Memoir

True Confessions of a Justified Art Dealer, Part Two: Forget It, Joel. It’s Chinatown.

Joel Mesler (last row to the left) with local Chinatown dealers and artists at Hop Louie's in 2002. JOSHUA WHITE

Joel Mesler (last row to the left) with local Chinatown dealers and artists at Hop Louie’s in 2002.

JOSHUA WHITE

This is the second part in a recurring column. You can read part one here.

Giovanni Intra started China Art Objects in 1998 with Steve Hanson, who still runs the gallery, now in Culver City. The Los Angeles art world in the late ’90s was little more than an unsettled no-man’s land where anything was possible. Giovanni used to wait outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to get into openings he wasn’t invited to with a backpack full of drawings by Jon Pylypchuk, one of the artists he represented at his gallery, and he’d sell them to the trustees in line to inch his way to the front.

Giovanni opened in Chinatown when it was still a row of souvenir shops hawking herbal remedies and vases, but he made the neighborhood into a place where L.A. wanted to congregate. He came from New Zealand, and he was pale and gaunt with a high forehead and too-large glasses. He was always broke. He drove a Volkswagen Golf that was perpetually repossessed by the city because he had so many parking violations, and his friends had to pay to get the boot removed from the car. He hosted dinner parties, requesting that guests bring with them live lobsters.

By the time I opened my gallery Dianne Pruess in 2000, the neighborhood was already changing fast. Mike Kelley had designed a wishing well for Gin Ling Way, and it sat in front of the former General Lee’s restaurant, a relic of the old Chinatown, which, when I was a child, had been the place where rich Beverly Hills Jews like my parents would go to play Mahjong, have a nice Chinese dinner, and get loaded on liquor and drugs in the back banquet room. It was now an abandoned storefront. An Indonesian security guard named Sean patrolled the wishing well day and night, keeping robbers away from the loose change. He was 250 pounds and seemed like he had simply come along with the memory of the defunct General Lee’s as a package deal. I had a hard time reading how he felt about the new faces invading the neighborhood. But nobody wanted to cross him, and he protected that fountain like it was the old homestead and the surrounding neighborhood was an encroaching predator.

Galleries were popping up everywhere. A young lawyer named Javier Peres, who wore very tight jeans, carried around a poodle, and talked about growing up with Basquiats in his bathroom, opened his gallery on Chung King Road with a party featuring a slew of leather daddies and a crystal bowl of cocaine casually resting on a glass table. Inmo Yuon had a gallery where he showed predominantly Asian American artists. Near the end of every day, Inmo would walk down Chung King Road and visit every business on the block. Mine was near the end of this tour, and my neighbors would call me up and offer fair warning of Inmo’s approach, but it hardly mattered. He would always enter the gallery in the late afternoon, walk to the center of the space, stare up at the ceiling, and hum loudly. When I’d ask him what he was doing, he would either ignore me, or say, “Stop bothering me. I’m meditating.” The artist Jorge Pardo and Steven Hanson, in between making local celebrities out of artists like Eric Wesley and Pae White at China Art Objects, decided to lease the abandoned General Lee’s and start a bar there called the Mountain, reopening the back banquet room to a new generation of debauchery.

I was living in the basement of my gallery, which I had also turned into an after-hours speakeasy to make more money. My friend Aaron Turner helped me build a bar, and we’d sell our guests dime bags of various drugs that we purchased in bulk. At the first party, the artist Charles Irvin—at my suggestion—took Viagra, stripped naked, and was breakdancing near the entrance. The idea was that he would be the first thing people saw when they walked in, but he was so nervous the medication had no effect, and he spent most of the evening hiding upstairs. Downstairs, the designers Loy and Ford, who had recently sold a dress to Britney Spears to wear at the Grammys, were running through the crowd with giant pairs of scissors, snipping at people’s clothing so that it would fall to the ground in one swift movement before they noticed anything was wrong. Artist Micol Hebron rented a white horse, strapped a horn on its head so it looked like a unicorn, and, sporting a ludicrous blond wig, rode the creature back and forth down Chung King Road for the remainder of the night. All in all, not a bad side business. In June 2001, a New York Times article had anointed the neighborhood a “bohemian outpost.”

A few months after that first party, I was drinking coffee outside my gallery one morning and I noticed that my mailbox had been ripped off the building’s facade. It was sitting in the middle of the street. I looked down the block and saw that a number of mailboxes had been pulled off the buildings and thrown into the middle of Chung King Road.

I thought nothing of this until I ran into Sean later that day. He told me that the night before Inmo had lost his mind. He had been spotted running through Chinatown completely naked, covered in his own feces, and using a bat to smash the neighborhood’s windows and mailboxes. The LAPD had arrived. After trying and failing to get him to put down the bat, the police started shooting him with rubber bullets. It took eight rounds to bring him down. I never found out what happened to Inmo, but I decided to move my parties to a bar across the street and try to run a more serious gallery.

I made this decision for my own good. Giovanni played no small role in it. Giovanni had problems, but I idolized him. He would barely speak to me for a long time after I met him, and he never invited me to one of those lobster dinners. I wasn’t sure if this was rivalry, or simply business, but I confronted him about it once, one night right after Inmo had his breakdown. Giovanni was in my basement, smoking crack that we had bought in MacArthur Park.

“I love you,” he said, “but you’re bringing down the professionalism of this. I need to make money.”

Of course the irony of this was not lost on me, and six weeks later, Giovanni would be dead.

Joel Mesler is the owner of UNTITLED Gallery in New York.

A version of this story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 18 under the title “Part Two: Forget It, Joel. It’s Chinatown.”


You can read other parts in the series here.

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