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Living with art: a look at Los Angeles’ domestic gallery spaces

15 July 2015

It’s no secret that Los Angeles is an ascendant global capital of contemporary art, with blue chip galleries flocking to the city and two new museums opening next year. Part of the buzz, though, has nothing to do with high-profile names like Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel or Sprüth Magers – both major international galleries soon to set up shop here. It’s the result of highly innovative, alternative exhibition spaces that are questioning distinctions between public and private, commercial and residential, high art and the everyday.

An ‘off-space’ tour might take you first to Park View Gallery, located near the lively MacArthur Park, where residents lounge on the banks of a lake and vendors peddle mango slices with chilli pepper and lime. On the second floor of the Oso Apartments (Spanish for ‘bear’), gallerist Paul Soto has plastered and painted every surface of his small one-bedroom unit a brilliant white. Virtually devoid of personal effects, it’s hard to imagine that Soto lives there. Park View is the commercial white cube transported to a private home, where Soto has shown work by familiar favourites like Charles Atlas, Silke Otto-Knapp, and John Divola, alongside talented younger artists like Paul Pescador, Katie Aliprando, and Matt Siegle. This mix of well and lesser-known names is an insider’s trick Soto learned while running blue-chip Susanne Vielmetter Projects.

Installation view, 'Paul Pescador: Color/d: Vol. I - III' (16 November–21 December 2014) at Park View Gallery, LA

Installation view, ‘Paul Pescador: Color/d: Vol. I – III’ (16 November–21 December 2014) at Park View Gallery, LA

Park View shows usually include sly domestic references, like Benjamin Carlson’s gesso-cast Amazon box paintings hung in a walk-in closet, or Hot (2015), an old-fashioned shower knob Aliprando installed outside the door to the bathroom. ‘I wanted to think through a space that has idiosyncratic architectural details and requires artists to respond in kind,’ says Soto. This marriage of spaces is also a money-saver, cutting down rent costs: ‘It’s a nimble business practice that allows me to focus more on what the gallerist is supposed to do, communicating about the work of emerging and younger artists more actively out in the world, rather than addressing an art market consensus.’

The domestic-commercial ambiguity at Park View is markedly different at Del Vaz Projects, Jay Ezra Nayssan’s apartment gallery in West Los Angeles. Located in a relatively new, multi-unit apartment building that Nayssan manages, Del Vaz doesn’t project the white cube into the gallerist’s home. Visitors are welcome to kick off their shoes and share tea at Nayssan’s glass dining table, browsing his personal art collection alongside the installed temporary exhibition. ‘Playing host is second nature to me,’ Nayssan says, referring to his Persian cultural tradition of hospitality.

A spare bedroom has housed art and artists alike: in 2014, three members of the New York collective KHOLE lived and work there as artists in residence, and artist Marie-Caroline Hominal lived there while performing her show ‘Le Triomphe de la Renomée’. ‘There is an attitude, a mood, a form that people take on when they are at home and this allows work to be reconsidered on a far more intimate and personal level,’ says Nayssan. He recently explored issues of domestic intimacy in ‘Tulipomania’, a show organised in the Paris apartment of Daniele Balice of Galerie Balice Hertling, which featured artists as varied as Julien Ceccaldi and Francis Picabia.

(2015), Nahuel Vecino at Del Vaz Projects.

Untitled (Minotaur) (2015), Nahuel Vecino at Del Vaz Projects. Photograph by Daniel Sahlberg

In Los Angeles, commercial and residential space is clearly demarcated. Once you turn off a main thoroughfare like Sunset Boulevard, you find yourself on a tree-lined street of houses or low-rise apartment buildings. Historically, strict municipal zoning laws prevented ‘mixed-use’ cohabitation typical of European and Eastern American cities, contributing to LA’s quasi-suburban ethos and its vast, topographical sprawl. As Nayssan puts it, ‘Single-family detached homes are the paradise of Los Angeles; in New York it’s the street, in Paris the public square.’

There’s a certain amount of social friction that comes with ‘downsizing’ a commercial gallery venture to fit in a small inner-city apartment. A couple of LA projects are exploring single-family homes as viable spaces for exhibiting art. Before moving out in May, gallerist Alex Freedman of Freedman Fitzpatrick held exhibitions and performances at her Silverlake house. The closing show, a series of projections and sound installations by Hannah Weinberger, filled the empty rooms with ghostly traces of memories – snapshots from trips to Disneyland and a languid lapse of a flowing river.

Not far away, in the hills above Echo Park, the Tom of Finland Foundation maintains an archive of the iconic gay erotic artist’s work, hosting exhibitions and events in his former home – a vast three-story craftsman with a terraced yard, filled with cacti and urinal fountains. Further west, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by palms, lies Villa Aurora. The 1928 Spanish-style mansion sponsors an Artist-in-Residence programme for artists and writers fleeing oppressive regimes in their home countries, reminiscent of California’s rich European expatriate community during the Second World War. Rotating exhibitions of fellows’ work often occupy the historic library and study.

The gallery is almost entirely absent at Chin’s Push, a space founded just last year by Lydia Glenn-Murray in her Highland Park home. Located on York Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of the slightly sleepy downtown LA suburb, Chin’s Push includes a storefront space for exhibiting art, which has variously been occupied by a TV repair shop, an electronics store, and a Chinese takeout restaurant. In the attached house, Glenn-Murray invites artist and musician friends to take over the living room or her bedroom (actually a walk-in closet); performances take place in the concrete backyard, under a mango tree or in front of an Airstream trailer that houses an artist residency. These smaller spaces focus more attention on the work and enable an intimate viewing experience fitting for a home. There are domestic traces everywhere: makeshift walls separate bedrooms; homemade kombucha ferments above the fridge; kittens play in the couch cushions. Despite its casual vibe, Chin’s Push has hosted an impressive array of emerging talent, with work shown and presented by artists like Martine Syms, Jesse Stecklow, Lex Brown, and Wrinkle Decker.

Big-name galleries and prized private collections may draw the most international press, but spaces like these are pushing the envelope in Los Angeles’s burgeoning contemporary art scene. Responding to the built environment of the city, house and apartment galleries are asking thought-provoking questions about domestic space, commercial institutions, and viewership.

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Autumn Highlights: what to watch out for in Los Angeles (Jonathan Griffin)