Victoria Wendell and her 12-year-old son, Adam, found Marilyn Monroe on the Hollywood Freeway, only she wasn't named Marilyn then, and probably not Norma Jean either. "She was starving," Victoria said. "Half-dead and starving." Now, 1 1/2 years later, Marilyn shares a litter box with Chuck Berry and Margot Kidder, and peacefully co-exists with Murphy, the German shepherd. Home for Victoria, Adam, their pets and three cost-cutting human roommates is 3,500 square feet of downtown Los Angeles, in a building that in a former life was the Canadian Consulate. Now it is just another run-down hulk on Main Street, a few blocks south of the Union Rescue Mission, next door to a porno house. And here, two flights up from Skid Row, art has found a home, too.
Consider the old, bashed-in television in a corner of the studio-abode of Vickie Wendell, avant-garde photographer. Inside its shattered screen is a photograph of a nude woman folded upon herself on a carpeted floor, like a collapsed numeral 2, a television upon her back. On that TV screen (within the photo, within the bashed-in TV) is again the image of the nude and TV; and so on.
Vickie Wendell's ambition is "to be an L.A. artist, to exemplify L.A." But she is now a virtual unknown, and in that way typifies most of the citizens of the little artistic community downtown.
If an appreciation for the avant-garde is helpful in understanding the works of a Vickie Wendell--another of her projects is a video band called "Debutantes in Heat"--it is mandatory in assessing the artistic colony of downtown Los Angeles as a whole.
Mostly, the art produced here is from the School of But-Is-It?--a matter of perspective, of maybe not your cup of tea, or maybe so. The community is defined not by ethnicity or economic class, but by a way of looking at the world and a way of living.
An open mind is especially appropriate now, when this amorphous, nameless settlement finds itself in a new spasm of evolution.
"Things are changing so much, so fast," says Joy Silverman, director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), which recently opened new quarters on Industrial Street, deep in the wholesale produce district. "It will be interesting to see what happens."
This scruffy community is in danger of transforming into something bigger and trendier, some say. The questions are: Can the so-called "true artists" survive the onslaught of the arty? Will success spoil this fragile colony?
Geographically, the arts settlement, like Los Angeles itself, is spread out. The colony is centered in the warehouses-cum-lofts east of Little Tokyo, with outposts scattered from Lincoln Heights down through Greater Skid Row and the wholesale and industrial districts. City records show 91 buildings, mostly downtown, that house artists' lofts, most of which do not meet city codes. City inspectors suspect that many of the lofts have gone undetected. A smattering of cafes, bars, galleries and playhouses serves as social coordinates. The population numbers from a few hundred to perhaps 2,000.
Spiritually, the colony thinks of itself as someplace nearer Paris' Left Bank, or the Beat Generation's stomping grounds of the 1950s, such as New York's Greenwich Village, San Francisco's North Beach or Los Angeles' own Venice. A recent promo from LACE imagines what Vincent van Gogh would be writing to his brother if both were alive today: "Dear Theo . . . Paris in the 1890s and Los Angeles in the 1980s have a lot in common. . . ."
A more common comparison is to New York's SoHo, the once-desolate warehouse district that artists homesteaded in the 1960s and 1970s, now "gentrified" into a land of pricey lofts and trendy boutiques. Victims of their own success, many artists were priced out of the neighborhood, supplanted by "urban professionals." Some of the artists moved on to the dingy East Village, where the cycle started anew.
Something similar is now happening in Los Angeles. A 1982 city ordinance that legalized and established standards for artist live-work studios in manufacturing zones has triggered a real estate rush by speculators and developers, who now dominate th loft conversion business.
Where artists 10 years ago could find raw space for 5 to 10 cents a square foot, converted lofts now go for 60 cents to $1 a square foot. Laundry rooms and secured parking are often available. One building has a racquetball court. Rents in small lofts start at about $650 a month and escalate rapidly, according to size, location and completeness.
Increasingly, the proverbial starving artists are being replaced by their more capitalistic brethren--architects, designers, movie people, commercial photographers and illustrators. A few lawyers, accountants and other professionals have moved in; more are expected.
The ordinance, it turns out, has not reserved the turf for artists. "There's no way to enforce it. Who am I to say who an artist is?" explains Nick Delliquadri, a city engineer who supervises enforcement of the code. Inspectors ask that loft residents have a business certificate identifying them as an artist--but anyone willing to pay the $20.16 fee can get one.
The dynamics of change go beyond real estate development, and the signals of change are confusing.
