When I asked art collector Peter Norton why the Norton Family Foundation is supporting Deep River, an exhibition space in downtown Los Angeles that was opened last year by four artists (Rolo Castillo, Glenn Kaino, Daniel Joseph Martinez and Tracey Shiffman), his brief reply was "because it works." Not a commercial gallery, not a nonprofit organization, Deep River is described by its founders as "a finite collaborative artist project."
The artist partners found the location -- the dilapidated corner space of the American Hotel building at 712 Traction Avenue -- in January 1997. With funds from the Nortons, they remodeled the 857-square-foot space into the consummate white cube. Back in the '70s the site was home to the American Gallery. Now, every weekend, when Deep River is open, the partners set up a table out on the sidewalk and interact with visitors.
All expenses for Deep River are paid for by the partners. If a collector is interested in buying any of the art on view, he or she is given the phone number of the artist and urged to make direct inquiries.
Deep River has an attitude that can be described as … "exclusive." The words "No art critics allowed" are etched on the glass front door in small, pristine type. The gallery does not send out press releases. Nor does it list its exhibitions in any newspaper or gallery guide. Invitations to shows (designed by Shiffman, who also designs Art Issues magazine) are sent out to about 600 people.
When I ask about this policy, they say that this is a "semantic game." They do not want to participate in what they call the "critical Mafia" in Los Angeles. Their goal is to "strip away any mediation by capital and to give the viewer a less mediated art experience." This does not sit well with everyone. At least one irate critic has written an angry -- and anonymous -- note in the gallery register. It was reproduced and mailed out as a Deep River invitation.
Deep River shows Los Angeles artists who the board considers to be underrepresented. Artists are shown once. And plans are to close the space after five years. "We have the freedom to be an autonomous center for the presentation of work," says Daniel Martinez.
Deep River is open on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For info call (213) 625-2958.
"I won't tell anyone that I am a dealer because it is not in my interest," says Voychek Szaszor, the director of ActionSpace. The 7,500-square-foot facility includes a 1,500-square-foot gallery as well as larger spaces that are regularly used for independent film production, theater and performance art. "Divine Intervention," a series of performances presented by Karen Finley and CalArts, is one recent example.
"Who pays for all this?" I ask. "I do," says Szaszor, "but I do have a staff of volunteers." Szaszor does production work for film, video and architectural design projects. "ActionSpace is trying to establish a model for art and other kinds of creative output to be self sustaining," says Szaszor. "We are not a nonprofit."
Shows are organized by freelance curators. A recent example was "Unctuous Youth," a group exhibition of Las Vegas artists put together by Steve Criqui. The space is run by an artists' committee, which includes Soo Kim, Amy Russell, Kori Newkirk (who will have a solo exhibition at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in November), Brad Spence and Loren Sandvik. Everybody's a volunteer.
"Is the work for sale?" I ask Szaszor. "Yes, it is. But we really haven't gone out and tried to sell anything. I guess this place is kind of an addiction."
ActionSpace is located at 734 East 3rd Street, Los Angeles 90013, (213) 680-4237. It's open only by appointment, but has a website: www.actionspace.com.
"I am not a dealer," artist Roger Herman insists as he shows me around his new 1,000-square-foot space, Black Dragon Society, a former Kung Fu Studio (they decided to keep the name and the sign). The gallery is located at 961 Chung King Road, a closed street in downtown Chinatown hung with rows of Chinese lanterns. Low rents have drawn several new art galleries to the street.
"We found the space first. We thought we could do something similar to what Donald Judd had done in his building on Mercer Street in New York. Just show work if we felt like it, but with no regular hours. No formal structure at all. We don't sell anything. If anyone wants to buy something, they can contact the artist directly. If they want to give us a donation, that's fine, but it is not necessary."
Black Dragon Society is a partnership of four friends. In addition to Herman, an artist and UCLA art professor, there's the Austrian painter Hubert Schmalix, who commutes back and forth between L.A. and Vienna, where he is a professor at the Art Academy of Vienna; Eika Aoshima, a professional photographer who has worked for Vanity Fair and Interview; and Chris Sievernich, a producer whose films include John Huston's The Dead and Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas.
There is no phone in the space, but it is usually open on weekends. All expenses are paid for by the four partners. The gallery has no strict schedule. But it does have some shows planned. Artist James Hayward is curating an abstract painting show. Also planned is an exhibition of ceramics by artist Lisa Yu and a show that will consist of one painting by artist Robert Zoell.
Black Dragon Society also plans to show films and host some music events in the space. But without listings or advertisements. "How do people find out about these events?" I ask. "It is pretty much word of mouth," says Roger Herman.
Black Dragon Society is located at 961 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, Ca. 90012, and is open most weekends in the afternoon.
While Deep River bans critics from its gallery, China Art Objects Gallery is the opposite -- it was born out of the critical theory program at the Art Center College of Design. Like the other spaces, China Art Objects Gallery is a partnership between five 20-something friends and was conceived primarily as an "artist's project," though there is no doubt that the space is a commercial gallery.
Giovanni Intra, an Art Center MFA who was recently named as a contributing writer at Artforum, serves as curator and spokesman for the group. As stipulated by his agreement with Artforum, he is not involved with sales and he cannot write about the gallery or gallery artists for the magazine. The others involved are Amy Yao, Steve Hanson and Peter Kim, all recent graduates of the fine art department at Art Center. Mark Heferman, an entrepreneur, assists with business aspects of the enterprise. All curatorial decisions are made by the four Art Center graduates. All expenses for the gallery are split by the partners, whom all hold other jobs to finance the project.
"It is very clear that they were very serious from the beginning. They were not viewed as an 'underdog' space, especially by artists," says Pae White, who designed the gallery and its invitations. The involvement of China Art Objects Gallery with such established artists as White, Jorge Pardo (who had an exhibition at the gallery) and Steven Prina (who held his record release party there) gave the place instant art-world credibility.
"The idea was to be sort of a cross between a European Kunsthalle and a commercial venue … sort of a small museum without a budget," said Intra. The gallery plans to show artists from L.A. and elsewhere, including Christiana Glidden, a recent Art Center graduate. The gallery does not represent artists, has no inventory and will only show an artist once.
The space for China Art Objects Galleries was a former jewelry store. As was the case with Black Dragon Society, the founders decided to keep the name and the sign. "Why did they choose Chinatown?" I ask. "Because it was the opposite of the West Side, where all the other galleries are, and the collectors are. Space was cheap and it had all that history of the punk clubs that artists like to frequent. We live in Silverlake as do many of the artists we work with, which is five minutes away. It was an artist-friendly neutral zone," said Intra.
China Art Objects Galleries is located at 933 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, Ca. 90012, (213) 613-0384. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.
IRIT KRYGIER is a writer and independent curator living in Los Angeles.