For two years after I opened Rental Gallery in L.A.’s Chinatown, I never left my two-block kingdom in the neighborhood because I didn’t have to. Back then, in the mid-aughts, everyone wanted to be in Chinatown. The farthest east I went was Henry Taylor’s studio on Bernard Street. The farthest west I went was the Bank of America on College Street, where I would deposit the money I was making from my new business. I was drinking heavily at this time and suffered delusions of grandeur. I supplied outsiders with artwork, real estate, alcohol, drugs, and whatever else they might have needed, and came to think of myself as the concierge to the little collection of buildings and sidewalk that comprised my entire existence.
Nothing so insular can last, though, and while I was weltering in my blissful myopia, two former Santa Monica art dealers named Tim Blum and Jeff Poe, who worked with a young artist named Takashi Murakami and were long-rumored to be opening a large space in Chinatown, settled in Culver City instead. They moved into a building on La Cienega and instantaneously introduced the Los Angeles art world to big money. Suddenly everyone wanted to be in Culver City, and Chinatown regressed by about ten years overnight. No matter that the artists lived and worked in Chinatown—in cheap real estate, no less—and that their success was entrenched with that of the local dealers. No one wanted to be associated with Chinatown anymore; there was something bigger to aspire to. This was the first time I understood that the art market was more powerful than idealism.
In the spring of 2006, as the inevitable mass exodus picked up steam—my longtime neighbors Javier Peres and David Kordansky started negotiating leases for galleries on La Cienega—I had my first solo show as an artist at Black Dragon Society on Chung King Road. This rekindled my ambition to be a famous artist, a goal I had tried and failed to achieve years before. Going into the show, I was aware it was something of a last gasp of the life I’d known as an adult so far. I thought of my solo debut as a kind of retrospective of everything I experienced in Chinatown, the closing credits on a largely unsustainable existence that I didn’t want to end. Parker Jones, Black Dragon Society’s owner, sold some work and I was naive enough to believe that, by the end of the opening, I had finally made it as an artist.
A few days later, a young woman, a film director from New York came to Chinatown to buy art and met me at my gallery. A week later, I had left Los Angeles and was living with her in Manhattan. I wasn’t putting a great deal of thought into my actions at this time, but I had enough wherewithal to keep my real estate in L.A. to finance my life on the East Coast. I rented an $800-a-month studio in Tribeca and woke up every day to paint. In L.A. I had people to paint, but in New York, I didn’t have much of anyone, so I’d paint people from memory. There was no bathroom in the studio, but there was a sink, which made for a better situation than most of the places I had lived in L.A. When the film director and I got into arguments, I’d sleep in the studio, eat my meals at the deli downstairs, and use that sink quite frequently.
I believed that I had a real shot this time at being an artist in New York. I had already started and finished a career as a dealer in L.A., and now I had a dealer of my own, Parker Jones, who wanted to show me at the Armory Show in New York, the biggest art fair in America at the time. Parker flew out to do a studio visit with me and saw what I was working on.
“I couldn’t show this,” he said. “They’ve actually gotten worse. New York has been bad for you.”
My years dealing with artists had taught me how to reckon with a situation like this: I told him that he had to show me at the Armory Show. I was one of his representative artists. He relented, but he didn’t want to show my paintings. I offered instead a video of my birth that my father had shot at Cedars-Sinai in L.A. As I mentioned, I was operating mostly on impulse at this point in my life. For whatever reason, Parker believed my literal introduction to the world was a better way of introducing my artistic career on an international stage than my mediocre but inoffensive paintings. Anyway, he had just made some money off my work. He wanted to keep me happy.
Parker gave over much of his booth at the Armory Show to the painter Jonas Wood, another L.A. artist, and put the video of my birth dead center. People either ignored my video or told Parker how much they hated it. Perhaps as a result of this detestation, Jonas was selling like hot cakes, and the Chelsea dealer Anton Kern offered to start showing him in New York. I hung around the booth, my excitement giving way to horror as I witnessed in real time my dreams fading from view, all the while trying to hype my ill-conceived video and losing so-called friends in the process. I was devastated. I might have gotten away with this in L.A., where everyone knew me and could forgive, however begrudgingly, my more disagreeable gags. It hadn’t occurred to me that the world was much larger than Chinatown.
More to the point, I’d spent my whole career as an art dealer in L.A. trying to subvert this role, making it into a joke, taking it seriously as if by accident, only to come to New York and realize that being an art dealer was the only thing I was good at.
I decided to reopen Rental in New York. If I wanted to stay there, I couldn’t do it as an artist. I rented a sixth-floor space on East Broadway, in Chinatown. I was back in the land of bus depots and mah-jongg parlors and Chinese businessmen I felt comfortable negotiating with. It was the only place in New York people like me could get a lease without a guarantor. I hoisted paintings up the side of the building through the windows because they wouldn’t fit in the tiny elevator. (Pablo Picasso’s granddaughter Marina would eventually tell me, “Your elevator smells like piss.”) At the opening of Rental I overheard a prominent New York critic talking to the dealer Andrew Kreps. He said, “I’m not sure why we’re here.” But there they were. Roberta Smith reviewed the show for The New York Times. After I read the review, I bought a twin bed and built a makeshift room for myself in the gallery because I figured I’d be staying a while.
Joel Mesler owns UNTITLED gallery in New York.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 18 under the title “Part Five: Goodbye to All That.”
This is the fifth installment in a recurring column. You can read other parts in the series here.