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DOWNTOWN : Exhibit Spotlights Vibrant Art Scene

November 20, 1994|BRETT MAHONEY

N. Van Toan said he can call "Downtown Lives '94" a success if, before it closes this evening, at least one person lingers before his oil painting of a floating Buddha and ponders inner enlightenment.

Organizers of the show, which they called the largest exhibition of Downtown art in the history of Los Angeles, defined success by the numbers.

Five hundred artists participated and attendance was up 20% from last year.

"It's a success," said Barbara Mendes, a board member of the Downtown Arts Development Assn., the group of artists that organized the show.

Members of the association have been trying to show that there is still a strong heart beating in the Downtown arts community despite a few galleries going dark, a few cafes going belly up and the move of the anchor museum, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, to Hollywood.

"We're not dead. We are very much alive," Mendes said while standing near her eight-foot-high autobiographical "womanist" painting.

It was apparent that the group's organizers were on a mission. The walls and floors of three gigantic warehouses at 1895 Bay St.--45,000 square feet of exhibition space--were lavishly covered with the murals, sculptures, paintings, photography, multimedia displays and other less easily described objets d'art.

They married this visual cornucopia with live music and performance pieces.

The organizers were not discriminating. They invited anyone and everyone who could claim a Downtown address to contribute to the show. So the brushwork of an established master could be found hanging next to the doodles of a novice.

The results had people talking.

After walking past a large metallic figure with flashing red eyes that appeared to be riding a bicycle, Britt Enggrem, a multimedia artist based in Hollywood, said: "Looking at some of the work here made me feel like a pretty good artist."

She admitted, however, that she feels the same way when she strolls past some of the more abstract pieces in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Donna Michelle Anderson, an aspiring writer who recently moved to Los Angeles from New York, had a different view.

"It's accessible," said Anderson while standing in front of Marc Greenblum's photo-realist painting of Lee Harvey Oswald, titled "Oswald's Assassination."

Mendes, whose philosophy is "there are no rules in art--please yourself," said the group's board seized this opportunity to present artists who are often ignored by the "elitist" art Establishment, in addition to more well-known talent.

She said she is proud that the show and the group's extravaganza last year are contributing to the revitalization of Downtown.

Instead of pointing to the businesses that have died, Mendes lists those that have been born in the last year: Coffee Strippers, Bloom's General Store, Galerie Concrete, Rondeau Fine Arts Gallery and Granados 2 Gallery, to name a few.

But in order to keep the arts scene alive, the group's organizers realize they need to attract the foot traffic that more upscale art areas, such as New York's SoHo, take for granted.

They said they hope the show gave people the opportunity to see that Downtown isn't a Hades to be avoided at all costs. The Police Department's Central Division confirmed that the rate for violent crime is actually low Downtown.

But some "Downtown Lives" guests needed more convincing.

Joe Reinkemeyer, a lawyer-turned-television-and-film-writer, said he doubted he would return Downtown just to hang out.

"This is too much urban realism for someone who just wants a beer," he said.

Many others, however, agreed with Johnathan Libscomb, a student and aspiring artist from Riverside, who said:

"You have to go through some ugliness to get here. But it's worth it."

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