Meet the L.A. Art World’s New Avant-Garde

Seven trailblazing artists and galleries that are taking the city by storm

As the international collecting class descends upon L.A. for another season of conspicuous commerce at the London-based Frieze Fair—this year held at Santa Monica Municipal Airport, the exact spot where the Art Los Angeles Contemporary Fair once thrived—more adventuresome art lovers might want to venture to other parts of the city for a slew of shows by more organically-raised L.A. artists. In these pages, Los Angeles has assembled a portfolio of buzzy new local galleries and artists—including a multimedia group show atop Mount Washington, a ceramics sculptor extraordinaire in Long Beach, and a comic-critic performing at downtown’s MOCA. It’s all the aesthetic thrills of Frieze, but with none of the jet fumes.

Alicia Piller. In a just few years since receiving her MFA at CalArts, Alicia Piller has propelled her sculpture—made from iPhone photos of flowers and press images of Black Lives Matters protests printed on resin-coated paper, archival family slides, repurposed canvases, all varieties of vinyl, jewelry, leather, and minerals— into the permanent collection of the Hammer Museum, a sprawling survey, Alicia Piller: Within, curated by Jill Moniz at Craft Contemporary (through May 7), and a recent New York Times feature naming her as one of “5 Artists to Watch at the California  Biennial.” The latter was the result of a freestanding sculpture, A Mother’s Voice. Rages. Global Warnings. (2022) that alchemizes a range of blue vinyl structures embedded with photos of activist Helen Jones- Phillips—an activist whose son John Horton was killed (though the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office claims it was suicide) by officers in 2010 at the Men’s Central Jail—into a monument to social justice. These divergent roads running throughout her oeuvre emerged from an unlikely origin story. Piller is the youngest daughter of a Jewish pediatrician father and a black paralegal mother, who supported his medical pursuits by enlisting an adolescent Piller on the weekends to work clown gigs at birthday parties and she uses balloons in her work to this day. At Craft Contemporary, her examinations of capitalism, colonialism, trauma, the accumulation of material, and the sinuous layers of the body (informed by her father’s anatomy books) will come full circle. “It’s gonna be like you’re walking through this labyrinth of my works,” says Piller. Adds Moniz, “The space itself is the story, that’s why the exhibition is called Within. It’s about entering into this experience of being inside her thinking as she goes from the macro into the micro, zooming into particulars that are cultural, environmental, ecological and then she zooms out to show us a larger global or even cosmic perspective.”

Clockwise, from top left: Sara Lee Hantman, Dan Herschlein, Kelly Akashi, And Brandy Carstens

Sea View. In 1998, the Cuban-born artist Jorge Pardo was offered a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and in an attempt to blur the lines between art and design and exhibition space he created a 3,000-square-foot property—it later became his home/studio—out of redwood, concrete and custom Mexican tiles accenting a lush garden atop Mount Washington’s panoramic Sea View Lane. A quarter century later Sara Lee Hantman, the gallery director and furniture designer behind the budding Prisma Studio (which she launched during the pandemic with her fiancé Coley Brown), is carving out her own gallery in a section of Pardo’s studio in conjoined spaces totaling 800 square feet. Hantman, who recently curated a show of William Wright’s paintings at the Frank Gehry-designed Seventh House, will christen her space, simply called Sea View, with a multimedia group show called River Styx co-curated by Matthew Brown director Brandy Curstens, featuring work by Kelly Akashi, Theodora Allen, and Frank Walter that feeds into this notion of the gallery as a liminal and generative, not merely transactional. “Brandy and I had been talking about this idea of this boundary-less space that’s a passageway and in this space, people can come home a little bit, they can stay a while,” says Hantman. Adds Curstens, “We want you to have a cup of coffee, walk down the nature trail. Let’s share some ideas that can inspire something new.”

Christina Catherine Martinez. Unless you’re someone who’s amused by the voluble Instagram musings of Jerry Saltz, it’s fair to say that art criticism is not a great repository for cutting-edge comedy. But Christina Catherine Martinez is not your typical art critic. Since she braved her first open mic at Echoes Under Sunset in 2015, the East L.A. native has turned herself into an in-demand comic who has been lauded as a Comedian You Should Know by Vulture. Her “conceptually highbrow and physically slapstick” stand-up style also bleeds into droll reviews (for CNN, ArtForum, and the Los Angeles Times, which recently assigned her to soak in a hot tub installation with the artist Tita Cicognani at the Hammer Museum), She’s also the author of an acclaimed book of confessional social commentary (Aesthetical Relations), and creates avant-garde performances for art institutions including REDCAT, Human Resources (where she shot her forthcoming special “How to Bake a Cake in the Digital Age”) and MOCA, where she’ll give a 45-minute “walkthrough” of the Iranian-born, L.A.-based painter Tala Madani’s retrospective, CUTperhapsCUT as her Valley Girl art publicist alter-ego Stephanie, on February 18. “When I started taking comedy more seriously, I thought this is my exit from the art world cause there’s no way anyone’s gonna take me seriously as a writer if they knew that I was also a comedian,” says Martinez, who is also performing at Dynasty Typewriter on February 9 and every night at the SXSW Comedy Festival in Austin, Texas, March 10-14. “Ironically, since I’ve been more open about both they are actually coming together in more interesting ways. It’s like horseshoe theory. They’re doing different things but they end up doing something similar.”

