The first time I spoke to PC Valmorbida was on a tip that he was going to be selling off the inventory from the then-still-open Deitch Projects. I called him out of the blue, hit him with the question and he quickly denied it and got off the phone. “That was a strange phone call,” recalls Valmorbida. “It was out of the blue for me, I was freaked out.” The rumor was false, but speculation about speculation isn’t entirely beyond the purview of this 23-year-old Aussie transplant, whose steel-and-glass Prism Gallery on the Sunset Strip has put on some of the more innovative and unpredictable shows to hit Los Angeles since it opened last fall with a show of works curated by RVCA founder PM Tenore. Since then Prism has hosted the after-party of the MOCA gala, put on a retrospective of legendary Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, and installed a monstrous blue light sculpture on the roof by Angeleno artist Gustavo Godoy. The latest venture, “Misericordia,” a centuries- and medium-sprawling group show curated by Pace Gallery director Birte Kleemann, opened this weekend.
Examinging themes of mercy in fine art, Kleemann juxtaposes Old Master paintings with documentation of Marina Abramovic’s and Chris Burden’s early performances and contemporary sculpture by Monica Bonvicini and Sterling Ruby. Simultaneously, the “mini community center” Valmorbida has built with partner Jared Najjar has become an it-spot for actors and artists alike, with this, his most important show to date, drawing yet another hip crowd (Rachel Zoe, Juliette Lewis, Mario Testino) on par with the ones his brother, Andy (along with partner Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld), has rated for pop-up exhibitions with artists like Richard Hambleton. With an Oscars-timed collaboration in the works between Prism and Phillips de Pury, a new Lead Apron-curated bookshop in place, and solo shows for Ryan McGinness and fellow Aussie Jonathan Zawada, the young dealer is already looking to take the venture on the road. “Prism is kind of a brand in a sense, so we can definitely do it,” says the enterprising Valmorbida, who called in after the opening to talk about the space, his budding passion for photography, and the seemingly unstoppable L.A. art scene.
SLENSKE: How did it go last night?
VALMORBIDA: It went really well. It was a long night, which started at like six o’ clock and ended up at like five in the morning. We had the after-party at a guy named Jim Goldstein’s house up in the hills in Benedict Canyon. He bought this house in ‘74, it’s such a great place, and I’ve always wanted to do something there. Everyone had a really good time, it was actually a very fun night.
SLENSKE: So from the first show to now the gallery has progressed quite rapidly. How would you describe it?
VALMORBIDA: This is our biggest show. Myself personally, to be very young, opening a gallery at 23, obviously didn’t have much knowledge of the art world, and in the past year I’ve learned a lot. It’s coming together in a lot of ways for us, but this is by far the most important show we’ve done and having the great privilege of working with Birte. She’s obviously a very respected curator for Pace in New York and it’s kind of a museum-quality show. Being so young and jumping into the art world, for us, it’s been slightly difficult and it’s taken a bit of time to build a name for ourselves and build credibility, and to be taken seriously as a gallerist and an art dealer people. That’s something I felt more in the past and it seems like people are taking us much more seriously. LEFT: VALMORBIDA WITH ANTHONY KIEDIS AT THE OPENING OF “MISERICORDIA.”
SLENSKE: What were people saying before?
VALMORBIDA: People weren’t saying anything before, but I think people were just curious about what we were doing because we were very young, and opened this gigantic space on Sunset Boulevard. It had a big impact, and it came out of nowhere. As you know the L.A. art community is quite small and people were blown away by the space and curious to see how we were going to proceed and where we going to go with it, but this show was extremely good for us.
SLENSKE: What was your introduction to the art world?
VALMORBIDA: This kind of came as a surprise to me, opening the gallery. I knew I wanted to do something in art, I’m more artistic, and I’ve got a creative mind more than anything else. My family collected and so forth, so I had a knowledge and I started taking photographs when I was very, very young. That was my hobby for a very long time and photography was what brought me into the art world and really got me intrigued by it, and I still take photos today as a hobby.
SLENSKE: When did you start shooting?
VALMOBIDA: When I was 15 years old. I would call myself a snapshot photographer. I’ll shoot anything. I developed my own kind of eye and what I wanted to shoot. I do it as a hobby, but I produce my own photographs, and I print my own photographs. I did one show in New York two years ago in collaboration with Louis Vuitton and two other photographers. I think I’ll do another show soon; it’s a big passion of mine.
SLENSKE: How does your practice differ from your brother’s?
VALMORBIDA: Well, Andy has been representing Richard Hambleton and other artists and working with big sponsors to do pop-up shows around the world-big art events. You could compare their shows scale-wise to a fashion show. It’s a big, one-off event; a lot of people come and it’s been a great success for them, but it’s a different model and I’ve gone the slightly more traditional route.
