Inside Los Angeles’s Oddball Underground Art Scene

See what lies beneath the surface.

Alternative spaces are rife in Los Angeles. Photo: Christopher Lance via Flickr

Underneath the surface of Los Angeles’s pristine white-cube galleries and star-studded opening nights lies an entirely different type of art scene. A slew of project spaces, artist-run galleries, and non-profits rule in the second-largest city in the US.

The spaces are located across working-class neighborhoods such as Koreatown, Leimert Park, and Arlington Heights. They are cheaper to run than their commercial counterparts in West Hollywood or Culver City, and the individuals behind them often go where the established art world will not or cannot; they address social issues, show oddball or left-field exhibitions, and promote young talent.

The building that houses Commonwealth and Council, and Visitor Welcome Center. Photo: courtesy Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles.

The building that houses Commonwealth and Council, and Visitor Welcome Center. Courtesy Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles.

Commonwealth and Council, an artist-run exhibition space by the curator Young Chung, is located in a run-down building in Koreatown. The gallery shares a building with the project space Visitor Welcome Center, an acupuncture clinic, and the oldest Spanish-speaking Alcoholics Anonymous service in the city.

The entrance to Visitor Welcome Center, and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles. Photo: artnet News.

The entrance to Visitor Welcome Center, and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles. Courtesy of artnet News.

The curator opened the space in 2010 in his apartment on Commonwealth Avenue and Council Street in Historic Filipinotown, a 15-minute drive from the space’s current location. The building’s dimly lit corridors—which could use a lick of fresh paint—and the dirty faux-wood laminate flooring makes for an atmospheric, albeit unusual setting for an art space.

“If I open my own space maybe I don’t have to compromise so much,” Chung explained to artnet News in an interview. “So I emptied my kitchen and living room and invited artists to come and make work,” he said. Eventually the steady stream of visitors to Chung’s apartment became too much for his elderly landlord, and he was forced to move into the dedicated space in Koreatown, deciding to keep the name of the old address.

The corridor leading to Commonwealth and Council. Photo: courtesy Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles.

The corridor leading to Commonwealth and Council. Photo: courtesy Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles.

The space primarily shows local Los Angeles-based up-and-comers; some of whom have gone on to enjoy success and mainstream gallery representation. Artists such as Lee Maida and Brenna Youngblood had early shows at Commonwealth and Council.

“I like learning and discovering things about an artist,” Chung said, about Carmen Argote, the artist whose work is on view at the gallery until July 16. “It’s about personality. If it’s great work but the person isn’t a good match, it’s not going to work out,” he added.

Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles. Photo: artnet News.

Works by Carmen Argote at Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles. Courtesy of artnet News.

Down the hall in the same building is Visitor Welcome Center. Artist David Bell—who had a two-person show with Iris Hu at Commonwealth and Council in 2014—opened the space in January and has already shown three exhibitions.

As for so many of the underground spaces in LA, the project is a labor of love that demands sacrifices. “I stopped making work when I opened the space,” Bell admits. “We don’t really represent artists, but show peers.” Bell is showing a group show by the literary collective The Furies, made up of Krista Bucking, Akina Cox, Gilda Davidian, Ariane Vielmetter, and Esther Pearl Watson. The next show at the gallery will be by Kim Ye, a professional dominatrix. “She exchanges her services for art,” Bell explained matter-of-factly. The show opens July 30 and runs until September 3, 2016.

Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles. Photo: Elizabeth Ahn, courtesy of Visitor Welcome Center.

Works by The Furies at Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles. Photo by Elizabeth Ahn, courtesy of Visitor Welcome Center.

Meanwhile in Arlington Heights, in the west of the city, the Underground Museum seeks to bring museum-quality art to the working-class neighborhood. The arts non-profit was started in 2012 by the late artist Noah Davis and is now run by his wife Karon.

In 2015 the non-profit reached a deal with MOCA to gain access to the museum’s 7,000 piece collection. Before his untimely death in August 2015, Davis put together proposals for about 18 exhibitions, of which two have been realized. The first by William Kentridge and the second being the current group show, which features works by Theaster Gates, Robert Gober, David Hammons, Deana Lawson, Kerry James Marshall, Marion Palfi, Henry Taylor, and Kara Walker. The show—which runs for a year until March 1, 2017—investigates the culture of violence perpetrated toward black citizens.

The Underground Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: screenshot via Google Maps.

The Underground Museum lies behind this nondescript storefront in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Google Maps.

Scratch the glossy surface of the city and there’s an entire community of artists, activists, and entrepreneurial young gallerists putting together great shows hidden behind unassuming storefronts and nondescript buildings. You just have to know where to look.


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