LOS ANGELES — The gallery M+B sold out its show of surreal, cloud-dappled landscapes by Leo Mock over the summer. The work was enigmatic, with images of long, birdlike legs stepping through the paintings. The official “artist bio” was also mysterious, saying only that Mr. Mock had graduated from ArtCenter College of Design and “lives and works in Los Angeles.”
But those in the know soon discovered that Leo Mock was actually the alias of one Steve Hanson, a local art dealer pursuing his sideline career. Leo was his uncle’s name; Mock, his mother’s maiden name — but it works as a jab at the art market, too: “People don’t like artists having two careers,” said Mr. Hanson, a founder of the pioneering Chinatown gallery China Art Objects. “I’m an old punk rocker and all of those musicians take pseudonyms,” he explained by phone.
How to exhibit your own work is just one of the challenges facing artists who open up shop as dealers, a deep-rooted tradition that is thriving these days across this art-obsessed city. Another is juggling the demands of making art while running a gallery, two careers not known for reliable revenue streams. But a surprising number of artists in Los Angeles have been opening commercial spaces anyway, giving the city’s gallery scene a scrappy energy all its own and providing a strong counternarrative to the idea that visual culture here is defined by the recent influx of New York and international galleries.
These spaces run the gamut from funky weekend-only apartment venues to larger spaces with regular hours, but they tend as a whole to have a more adventurous spirit. As Mr. Hanson puts it, “The Home Depot-fication of galleries is one reason why artist-run spaces are so important.”
Last year alone saw the opening of Real Pain Fine Arts by the artist Peter Harkawik near the Underground Museum; Murmurs, a welcoming gallery-cafe complex downtown founded by Morgan Elder and Allison Littrell; and La Loma Projects, which Kirk Nelson runs out of his living room and garage in Pasadena — not far from the artist Dani Tull’s two-year-old gallery Odd Ark. More established examples include Smart Objects, Five Car Garage, Big Pictures L.A., Moskowitz Bayse, Night Gallery, Commonwealth and Council, the Pit and Bel Ami. (The last four will have booths at Frieze Los Angeles, the art fair running Feb. 14-16, in a special section devoted to local galleries.)
Most of these galleries follow a traditional 50-50 sales split with artists, but none are as high-overhead and profit-driven as the blue-chip galleries now in town.
“L.A. has a long history of artist-run galleries — it’s where so much experimentation and innovation take place,” said Bettina Korek, the director of Frieze Los Angeles. She called the model an alternative to the usual white cube and “a great reminder that art can happen anywhere.”
Amy Bessone is a Los Angeles painter and sculptor with a high-profile New York gallery (Salon 94) but she still supports artist-run galleries at home: She had a solo show at the Pit last year and has work in a group show at La Loma Projects now. She credits these spaces with generating a “sense of solidarity and community,” as well as “bringing a lot of artists out to see their shows.” Their openings are also inclusive, she said, complete with “children, dogs, friends of friends, and sometimes tacos,” minus the fancy after-opening dinners.
Chadwick Gibson, founder of Smart Objects, contends that “making art makes you more attuned to what’s going on” in the culture. “A lot of galleries will say they show new or emerging artists,” he added, “but if you go back you’ll find that they showed at three artist-run spaces first.”
He started his gallery in Echo Park at the end of 2012 specifically to hold an exhibition of his own work — screen shots of gallery and museum interiors he printed from Google Art Project, where the operator’s camera is caught in the image, a way of turning the Google eye on itself. He has just leased more space next to the gallery with plans to turn it into an arcade.
Devon Oder and Adam Miller, the wife-and-husband founders of the Pit,
met while getting their M.F.A.s at ArtCenter. Both worked for the artist Sterling Ruby, and in 2014 they opened the gallery next to their studios in Glendale, in a former mechanic’s garage. (The mechanics’ pit is a still-visible feature of the space.) She shows her photography with the Portland gallery Fourteen30 Contemporary, while he exhibits his obsessively patterned paintings at various local spaces.
