The first real crossover art celebrity to come out of Los Angeles’s Chinatown was Eric Wesley, who showed at China Art Objects. The gallery’s owner, Giovanni Intra, was selling Wesley’s bronze casts of onion rings in neighborhood bars ($100 a ring, though the price quickly escalated to $200) and had placed Wesley in a show at Metro Pictures in New York in December 2002. Metro Pictures was one of the first galleries to open in Chelsea, now the city’s main art district, but then a barren wasteland of garages, taxi outposts, and S&M clubs.
Landing an artist in a New York gallery was what every dealer in Chinatown—including myself—was hoping for. This was a sign that your gallery had made it—that you were a serious business. In the days leading up to leaving for New York, all Giovanni could talk about was how he was going to buy a pair of Margiela shoes when he got to the city. He grew up poor and spent much of his adulthood broke, and this was the first time in his life that he had spending money.
The Metro opening, I had heard, devolved into chaos. Wesley got drunk and was locked out of his own party. As the gallery was closing down for the night, he started yelling on the street about wanting to be let back in. He kicked the front door hard enough to crack the glass. Metro Pictures promised to never work with him again and Giovanni never got his $600 pair of shoes.
In fact, he never even made it back to Los Angeles. After the debacle at the opening, Giovanni met up with two friends from New Zealand who were living on the Lower East Side. They were regular heroin users, and Giovanni tried to keep up with them, but he wasn’t a junkie and he overdosed in their apartment. The friends were too scared to call the cops, so Giovanni’s body remained there overnight.
The news of his death soon traveled to Los Angeles. My friend Mark von Schlegell, a writer who had met Giovanni at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, called me at six o’clock the next morning. I was living like a derelict in the basement of my gallery, illegally. Giovanni’s business partner, Steve Hanson, was living above my gallery in more pleasant circumstances with the artist Frances Stark, who was pregnant with Hanson’s child. Fifteen years later, von Schlegell would tell me of this time, “Something bad was bound to happen. Things were going too well.”
I was born in Los Angeles up the hill from the Whisky a Go Go in 1974. My father’s father invented the wire clothes hanger. My father was a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai, and he graduated from Chicago Medical School with a cocaine addiction that lasts to this day, even now that his nose is a cauterized ball of flesh. My mother was the daughter of Polish immigrants who settled in Detroit. She married my father and became the president of the PTA. My father used his credentials to prescribe himself pharmaceutical cocaine and I saw him only at the occasional birthday party.
My parents filed for divorce in 1986, and it was enough of a disaster to change California law. Thanks to Mesler vs. Mesler, there is now transparency between probate, bankruptcy, and divorce courts in California. Needless to say, things got messy. One night, after my mother moved out, she drove my younger brother and me to my father’s house when he wasn’t home to steal everything she had deemed rightfully belonged to her. She waited with the car running while my brother and I broke in. I was nine years old.
“Everything looks different,” my brother said. “I want to see what my room looks like.”
“We don’t have time for that,” I said. “Just steal that painting, OK?”
Whatever low my mother was driven to by their split was no match for my father. Years after the divorce was finalized, to support his cocaine addiction, Dad was rapidly draining the $3 million trust left for my brother and me by my grandfather. Eventually, my brother had enough of this and threatened to expose my father and have his medical license taken away. A few days after this threat, my brother was in his car outside my mother’s house, which he visited on the same day at the same time every week. He was on the phone with his first wife when a bullet cracked his windshield, narrowly missing him. My father had hired a one-armed Vietnam veteran named JT to scare him. Despite the sniper’s physical handicap, to this day I believe that if my father wanted to kill my brother, that bullet would have hit its target.
After Giovanni’s death, it felt as if I had traded the depravity of my upbringing for more of the same; only the style was different. I sold drugs out of my gallery, I threw parties, sometimes I sold a little art. But at a memorial for Giovanni at the Geffen Contemporary in February, 2003, I put on my best clothes like everyone else from Chinatown to pay my respects. (I had to borrow a tie from Steve Hanson.) The entire L.A. art world was there. Herb and Lenore Schorr, the first devoted collectors of Jean-Michel Basquiat, were visibly distraught. I realized the disconnect between Giovanni and myself. He was building something; I was just joking around.
A more private memorial was held at China Art Objects later. I had too many Tsingtaos and started ranting about how I wanted the people who I believed killed Giovanni to be held accountable, but nobody seemed to care. All those artists and dealers were more concerned about what his demise would do for business. Nobody would discuss the circumstances surrounding his death. Of course, I knew even then that many of them considered me to be part of the problem, another hanger-on. Maybe they were right.
The truth is, I had been unsure of my life in the art world long before Giovanni died, and was planning to shut down my gallery anyway. Before he left for New York, I had organized one last show, and Giovanni gave me a painting he made of white text on black paper that said: “Holly Weird.” The exhibition was on view when he died, and I kept the painting for myself. It hangs in the entrance to my apartment today. When the show was over, I closed the business and sold my building.
Joel Mesler owns New York’s UNTITLED gallery. This is part three of a recurring column.
A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 18 under the title “Downhill All the Way.”
You can read other parts in the series here.