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La Luz de Jesus Gallery marks 25 years of 'lowbrow' art

Owner Billy Shire started the gallery as an afterthought, but years later, the surrealist Pop art and strange representational pieces have become hot commodities.

November 18, 2011|By Hugh Hart, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Billy Shire, gallery owner of La Luz de Jesus Gallery.
Billy Shire, gallery owner of La Luz de Jesus Gallery. (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)

It's just another day at the office for Billy Shire, but his work space is anything but routine. In a dimly lighted backroom that serves as headquarters for the godfather of Los Angeles' "lowbrow" art scene, three decades' worth of eye-gouging artifacts joust for attention. Here's a bug-eyed 3-foot princess doll encased in a shadowbox. There's a circus banner emblazoned with squirming serpents. A bass guitar and a surfboard, each embellished with red flames, lean against the artful clutter while a glittering pink- and turquoise-beaded skull perches inside a cherry-topped cage pretty as a birthday cake.

Place of honor goes to a pair of self-portraits by painter Joe Coleman, casting the artist as a scowling comic book character framed by autobiographical text and image panels. Shire, 60, sporting shoulder-length gray hair and dressed as he has nearly every day of his adult life in undershirt, shorts and flip-flops, muses, "Joe basically put his soul on canvas." The kicker: "His pieces sell now for a quarter-million, half a million dollars."

Shire, owner of La Luz de Jesus (4633 Hollywood Blvd.), has assembled a slightly more formal assortment of pieces for the Los Feliz gallery's "25th Anniversary Masters Exhibition." Through Nov. 27, the two-part group show gathers fantastical figurative paintings by 140 artists, including Pop surrealists like Gary Panter, Frank Kozik, Daniel Martin Diaz, Gary Baseman, Elizabeth McGrath and Jon Bok, who have shown their work at La Luz after the gallery opened in 1986.

"At that time," Shire recalls, "most other galleries were showing video, installation art, tail-end abstract expressionism. There was not a lot of representational painting going on and that's what I wanted to do. I brought in sign painters, tattoo artists, magazine illustratorsThe idea was to not necessarily compete with the art establishment, but I did want to kind of challenge them and bring other artists to the fore."

That urge to challenge conventional fine art wisdom came naturally to Shire. Raised with brother Peter, now a sculptor, in an Echo Park house hand-built by his father, Henry, an illustrator turned union organizer turned master carpenter, Shire became enchanted with all things skeletal as a kid and fondly describes a skull sculpture carved by Shire senior as his favorite childhood plaything.

After high school, he worked in construction , then crafted ornate leather belts for rock musicians. In 1973 Shire designed an award-winning denim jacket encrusted with a detachable ashtray and rhinestones. The piece would eventually earn a slot in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "100 Years of California Art" show but failed to produce much in the way of commissions. "My career did not take off so I became a merchant," Shire says dryly.

In the mid-'70s, Shire began importing Day of the Dead trinkets from Mexico to stock the shelves of his Soap Plant and Wacko gift stores on Melrose Avenue. "The gallery started by accident, more or less," he recalls. "I started commissioning big, delicate Day of the Dead pieces but didn't have a place to show them in the stores, so I used the space upstairs."

Soon, Zap Comix artist Robert Williams, widely admired for his "Zombie Mystery Paintings," sold out, as did tiki-themed cartoon graphics by Shag. La Luz hit a hot streak after relocating to Los Feliz in 1995, around the same time that Juxtapoz magazine emerged as a national megaphone for illustration-based artworks.

Meanwhile, Shire's carnival-like gallery openings, which variously featured Guatemalan go-go dancers, tarot card readers and female boxers, helped forge a slow-gestating community of like-minded outsiders.

Painter and toy maker Tim Biskup characterizes his first encounter with Shire's gallery/store "den of insanity" as a life-changing experience. In the exhibition companion book "La Luz de Jesus 25: The Little Gallery That Could" (Last Gasp), he writes, "Nothing grabbed me like this ... onslaught of Mexican masks, skeletons, altars, candles, shrunken heads and poodle guts. This was pure and hot and dirty and good. I made damn sure I was inspired enough to make my own sick thing as perfect and beautiful as I could."

Veteran Los Angeles art dealer Molly Barnes credits Shire with fueling demand for twisted representational art. "Billy has a way of convincing collectors that this is the thing they should be buying without ever resorting to the hard sell. He introduced this underground point of view that's now become very hot with young collectors. And Billy's still looking."

La Luz de Jesus is no longer the only lowbrow game in town. Operations including New York's Jonathan Levine Gallery and local outfits like Corey Helford Gallery, CoproGallery and the Hive Gallery now specialize in twisted strains of representational painting.

But Shire remains tethered to the criterion he's used for nearly three decades in the art business. "I have a populist eye," he says, as he looks at incoming cartons of paintings piled against the wall. "I'm looking for originality and I'm looking for chops. People have to be able to draw to get into this gallery. But it's hard to find somebody who is very adept and also has the mythology to put things together." Anything else? "That's it."

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