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A Haunt For The Restless

At Headquarters--a Hollywood art gallery, cyber cafe and hangout for the avant garde--impresario Lemuel Serrano takes his cue from Andy Warhol's Factory

November 20, 2000|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At another time, in another city, they might have been East Village hipsters, chanting counterculture prophesies to a lunatic bongo beat. Or perhaps Andy Warhol's drug-addled "superstars," tweaking society while turning art-making into a narcissistic free-love frenzy.

But these parallels seem rather quaint as night falls across Hollywood Boulevard, between Highland Avenue and Cahuenga Boulevard, and a crowd of regulars gathers on the sidewalk outside Headquarters. Most who have come here can't say exactly why. Few appear to know much about the noisy, multimedia happening going on inside this 2,600-square-foot storefront--a hybrid mix of art gallery, cyber cafe, alternative performance space and underground hangout, squeezed between a nightclub and a sportswear shop.

Yet by 10:30 or so, Headquarters will be buzzing with restless kindred souls, mostly age 30 and under: actors, models, filmmakers, Web site designers, Hollywood personal assistants, painters, photographers, e-magazine editors and a few marauding club kids sniffing for something, anything, new.

As a wave of acid-house music drifts out the door, staccato strobe lights suffuse the nicotine fog through which men and women float like Balinese shadow puppets. "Is this a gallery or a bar?" one twentysomething with a scraggly goatee demands. Lemuel Serrano, the controversial impresario who conducts Headquarters to his own offbeat vibrato, fixes the guy with sunglass-shaded eyes. "It's whatever you want it to be," he says, "if you're there."

It's a characteristic Serrano utterance: deadpan and cryptic, yet somehow bluntly inviting. But Serrano's spiky-mellow retort is revealing in other ways. In the sprawling, complex road map of Los Angeles culture, Headquarters is a kind of unmarked cul-de-sac. You won't find it listed in newspapers or magazines, and you're not likely to see fliers promoting its exhibitions.

Serrano, an art and commercial photographer, operates Headquarters on a lean budget and in a laid-back, eccentric style. While the space has attracted a core of passionate devotees, it barely registers on L.A.'s wider cultural radar.

On any given night, Headquarters might be hosting an exhibition of contemporary Italian paintings, a launch party for a dot-com start-up or a showcase for a punk-gothic band--maybe all of the above. Yet since opening Headquarters a year and a half ago, Serrano, 30, and his business partner Brendan Avery, 26, who designs Web interfaces for entertainment companies, have kept a calculatedly low profile.

Like the chameleon-esque Serrano, who has also answered to "Gene Lemuel" and "Jesus Smith," Headquarters refuses to pin itself to a fixed identity. It's an enigmatic work in progress whose young, rotating cast of characters come in search of conversation, a shared laugh and a form of creative nurturing some find lacking in their 9-to-5 lives.

"It's hard to explain what it is," says Joe Livolsi, 33, a freelance Hollywood prop maker, formerly with Disney Imagineering, who custom-built the brushed-metal moderne counter/bar that enhances Headquarters' noir-ish ambience. "It's going to be something special, and I definitely want to be a part of it. I think anyone who sees the place wants to become part of it."

But part of what? Ask Serrano to define Headquarters and you'll likely get a stream of karmic pronouncements. "It's the Factory of the 21st century," he'll say, referring to Warhol's (in)famous Manhattan studio-commune. "It's a conglomeration of all sensibilities."

Such cocksure claims may strike some as absurdly highfalutin. Even Avery jokes that his partner sometimes can sound "like Carlos Castaneda," referring to the late mystic writer. "Lemuel's good at keeping the pot stirring," says Avery, who deals with the techno side of the business while Serrano handles the artistic.

For the most part, Serrano and Avery seem content to let the space define itself gradually. "I think the one thing about Headquarters is it all boils down to him," says Flaunt magazine arts editor Larry Schubert, who has known Serrano for 10 years. "It's all an extension of his weird personality."

Headquarters sits on a side street of multiple identities in Hollywood's fast-changing commercial corridor. Two blocks down the street is the Hollywood Athletic Club. To the west, construction cranes loom over TrizecHahn's $430-million retail-entertainment complex. To the east, crowds flock to Disney's "The Lion King" at the Pantages Theatre. The hookers and crackheads who once ruled this area haven't disappeared, but they're in retreat.

Serrano sleeps on a mattress on the floor at Headquarters, shaves at a scuzzy sink in the back and showers wherever he's welcome. "This area is going to be the whole new mecca," he says. "It's what Paris was in the '20s and New York, in the Village, in the '70s."

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