It is a classic art-world story: A small band of young, hip, energetic dealers descends upon a forgotten corner of the city in search of reasonable real estate. They slip in between Chinese restaurants with pictures of lobsters propped up in the windows and dusty souvenir shops 10 years past their prime, refitting crumbling interiors with gleaming white walls and making uneasy peace with wary shopkeepers. News of the enclave spreads: There are glossy magazine layouts and debates over gentrification; crowds of twentysomethings throng the alley between galleries on opening nights; collectors and curators pass through in the afternoons. The work is youthful, strident and sometimes even good.
So it went in Chinatown. It began with China Art Objects Galleries, which appeared in an old gift-shop storefront on the south end of Chung King Road in summer 1998. Black Dragon Society followed, as well as Goldman Tevis (now Mary Goldman Gallery) and Diannepreuss (now Preuss Press), with Acuna-Hansen setting up shop around the corner. (Inmo Gallery, another pioneer, has relocated to 5th Street.)
Amid the more recent buzz of the Culver City scene, which began to emerge in 2003, the story of Chinatown is often told as though its moment has passed, but in fact the scene has been growing steadily and is today more lively than ever. The last two years alone have seen the addition of nearly a dozen new spaces, including Kontainer, which moved from the mid-Wilshire area and spawned the now independent Chung King Project; Fringe Exhibitions, also in Chung King Alley; High Energy Constructs, Sam Lee Gallery and David Salow Gallery on Hill Street; Bamboo Lane and Main Field Projects on an adjacent alley; Bonelli Contemporary on Mei Ling Way; and Abacot Gallery in Mandarin Plaza. (Jail and Farmlab, both located less than a mile from Chinatown, are also notable additions to the area.)
What's more, the artistic climate has matured considerably. Young artists carried by the early galleries since the beginning have evolved, while subsequent arrivals have broadened the spectrum. Spaces such as Daniel Hug, David Kordansky, Jack Hanley and Sister (all opened around 2003) expand the base of smart, internationally inflected programming; Peres Projects brings an element of rock-star fashionability; Telic Arts Exchange, the neighborhood's one nonprofit, generates innovative, community-minded projects and events. What used to feel one step away from a grad-school keg party now has the air of an eclectic soiree. The tone remains youthful and somewhat disorganized -- especially compared with the blue-chip enclaves of the Westside or the relatively cohesive community of Culver City -- but with a decided sense of worldliness, even sophistication.
The images here are intended as a sampler, spotlighting some of the best of what's up in Chinatown now.
-- Holly Myers