The Malibu Contemporary Art Fair: Galleries take art to where the money lives

The Malibu Contemporary Art Fair: Galleries take art to where the money lives
Artist Steven Bankhead, right, with his assistant Russell George paint sections of the floor in preparation for the Malibu Annual Contemporary Art Fair. (Ken Hively, Los Angeles Times)
It's a typical weekday afternoon at the Malibu Country Mart. The weather is perfect. Suntanned women stroll through Henry Beguelin, Madison and Morgane le Fay. Young mothers cluster around the counter at 98% Perfect, buying designer swimwear and shoes for 5-year-olds who would rather be somewhere else. Stylishly scruffy men tend to their BlackBerrys and laptops on the terrace of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

But on the second floor of a Spanish-style building on one side of the mall, a different kind of action is underway. The proprietors of seven edgy galleries in Chinatown and Hollywood are turning a former high school for troubled kids into the first Malibu Annual Contemporary Art Fair, opening tonight and running through Sunday afternoon.
Malibu Art Fair: An article on the Malibu Annual Contemporary Art Fair in Friday's Calendar section mentioned a store called 98% Perfect. The store actually is named 98% Angel. —

What are the art dealers thinking? When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping for art in Malibu?

Welcome to the "leaner, meaner, recession-proof art fair," as participants call it.

The tiny, offbeat event is the brainchild of John Knuth, the director of Circus Gallery, who organized the fair with Kathryn Brennan of Sister and Parker Jones, whose gallery bears his name. Instead of wallowing in the August doldrums of a brutal economy and feeling left out of the super-sized, painfully expensive fairs that dot the globe, Knuth decided to round up a few friends and spend a low-budget weekend at the high end of the beach.

"I wanted to try uncharted territory where it's fun and there is a different demographic, where people buy houses," he says. "I called Realtors and the Malibu Country Mart and told them I was looking for a space to do an art fair. I said we would bring a different group of people, young professionals, a hip crowd, into their community."

It didn't take long for Stu McNelis, who manages the Malibu Country Mart, to offer Knuth the vacant space.

"Malibu is conservative," McNelis says, "but there is a faction that wants this to happen. This may be the start of something good."

With a few days to go before the opening, Circus, Sister, Parker Jones and each of the other galleries -- China Art Objects,Chung King Projects,the Company and Eighth Veil -- has commandeered a former classroom or office as a temporary showcase. The school furniture is gone. So is most of the garish plaid carpet, and the walls have a fresh coat of white paint.

Some of the art has yet to arrive, but Circus and the Company are bustling. Artist Alexander May and an assistant haul a who-knows-how-heavy sculpture up an exterior flight of stairs, through a doorway, around a corner and down a few more steps to the center of the Company's room.

Lying on its side on the splotchy gray concrete, the white cylindrical form looks like it might have been part of the building. But then May coils a length of white nylon rope into a saddle-like shape on the upper contour and the piece begins to evoke thoughts of elegant horses and precariously balanced riders.

A few feet away, Annie Wharton and Anat Ebgi, who run the gallery, figure out where to place the other artists' paintings, photographs and videos. After four tries, they hoist a large photographic "Vampire Portrait" by Jen DeNike into place.

Across the hall, the weekend version of Circus is shaping up. Large works by Jason Yates and Justin Hansch fill two walls and smaller pieces line shelves. Artist Steven Bankhead covers the floor with giant paper stencils and rolls black and white paint over exposed concrete. The roughly rectangular painted shapes correspond to words in a framed artwork containing a French phrase that Bankhead translates as "under the cobblestones, the beach." The connection to Malibu may be obvious, but that the message comes from a student uprising in Paris also ties it to the site of the fair, he says.

What the public makes of all this remains to be seen. But Knuth is already planning the next Malibu Annual. The same building won't be available, but he has some leads.