At another time, in another city, they might have been East Village hipsters, chanting counterculture prophesies to a lunatic bongo beat. Or perhaps Andy Warhol’s drug-addled “superstars,” tweaking society while turning art-making into a narcissistic free-love frenzy.
But these parallels seem rather quaint as night falls across Hollywood Boulevard, between Highland Avenue and Cahuenga Boulevard, and a crowd of regulars gathers on the sidewalk outside Headquarters. Most who have come here can’t say exactly why. Few appear to know much about the noisy, multimedia happening going on inside this 2,600-square-foot storefront--a hybrid mix of art gallery, cyber cafe, alternative performance space and underground hangout, squeezed between a nightclub and a sportswear shop.
Yet by 10:30 or so, Headquarters will be buzzing with restless kindred souls, mostly age 30 and under: actors, models, filmmakers, Web site designers, Hollywood personal assistants, painters, photographers, e-magazine editors and a few marauding club kids sniffing for something, anything, new.
As a wave of acid-house music drifts out the door, staccato strobe lights suffuse the nicotine fog through which men and women float like Balinese shadow puppets. “Is this a gallery or a bar?” one twentysomething with a scraggly goatee demands. Lemuel Serrano, the controversial impresario who conducts Headquarters to his own offbeat vibrato, fixes the guy with sunglass-shaded eyes. “It’s whatever you want it to be,” he says, “if you’re there.”
It’s a characteristic Serrano utterance: deadpan and cryptic, yet somehow bluntly inviting. But Serrano’s spiky-mellow retort is revealing in other ways. In the sprawling, complex road map of Los Angeles culture, Headquarters is a kind of unmarked cul-de-sac. You won’t find it listed in newspapers or magazines, and you’re not likely to see fliers promoting its exhibitions.
Serrano, an art and commercial photographer, operates Headquarters on a lean budget and in a laid-back, eccentric style. While the space has attracted a core of passionate devotees, it barely registers on L.A.'s wider cultural radar.
On any given night, Headquarters might be hosting an exhibition of contemporary Italian paintings, a launch party for a dot-com start-up or a showcase for a punk-gothic band--maybe all of the above. Yet since opening Headquarters a year and a half ago, Serrano, 30, and his business partner Brendan Avery, 26, who designs Web interfaces for entertainment companies, have kept a calculatedly low profile.
Like the chameleon-esque Serrano, who has also answered to “Gene Lemuel” and “Jesus Smith,” Headquarters refuses to pin itself to a fixed identity. It’s an enigmatic work in progress whose young, rotating cast of characters come in search of conversation, a shared laugh and a form of creative nurturing some find lacking in their 9-to-5 lives.
“It’s hard to explain what it is,” says Joe Livolsi, 33, a freelance Hollywood prop maker, formerly with Disney Imagineering, who custom-built the brushed-metal moderne counter/bar that enhances Headquarters’ noir-ish ambience. “It’s going to be something special, and I definitely want to be a part of it. I think anyone who sees the place wants to become part of it.”
But part of what? Ask Serrano to define Headquarters and you’ll likely get a stream of karmic pronouncements. “It’s the Factory of the 21st century,” he’ll say, referring to Warhol’s (in)famous Manhattan studio-commune. “It’s a conglomeration of all sensibilities.”
Such cocksure claims may strike some as absurdly highfalutin. Even Avery jokes that his partner sometimes can sound “like Carlos Castaneda,” referring to the late mystic writer. “Lemuel’s good at keeping the pot stirring,” says Avery, who deals with the techno side of the business while Serrano handles the artistic.
For the most part, Serrano and Avery seem content to let the space define itself gradually. “I think the one thing about Headquarters is it all boils down to him,” says Flaunt magazine arts editor Larry Schubert, who has known Serrano for 10 years. “It’s all an extension of his weird personality.”
Headquarters sits on a side street of multiple identities in Hollywood’s fast-changing commercial corridor. Two blocks down the street is the Hollywood Athletic Club. To the west, construction cranes loom over TrizecHahn’s $430-million retail-entertainment complex. To the east, crowds flock to Disney’s “The Lion King” at the Pantages Theatre. The hookers and crackheads who once ruled this area haven’t disappeared, but they’re in retreat.
Serrano sleeps on a mattress on the floor at Headquarters, shaves at a scuzzy sink in the back and showers wherever he’s welcome. “This area is going to be the whole new mecca,” he says. “It’s what Paris was in the ‘20s and New York, in the Village, in the ‘70s.”
Serrano’s lofty invocation of the ‘70s New York art scene, whose clown prince was Warhol, is not accidental. Taking his cue, in part, from the enigmatic Pittsburgh-born pop artist, Serrano aspires to create an ongoing, mutating “scene” filled with quirky, creative, attractive people.
