As an apocalyptic orange sun set behind the hazy Los Angeles skyline, the three proprietors of Los Angeles’ newest gallery -- Cottage Home, located at 410 Cottage Home Street in the city’s downtown Chinatown district -- greeted the scene’s usual suspects with nervous grace. A collaboration between Steve Hanson of China Art Objects, Katie Brennan of Sister, and Thomas Solomon of the eponymous Thomas Solomon Gallery, the 4,000-square-foot space opened on July 12, 2008, with "I Can See for Miles," a group show of artists from the three gallery stables.
"Katie got it all started and the rest of us just sort of came together," said Steve Hanson at the opening, looking dapper if a bit uncomfortable in his suit coat. "We all wanted to do bigger shows, but didn’t have the space. It seemed easier to do it together." China Art Objects and Sister are both keeping their original galleries as well as collaborating with Solomon on Cottage Home.
The general economic turmoil has made everyone a little nervous. A few galleries have shuttered, though not necessarily for financial reasons, notably Lizabeth Oliveria. And beginning in September, rather than close its doors, High Energy Constructs, opened in 2006 by Michael Smoler, is going into partnership with SolwayJones, which has been on Wilshire Boulevard since 2003. The joint gallery occupies the freshly expanded and renovated quarters of High Energy Constructs on Hill Street, not far from Cottage Home.
It’s no surprise that Chinatown is home to such experimental enterprises. Located in downtown Los Angeles on the far end of a tawdry commercial district (long abandoned by many of the Chinese that founded it), with its heart on the walking promenade of Chung King Road, the Chinatown gallery scene was born in the late ‘90s with the opening of China Art Objects and Black Dragon Society. But its success under the tireless pranksterism and intellectual promotion of Joel Messler (originally of Pruess Press and now also of Messler/Hug) and Giovanni Intra (Hanson’s late partner in China Art Objects) became something special in the landscape of L.A. art. It always stayed delightfully unrefined, casually friendly and just a little rough.
As a parallel gallery scene developed on La Cienaga Boulevard in Culver City, additional dealers opened in Chinatown as well, including David Kordansky Gallery, with its reputation for business savvy, and Daniel Hug Gallery, a Chicago transplant (now Messler/Hug, as Hug himself takes up his new duties as director of Art Cologne).
Following these quick developments, it’s hard not to view Cottage Home as a final element of a long-developing maturity. The Chinatown scene now includes Kontainer gallery, founded by dealer Mihai Nicodim and representing a highly successful Romanian contingent that includes Adrian Ghenie and Ciprian Muresan, Redling Fine Art founded by former director of both China Art Objects and Maccarone Gallery in New York, as well as the Box LA, a gallery-cum-educational center directed by Mara McCarthy. And Chung King Projects has renewed its energy under new owner Francois Ghebaly.
As Cottage Home opens, however, the Chinatown stalwart Black Dragon Society is closing -- as Black Dragon gallery director Parker Jones plans to open his own new gallery in a sizable building off Hill Street. The move is not one dictated by the market, apparently, but by other, non-economic factors. Either way, this marks another element of the shift from adolescence to something akin to adulthood.
Though change seems endemic in the Los Angeles gallery scene, the proprietors of Cottage Home are still taking a gamble. Expanding in what looks like an unstable market is one kind of risk; another is that the L.A. collector base has never been as robust as the one in New York or even London. Big success for L.A. galleries often means being able to export art abroad as much as to cater to local collectors, who though influential are nevertheless secondary to the more international clientele.
Still, the move has plenty in its favor. Cottage Home is housed in an old Chinese movie theater, a space that has its own appeal, not to mention novelty. The space allows Cottage Home to present more ambitious projects by the various gallery artists who might otherwise have migrated to other dealers.
Cottage Home represents a return to public presentations for Thomas Solomon, who has been working as a private dealer, though he took a brief sojourn last year programming at Messler’s Rental Gallery (which has since migrated to New York). In the early ‘90s, Solomon gave a generation of L.A. artists and a handful of now-prominent Europeans their first shows in the city out of the now-legendary Thomas Solomon’s Garage, a list that includes Jorge Pardo, Jessica Stockholder, Sean Landers and Merlin Carpenter. The son of prominent New York dealer Holly Solomon, Thomas Solomon follows a program that mixes senior avant-gardists with younger artists, putting Brad Eberhard and Troy Brauntuch alongside Isa Genzken and William Eggleston.
With Cottage Home, China Art Objects gains a much bigger space close to its existing venue on Chung King Road, allowing the gallery the best of both worlds -- a bigger space without having to sacrifice its current home, which has a lot of history, and was partially designed by Pae White. In the initial Cottage Home outing, China Art Objects is presenting works by the two most recent additions to their program, noise maker and psychedelic collagist Bjorn Copeland and painter Rob Thom. (In the future on the Cottage Home schedule is a show that is an exploration of the long-running argument between China Art proprietor Steve Hanson and Berlin philosopher-turned-gallerist Guido W. Baudach, in which a pair of 19th-century philosophers square off: The American Ralph Waldo Emerson, a favorite of Hanson’s, vs. Baudach’s favorite German thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche.)
Katie Brennan of Sister seems the biggest winner in the new arrangement, as Cottage Home sets her younger and energetic program into a strong and significant context. As it happened, Sister inaugurated the theater space that was to become Cottage Home with a show of works by Sandeep Mukherjee last month and a group show of sculptures several months ago called "Globetrotters," which paired Evan Holloway and Jason Meadows with Eric Wesley and Pentti Monkonen, amongst others.
Still, "I Can See for Miles" is the true inauguration of the new collaborative gallery. It’s not easy to talk about the show, since the narrative outside the art -- the opening of the new gallery -- is so strong. And context tells, too, as the story embedded in the art is one of artists involved in the history of individual galleries and of the neighborhood itself. Together, the various artworks lack the kind of mutual connections that make group shows worth thinking about -- but the contextual story is so damn interesting that it makes up for this lack of cohesion.
One footnote: Peres Projects was also in on the collaboration at the beginning, only to pull out after the first advertisements had been made -- an indication that the collegiality necessary for a successful collaboration isn’t always easy to come by. This hiccup is one more warning that perhaps serves to compound the nervous grace at Cottage Home’s sundown opening.
As anyone who’s been around for a while can tell you, artists’ neighborhoods and gallery districts come and go. Felled by gentrification, bad markets, internal dissension, these territories erode and fade. Cottage Home manages both to reengage the story of its location and take the whole experiment a step forward.
ANDREW BERARDINI is writer in based in Los Angeles.