"Look," says Gleason, over his rice bowl at Chego. "I started Coagula to push at power in the art world, because so much of it is the illusion of power. I'm not afraid to be honest, but there's no desire to hurt people."
Press him on those coverlines and Gleason adds, "Coagula has never gone any meaner than the average editorial cartoon. To me, it's satire. The art world is just shockingly thin skinned."
Love him, hate him or ignore him, Gleason has achieved longevity with the Coagula brand by remaining ever-pliable in a shifting media landscape. Having switched from print to online in 2009, he now only occasionally publishes special hard-copy editions of Coagula. The limited run of about 4,000 print copies is often planned for distribution at big art world events, such as this year's PULSE Contemporary Art Fair in New York and, like the Coagula website, seems mainly to promote the artists Gleason represents at his gallery or serve as a megaphone for his signature rants.
In the most recent print edition, Gleason recounted a Facebook argument he had with ArtForum writer David Rimanelli. Ever eager to get in the last word, Gleason reprinted on Coagula's cover a screen shot of a vitriolic private email that Gleason says Rimanelli sent to him on Facebook.
It read, in part, "You ought to die in a grotesque and frightening way. People like you ruin the world."
Gleason says he reprinted Rimanelli's comment "as proof that it really happened. The establishment — they make it too easy to be anti-establishment."
Rimanelli, reached by email, declined to comment on the exchange. Others contacted about Gleason either wouldn't talk about him or declined to go on the record with their views that Coagula has been a negative force in the always-struggling art world.
"I have noticed that some of the things he's been showing lately sound interesting," one art writer says, "but I don't forgive that easily."
Many others, however, seem to have put the past aside. Artists Llyn Foulkes, Anthony Ausgang and Gisela Colon were among the crowd of about 100 friends who came to a summer potluck celebration at Coagula Curatorial's original Chung King Road location after Gleason married his longtime girlfriend, artist Leigh Salgado, in a surprise (to her) proposal/wedding/honeymoon in Las Vegas.
There was a guileless, almost blissed-out smile planted across Gleason's face as he watched his friends suck Trader Joe's strawberry pops under a canopy of multicolored paper lanterns outside the gallery, not to mention a networky lightheartedness, as if he were working the crowd at one of his openings.
Growing up in La Mirada in an Irish Catholic family of seven kids — his father owned a factory manufacturing metal balls for the aerospace industry — Gleason was a nerdy, often-sickly child who suffered from a heart condition. Often confined to bed, he devoured Rolling Stone and Mad Magazine.
Much of his desire to stir the pot and push boundaries comes from his heart condition — he says he simply never thought he'd live this long.
"My thinking has always been: 'Get it now, go all in every time,' " Gleason says. "Coagula was like: 'I'm a failed artist, and I'm gonna have my say.' But then recently, I finally got to the point where I had my say. 'Now what do I wanna do?!"
Gleason set out to become a priest at Divine Word College in Iowa — "to please my parents," he says — but was kicked out his first year in seminary. "It was for missing morning prayers, a technicality. Obviously I wasn't a match."
On a 1983 trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, Gleason stumbled on the work of French painter Georges Mathieu. Art became Gleason's new religion. He eventually enrolled at Cal State L.A. but quickly discovered he was more suited to writing about art than making it. He started an underground publication on campus, the Student Independent. Launching Coagula in 1992 with help from Max Estenger, a friend in New York, was a natural offshoot.
"I knew how to run a newspaper, I was already doing one for Cal State L.A., so why not for the art world?" says Gleason, who lives south of downtown L.A. in Huntington Park. "It was the perfect vacuum to walk into. We sold ads, it started making money, so I left and did that full time."