Natalia Puchalt, a photographer friend, says Serrano simply has a flair for connecting with fellow free spirits. “He will be going down the street, and he’ll say, ‘That person looks interesting,’ and he’ll say, ‘Let’s meet them.’ And he does that all the time.”
Indeed, Serrano is a practiced collector of oversize personalities. As a young commercial photographer he befriended and helped ignite the career of the Russian-born actress and model Milla Jovovich (“The Fifth Element”) when she was a girl. “He had a really sick sense of humor, and at 11 I could relate,” Jovovich says with a giggle while attending a Headquarters opening. “He’s really an artist, not a fashion photographer.”
David Fahey, whose Fahey/Klein is one of the prominent galleries on La Brea’s art strip, sees some of Warhol’s self-dramatizing qualities in Serrano. “Warhol is the master of theater in the arts, and Lemuel is consciously or unconsciously adopting many of the things that Andy has done.”
Fahey says he has urged Serrano to publish some of his prints in book form--considered a crucial first step for young art photographers seeking to establish themselves. So far, nothing has come of it. “His manner can be a little off-putting,” Fahey says, “and I think maybe I’ve just been a little bit more willing to indulge him, because I think he’s got some talent. Lemuel is emerging.”
Born in Spain and raised in Europe, Serrano says he dropped out of school after junior high and left home at 16. He began taking art photos, then acquired some commercial work after moving to L.A. Occasionally he’d turn up at modeling agencies. His off hours were devoted to surfing at Huntington Beach.
“There was no one quite like him,” recalls Schubert of Flaunt magazine. “He had long, auburn hair and was very buff. He always showed up around mealtimes, so it was like maybe he could split your muffin with you.” Before moving into Headquarters, Serrano spent a year living out of a blue Datsun and, later, a Hollywood apartment closet that he decorated with photos. “The way he lived was just not the way that a normal adult would think was important,” says Schubert.
Serrano sees himself as an agent provocateur out to challenge the cultural establishment. “I think I’m definitely here to test the system,” he declares, “to push their buttons, to make them strive for something more.”
But practically in the same breath he admits he wouldn’t mind cutting some deals with the Hollywood in-crowd--on his own terms, naturally. “I’m looking to be bought,” he says with a self-mocking flourish, “so bring on the T-shirts and sunglasses!” At such moments, it’s hard to separate Serrano’s true intentions from what he terms his “court jester vibe.”
“There’s a lot of bamboozlement, I think, in the spirit of great hucksters like P.T. Barnum,” Schubert says. “Although he’s a bit full of himself, he also tweaks other people’s pretensions.”
At Headquarters, odd combinations of characters drift through the door from late morning until early morning, like extras in a Fellini film: a college fashion-design student; a rock ‘n’ roll session musician; an LAPD officer with a penchant for avant-garde photography.
Some visitors peruse the exhibition of creepy neo-expressionist paintings by Italian-born artist Fulvia Zambon. Others loll on the floor chatting with Serrano. The sparse furnishings include two metal swings, half a dozen PCs and a small Baldwin pipe organ.
On one recent weekday afternoon, the salonistas included novelist Jane King (“Not Quite Perfect”), who recently held her first solo art show at Headquarters, and “Vee” (short for “Violence”), a model, ex-stripper and would-be poet who has become Headquarters’ resident muse.
Serrano only closes Headquarters’ rickety metal gate when he’s running errands, on a freelance shoot or pursuing his own art-photography projects. For some time he’s been enmeshed in a disturbing pictorial essay titled “A Beautiful Murder.” Gruesomely graphic or savagely lyrical, depending on your viewpoint, the macabre images depict fake “crime scenes” involving “dead,” nude Hollywood “starlets” meant to be seen as tragic victims of an exploitative Hollywood culture. The show provoked love-hate reactions when it opened last fall at Headquarters and subsequently moved to Keyson Gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Brooklyn gallery’s owner Ron Keyson, 40, says the show is “mature and startling,” though he concedes its subject matter infuriates some viewers. “I think he [Serrano] enjoys freedom more than the safety of recognition.”
While Serrano seems to revel in his role as a barbarian at the gates of L.A. culture, he also hints he may be tiring of existing on the margins. “I’ve been kind of underground and secluded,” he says on a Friday night as Headquarters is gearing up for another round of whatever. “I think now maybe I’m peeking out a little bit more.”
A few days later, Serrano calls with an invitation to stop by. “I’ve come up with a quote for the end of your story,” he announces, handing me a small scrap of paper. We chat for a few minutes on the street, across from a peeling mural of long-dead Hollywood immortals.
“Stop by any time,” Serrano calls out. “Door’s always open.”
A few blocks away I look at his note again. It reads: “I’m on the brink of nothing! --Lemuel.”
“Fulvia Zambon--Self Portraits” is showing at Headquarters, 1654 Schrader St., Hollywood, through January. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Monday through Sunday. Admission is free. Call (323) 962-6634.