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EYEING THE GALLERY SCENE : The Looking Is Free-- and Often Wall-to-Wall Stimulating

April 04, 1987|ZAN DUBIN

In "Beverly Hills Cop," actor Eddie Murphy, sporting jeans, a sloppy sweat shirt and an air of devil-may-care, enters a posh art gallery. You get the feeling he's about to be told to go home and find a tie.

But, cast as a cocky Detroit cop, Murphy hardly cowers, laughing aloud at an artist's life-size dinner table serving up plaster human heads on slowly rotating plates.

"I was wondering how much a work like this goes for," he asks Serge, the gallery's fastidious attendant. "About $130,000," Serge replies, looking down his nose at Murphy. "Get the (expletive) out of here!" Murphy squeals. Serge squeals back: "No, I'm not kidding! In fact I just sold it last week."

You may not have quite the bravado that Murphy commands in this movie. Art galleries can cause the uninitiated to feel like hayseeds in the city.

But galleries aren't reserved for rich cognoscenti. And an excursion into the ever-expanding local galleryscape provides a leisurely, edifying way to spend more than one spring Saturday. "Though galleries have this very white, very pristine atmosphere, we are open to the public," says Alice Ovsey, co-owner of the Ovsey Gallery on La Brea Avenue.

"Galleries are absolutely for everyone," says Jan Baum, who owns the La Brea gallery that bears her name. "A very small percentage of the people who come to the gallery buy. Most are here to learn and enjoy. I tell people to ask questions--no question is foolish."

Meandering among local galleries, you pass in and out of typically hushed, sanctuary-like showrooms where sun streams serenely through skylights into spacious, airy studios. High ceilings and white walls provide plenty of uninterrupted space for artworks ranging from gentle pastel watercolors to bleak abstract oil paintings.

You can see who and what are hot on the contemporary art scene, take refreshment alfresco, spend some time alone lost in aesthetic contemplation or watch a hodgepodge parade of art lovers--some clad in studied-casual, some in gritty underground glam, others in Saks Fifth Avenue silks.

You might even spy a few celebrities along the way. Some of the city's most committed art collectors include actors such as Steve Martin and Barbra Streisand, as well as movie producers, millionaires--and politicians.

"Gallery hopping is my favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon," says Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, who estimates he spends about a quarter of his salary on artworks. "It's more than relaxing; looking at art is one of the things that gives me a lot of fulfillment.

"I know the gallery owners on a first-name basis," adds Wachs, who chairs a committee to help the Museum of Contemporary Art plan its exhibitions, "so there's never a pressure kind of thing about buying."

(The secret behind this is an almost universal law in galleries that visitors--celebrities or not--be allowed to look at the art undisturbed, plus a polite assumption that if you want to know something, you'll ask. Galleries that use active salesmanship are regarded as gauche among seasoned browsers.)

Though Saturday is traditionally the galleries' busiest day, you're most likely to find showrooms empty just after opening time, around 11 a.m.

A lone gallery-goer at the HoffmanBorman Gallery in Santa Monica recently stood between the twin 17-foot steel walls of Richard Serra's towering "Core" sculpture. "Hellooooo out there," the observer cried, testing the echo chamber created by the closely juxtaposed curving walls. No one--except a bored attendant--was around to worry about the man's sanity.

Courtyard Stroll

Late morning generally is also a good time for quiet contemplation or meditation--inside the galleries or out. You can stroll solo through a secluded outdoor courtyard connecting the Rosamund Felsen and Simard and Halm galleries on La Cienega Boulevard. Or, outside the Daniel Weinberg showroom on Almont Avenue, there's a bench where a couple recently sat undisturbed, mapping out their route with a free Gallery Guide (available at most galleries). Empty galleries can also inspire their directors to volunteer on-the-spot mini art history lessons.

If you prefer a crowd, afternoons are far better for people watching. And as the day goes on you're bound to bump into someone at sunset whom you saw at noon. Longtime local collector Sara Boyers, who started off her day alone in a Santa Monica showroom, was seen at 5 p.m. chatting with friends and cuddling her baby at a West Hollywood gallery.

Receptions, a kind of party marking the opening of a new exhibition, also tend to be well populated. Generally anyone may attend a reception, and galleries send out announcements to those who sign mailing lists.

An Unmatched Mix

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