SLENSKE: Were you studying art history growing up?
VALMORBIDA: No, I didn’t.
SLENSKE: What did you study?
VALMORBIDA: Photography. I went to school for about a year and a half at ICP [International Center of Photography] in New York and the School of Visual Arts.
SLENSKE: So, why L.A.?
VALMORBIDA: Again, it was so spontaneous. In my mind I always wanted to open a gallery, I just didn’t think it was going to happen. But I came out to Los Angeles, I spent a lot of time here, I would do the basics: go to LACMA, go to MOCA, occasionally. But I wouldn’t go to the galleries because they were all down in Culver City and they didn’t really feel like they do in New York City where there’s so much around you and they’re thriving. In Los Angeles, unless you go out on a mission and see everything and get in your car and travel, you don’t get a sense of that. I didn’t really get to do that. Then I came across this space that my friend and partner Jared Najjar showed me. I was not even thinking about doing a gallery, I was just thining we could do an amazing art space here. At the time I was 22 years old and this was a gigantic undertaking, so I thought, “Just give it a shot.” And we came out, slightly disorganized from the start, but now I think we’ve got it together. We have a good infrastructure, good people working for us, and we’ve got a lot of exciting projects in the making and I’m excited and want to start doing shows around the world, like Prism pop-up shows.
LEFT: THE GALLERY. PHOTO BY JOSHUA WHITE. RIGHT: WORK BY JONATHAN MEESE FROM MISERICORDIA.
SLENSKE: Anything specific in mind?
VALMORBIDA: Yeah. But what we do is different, because I look at our space as a project space. We’re not solely representing artists. We are just doing larger scale exhibitions with longer exhibition times. More curated shows, more museum-quality shows is what we want to focus in on. We just opened a bookstore this show, which is kind of fantastic. It makes us look more institutional.
SLENSKE: What’s in there?
VALMORBIDA: Books, artifacts. It’s done by a guy named Jonathan [Brown] who has this bookstore called Lead Apron. It’s a curated selection for this show, “Misericordia.” So we have all the books for those artists.
SLENSKE: Where did the idea for this show come about?
VALMORBIDA: I met Birte through a friend when she curated the Joseph Beuys show [at Pace]. She walked me the through the show and we started speaking and I said, “I’d love to do something with you guys in Los Angeles.” She had a concept in mind and I really loved it. I thought it would be perfect for L.A. and I really pushed for it for a long time and we came together and did it. We put it together kind of fast, put the catalog and everything together in two months, which is kind of insane. But it came together and this show has given us much more credibility.
SLENSKE: Why this show now?
VALMORBIDA: Misericordia is Latin for mercy and we’ve integrated all these Old Master painters with contemporary sculpture and at the same time it’s very intriguing. It’s different and I just think all around she’s done a very strong show and people loved it.
SLENSKE: So what was this space before this?
VALMORBIDA: Nothing, it’s a brand new space. It was built originally as a retail space. We came in just before completion and emptied it and ripped it up to be a gallery as best as we possibly can. It’s an interesting space, it’s not your average gallery in terms of wall structures, perspective, design. It’s great for sculpture.
SLENSKE: It seems like you have a big interest in street art, judging from that first show?
VALMORBIDA: I do. That’s what I did early on in my life; I was really into graffiti. That was what originally got me into art.
SLENSKE: Were you writing graffiti?
VALMORBIDA: Yeah, I was writing, but I wasn’t a bomber. I didn’t really go around and destroy things in a sense. But that was a fun period in my life and then when I moved to New York I was still really interested in graffiti so I was exploring that and seeing that. I’m from Australia originally and working with Barry McGee on the first show I couldn’t speak more highly of a person. He’s always been an idol of mine and working with him has been an absolute pleasure.
SLENSKE: Yeah, it’s interesting because there was talk that The Hole was going to do a show with Barry for their debut.
VALMORBIDA: That show was curated by Pat Tenore, who’s a good friend of mine. He’s the founder of RVCA, and he’s got that this artist network program and got good relationships with all these artists. So I went to him and said, “Let’s do something great together. Wed’d love for you to curate our first show.” For me, people visit galleries in Los Angeles but not anywhere as near as they do as in other major cities around the world. People don’t really get out so much. You’re lucky to get 10 to 15 people a day walking through your space so my aim was to really attract a lot of people. That’s why I went on Sunset Boulevard-it’s great, it’s different, it’s new. Obviously, with the Barry McGee show there’s a cult following of people he has and we had 1700 people at the opening, and 50 or 60 people a day coming through the space. It was thriving, it was really, really great, and that’s what makes me happy.
