Kimmy McCann has the different phases of her life packed in cardboard boxes labeled “Art Dealer,” “Designer,” “Fashionista,” “Mom,” “Illness,” “Recovery.” It’s one of many inherited traits (her own mother keeps similar boxes marked “Needlepoint” and “Ceramics”), alongside her argumentative activism (from the time she was 5, McCann’s father was assigning her topics for nightly political debate), power-hostess verve (“Betsy Johnson meets Martha Stewart,” says one of her artists) and innate ability to pop up wherever things are happening, or about to. But it’s her talent for creative storage that best explains those weird-looking shelves in her new gallery.
While visiting Joe Amrhein’s Pierogi 2000 in Brooklyn two years ago, McCann was inspired to open Zone 9: Art, the first L.A. gallery where artwork is presented not just on the walls but in architectural flat-file drawers. “There were about 15 drawers at Pierogi that fit about 700 artists,” she recalls. “Not prints but real artwork. It was so accessible, you could have contact with it. It was a mind-blowing thing. I thought that people in L.A. have to know this experience.”
Justin Wood, Neuro.Case (2002)
The beauty of the flat-file gallery is that work by the artist showing on the walls can be held on to indefinitely in the files. (When’s the last time you stayed three hours at an art gallery? It happens here.) It’s also an atmosphere that seems tailor-made for the serious (and seriously heeled) art collector. The art itself is relatively inexpensive, since it comes unframed and unstretched from emerging talent; the typical price runs about $250. For McCann, a certain integrity is maintained by the white gloves and tissue paper she provides for handling the work. Indeed, the ritual of the gloves and the portfolios and the pulling out of drawers becomes part of the aesthetic experience. But she tries not to ritualize things too much. “You know how Roman Catholics used to say Mass in Latin so the masses couldn’t understand, and everybody was totally amazed by how great it all was?” she says. “I think a lot of art galleries are giving Mass in Latin — and I’m trying to make it as simple as possible.”
Having been part of the local underground scene for years — promoting it, participating in it, living it, watching it evolve — the 40-year-old McCann has had little problem acquiring a formidable stable of such emerging artists as Max Miceli, Coleen Sterritt, Marischa Slusarski, P-Jay Fidler and JC Jaress. McCann calls their work “adult/child irreverence,” which she sees as the unifying aesthetic for the downtown art scene. “As a kid, saying things like ‘poo’ and ‘fart’ was really funny. Down here, you have these post–Gen X kids who are sort of recapping on all their experiences as children: people putting vaginas or penises in their artwork, or putting women with unrealistic proportions. There’s a lot of fart jokes in them. In fact, California art is the ultimate fart joke.”
Yet, put on the white gloves and pull out the drawers at Zone 9: Art and you encounter something subtler, stranger, more childlike than childish: Davis and Davis’ tungsten Polaroids of dewy-eyed figurines in lurid hyper-Disneyfied colors; Tara McPherson’s crisp, subversive storybook paintings; Adam James’ watercolor-and-crayon doodles of umbilical cords disguised as roots, or circular faces resembling swollen maternal bellies. This month’s featured artist, Justin Wood, uses “broken materials”: computer-perfect images self-consciously painted, scratched, abraded, degraded by the artist as if in an infantile temper tantrum.
McCann seems almost giddily proud of her “irreverents,” perhaps because she was raised in oh-so-nice Westlake Village. A single mother at 23, she woke up one night and decided she wanted to be an artist. She hocked her wedding band from her former marriage to mount her first show in 1988, a memorable penis-and-vagina fest with the windy title of “Observations of the Self Through Other Selfs in Conflict With Their Own Identities.” The attending Santa Barbara patrons were not amused. (“I can’t believe you would expose this trash to innocent minds,” went her favorite guest-book entry. “My children are with me, and I am deeply offended.”) In the early ’90s, she built a business in Santa Barbara doing commissioned art and design work for private homes (like astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s) — most of the time from her hospital room–slash–design studio at UCLA Medical Center. McCann quietly declines to reveal the nature of her illness — although she does mention Demerol shots in her hip, numerous blood transfusions, being so full of steroids that she could barely waddle across the floor, her miraculous three-year remission and the fact that it is incurable.
All the same, she had a medication-assisted epiphany in her hospital room. “I was really high and Martha Stewart came on the TV,” she recalls. “All of a sudden I thought, ‘I worship this woman.’” So began McCann’s evolution as party-planner extraordinaire — less Martha Stewart than Clarissa Dalloway with tattoos and a tremendous, sparklingly girlish laugh that unwinds out of her, gaining pitch and volume, and guaranteed to turn heads at 20 paces. She has a penchant for mounting wild, sprawling multimedia rooftop galas to kick off her exhibits, and ambitious installations that blend into the surrounding cityscape like brief, organic worlds.
Arguably her boldest venture was the July 4, 2001, “America the Beautiful: A Drive-by,” a group public-art exhibit mounted on Los Angeles Street between Third and Fourth — inspired by a man she met who designed complex cardboard-box “condos” for his homeless neighbors. McCann received a lot of grumbling e-mails — such as “This show is an attempt for the art community to use the homeless as a way to look at their art” — most of them from the artists she solicited. The homeless, for their part, were enthusiastic, says McCann, and she helped to sell some of their art to the slumming Westsiders. A few even made off with the displayed cardboard-box art, an act that McCann took as a compliment.
McCann sees herself more as a “producer” than a “gallery owner.” She’ll be mounting two shows this August: “[sub]Urban [sub]Version” at the new Little Tokyo Lofts and “One Step Closer to Plastic” at West Hollywood’s Gallery 825 — both shows are part of a series she’s dubbed “The Underground Gets Above Ground.” Yet it’s clear that McCann’s heart really is in her flat files, the stable cornerstone of her admittedly fly-by-night art “happenings.” And, typical of the current downtown climate of obsessive de-velopment and its encroachment on the artists’ district, McCann’s fledgling gallery space — located in the old Crocker Bank building on Spring Street, its interior based on Alfred Stieglitz’s famed 291 Gallery — has already found itself in a fight to keep its four walls. (Similarly, three top downtown galleries in the L.A. Times building on ”Chicken Row,” including Fototeka and Delerium Tremens, have bugged out because of landlord problems and poor returns.) McCann’s tiny gallery and the building’s other artist tenants were told to vacate because the influx of new residents couldn’t keep up with the safety codes. Or the building is being sold, depending on whom you ask.
“By now most of the artists are gone, although there are a few holdouts,” she laments. “The building has an empty feel to it right now. The life that was there due to the artists really has been extinguished.” Undaunted, McCann sneaked back into the Spring Street space for last month’s Tara McPherson show and this month’s Justin Wood installation. “I’m letting the landlord make the first move,” she says. “I think it’s a positive thing. It’s like: Don’t screw with the artists, because we’re not so passive or powerless. I think that’s what people count on.”
Chances are, McCann will merely move her flat files one block over to Main, but — lest there be any doubt about her ability to morph Zone 9 onto any wall, surface or space required — she’s already talking of taking the flat files on the road. “I grew up in the suburbs,” she says, erupting in laughter. “We had bookmobiles!”
JUSTIN WOOD: Broken Materials | ZONE 9: ART, 453 S. Spring St., Third Floor, downtown, (213) 622-2410 July 5–30 | Reception on Saturday, July 26, 8–11 p.m.