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L.A. at Large

A Tour of Bohemia's Back Alleys

Exhibits are as eclectic as their craftsmen--and patrons--on Art Walk 2002


You walk into an alley and the high wattage from an almost full moon falls underfoot as smooth as spilled paint; you look over your shoulder expecting to see footprints as if in snow. Music, jazz and rock and New Age rises with the smell of incense from open doorways. On the south side of the alley is an apartment building, long and tall. All the lights are on in the bottom flat. There are many windows revealing different rooms; given the moon, the music, it is impossible not to look.

In the dining room a television set flickers in the corner; the empty chairs are canted toward the screen. Along wainscoting a plate rail is lined with figurines; not all of them are distinguishable, but there is a shepherd, a shepherdess and at least two figures dancing in the regalia of pre-revolutionary France. The next room is the kitchen; tea towels hang from a rack on the wall. Beside the detergent, ceramic roosters line the shelf above the sink. It looks like a painting, or an Kienholz installation, like the stage before the performance begins. You try to imagine who lives there, what they are doing right now, how much they are--or are not--like you.

You have only been in the first five galleries of Art Crawl 2002 and suddenly, in an alley between Berendo and Heliotrope, just south of Melrose, the line between art and real life seems irrevocably blurred.

It is called the Art Crawl, but in a way the art is beside the point. Last weekend, for the fifth year, people of all sorts made their way through the art galleries of Echo Park, Silver Lake and Los Feliz, and they did encounter art--some of it good, some of it weird, some of it weirdly good.

But much more is on display than the art. The neighborhoods and the people and the artistic life, with all its cliches--red wine in small clear plastic glasses still prevails--and reassuring splendor. In the alley off Berendo, a couple of artists have opened their studios. The work is interesting but not nearly as interesting as the peephole they have provided into their lives. The actual loft on which a bed is barely visible behind batik curtains, the clothing stored on purloined department store racks, the teeny-tiny stoves, the boxes of granola and seriously old pizza. These are places outside time and place, you are in "Crime and Punishment," you are in "An American in Paris," you are deeply, deeply in L.A.

Outside, a few yards away from one of the studios, a man is relieving himself behind the open door of a red Jeep in a small parking lot behind one of the storefronts. He looks straight at you and smiles. He seems sober. Next door, voices are raised in an actorly way during a rehearsal at Sacred Fools Theater. Couples pause to listen, stroll along the alley, onto the street, holding hands, looking like twentysomethings on a first date. From Melrose to Hollywood Boulevard, up along Silver Lake Boulevard and especially on Echo Park Avenue, the night teems with bohos, or to use the more recently coined upscale term, "bobos," in love. With each other, with the art, with reminders that there are a lot of small but wonderful things right around the corner.

Walking along Sunset Boulevard, between the clean white chic of Rain Heron and the recently artsified Alvarado Arts Building, it is impossible not to notice how fabulous this stretch of the street is. Splattered by the gentrification that has been spilling out from Los Feliz/Silver Lake into Echo Park during the last five or six years, these 20 or so blocks are perhaps the perfect mix of the real and the terminally hip. Coffeehouses elbow Laundromats, gallery space stands alongside taco stands, boutiques bloom next to mattress stores and tchotchke emporiums.

In front of a storefront Catholic church bathed in the glow of nearby neon, the line between real and imagined again wavers. In the back of the dim room hangs a large portrait of Christ surrounded by wreaths of white artificial flowers. It is Jesus in his glam/rocker phase, all eyes and really great hair. The windows are crisscrossed by bars painted white. Two women are sitting on a bench in the back. They are facing each other but their mouths do not seem to be moving--what is art, really?

Cruising the streets, it is easy to spot the different galleries. Long before their addresses are visible, they are marked by small crowds of darkly clad people, many of whom are scrutinizing small fuchsia bits of paper on which the map of the event is drawn. They are people who are not normally at the corner of Sunset and Alvarado, of Melrose and Berendo on a Friday night, or any night, for that matter. One of the points of the art crawl is that maybe this could, and should, change.

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