The L.A. Weekly recently ballyhooed "The Theater of the Future" taking place at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, an ambitious four-theater complex that opened last year on Spring Street. In the same week, "The New LACE" took the cover of the Reader; its opening Feb. 21 attracted more than 1,500 patrons and artists.
Meanwhile, work is progressing on the $1.2-billion California Plaza on Bunker Hill, a grandiose complex that will house the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and also serve as home for the Joffrey Ballet and Bella Lewitsky Dance Company. MOCA will continue to operate an annex in its present quarters, known as the Temporary Contemporary. Such "high culture" institutions, adding to the Music Center, promise more patrons downtown.
As for low culture, a number of dance clubs, legal and otherwise, have sprouted, quickening the pulse of night life. The new, 40-lane Little Tokyo Bowl is trying to organize an artists' bowling league.
On the other hand, several galleries that opened downtown in recent years have gone out of business or moved to the Westside, forced out by rising rents and the reluctance of patrons to venture downtown. The community's principal boutique, "Big Bang," now located on industrial turf, is planning to move to the MacArthur Park area in search of more foot traffic.
Perspective is all: Many artists, especially visual artists who have lived downtown for several years, bemoan the corruption of their community; others, especially theater people and relative newcomers, think it has just reached puberty.
"A lot of real L.A. style is evolving. Right now, it's boiling up like a volcano," Vickie Wendell declares. "It's exciting. I'm an evolving artist in the midst of this change."
"It's a shame," counters Doug Ward, a painter, poet and community activist who is facing eviction April 1, the building to be converted into work studios. He is standing in the Rose Street loft he renovated with his own hands, amid artwork by himself and friends. Sunlight filters through windows shaded with translucent clouds of silver paint put there by earlier industrial tenants--"found art," Ward says.
"I mean, I love the way the light is. . . . It's just a shame. You create something beautiful, and people get twisted around, and you have to leave."
It is No Talent Night at Al's Bar--a little window on this downtown art world. Tucked on a side street east of Little Tokyo in a building adorned with a star-spangled airplane, Al's has long been a social mecca of this bohemian enclave. During the dark ages of punk, it is said, a person on Al's stage burned himself with a cigarette in the name of art.
It's tamer now. Folk singers are followed by bizarre performance artists. A middle-aged woman clutches a stuffed animal on stage and recites anti-nuke verse. When a tipsy blues singer discovers he can't play the guitar, a volunteer steps up and plays for him. A woman named George is a regular; her song "Johnny Has Herpes" has the crowd singing along. Occasionally, some undeniable talent sneaks through.
Many artists are groping. "People find out they aren't very good musicians or good actors, so they say, 'I'm a performance artist,' " says artist Marc Kreisel, the owner of Al's Bar. Mediocre musicians and actors, he adds, may turn out to be fine performance artists.
"If there's anything that characterizes L.A., it's a freer attitude in terms of experimentation," said Steve Durland, editor of High Performance, a downtown-based chronicle of performance art. It's a little more personal, more spiritual, less formal . . . a little crazier."
Along with more traditional forms, downtown artists offer a wide array of performance art, "guerrilla" art, graffiti art. High-tech tools--computers, video equipment, synthesizers--are commonplace.
Kreisel was one of the so-called "Young Turks," young artists who declared downtown as their domain in the mid-1970s. Earlier, artists had been priced out of Venice, and a smaller enclave in Pasadena was uprooted by redevelopment.
"All space is mine to conquer," Kreisel wrote in one artwork from that period. Then again, in a work titled "The Ten Commandments," he wrote, "Consider art a guest in L.A."
Bravado and diffidence are still evident. And what some interpret as experimentation, others see as self-indulgence. Everybody's a critic.
"Most people down here are playing at it, rather than getting serious," says John Frame, a critically acclaimed wood sculptor who lives weekdays in an 8th Street studio and weekends with his family in the San Bernardino Mountains. "There is a notion that whatever you do artistically is OK.
"Sometimes I feel that every loser and dropout who wants a dodge calls himself an artist . . . But at the same time, (the artistic community) has a small percentage of the best, most interesting people within the culture."
Here, you can meet someone such as Drew Lesso, a computer music composer who plays you a work that instantly evokes the feel of a long stretch of highway--and then tells you it is called "I-40 West." Lesso is not a commercial success, though producers of "Miami Vice," he says, are listening to his work.
