Considering the artsy reputation of the so-called Eastside — that is, the east side of white Los Angeles culture: Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Echo Park — it is an area with surprisingly few art galleries. This is not to say that an artsy climate should necessarily yield a healthy gallery scene. There are significant differences between the properties of artsiness and the properties of art: Artsiness is generally associated with fashion, attitude and commerce, while art is associated with, well, fashion, attitude and commerce of a different sort. Artsiness is certainly not bound to produce good art — or any art at all — and is sometimes better off not trying.
Many of the galleries currently found in Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Echo Park, however, have struck an impressive balance between the two possibilities, fusing the vitality of the neighborhood artsiness with the intelligence of good art. Unlike many Westside spaces, these galleries are embedded in — one could even say crammed into — the social, commercial and residential structures of their communities; they exist beside barbershops, thrift stores, restaurants, clothing stores and markets. They embody an enthusiasm for the community that is lacking in more isolated enclaves like Bergamot Station and the 6150 Wilshire complex — an enthusiasm that gives the work in the galleries a solid ground to stand on and a friendly context in which to engage. The work itself varies considerably in origin, style and quality, but the variety — or, more specifically, the freedom for variety — is a refreshing antidote to the often stale obligations of respectability in many Westside galleries.
La Luz de Jesus, the most established as well as the most iconoclastic of these Eastside spaces, currently features the paintings of Shag, a La Luz favorite and one of its many success stories. Shag‘s electric-hued paintings tell stories from a coolly lascivious underworld in which tuxedoed devils smoke cigars with bikini-clad call girls and seasoned vamps lurk in the shadows of tiki bars. The style of the paintings is one that Shag has by now perfected: flat, cartoonish imagery with sharp lines, calculated negative spaces and electro-lounge color — browns, greens, oranges, purples and reds that are vivid yet seem never to have seen the light of day. The paintings are suffused with the extreme but nonspecific sort of nostalgia that characterizes much of Los Feliz culture: a vague longing for lounge music, tiki paraphernalia, James Bond films, 1950s illustration and The Jetsons cartoons. If you don’t go in for this sort of thing, the work won‘t do much for you. It’s not particularly complicated or ironic; there‘s very little happening beneath its stylish surfaces. But if you take the nostalgia at face value, the paintings are great fun. The stories they tell, augmented by their clever titles, are amusingly fantastical. In a painting titled The Rewards of Evil, a couple dines on roast and cake while a trio of devils entertains them on classical instruments. In The Slothful Assassin, a pallid criminal with an eye patch reclines on a chaise longue while a robot servant brings him a severed head on a platter. In The Apocalypse Has Been Postponed, devils roast hot dogs and sip martinis while scantily clad women lounge at the side of a pool. It’s an exhibition just begging for a soundtrack and a wet bar.
Also worthy of special mention, although unrelated to the main exhibition, are several outstanding works by Chris and Rob Clayton, hung salon-style with various other La Luz artists in the back room of the gallery. These mixed-media paintings, some of which were made individually and some of which are collaborations between the two brothers, are dense and almost unfathomably elaborate works, crammed with figures, animals, flowers, symbols and abstract patterns, painted with exquisite delicacy over most of the surfaces. Like Shag‘s paintings, these works tell stories, but they are cryptic stories; they read like dreams, as though driven by a mysterious internal poetry that gracefully transcends linear narrative. Like Manual Ocampo, Don Ed Hardy, Robert Williams, Mark Ryden and Eric White — other artists who have shown work at La Luz in the past — the Clayton brothers testify to the influential vision of La Luz owner Billy Shire, and to the unique and undervalued role the gallery plays in the field of Los Angeles art.
Directly across Hollywood Boulevard at Circle Elephant Art, a group exhibition of paintings tells a different set of stories, addressing issues of “love, loss and transformation” with an elegantly melodramatic flair. Curated by Paige Payne, this exhibition features six artists whose styles are figurative and painterly. Their works speak subtly and at times humorously of desire, longing and frustrated communication; they are diagrams of love, appropriately obscure, with each artist employing a different, personal symbology. The most endearing works are those of Jhina Alvarado. Spare, pretty and poetic, each of her paintings reads like a persistent memory or feeling carefully charted with a series of private and preciously tended symbols. Tim Jag, in three mixed-media pieces with the shared title Transcendence Machine (1997), arranges symbols of love and togetherness — a smiling couple, a man’s suit, a bunch of bananas, flowered wallpaper — into a somewhat baffling but intriguing system of cords, plugs and pulleys. Davidd Batalon‘s two paintings depict sinewy men (fashioned in a style reminiscent of 1930s Social Realism) adrift in sensually surreal worlds, one musing angelically over a soda, another resting languorously on a chair inside a house filled with water. The works flow well together, all in all, and the smooth interaction among them fills the small gallery with a tender atmosphere of intimacy.
At the Pink Gallery in Echo Park, an exhibition of landscape photographs by Carla Jo Bailey is similarly intimate, but speaks of the solitary, personal experience of nature rather than the emotional tangle of human relationships. The images carry the viewer all across the city — from the beaches, to the mountains, to downtown — on what feels like a wave of youthful enthusiasm for beauty and light. The images are impulsively captured relics of time and space: an abandoned dock in Playa del Rey, a deteriorating Broadway movie marquee, a scrub-covered hill tumbling down to a Malibu beach, a curved road near Lake Hollywood, bathed in golden afternoon light. Color prints of enlarged Polaroid images, the works are one step removed from the immediacy of snapshots; they are like snapshots that have been enlarged and softened by a mystical process of contemplation. The modest printing process (the works are basically color Xeroxes) is surprisingly effective in bringing out the exquisite subtleties of the Polaroid color and giving the work the precious tint of old post cards. The afternoon mountain scenes are deliciously golden, the beaches dreamily white. In one of the only close-up shots, each stalk of greenery looks as though it were lit from within by a creamy and magical light. Not all of the pieces are as breathtaking as these, but the exhibition is none the less for it. This is a modest body of work on the whole — a humble presentation of exuberant observations — but the fact that it was given the space to show is fortunate, for the artist and the neighborhood. It’s somewhat surprising that these small galleries are able to stay in business at all. But offering as they do a space for introduction, experimentation, community and possibly failure (with relatively low stakes), they‘re a great gift to the cultural life of the city.#