Patrons thronging toward the three art fairs taking place in Los Angeles during Frieze Week 2020 may have noticed a much scrappier presentation along the way: a yellow wire rack for displaying the popular Spanish-language circular El Clasificado temporarily stocked with art. In 2018, Pamela Ramos started the art newsstand El Clasificado in front of a MacArthur Park grocery, and she has since collaborated with mainstream LA venues such as the Institute of Contemporary Art. In their Frieze Week group show, titled “Keeping Up with the Gagosians,” which was set up, guerrilla-fashion, outside the ALAC, Felix, and Frieze fairs in turn, Ramos and her cohort of young artists and art teachers seemed to flaunt their exclusion from the glitzier goings-on. According to Ramos, they were duly ignored.
Each of LA’s boutique spaces finds a balance of freedom and fame. One of the city’s longest-running alternative galleries is the Vanity, started in 2011 by artist Asha Schechter in the walk-in closet of his apartment. At the time, he says, he was “frustrated with the provincial nature of the Los Angeles art world,” with its focus on MFA programs and star turns. The space’s low overhead and modest scale allow Schechter to mount small but impactful exhibitions by artists he admires, but who aren’t necessarily doing big numbers in the galleries. In fact, he has sold only one artwork, a hologram by John Kaufman, in ten years. The Vanity has roved since its inception, doing stints at 356 Mission Road, CSU Bakersfield, and now at a former LA bank vault. For this year’s edition of Frieze, the Vanity’s cast-concrete walls will host work by Naoki Sutter-Shudo, an LA–based artist and a director of the Bel Ami art space in Chinatown.
Equitable Vitrines, another itinerant curatorial project, has a similar origin story. Ellie Lee and Matt Connolly became entranced by a set of “highly stylized, vacant display cases” in the lobby of the Equitable Life Building in Koreatown. After tracking down the building’s management, they got permission to hold exhibitions in the vitrines, and then incorporated as a nonprofit specializing in “public art.” The term, says Connolly, designates “an ill-defined category that, crucially, maintains a level of ambivalence between artist, site, and audience.” This quality, which is often lacking in more traditional spaces, “requires us to think frankly about the claims being made by art.” Since 2016, Equitable Vitrines has also frequently pulled up stakes. The current show focuses on the historic R.M. Schindler–designed Fitzpatrick-Leland House, where a site-specific sound/scent/text installation by Florian Hecker runs through March 13.
Outré settings also allow for comments on the politics of art spaces. LA’s car-culture cliché is both embodied and parodied by Gas, a gallery run by Ceci Moss in the form of a utility van, which often parks just outside other galleries. Functioning as a kind of art-world food truck, Gas has mounted group shows almost exclusively, including a notably self-reflexive 2018 exhibition called “Anatomy of Oil,” which explored petroleum infrastructure in the LA area. The art-filled truck parked at “oil-extraction sites” around the Southland, says Moss, “in an effort to raise awareness about the hold of the oil industry.” It’s a critical topic that can be hard to address within established institutions. The Hammer Museum, for instance, reportedly still embargoes any mention of its historic ties to petrodollars. Here, too, Moss cites the gallery’s relatively low cost of operation, which “has been a significant advantage, especially in the face of the recession and the pandemic, as well as the crisis of affordable space.” The gallery is currently in a “dreaming phase.” Due to the tumult of the last two years, Moss says, “I don’t want to go back to business as usual.”