Downtown Exhibits Its Eclecticism

Times Staff Writer

Downtown Los Angeles turned into a canvas dabbed with colorful contrasts Saturday as old-school art found itself combined with the new -- and well-heeled suburbanites found themselves mixing with down-and-out street people.

A self-guided "art walk" along an eight-block section of the center of the city drew some 3,000 visitors to two dozen independent galleries.

Most have popped up over the last two years in long-neglected storefronts to tap into downtown's burgeoning residential loft scene. The concentration, centered at the corners of 5th Street and Spring and Main streets, has prompted city officials to designate the area Gallery Row.

The variety of the art and the sophistication of its display surprised many -- some of whom were paying their first visit to the 90-year-old business district that now separates downtown's high-rise district from skid row.

Works ranged from the eclectic mix of art and smokes at 2nd Street Cigars and Gallery to avant-garde photography at the L.A. Center for Digital Art on 5th Street.

Visitors were stopped in their tracks by the glass-topped table at the entrance to M.J. Higgins Fine Art and Furnishings on Main Street. Beneath the glass was a sculpture made by artist Jericho Woggon from what appeared to be rusty fenders and hubcaps from an old Hudson nestled on a bed of 22 hammered-into-shape vintage license plates.

"Where would you put your feet if you sat around that table?" asked Randy Kahn, a Calabasas teacher.

Replied his friend, Valencia audiologist Suzanne Holowecky: "My dad would love that. He'd appreciate it -- you should see his garage."

On Winston Street, a trio of once-mundane retail storefronts have been combined to create Crewest Gallery. Its crisp, whitewashed walls displayed mixed media celebrating L.A.'s gritty street culture and works by local graffiti painters and "underground artists."

Gallery owner Alex Poli of Rosemead, known professionally as Man One, said he opened on Gallery Row after outgrowing a gallery he operated for nearly four years in Alhambra.

"We're focusing on bringing street art into the gallery to show it's a respectable art form," he said.

In an alley next to Crewest Gallery, an artist who calls himself Kofie One was painting a portrait on canvas. Next to him, a spray-painter with the moniker Eye One was applying angular lines on a large piece of particle board.

Asked if he had been a tagger, Eye One responded: "That's how everyone starts."

"It's neat to see it," said visitor Drew Cartwright of Newbury Park, a graphic designer. "I like to see it portrayed in a more legitimate fashion than on the side of a wall or a bus. There's real talent here. He's doing that spray-painting free-handed. It's amazing."

On 5th Street, a large crowd was studying large contemporary oil paintings on the architecturally designed walls of the Pharmaka Gallery. The name draws from the Greek word for "to paint" or "an artist's colors," said one of its founders, Shane Guffogg of Hollywood.

Pharmaka is run by a nonprofit arts group. It opened 14 months ago in space once used by a Chinese restaurant "that had a C rating and horrible smell. Homeless people were scattered on the street outside," Guffogg said.

"We opened here as a reaction to what we were seeing outside," added another founder, John Scane of Long Beach. He said art being displayed Saturday was priced from $17,000 for a wall-sized painting to $2,300 for a compact, foot-wide piece by veteran modernist painter Stanley Dorfman.

Across 5th Street at the 1923 Rosslyn Hotel, a steady stream of visitors stepped through a doorway beneath an aging sign that read "Billy's Grill and Coffee Shop."

Inside, the former hotel coffee shop had been transformed into the INMO Gallery. Eight-foot woodcut posters printed from carved plywood panels by artist Roger Herman glowed under spotlights.

The art display space preserved a section of the original coffee shop counter, gallery assistant director Young Chung said.

After inspecting the huge woodcuts, visitors Chris and Camilla Good of West Los Angeles pushed the stroller carrying 7-month-old son Oliver back out onto the 5th Street sidewalk.

Camilla Good paused to study the architecture of the onetime landmark "Million Dollar Hotel" Rosslyn.

"You see some history mixed in with the contrast of crazy modern art," she said approvingly. Added Chris Good, a lawyer: "It is a little scary around here, though. You're a little cautious walking around here."

As if on cue, a transient pushing an overloaded shopping cart filled with old clothes and recyclables passed by. With a crash, a bottle tumbled from the cart and smashed on the sidewalk behind the Goods. Half a block away, a purple-clad street monitor employed by a downtown improvement district moved in with a broom to sweep up the broken glass.

Visitors used maps to find galleries tucked in unexpected places, such as the ornate lobby of the 1914 Crocker National Bank on Spring Street. It's now known as the Spring Arts Tower.

Inside, Monique Salvato, a sound editor from Los Feliz, was captured in colorful digital pixels on a wall-size video screen. "It's mimicking me. It's amazing," she said. Artist Tyler Adams of the Mid-Wilshire area explained how he combined electronics with design to create the interactive artwork.

Across the room, Nancy Davis, a Laguna Beach attorney, studied a large video monitor showing 28 red dodge-balls bouncing up and down in an empty, darkened parking lot. "It's so realistic, it's almost hypnotizing," she marveled.

Artist Pascual Sisto of Venice said he photographed one ball being bounced 28 times late one night in a Marina del Rey Home Depot parking lot, and then spent a month combining the images on a continuous video loop to create the nonstop motion.

Gallery Row president and co-founder Nic Cha Kim said Saturday's art walk, presented by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, seemed to go off without a hitch.

Except for maybe one.

Kim, a digital photographer and playwright, said his own Spring Street gallery, Niche.LA, was incorrectly located on the art walk map.

"I got my own street address wrong on my own map," he shrugged.

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