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Galleries That Set Out the Welcome Mat

January 31, 2002|DAVID PAGEL

People commonly speak of the art world as if it were one thing: a clique of snobs who like to intimidate newcomers, all the better to distinguish themselves from ordinary folks. Like all stereotypes, this one oversimplifies. What galleries actually do is strive to distinguish themselves from one another, all the better to build larger market niches. In general, novices need to know that galleries with expensive inventories tend to station a staff member by the door. That person's job is to identify collectors and greet frequent visitors. Newcomers may get a welcoming smile or be ignored completely, leaving them free to look at their leisure. (That's one of the greatest pleasures of gallery-going--unimpeded, take-your-time, inside-the-store window-shopping.)

Dealers with less expensive works often run their own spaces. They may leave you alone for a while, but eventually they will strike up a conversation. After all, they are salespeople. Most dealers love what they're selling, are fairly knowledgeable about it and remarkably unpretentious toward buyers and browsers alike.

The following list of user-friendly galleries, roughly organized from east to west, suggests the diversity of the Los Angeles scene.

1. By far the friendliest, most casual and least expensive venues are the funky storefront galleries on Echo Park Avenue: Show Pony, Ojala Fine Arts & Crafts, Fototeka, Delirium Tremens and Nicole Dintaman Gallery (at, respectively, 1543, 1547, 1549, 1553 and 1555 Echo Park Ave.). Open weekends, these small, far-from-polished showrooms have a comfortable, neighborhood feel. Most of the owners also have day jobs. The works cover a wide range of styles and media, and tend to be a bit rough around the edges.

2. Located in a downtown warehouse, Post (1904 E. 7th Place) provides young artists with more square footage of floor and wall space, giving their works a more sophisticated setting that is still raw. The front door is always locked, but artist Habib Kheradyar, who runs the place, is quick to answer the buzzer. Three or four shows are regularly on display (one in the elevator shaft). Many artists who first showed here have gone on to more prestigious galleries.

3. At Jan Kesner Gallery (164 N. La Brea Ave.), you'll probably be greeted by Zoa, a standard poodle who just wants to play. Kesner and her friendly assistant, Sam Lee, bring a wealth of historical knowledge to their photography exhibitions, which include vintage works and first-rate contemporary pictures, all exquisitely printed. The atmosphere is that of a well-used library. The more time you spend, the better your chance of seeing the back-room treasure trove.

4. The recently refurbished Iturralde Gallery (116 S. La Brea Ave.) features contemporary art from Latin America. Run by sisters Ana and Teresa Iturralde and a courteous staff, the airy space is often filled with poetic works by young and more established artists, many of whom are well-known in Mexico or South America.

5. The nearby Tobey C. Moss Gallery (7321 Beverly Blvd.), is an old-fashioned atelier that focuses on California Modernism. The door is always open but the metal gate latched. After opening it, an assistant hands you a multi-page price list for dozens of paintings, drawings, collages, prints and sculptures--never in the order they're hung. Moss is available to answer questions or offer firsthand stories from the 1940s and '50s, including colorful anecdotes about artists both famous and forgotten.

6. Another doorbell worth ringing is at Kiyo Higashi Gallery (8332 Melrose Ave.), an elegant, streamlined showroom designed by artist Larry Bell. Higashi descends on an exterior staircase to open the front door and enter with you. Her program, which features Minimalist painting, is one of the city's most focused. A visit is an education in perceptual refinement.

7. In the gallery recently opened by Peter Bartlett (148 N. Hayworth), a stairway links two tiny spaces, making for intimate nooks that Bartlett fills with his booming voice and modestly sized works by recent art-school graduates. He's a talker whose excitement for art is only exceeded by his love of spirited discussion.

8. During the last two years, Susanne Vielmetter has presented more solo debut exhibitions than any other venue. Her L.A. Projects (5363 Wilshire Blvd.) is a not-to-be-missed stop on any gallery tour, showcasing an eclectic roster of talented young artists and middle-aged misfits.

9. In West Hollywood, at Manny Silverman Gallery (619 N. Almont Drive), works by second-generation Abstract Expressionists can get expensive, but there are values to be had, especially among their West Coast counterparts. Inch for inch, some paintings are a steal, especially compared with trendy works by young art stars.

10. Finally, Yoram Gil's tiny Galerie Yoramgil (319 N. Canon Drive) is a breath of fresh air in Beverly Hills. Jampacked into the storefront space are works in all media by Israeli artists, overlooked historical figures and a smattering of recent graduates. Gil's passion is indiscriminate; if the phone isn't ringing, he'll pour his energy into a conversation about art for its own sake.

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David Pagel is an art critic and writer; he teaches art theory at Claremont Graduate University.

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