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Chinatown: The New Hot Spot

Contemporary art galleries add an edge, and some much-needed revitalization, to the area.

May 28, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

"Shops are open" is the message on a faded red banner stretched between two lampposts at the entrance of Chinatown Plaza West. So are a batch of contemporary art galleries. Dead as the pedestrian zone on Chung King Road may appear--and even though most of the galleries are only open Thursday through Saturday afternoons--an influx of edgy, young art has brought fresh life to this shabby side of Hill Street.

Attracted by low rent, the urban scene and downtown cultural institutions, pioneering entrepreneurs have taken over shops that formerly dispensed Chinese goods. Instead of cloisonne bowls, jade jewelry, embroidered silk jackets and painted fans, enterprising young art dealers offer Jon Pylychuk's mixed-media panels depicting weird little characters who just want to be loved; Beatrice Dreux's Expressionistic paintings of female nudes; and Loren Sandvik's vacuum-form reliefs of faces and feet in pure white plastic.

The phenomenon of the Chinatown art scene began in January 1999 with China Art Objects, a scruffy storefront gallery at 933 Chung King Road, currently crammed with Pylychuk's work. The following month, INMO opened in a larger space at No. 971. Then came the Black Dragon Society, in a former kung fu studio (No. 961); and Goldman Tevis, in an airy space previously occupied by a Chinese arts and crafts emporium (No. 932). Meanwhile, across Hill Street and around the corner, at 427 Bernard St., Acuna-Hansen Gallery opened a spartan white exhibition space.

Strolling down Chung King Road, it isn't immediately apparent that this is the L.A. art scene's new hot spot. China Art Objects and the Black Dragon have retained the signs of their predecessors. Goldman Tevis' name appears in tiny letters on the gallery window, but the name of the former occupant looms much larger, even though it's been covered with a thin coat of paint.

But that's part of what the dealers like about their new digs. John Tevis said he and his partner, Mary Goldman, both transplanted New Yorkers, were drawn to Chinatown because of its ambience. "This is a great street," Tevis said. "There are people living upstairs above the shops, kids play basketball on the street, and there's great food. It's a real place."

Planning to "mix it up in terms of geography," he and Goldman will show works by young artists from Los Angeles, New York and Europe, particularly London and Berlin. As for the prevailing aesthetic, "I favor work that looks as good as it thinks," Tevis said. "I'm a sucker for a pretty picture, but I'm most interested in work that moves the practice along."

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Inmo Yuon, owner of INMO, said it's high time for central L.A. to have a lively gallery scene. The galleries that sprouted in downtown industrial zones during the early 1980s, when the Museum of Contemporary Art was taking shape, are long gone. But this is a more propitious time because several major arts institutions are now in place, he said. "We are really close to MOCA, Disney Hall and the Colburn School for Performing Arts, and SCI-Arc [Southern California Institute of Architecture] is moving downtown."

Still, the Chinatown scene is something of a work in progress--and that, too, is part of its appeal. Showing new art in a wide variety of media requires flexibility, so exhibition schedules tend to be in flux. Yuon will extend his current group show of figurative art to Saturday--a week longer than planned--to coordinate with the other galleries' schedules. But then he'll close for a month or so while Tim Doyle builds a room-size sculptural installation in the gallery.

Chris Hansen of Acuna-Hansen--which is showing Sandvik's white plastic pieces to Saturday--concentrates on young L.A. artists. But he has no desire to tie himself down to a single geographic area or a long-term schedule. "I plan a couple of months ahead, but that leaves a lot of freedom," he said. "If I see work I like, I can just say, 'Hey.' "

NORTON GRANTS: Karin Higa, senior curator and director of the curatorial and exhibitions department at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and Brian Wallis, director of exhibitions and chief curator of the International Center of Photography in New York, are this year's winners of the Peter Norton Family Foundation's grants to curators of contemporary art. Higa and Wallis will each receive $50,000 from the foundation to acquire contemporary artworks for their museums.

"This is a lot of money for us," said Higa, who joined the museum's staff in 1991. "It will have a big impact on our ability to acquire contemporary art and to shape our collection, which is mostly historical." The money will be used to buy works by living Japanese American artists, she said. Curators do not apply for the annual grants, so winning one was a big surprise for Higa. "It took me a couple of days just to get over the shock," she said.

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