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The Enabler

The Enabler has a Blue Period for art bars.

November 26, 2010|By August Brown and Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times

It is 7 p.m. on a lonely Thursday evening in Chinatown, and the Enabler is hunched over a tumbler of cheap Scotch at a shabby bar called Hop Louie. We have come in search of that profligate L.A. cultural beast: the drunken artist.

We have a strange respect for these creatures and their ability to express themselves without the fine-whine self-regard that is a writer's birthright. Not that we envy Jackson Pollock's liver or Diego Rivera's romantic foibles, each a consequence of a life lived close to the bottle. But after the collapse of an overheated Jeff Koons-era boom, surely there were great bars where the visually inclined were getting blurry.

The top contenders are Hop Louie and the Mountain bar in Chinatown; the Soho House in West Hollywood, which has an in-house curator and draws high-profile dealers and agents (but the Enabler is rarely invited to this ritzy members-only club, and is wearing sneakers and a hoodie to boot); Hal's in Venice, rumored to draw an old-school art crowd; and the Mandrake on La Cienega near Culver City, which is supposed to attract a younger, experimental scene.

At this early hour Hop Louie, with its spitting-distance proximity to the vibrant Chinatown gallery scene, is sparsely populated save for an un-apropos group of overweight football fans who speak too loudly on their cellphones and grunt with anxiety or pleasure depending on which team has the ball, Baltimore or Atlanta.

"I got locked out of my house tonight with a bunch of groceries and I was like, 'Forget about it, I'll just go to the bar,' " says one of them to the Enabler. We nod, training our gaze on the underside of the upturned bar flap beside the blaring TV. It is covered in detailed pen-and-ink drawings rendered on napkins.

"Do artists from the galleries come here often?" we ask the laconic, heavy-lidded bartender.

"Sometimes," he replies.

"Is that who draws those?" we ask, gesturing to the napkins.

"No," says the bartender.

"Who draws them?" we continue, pressing the subject.

"People," he says.

Twenty minutes later the Enabler is hunched over a caramel-colored Manhattan at the Mandrake, watching a man with fluffy blond hair, jeans and a corduroy suit jacket nervously pull on a can of Pabst. He's running game on a willowy woman with a paint-smudged shirt and too-dark roots who is munching on a sliced baguette topped with salami.

It may as well have been his heart for all the attention she paid him. Neither his careerist boasts nor stock questions about her creative life defrosted the air. "Enjoy your architecture," she says finally, before walking away with her vodka martini balanced between manicured thumb and forefinger.

So this is where the artists are, thinks the Enabler, surveying the sparsely decorated interior; the flat white paint; the rustic wooden benches and polished concrete floor; the bartender with a bushy beard and a top-knot suggesting fandom of many bands with animal names; a plethora of rough-knit woolen caps; and the smattering of artworks.

As one Raymond Pettibon painting wanly reminded us, "I thought California would be different." The Enabler wanders to the back of the bar, past a crew noodling with electronics and DJ gear, and sits in a solitary booth. On a stark-white patch of wall above the table there is a piece of art that is more like a framed sign. It reads, "All my favourite artists had problems with alcohol."

We swallow the last fiery bit of our Manhattan and nod. But where are they now?

jessica.gelt@latimes.com, august.brown@latimes.com

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