired the PDC in 2000. By 2001, he had donated a small courtyard building to MOCA and had decided to help the museum fund at least four exhibitions in that space annually. MOCA's presence would, he said then, “beautifully complement the more commerce-oriented flavor of PDC.”

He renewed his contract with MOCA in 2006, but in 2009, he tapped his own art consultant, Varola, to head up an initiative that would bring art into the PDC itself.

“We are taking far greater risks at the PDC comparatively with MOCA because the program operates in a real-world commercial context,” Varola says.

That first year of Design Loves Art, the PDC hosted the Art Los Angeles Contemporary fair and then began leasing second-floor Blue Building spaces to galleries.

This spring, it launched the invitational Material Matters, where designers, artists or architects install work in the PDC's thoroughfares and nooks. It requires confronting, not just coexisting with, the PDC's austerity.

“It's a tough space to compete with,” says architect Gail Peter Borden, who curated this first installment of Material Matters, inviting five other architects to place work on the PDC's woklike planters. His delicate “Intensity Frames,” installed in the fifth-floor thoroughfares, don't show up in cellphone pictures — you have to be present to experience them, and then you have to get close.

“It's like city streets, only without the people,” architect Hadrian Predock says of the PDC. He and his partner, John Frane, made the cloudlike armatures that rest on planters underneath the first-floor escalators, spinning colored resin around bulbous balloons, then letting it dry into airy, round shapes.

Victor Jones, of the firm Fievre Jones, placed MDF discs (fiberboard engineered to be denser than plywood) on planters behind a stairway that leads to a balcony overlooking the fifth floor. He put pink felt shapes on one of the discs, a pile of pamphlets with coded shapes atop another, and cut a hole and placed an abstract sculpture on a third.

“We were bored with the idea that if it's not legible, it's not valuable,” Jones says of his decision to do something abstract and independent of the environment (he also points out that he didn't know where his work would be until the last minute). “The PDC and the piece have no real rapport.”

How do you establish a rapport with the PDC? Langer won't know exactly what his Wharton + Espinosa show will look like until he's spent time working in the newly renovated space, but he does know the show has to do with monsters.

“The Pacific Design Center might not be a monster but monstrous,” he says via email. “If it were a person, it might be body-dysmorphic, uncomfortable in its shape and size. … It feels self-consciously awkward.

“This is good,” he adds.

A thing that's awkward and distorted needs sensitivity and sympathy, which is exactly what the PDC needs at this point.

Now that Wharton and Espinosa have invested in renovations and made their space more malleable, they're planning to stay put for the foreseeable future. “Galleries are usually created in ungentrified areas that ultimately become chic,” Wharton says, “and it's interesting to me to be a part of something … so outside of the norm.”

Says Espinosa, “It's a frontier, just like any other frontier.”

LA Weekly