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The Enabler: The Art of Drinking

Seeking out artists' watering holes as we kick off a new art season.

January 28, 2011|By Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times
  • A mural by Dave Muller at mandrake bar in Culver City.
A mural by Dave Muller at mandrake bar in Culver City. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

It's happy hour on a chilly Wednesday night in Venice and the Enabler is contemplating her Manhattan somewhat gloomily. It's Art Month in Los Angeles and she has been on a mission to discover what bars the city's artists frequent in order to color outside the lines. Instead of witnessing deliciously scandalous antics akin to Jackson Pollock urinating in Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace, however, the Enabler has discovered that today's artists are a pretty well-behaved bunch.

This state of affairs is good for general health but bad for posterity, thinks the Enabler selfishly. Her favorite biographies, after all, involve a brilliant mind meeting an untimely end because of an excessive nature. Vincent van Gogh comes immediately to mind.

This particular night finds the Enabler perched at the long stainless steel-topped bar at Hal's Bar & Grill. Open since 1987, Hal's is known to have a magnetic pull on Venice's visual artists. Ed Moses regularly dines there, and Larry Bell, Peter Alexander and Laddie John Dill are all regulars.

The bar's co-owner Don Novack said that when Hal's opened 25 years ago Venice was notoriously inexpensive so artists flocked to it. And Hal's naturally became the place to eat and drink.

"When we bought it, people thought we were crazy for taking it over," Novack said. "It was like the Wild West." Still, Hal's gained favor with the area's bohemians, and their eventual status attracted a new generation of artists.

The Enabler had the good fortune of meeting a member of this new tribe at Hal's. A young painter named David Phillips, who keeps a studio down the street, said he began coming to Hal's based on its reputation as a place that Ferus Gallery artists hung around.

"The wall behind us is the Ed Moses wall," said Phillips, pointing to a giant painting by that artist above the booths in the wide-open dining room. "I saw him here, like, eight years ago and I flipped out. I've been coming here ever since. To me, he's Picasso."

The next evening, the Enabler attended an art opening at Michael's restaurant in Santa Monica. It featured the work of another great from the Ferus Gallery: Billy Al Bengston. Bengston loves Michael's and has had a close relationship with its chef-owner Michael McCarty since 1979.

McCarty's wife, Kim, is a painter and she has stocked the bar and restaurant with works by David Hockney, Robert Graham, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Jim Dine. And by staging openings in the salon above the dining room, the restaurant, which now features a guest mixology program, is known as a hot spot for artists.

Attending the opening were Alexander, Dill, Chris Burden, Guy Dill and Don Bachardy, among others. And Bengston and his wife, Wendy Al, who curated his show, dined on the back patio at Michael's immediately after the opening. They favor the burger.

Also in attendance was Drew Heitzler, co-owner of Mandrake, another bar where artists tipple. It's on La Cienega Boulevard near Culver City in an area rich with galleries.

It wasn't always that way, said Mandrake co-owner Flora Wiegmann. When they took over the small, minimalist space in 2006, "there were only about eight or nine galleries, and since then the number has quintupled." She attributes the growth to the fact that famed gallery Blum & Poe struck out on its own and opened along this stretch of La Cienega. It wasn't long before others followed suit and a community formed.

Wiegmann and Heitzler initially looked at the Mandrake space with the thought of making it a gallery but decided that what the "neighborhood needed was a bar." They were right. These days it's hard to find a free seat on the bar's rustic wooden benches. Works by Dave Muller and Raymond Pettibon serve as a fitting backdrop for the many after-parties the bar hosts for area gallery openings.

Another local watering hole is also in possession of a Pettibon: the elite member's-only club Soho House in West Hollywood. No, the Enabler is not a member. The Enabler is known to ramble from bar to bar in hoodies and sneakers rather than couture gowns.

But Soho House has cache with a wide variety of artists because of its inventive method of collecting art. Along with branches in New York, Miami and London, Soho House also keeps an in-house curator in the person of a painter named Johnny Yeo.

"We put together a nice collection by bartering with the artists," Yeo said. "It's a sweet deal on both sides. The artists love to go somewhere to eat and drink for free and the bar gets a really great collection of well-known and up-and-coming artists."

With artists such as Ed Ruscha, Mark Ryden, Shepard Fairey and David Choe popping by, you can bet Soho House doesn't lack for color.

"A lot of them were skeptical about whether such a place would work but now they love it and they've got free membership to a place that's impossible to get into," Yeo said.

Now if only the Enabler could accomplish the same feat with her living room.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

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