PHOTO BY JOSHUA WHITE
SLENSKE: So what do you think has allowed you to get this caliber of artists this early out? Especially with you being so young and new to the scene. The shows seem to be ramping up.
VALMORBIDA: I’ve been directing it. I’m kind of the creative director. Barry was Pat. Pat gave me my introduction to Barry, we got along from the very beginning and that was fantastic. Araki, the following show, I’ve always been a very big fan of and have always wanted to do an Araki show, I’m fortunate to know people who were supportive of the idea who helped me put it together. The Warhol show was black and white paintings, and basically most of we’ve gotten via personal contacts. A lot of work has gone into it, obviously, but we’re very privileged to work with such great shows.
SLENSKE: Now with you pushing this museum quality for the shows, are the works being sold?
VALMORBIDA: We are selling the works, definitely. It hasn’t been my main focus. Eventually we’re going to have to, but it is a commercial gallery, even though I look at it more as a mini cultural center. I want to incorporate non-profit aspects into the gallery, I want to collaborate with museums.
SLENSKE: What’s on the horizon?
VALMORBIDA: I will be working Phillips de Pury on something during the Oscars. The artists are not for sure yet, but it’s something we’re really excited about.
SLENSKE: Is it an auction?
VALMORBIDA: It’s not going to be an auction. Phillips does exhibitions and I want to start collaborating with a lot of people and Phillips doesn’t really have a presence out in L.A. so I think it will be great for us to start working with them. We did two screenings and a lecture, and got sidetracked a bit, but we will start doing more community based things in the near future. That’s something that’s going to come into focus big time: screenings, lectures, talks, parties, a whole range of things.
SLENSKE: And then is there any intentions to do solo shows with younger artists?
VALMORBIDA: I am actually. There’s on artist I’ve always loved. He’s an Australian artist. His name is Jonathan Zawada. He’s someone I’m going to back and push. I think it’s fantastic what he does. The guy’s been making a living doing illustrative work and the guy is a genius artistically, but he hasn’t really had the opportunity to branch out, so I’m going to give him the opportunity to do it and I’m actually going to give him a solo show after this show actually. And I think giving artists the opportunity to do large scale shows with grand openings and great recognition, which I think we can offer artists, a lot artists are into that. The representation of artists is quite an undertaking as well these days, but I think artists like what we’re doing at Prism.
SLENSKE: Are there any other programs here or abroad you’ve looked to as something you’d want to emulate or take notes from a bit?
VALMORBIDA: There are some galleries I do love very much. I love CFA in Berlin, I love the Serpentine in London, I love the Garage in Moscow, I think that’s fantastic, Jeffrey [Deitch] of course. I’m a very big fan of all the stuff he’s done. I’m going to be doing another show with one of his artists, Ryan McGinness, in May. It will be his new sculptures. It’s very different work from what people are used to from him, but I’m very excited about the work. It’s going to be fantastic. They’re like women’s forms. You know the Matisse paintings of the blue ladies?
VALMORBIDA: It’s similar to that, but in sculpture. It’s hard to explain.
SLENSKE: What are they made of, exactly?
VALMORBIDA: We’re looking into that at the moment, actually. I’m not too sure. We have a few different options. He’s going to have a big impact on Los Angeles. He’s been holding off on L.A. for many years. He’s having a big show of his paintings at Michael Kohn Gallery, we’re going to be doing his sculptures for him, he’s doing a big billboard project. The guy, it’s crazy, he’s got a million things in mind that he wants to do out here. And we want to help him make as big an impact as possible.
SLENSKE: In general it seems like every other week there’s a story about L.A. is on fire in one way or another.
VALMORBIDA: That’s why I came out here. I feel like I’m here at the perfect time because it feels like L.A. is thriving harder than it ever has art-wise, with what Jeffrey’s doing, and what Michael Govan is doing. Los Angeles isn’t as close to Europe as New York and you don’t get the crowds as big, but the only big events in L.A. today are art events. Tonight there’s a LACMA thing, and L&M has their thing, there’s a lot of fantastic stuff happening out here. And obviously you have some of the best living artists living out here, but I think from a collectors point of view you have a great base and a lot of other people are starting to get interested in contemporary art, especially from a contemporary audience, which is great.
SLENSKE: Do you plan to take this outside of L.A.?
VALMORBIDA: Definitely. Eventually we will, for sure.
SLENSKE: Where will you go?
VALMORBIDA: I don’t know. Good question.
MISERICORDIA IS ON VIEW THROUGH DECEMBER 4. PRISM LA IS LOCATED AT 8746 WEST SUNSET BOULEVARD, WEST HOLLYWOOD.