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First Impressionists

July 30, 2002|LOUISE ROUG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Benjamin Lopez sat at a table in the courtyard of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, watching people take their seats for the Friday night jazz performance. A slight man with a nervous smile, Lopez is the visitor services manager at the museum--a job that keeps him in the background, people-watching.

In his four years at the museum, Lopez has seen thousands of singles pass through the galleries; one eye on the art, another on fellow museum-goers.

"Gallery tag" is how he refers to the deliberate dance between singles. Mostly, he sees it in the modern and contemporary wing. "Maybe modern art is more conducive to that sort of thing," he said.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown L.A., guards refer to it as "browsing."

"It's like watching the Discovery Channel--the mating rituals," said Marisela Norte, a longtime MOCA employee. The rituals she has observed begin with a glance, a smile. Then, there's tag as the singles follow each other through the galleries. Possibly, there'll be pithy observations about art. "Next thing you know, it's coffee."

In a city where chance encounters between strangers are as rare as rain, the museum is a casual space for the not-so-casual encounter. It's less conspicuous than a bar prowl, the lighting is better, and there's no risk of being asked to dance. The museum is also a house of mirrors: visitors looking at art, and each other, as they themselves are on display, watched by guards.

At times, what the guards see--the singles' scene at the museum--resembles a Saturday night at a Hollywood bar.

"You see people dressed for the hunt: a lot of skin, the right sunglasses," said Norte, adding that the shades stay on for clandestine viewing of others.

On a recent afternoon, she led an unofficial tour of the museum, weaving through visitors watching the Warhol on the walls. The first stop was Warhol's 1965 "Kiss," a double, black-and-white image in a free-standing frame of two people kissing. The erotic image needed little explanation. "A lot of people hang out at this one," she said, before briskly advancing to the next room.

"In this gallery you can walk around and, not hunt, but you know

There's little action around the disaster paintings, Norte said as she walked past them, arriving at another people-catcher: a row of pop icons near the exit. "Somewhere between Mick Jagger and Mapplethorpe is your last chance," she said. "If you don't say hello at this point, that's it."

It does take gumption, and a certain leap of faith, to make a move. That cute single may be part of a couple strolling the rooms at different paces. And pickup lines resound in the quiet galleries.

For those content simply to view the chase, the best seat is the information desk at front. It's a prime vantage point for observing who's arriving, who's lingering and who's leaving together. Often, the lunch restaurant in the courtyard outside is the next step.

"Singles meet at the museum all the time," said head waiter Larry Zeno. "I see the results. People come for drinks or coffee, [and] leave together." He added singles are easy to spot because of "the way they make eye contact with other people."

For a voyeur, the action is cinematic. "You see two people on the opposite ends of the room, and then you see them at the cafe later," said the MOCA staffer. "It's become my Robert Altman movie."

The scene at LACMA on a recent Friday: about 200 people on folding chairs or crowded around the bar, watching a contemporary jazz band, and one another.

"It's definitely a singles scene," said Sean Martin, one of the bartenders mixing apple martinis. "You see the jazz cats and the women all dolled up."

Max Draitser, a 28-year-old (single) attorney, observed from the edge of the crowd while he waited for a couple of friends. Meeting other singles, he said, takes a concerted effort. "It doesn't happen casually in L.A.," he said. "Historically, this has been a singles scene," he added about the LACMA courtyard. And although he had come for the jazz and a meeting with friends, he had his eyes open. "You always wonder if someone's single," he said.

One volunteer at the event, Sheila Gonzaga, a public affairs consultant in her mid-30s who was manning an information desk, recently began dating someone she met at a museum event. He brought her a glass of champagne, "and we talked from there."

Unlike San Francisco and New York, this city doesn't offer many alternatives to bars for singles, Gonzaga said. Friends have told her the supermarket is a lively pickup scene but, she said, "I have never had luck at the Ralphs. Maybe I'm focusing too much on the condiments or picking a really good lettuce."

The museum, she said, is much better.

As a volunteer at the museum, Gonzaga often tries to persuade her philistine friends to come along to events there.

"When I find out someone is recently single, I sell it to them," she said.

And her pitch?

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