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L. A.'S ART COLONY : A touch of the Left Bank, a dab of Greenwich Village and the time-borrowed pulse of the Beat Generation may come close to defining it, or maybe not. After all, we are talking about a community that mostly adheres to the School of But-Is-It?

March 09, 1986|SCOTT HARRIS

On one recent day, Canaday and Wendell screened several "Debutante" videos. Imagine MTV on a shoestring budget. In a piece called "Research Nurse," Vickie is featured as a mental patient in a straitjacket (actually, a white coat worn backwards) and Halstead plays the title role, smiling wickedly.

Wendell's vocals are a dreary monotone:

They shaved my head

Who can I tell

They said I'm crazy now

The lyrics weren't created so much as documented: The video cuts to a haggard woman on the street rambling through a horrific tale about being terrorized with electrodes by "the research nurse."

The group waffles on their desire to go public. Still, they have already attracted the attention of one critic.

"Yuk," Adam says, shaking his head. "They don't sing good."

"Look at this!" Doug Ward says, anger in his voice. "This is what they're trying to do!"

He is holding a flyer advertising the Binford Building, a loft conversion on Traction Avenue, one block from Al's Bar. The jazzy facade, with three different textures, suggests an urban progression. The street, usually desolate, is portrayed in the flyer as busy, carrying a Lincoln Continental, an Italian sports car and an antique jalopy. A man in a suit and tie walks on the sidewalk, carrying a briefcase.

All of which makes Doug Ward think, well, there goes the neighborhood.

Michael Kamin, the owner of the Mika Co., is the developer of the Binford Building. A specialist in downtown commercial real estate, Kamin saw opportunity in the ordinance that legalized lofts in industrial zones.

Kamin, who for many years has collected works from young artists, started renting raw space to artists in 1976 in a building on Broadway. He accepted art as partial rent, just as Parisian landlords had done in the 19th Century, he points out.

After the new law took effect, Kamin developed one artists' project on Spring Street, then did the 34-unit Binford Building.

"We wanted to make the building a statement and an art piece--something that says this is an exciting place to live, something to keep the focus on this street," he says.

With its striking facade, security system and handsome lobby, the building "has got some sex," Kamin says. He talks about hiring a graffiti artist from East Los Angeles to dress up the eastern wall, "because it faces East L.A."

But all those additions added to the cost of the project. Unexpected building requirements from the city added more costs. Kamin said that he had hoped monthly rents in the Binford Building would start between $500 and $600. Instead, they range from $850 to $1,600. The units are moving slowly, Kamin acknowledges.

Doug Ward, for one, rejects such bourgeois splendor. Ward has been working in a nonprofit partnership hoping to develop public housing for artists, but his efforts have thus far met with disappointment.

But the city's first publicly supported housing project for artists--a 52-unit loft conversion dubbed "The Artists Colony" at 24th Street and Santa Fe Avenue--is expected to provide an option for displaced artists. Work is to begin by June 1, after a few details are ironed out in the $1.2-million loan agreement between the Community Redevelopment Agency and a for-profit development group backed by arts patron Marvin Zeidler, president of Zeidler & Zeidler clothiers.

Zeidler says a committee will wrestle with the tricky question of deciding who is and who isn't an artist. "I'm sure we'll not make everyone happy," he said.

Ward foresees other artists migrating south and east in search of cheaper spaces, one step ahead of the city inspectors.

"It's not going to die. People are going to pop up in the weirdest places. . . ."

True, true. Many artists and observers have always scoffed at the notion of downtown Los Angeles as a Greenwich Village West or a North Beach South. The theory is that the languor of the beach and the schlock of Hollywood militate against meaningful art.

"A myth," said Joy Silverman of LACE. Los Angeles "artists don't get the support from the patrons, the collectors and press--that's where the problem lies."

And so, Silverman said, many of Los Angeles' best and brightest migrate to New York in hopes of making it big--and only then get discovered by Los Angeles collectors. David Salle, Eric Fischl, Ericka Beckman and Barbara Bloom are among the high-profile artists to have moved from Los Angeles to New York over the past decade.

Jean Milant, proprietor of the Cirrus Gallery on Alameda, recalls that an Australian art dealer recently toured Los Angeles. "He was very excited by the amount of activity, and the quality of activity--the uniqueness, the honesty and integrity," Milant said. "Yet he felt there was a sort of self-deprecation."

If art is a spiritual pursuit, some suggest that the success of an artistic community may be essentially a matter of faith.

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