Ambre Kelly And Andrew Gori

Spring/Break Art Show. Ambre Kelly was working behind the scenes with Art Basel and Andrew Gori was doing PA work for the likes of Jim Jarmusch when they met on a sidewalk in SoHo in 2007. A couple of years later the now-married duo merged their talents and produced a series of pop-up art exhibitions—featuring everything from paintings to plays—inside St. Patrick’s Old School in NoLiTa, which led to collaborations with the New Museum and an opportunity to start their own fair in 2012. “It was a month or two before The Armory and the fair reached out to us and asked, ‘Are you planning to do any events during Armory Arts Week,’” recalls Kelly. “The other thing they said was that they could only promote another art fair. We were like, ‘Well this could be an art fair.” They dubbed it Spring/Break Art Show as a nod to their place of origin and the notion that this wasn’t going to be another gallery-focused fair, but rather a curator-driven platform that has gone on to promote the work of more than 700 curators and thousands of artists (from Genevieve Gaignard to Alia Shawkat) in the past decade. With 11 shows in New York under their belts—at the James A. Farley Post Office, 4 Times Square, UN Plaza and the old Madison Avenue offices of Ralph Lauren—Kelly and Gori are now splitting time between New York and Venice, where they are planning their fourth LA edition with some 75 projects in the pipeline. “We always say three is the magic number, and last year was the third LA show,” adds Kelly, who will fly to Georgia with Gori after the show to start work on his first feature film. Says Gori, “It’s like a social issues horror film somewhere between Jordan Peele and the Coen Brothers.” Sounds like the premise for a knockout Spring/Break curatorial proposal.

From left: Guy Rusha, Trulee Hall, Patrick Kellycooper, and Keziah Toscano

Rusha & Co. When Guy Rusha started his gallery Seasons LA (now Rusha & Co.) just before the pandemic, it began with a series of curator-driven projects that morphed into a brick-and-mortar space in downtown LA a year ago. Now with help from newly installed director Patrick Kellycooper (formerly of Nicodim), the program is on a roll with acclaimed solo presentations from Lanise Howard, Delia Brown (at Untitled Miami), and L.A.’s beloved multimedia madame Trulee Hall, who will christen a new 3100 square foot space in a 1914 firehouse in the Decorative Arts and Furniture District during Los Angeles Art Week. In the former bunk room space, Hall will exhibit five new fantasy landscape paintings, in the old firemen’s lounge she’ll screen a quarter-century worth of films (including her rock opera Ladies Lair Lake) around the century-old fireplace, and in the engine bay she’ll create a lush new film-and-sculpture installation that hints at the title, Plays on Foreplays. “I have this theme I’m playing with that’s sexy tiger woman, lesbian foreplay and the characters all have different vibes like cuddly sweet or 80s overly stylized cool cucumber and I’m writing music for all of them,” says Hall. Adds Kellycooper, “This space came with so much character and it allows artists like Trulee who are acutely aware of unique spatial situations to play with a very unique space for exhibiting work.”

Tony Marsh. For 35 years Tony Marsh was a veritable kingmaker in the international ceramics scene as the informal (then formal) director of what became the Center for Contemporary Ceramics at Long Beach State. There he provided a platform for the most innovative artists working in clay—from Anna Sew Hoy to Simone Leigh—to make monumental works in CCC’s 40 electric and gas-powered kilns. And just as Marsh “incited” artists into memorable works from an array of art world titans—and students he educated through hands-on practice, experimenting with jet-engine kilns and pioneering travel programs to the Venice Biennale—he was also pushing the medium to new levels in his own practice, from body formed terra sigillata fertility vessels to lava-like moon jars fitted with taxonomical shelves to an extremely delicate series of perforated containers with thousands of precisely drilled 3/16 inch holes. A well-curated selection of his 50-year career, Brilliant Earth: The Ceramic Sculpture of Tony Marsh—including the first pot he made in high school—is up through March 19 at the shoreline-straddling institution. “So many folks who work with clay settle into a comfortable position relative to cultural appropriation, or in ways that ensure an ever-consistent stylistic identity, or make work driven by technical party tricks,” says Marsh. “That is something I have worked in opposition to almost from day one.”

Elliott Hundley. “Usually I do exhibitions based on a theme or a particular work of literature, but this show is sort of a collage,” says Elliott Hundley, standing in the vast studio of his biggest collage, the 18,000 square foot live/work space he carved out of a Chinatown import warehouse, which he’s also turned into a low stakes, high exposure, talent incubator offering elegantly installed solo shows to under-represented, if overly-talented, artists like Mimi Lauter, Yaron Michael Hakim and Chris Miller. For his latest, and most ambitious solo turn, at Regen Projects, Hundley is turning 21 years worth of art and ephemera inside this vast industrial warren—a two-story bohemian loft space with a hoarder’s trove of beads, printed matter, heirlooms, detritus, vintage furniture and fashions, branches, neons, and foam casts of old breeze blocks that he uses for his expressionistic collaged paintings and assemblage sculptures—and collapsing it all into a wunderkammer exhibition that will include the purple foam walls tacked with collage elements and a sculpture made via bite marks from his parrot, Echo, who gave the show its title. “It’s the name of my parrot, but also this idea of something coming back, a looking back,” says Hundley. “The whole foam thing is about how I can’t actually change the works, so working in the margins is a way to make revisions.” @elliotthundley

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