Art Venues Move Beyond the Boundaries of Gallery Row

Nilson writes regularly about art in Westside/Valley Calendar.

The idea of an art venue that is off the beaten track sounds odd in a city such as Los Angeles, where everything is decentralized to begin with. If there are any established art routes, they tend to run along La Brea Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard and, increasingly, into Santa Monica.

But there are plenty of alternative forays around. For example, consider the following trio of Westside galleries that are off the regular art beat--to some extent by choice.

WALKER DISTANCE: "We didn't want to be too closely associated with the mainstream--the mini-mall and all that," said David Walker of the Walker and Walker Gallery, referring to the complex of Santa Monica galleries in the 900 block of Colorado Avenue. "We figure more people will follow."

Follow, that is, to the end of Berkeley Street in Santa Monica--an enclave already populated by Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sci-Arc) and a number of architects' and graphic designers' offices. On Sept. 11, Walker and his wife, Darby, opened their gallery there, hoping to distance themselves from other galleries by more than just pioneering geography.

"I don't think we're as interested in style as other galleries," David Walker said. "We are interested in artists who are pushing beyond the boundaries of popular contemporary criticism. And we are definitely taking on a rather pluralistic group."

It's not that the Walkers don't follow prevailing postmodern art criticism. In fact, the couple ran their own art magazine, Element, from 1985 until 1987, when their alternative rock band proved more successful. (She plays drums; he plays guitar and sings. The band--named Fifteen Minutes, for the late Andy Warhol's measure of fame--now exists mainly for fun, Walker said.)

"I'm very conscious of and very interested in what's being said in Art Issues and Artforum, but I feel that we got kind of stuck," Walker said. "There's been a real dryness in the art world during the last five to six years. I'm interested in busting that open."

To that end, the Walkers are choosing to represent artists who are hard to pin down stylistically. Among them is a local art team called POM, who Walker described as a group of five best friends in their 20s. POM's paintings will be shown at the gallery in January.

"They're not making art to answer popular criticism--they're just making art," Walker said. "I call it 'in your face.' "

In April, Walker and Walker will open the first U. S. show of paintings by a neo-Dadaist Dutch group called DNA, whose members early this year surprised an opening-night group of Amsterdam art patrons by dousing gallery lights, emerging dressed in coal miners' hats, then painting their finished canvases white.

On view now at the gallery is the first Los Angeles show of the thickly worked paintings of San Francisco artist Ev Thomas.

But, primarily, the gallery plans to represent local and regional emerging artists, who Walker believes must be supported.

"I don't think that L. A. is a major art center," Walker said. "Los Angeles keeps falling into a trap: There are so many good, significant artists working here, but so many galleries look to New York and try to pull people out from New York--even if they don't have a big reputation. . . . Los Angeles is still second-guessing itself, still looking to other places for validation."

Walker and Walker Gallery, 1748 Berkeley St., Santa Monica. (213) 829-9505. Open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

SCULPTURE FOR 50: Since 1976, a diverse group of sculptors known as the Sycamore Studio have studied together, shared tools and work premises, and mounted occasional group shows. Recently, the group--which has grown from six or seven members to more than 50--decided to open its own small gallery at its studio in Culver City.

"It was time for them to have a showcase," said Sycamore Studio director Bob Cunningham, who also serves as the group's instructor. "These people have been working for quite a long time--and they're really serious about what they are doing."

The group was born when Cunningham, who was teaching at Otis Parsons, was approached by a handful of students who were "looking for more than just classes--they were looking for a studio situation where they could continue their learning on a higher level," Cunningham said. The group began meeting in Cunningham's former studio, then rented several other sites together before settling in the present Jefferson Boulevard location.

"We have a big variety of aesthetic preferences and development and aptitude," said Cunningham, adding that preferred methods run the gamut from clay modeling and stone carving to welding and assemblage. The studio space is divided in two, with one area devoted to figurative work done from live models; the rest is allocated to individually structured "methods and materials" projects, Cunningham said.

The Sycamore Studio gallery each year will be able to accommodate individual shows for 18 of the group's members. In previous years, the studio held group shows at the Federal Building and at Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro.

"But it takes a lot of energy to work up a show for so many people," Cunningham said. "Having a gallery here simplifies it--you don't have to move the pieces so far."

Sculpture by Ben Bronson and Lee Jordan through Friday at Sycamore Studio, 11904 Jefferson Blvd., Culver City. (213) 397-2697. Open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

SEPIA CREEK: Since it opened in the spring of 1989, the nonprofit Highways has made a mark for itself as a locus for multicultural, often political performance art. Less well-known is its little visual art gallery, which opens an hour before each performance and weekday mornings.

The monthly shows are generally tied into themes being explored in the performance-art schedule, Highways General Manager Jill Burnham said.

At present, in conjunction with the series "Witness L. A./Testigo L. A.," the gallery is showing an unusual body of work called "The Ballona Series" by Heidi Zin, whose work usually tends toward somewhat romantic pencil drawings and watercolors.

These pieces are different. Almost all collaged works on paper, they look delicately sepia-toned at first glance. A closer look at a triptych called "Here, Drink This," however, reveals that it was done using plastic litter--and swirled creek sludge.

Zin went to Ballona Creek--the undeveloped stretch of wetland that stretches between Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey--for an early morning walk. She said she was amazed at the amount of collective waste deposited there: the mangled Styrofoam cups and other discarded plastics, even whole shopping carts.

"I could hardly see the water--it was covered with Styrofoam cups," Zin said. "I was so touched that I wanted to do something about it." She picked up some cups and brought them back to her studio.

Later, Zin stretched watercolor paper on boards and took them to the site. Then, clad in rubber boots and gloves, she dipped the boards into the water, lifting the top layer of sludge onto the paper. Zin noted that the resulting forms often reflected the motion of the liquid, as if it were a poured color-field painting.

She has one or two more pieces she wants to do. But after that, she will probably abandon the series, Zin said: She has her health to consider.

Heidi Zin, "The Ballona Series: An Oceanic Love Affair," through Friday at Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. (213) 453-1755. Open from 10 a.m. to noon, and 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays before each Highways performance.

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