Or Clyde Casey, a blithe street performer who bicycles around town on Sundays with two kindred souls, making music with drums, harmonica, bells and kazoos. Casey, who has a beret perched atop his head and a cockatoo named "Que Sera" on his shoulder, bills himself as "The Avant Guardian" because of his nighttime job as a security man for a complex of three small theaters--the Wallenboyd, the Boyd Street Theater and the Theatre of N.O.T.E. "These are avant-garde theaters," he reasons, "so I must be an avant-guardian. "
Or Randall Lavender, working away in his loft. An "emerging artist" who has had some critical kudos, Lavender mixes oils and pigment in a manner that replicates the blend used by Titian and Rubens. He calls his style "neoconservative;" the voluptuous human forms seem to float against a blue sky. He is not a believer in letting art "happen." "I believe in making happen what I want to happen," Lavender says.
And there is Chuck Skull, a tattooed, shaven-headed tough guy who skates on Roller Derby's "Hollywood Hawks," carries a knife, collects comic books and has a vast portfolio of "Atari Artist" computer graphics. "It took a while for the community to accept me as an artist," Skull says.
The way that Marilyn Monroe's forepaws were scraped, Vickie Wendell figures she had been discarded there on the freeway, maybe tossed from a moving car or thrown off an overpass. After she was nursed back to health, Marilyn was still skittish, afraid of strangers.
How the Wendells got here is a more complicated story.
Married twice and divorced twice by age 21, Vickie Wendell at 33 is a refugee from suburbia. She "did the single-mother thing" in Pasadena for several years. "Somehow I thought if I baked enough cookies it would all work out right." But she never fit in. When Wendell tried to make her voice heard at the PTA meetings, she was told she should have filled out a speaker's card in advance.
After Vickie studied photography at Pasadena City College, the Wendells moved to their present home.
Vickie Wendell fits in better here. Her bleached hair looks like synthetic fiber ripped from a cushion. A plastic shrimp, a child's plaything, serves as an an earring. She laughs through a gap-toothed grin when she is asked why she lives downtown. "I like hearing winos sing."
The rent is $1,350 a month--3,500 square feet is a large space--but the roommates are a big help. Wendell makes her living doing commercial photo jobs and working in phone sales with the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
The Wendells have never had any any serious trouble in this rough neighborhood, they say. Hookers are protective of Adam. "One of 'em would give me change," Adam recalled, "but she went out of business."
Living downtown is fine, Adam says, even though friends his age are hard to find. He attends school in the San Fernando Valley, commuting 70 minutes each way on the RTD. Sometimes he takes the bus to the Westside to trade baseball cards.
Vickie Wendell looks upon all of downtown as a subject for her camera. Her social life also revolves around her art. For more than two years, she has been "involved with" John Canaday, a self-taught video artist and musician. With Concetta Halstead, a 23-year-old student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, they formed "Debutantes in Heat" as a personal laboratory in video, music, words and drama.
"It's so experimental, we learn from it. It helps us in other things we do," said Halstead, who lives with her parents in San Marino. She is the only authentic deb in the group, having "come out" at 18.
Canaday, who lives above Al's Bar, is a lean, intense man commited to artistic spontaneity. "I'm more or less accepting what I get," he says. "A lot of times I'll mess up a riff and I'll leave it, because it shows humanity."
In one project, Canaday is recording and amplifying the noises made by wind-up toys. "I'm into toy sounds . . . I know it's a lot of stuff that's never been done before."
On one recent day, Canaday and Wendell screened several "Debutante" videos. Imagine MTV on a shoestring budget. In a piece called "Research Nurse," Vickie is featured as a mental patient in a straitjacket (actually, a white coat worn backwards) and Halstead plays the title role, smiling wickedly.
Wendell's vocals are a dreary monotone:
They shaved my head
Who can I tell
They said I'm crazy now
The lyrics weren't created so much as documented: The video cuts to a haggard woman on the street rambling through a horrific tale about being terrorized with electrodes by "the research nurse."
The group waffles on their desire to go public. Still, they have already attracted the attention of one critic.
"Yuk," Adam says, shaking his head. "They don't sing good."
"Look at this!" Doug Ward says, anger in his voice. "This is what they're trying to do!"
He is holding a flyer advertising the Binford Building, a loft conversion on Traction Avenue, one block from Al's Bar. The jazzy facade, with three different textures, suggests an urban progression. The street, usually desolate, is portrayed in the flyer as busy, carrying a Lincoln Continental, an Italian sports car and an antique jalopy. A man in a suit and tie walks on the sidewalk, carrying a briefcase.
All of which makes Doug Ward think, well, there goes the neighborhood.
