G-Rowing Downtown: Urban arts epicenter Gallery Row continues to blossom

By Tucker Neel

Originally published in The LA Alternative Press, Vol. 5, June 2, 2006, 6.

photo by Tucker Neel. Seen here: Kjell Hagen, Nic Cha Kim, Kimba Rogers, Cheyanne Sauter

Gallery Row, a section of downtown L.A. between 2nd and 9th and Main and Spring Streets, has matured from a curiously small group of galleries in 2003 to a fledgling Chelsea-of-the-West, encompassing more than twenty art spaces, each exhibiting vastly different bodies of work drawn from a diverse pool of both L.A.-based and international artists.

I won’t belabor the history of this development, as it has been chronicled in numerous publications, including the LA Alternative. For an excellent history of “the Row,” check out Lucinda Michelle Knapp’s LA Alternative January 20th, 2006 story- “Gallery Row, Under Arrest.” The article details how the city wants to erect what may very well be the most non-artistic, soul-crushing building one can think of-a Police Headquarters- next to City Hall, thus displacing small businesses and the MJ Higgins Gallery and speakeasy, the birthplace of the entire Gallery Row movement. There is still a slim chance of saving the gallery and turning the area into a multi-use park, but it will take some righteous community action and much-needed guilty consciences on behalf of city officials to do so. But, according to the members of Gallery Row’s non-profit, Kjell Hagen (who originally concocted the idea for Gallery Row), Nic Cha Kim, Kimba Rogers, and Cheyanne Sauter, the encroachment of the boys in black wont dampen their enthusiasm for bringing a creative culture to what should geographically and ideologically be the artistic heart and soul of Los Angeles.

In addition to their day jobs, the four G-Row founders often each work forty unpaid hours a week promoting Gallery Row. After meeting with them for only a short period of time, I began to realize how they managed to convince the powers-that-be to invest in a nascent downtown art scene. As a group, they are intoxicating, and individually they immediately put me at ease. Yet they are driven by a steadfast and contagious conviction that what they are doing is good, not just for the galleries on the Row, but for the larger Los Angeles area art scene as well.

When I asked them if they could describe the gestalt that sets the Gallery Row scene apart from other gallery hot spots like Bergamot station in Santa Monica, or the Culver City galleries, they responded with a chorus of laughter. Kimba Rogers describes what happened, “First of all, Bergamot Station sent their little girls (gallery reps.) down here to promote their shows. They were dressed all Burning-Man-ed out. I looked at them and asked, ‘Are you from Bergamot?’ and they said, ‘Oh, you should come down for this show.’ And I told them, ‘Honey, you’re in my district. Welcome! Now you gotta let me promote in your area.” So Kimba went to Bergamot for the first time ever, with flyers promoting the Downtown Art Walk. “It was the funniest thing,” she remembers, “how I feel in downtown compared to how I felt at Bergamot Station…. No offense to them, but we are so different. You pull into the parking lot there and it’s surrounded by these little buildings that have art in them. They have nothing to do with the rest of the neighborhood. They have nothing to do with the city. Nothing.” Cheyenne Sauter concurs, “We are a cultural aspect of downtown. We are rebuilding and revitalizing this area. We’re not just creating a little bubble….. We cater to people who wanna feel downtown.”

The best introduction to the galleries populating “the Row” comes every second Thursday of the month in the form of the Downtown Art Walk, where over twenty galleries, museums, and artists’ spaces open their doors to the public from noon ‘til 9pm. This month the Gallery Row non-profit is bringing in busloads of L.A. school kids to walk the Row. The experience will no doubt allow them to see the heart of the city within a cultural context and know that fine art is not necessarily only relegated to the sacred halls of the museum.

For those new collectors actually looking to buy art, the Art Walk is an appropriate place to start; the work is affordable and approachable. As Kjell Hagen says, “If you like it, buy it. A good way to support artists, galleries, and the whole scene is to simply buy art.” And honestly, work from an emerging artist beats a poster from Ikea any day.

The diversity of art and artists represented along the Row is characterized by the contrasting ambiance of two well-known and influential spaces. The first is Create:Fixate, a mostly one-night gig in a gargantuan office space on the second floor of the Spring Arts Tower at 453 S. Spring Street. The other is Bert Green Fine Art, a gallery with a more traditional exhibition style located at 102 West 5th Street.

The work at Create:Fixate ranges from the sublime to the grotesque, epitomized by D.I.Y. aesthetics (think hot glue and glitter) and edgycute iconography, Ganesh-like deities, Japanamation and corporate logos, intermingled in single pieces, or in close proximity to one another, in various works. The last time I was at Create:Fixate I was captivated by a larger-than-life serpent made entirely out of picture frames by Brian De Roo. I also wished I could have stepped into the dramatic landscapes in Drew Dunlap’s stained mahogany paintings. Unfortunately, Create:Fixate does have one drawback in that it frequently appears cluttered, with an overwhelming amount of work on the walls, which can dilute the impact of any one artists’ piece.

Bert Green in his Gallery
Bert Green Fine Art can be a welcome sanctuary to escape from the noise and crowds at Create:Fixate. Currently he’s showing some excellent paintings by Scott Siedman, Jeff Britton, and Jeff Gillette. Scott Siedman makes meticulous images full of contemporary political puns and religious symbolism. In depicting sexualized embraces, the ecstacy of pain and pleasure, most of his work carefully divulges the carnal desires embedded in the history of High Renaissance painting. Now, every time I see an ad for the DaVinci Code movie, I am reminded of Siedman’s The Well, a painting of a shrouded man’s head (Jesus? Brutus?) rimming a pert and receptive asexual backside. Jeff Gillette’s paintings of Southern California and outlying areas reduced to abandoned shantytowns, resonate both viscerally and cerebrally by, for example, making you first laugh at an image of Disneyland devastated by disaster and abject poverty. This laughter ceases when the images, replete with tormented shacks dominating a once sprawling suburban landscape, inspire you to think about the instability of our decadent, consumer-driven society. Jeff Britton also paints cities in the midst of disaster, rendering apocalyptic earthquakes, fires, and massive storms in brooding, almost impressionist, brushstrokes.

The thing about these two galleries is not just that they exhibit different kinds of works in counterbalanced environments, it’s that, because of their geographical proximity to one another, they attract the same diverse clientele. The diversity of this clientele makes it impossible to accurately characterize the people who frequent Gallery Row. Unlike other art enclaves populated almost exclusively by Hollywood hipsters, M.F.A. acolytes, interior designers, Sunday flower painters, or old-school millionaire collectors, Gallery Row attracts a disparate group that samples from all of these people and adds to the mix local graffiti artists, punk squatters, homeless preachers, and any number of persons otherwise alienated from the art “scene”.

The Gallery Row founders assure me that they have plans for this diversity to extend well into the future. They plan to keep bringing in the crowds with new spaces catering to theater, music, literature, and dance. “We don’t want to see Starbucks taking over,” Nic Cha Kim says, adding, “We want everything to be creative. We want a youth bookstore next to a martial arts studio next to a yoga studio. We want this to be an arts and cultural epicenter.” Judging from what they have accomplished so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if the G-Row members get all they want and more.

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