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He's extending his stay

A permanent move to a Venice hotel is a homecoming for artist Larry Bell, whose work has a long history in L.A. Trading the sands of New Mexico for the Pacific, he'll swap his art for Room 412.

June 19, 2003|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

Artist Larry Bell is standing in what will soon be his permanent home: Room 412 at the Best Western Marina Pacific Hotel in Venice. Wearing a pink cap, a green T-shirt and beige shorts, he cuts a jaunty figure in front of the small balcony overlooking a corner of the beach.

After 30 years in New Mexico, Bell is returning to Southern California. He has chosen to come back, he says, because he's grown tired of the commute: living in Taos but selling his work in L.A. On this weekend, he is staying at the hotel in connection with a current show of his work at Off Main Gallery at Bergamot Station. "I feel like a migrant fruit picker," the 64-year-old artist says on this recent Sunday.

Bell is a Ferus Gallery alumnus, a key player in the groundbreaking 1960s movement dubbed Finish Fetish or Light & Space. Among the first to have the tag "L.A. Look" attached to his work, he was known for his glass box sculptures and, with such artists as Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses, Peter Alexander, Craig Kaufmann, Ken Price, John McCracken and Billy Al Bengston, helped firmly establish L.A. on the international art scene.

Rather than buy a house, Bell has decided to make the Marina Pacific his official address. His "rent" will be paid the old-fashioned way: with works of art.

"There's something quite nice to me about being in L.A. and not having to deal with property taxes and parking spots, cleaning the rooms and making the bed and the rest of the stuff that a hotel takes care of," he explains. And, after the tranquillity of New Mexico, the busy scene below his balcony is immensely compelling.

On the outside, the Best Western is white, nondescript, the only decoration the blue-and-yellow sign of the franchise. Inside, there are a few Danish modern pieces, but mostly the decor is chain motel, with wall-to-wall carpeting and the two-tone color scheme of cream and beige.

Although Robert Rauschenberg has stayed here in the past, the Chelsea Hotel it ain't. But for Bell, it already feels like home. Walking down the hall, he greets cleaning crews and bellboys by name.

"When I came back to Venice, this was the closest place to my old studio [on Market Street, two blocks away]. For 28 years, I've had [this] hidden place in town," he says. "I did many shows in L.A., and the hotel was used by my crew and myself as shelter and studio." While Bell worked, the housekeeper would baby-sit his kids. "I've never attempted to do outsize work here, but I have done a lot of planning and sketching of large works."

Since the '60s, he has experimented with various forms, methods and media, but he has always returned to light. As he writes in a 1997 exhibition catalog, "I found that the light from the surface was my predominant media. The interface of light and surface." By accident, Bell discovered a method of creating what he calls "Fractions" from recycled paintings. He cuts old canvases into tiny bits, arranges them on watercolor paper and runs them through a laminating press. The heat melts the materials on the canvas, creating an abstract, swirling and serendipitous image on the watercolor paper. In the pictures, layers of color create little luminescent worlds.

A few years ago, Bell decided to lend the Marina Pacific several dozen of his "Fractions" pieces and abstract lithographs. Although he hasn't moved in yet, he is already the resident artist and curator, as the artworks decorate not only his suite but also all the other guest rooms in the building. "I liked the idea of bringing them out of storage and getting them out for people to see," he says.

The owner, Mark Sokol, paid for the framing -- all light woods chosen by Bell -- and had special lighting installed. Most franchise hotels have a "cookie cutter" approach to the interior design, says Sokol, but "we're in Venice Beach, and I've always wanted to keep the local flavor.... The fact that it's Larry's vision works really well."

In addition to lending his own pictures to the hotel, Bell has curated an exhibit of photographs by two colleagues, Tom Venitz and Gus Foster.

The front desk sometimes gets inquiries from guests about the art, and Sokol has noticed people lingering in front of the pictures, as if they were "visiting a gallery or a museum," he says. "His work is really captivating."

In the hall, scenes from Venice and Inglewood by Venitz and panoramic shots from New Mexico by Foster attract the attention of a guest who pauses to study one of the photographs. But not everyone's a critic. Moments later a few beach boys, their shorts wet from surfing, run down the hallway yelling and paying scant attention to the work on the walls.

That kind of indifference doesn't bother Bell much. He simply likes to put his work out in public for people who might otherwise not be exposed to art. It is up to them whether they appreciate it.

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