Michael Kamin, the owner of the Mika Co., is the developer of the Binford Building. A specialist in downtown commercial real estate, Kamin saw opportunity in the ordinance that legalized lofts in industrial zones.
Kamin, who for many years has collected works from young artists, started renting raw space to artists in 1976 in a building on Broadway. He accepted art as partial rent, just as Parisian landlords had done in the 19th Century, he points out.
After the new law took effect, Kamin developed one artists' project on Spring Street, then did the 34-unit Binford Building.
"We wanted to make the building a statement and an art piece--something that says this is an exciting place to live, something to keep the focus on this street," he says.
With its striking facade, security system and handsome lobby, the building "has got some sex," Kamin says. He talks about hiring a graffiti artist from East Los Angeles to dress up the eastern wall, "because it faces East L.A."
But all those additions added to the cost of the project. Unexpected building requirements from the city added more costs. Kamin said that he had hoped monthly rents in the Binford Building would start between $500 and $600. Instead, they range from $850 to $1,600. The units are moving slowly, Kamin acknowledges.
Doug Ward, for one, rejects such bourgeois splendor. Ward has been working in a nonprofit partnership hoping to develop public housing for artists, but his efforts have thus far met with disappointment.
But the city's first publicly supported housing project for artists--a 52-unit loft conversion dubbed "The Artists Colony" at 24th Street and Santa Fe Avenue--is expected to provide an option for displaced artists. Work is to begin by June 1, after a few details are ironed out in the $1.2-million loan agreement between the Community Redevelopment Agency and a for-profit development group backed by arts patron Marvin Zeidler, president of Zeidler & Zeidler clothiers.
Zeidler says a committee will wrestle with the tricky question of deciding who is and who isn't an artist. "I'm sure we'll not make everyone happy," he said.
Ward foresees other artists migrating south and east in search of cheaper spaces, one step ahead of the city inspectors.
"It's not going to die. People are going to pop up in the weirdest places. . . ."
True, true. Many artists and observers have always scoffed at the notion of downtown Los Angeles as a Greenwich Village West or a North Beach South. The theory is that the languor of the beach and the schlock of Hollywood militate against meaningful art.
"A myth," said Joy Silverman of LACE. Los Angeles "artists don't get the support from the patrons, the collectors and press--that's where the problem lies."
And so, Silverman said, many of Los Angeles' best and brightest migrate to New York in hopes of making it big--and only then get discovered by Los Angeles collectors. David Salle, Eric Fischl, Ericka Beckman and Barbara Bloom are among the high-profile artists to have moved from Los Angeles to New York over the past decade.
Jean Milant, proprietor of the Cirrus Gallery on Alameda, recalls that an Australian art dealer recently toured Los Angeles. "He was very excited by the amount of activity, and the quality of activity--the uniqueness, the honesty and integrity," Milant said. "Yet he felt there was a sort of self-deprecation."
If art is a spiritual pursuit, some suggest that the success of an artistic community may be essentially a matter of faith.
Michael Luchessi and Suzanne Averitt are keepers of the faith. The two sweethearts are newcomers downtown, having moved from the Midwest via Hollywood. They make money in phone sales at the theater center, and devote their mental energies to staging theater on the cheap. Michael is the writer, Suzanne the director, friends are the actors.
Luchessi, 30, and Averitt, 28, last year adapted the obscure Beat Generation novel "Go" for Sunday afternoon productions at Al's Bar.
They never sought permission from author John Clellan Holmes to adapt the material. Later, they located Holmes in New York and sent him an audio tape of the performance. "He was jazzed by it," Luchessi says. Adaptations had been tried before, "but he said that ours came much closer to capturing what it was really all about."
The success of "Go" helped Averitt earn a humble $500 grant from the Otis Art Institute. "It's exciting," Averitt says. "It's just like the '50s with Kerouac and Ginsberg. We can tell that somebody is really going to make it, but you never know who."
Vickie Wendell remains among the faithful.
Sometimes, Wendell said, the inspiration is pure. That is how the photograph inside the bashed-in TV came about. Wendell had lived with a man for a time, but he grew obsessed with TV and treated women like furniture. The day after he left, Wendell set the camera's timer on 10 seconds, enabling her to be both photographer and model. It was only later, Wendell said, that she came to understand the image she had created.
Feminists like the work, she says. A women-as-furniture series is a possibility.
As for Marilyn Monroe, she has lost her skittishness. There is a sense of purpose--"that glow," Wendell says--as she moseys about the loft, searching for the right spot to have kittens.
Chuck Berry, it seems, is going to be a father.