“In our branding, we like to say we’re an artist-run space,” said Mr. Miller, calling their business “collaborative” in the spirit of musician-run record labels like Dischord Records or Lookout Records. They produce zines for many of their shows (doing designs, printing and binding in-house) and are known for their flexibility in scheduling.
He remembers a big fair two years ago when four out of five artists could not make their deadline for delivering artworks to be photographed. He supplied older artwork instead and rescheduled the shoot. “When those things happen, instead of hammering artists about deadlines, we are more likely to pivot and accommodate the creative process,” he said.
As a figurative painter, Emma Gray of Five Car Garage said she realizes “how long it can take for an artist’s vision to come in — I hold the torch for them.” Her old-fashioned training in portraiture at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London (“no electric lighting was allowed”) also helps her “talk to painters about painting.”
She founded the gallery in 2013 after moving to a home in Santa Monica that had a large custom-built garage for a car collector. Now, the garage is the gallery, with a meditation studio on the property that she uses for community sound baths, breath work, and performances involving her artists, such as Alison Blickle (a practicing witch) and Lazaro (or “L,” an alchemist). In her own studio next door, Ms. Gray is currently working on a series of “fire” paintings based on her experience fire-walking in Santa Fe.
Eve Fowler, a co-founder of seminomadic Artist Curated Projects, says that giving artists agency was the goal of her program, started in 2008 out of her own apartment with a colleague, Lucas Michael. “We had so many friends who were good artists and didn’t have shows. We also felt like artists don’t have any power,” she added — so early on, they invited artists to share the decision-making and organize the shows.
Her last show featured optically “tricky” paintings by a graduate student in fine arts, Kate Mosher Hall. But now that Ms. Fowler’s own queer-forward, text-based art is gaining traction — a recent film is heading to the New Museum in New York for a screening — she is not sure she will continue the gallery.
On the flip side, some artists who found their calling as gallerists have decided to postpone their own art careers, perhaps permanently. Davida Nemeroff of the downtown destination Night Gallery, says she stopped making work in 2016 when her gallery partner left and she had to take over all operations. “I realized from my own artists how much time and energy you need to put into your practice, and I just didn’t have that,” she said.
Young Chung, a founder of Commonwealth & Council in Koreatown, said he “went back in the closet as an artist” and stopped making work in 2012, two years after opening the space in his apartment. At that time, he said, “a Getty curator came to see one of our artist’s works but then the conversation gravitated to my own work — in that moment, I realized I had a conflict of interest.”
Every artist-dealer contacted for this story acknowledged the potential conflicts when juggling the two roles: whose work are you really promoting? Most have included their own work in an occasional group show but said they would not give themselves a solo show, with Ms. Gray saying she feels like it’s “largely unethical to cross the line.” Ms. Fowler said: “I just didn’t think it would look good. I thought other opportunities would come up, which they did.”
But Mr. Gibson, who opened his space to have a venue for his Google project, conceded, “I understand why people might think it’s tacky, ” adding, “it’s O.K. if the artists you show are good with it.”
Some gallerists sidestep the conflicts by refusing to promote their own art. Robert Gunderman rarely showed his own work while running the influential gallery ACME with Randy Sommer for 22 years. But after the gallery closed in 2017, Mr. Gunderman reinvented himself as an artist, with two strong shows of his lushly textured abstract paintings organized by the curator Lauri Firstenberg.
It turned out that Mr. Gunderman had been painting fairly consistently, and discreetly, all along. “Only a few people knew I had a studio,” he said. “And I would tell them I had six cats there ” to keep them away. (Visitors to Frieze can see his work in a pop-up space called The Street & The Shop on the backlot of Paramount Studios.)
As for Leo Mock, better known as Steve Hanson, he is now busy painting in Mérida, Mexico, where he recently moved with his wife, Tuesday Yates. But he has not given up his idea of running a gallery. To that end, the couple is currently rehabbing part of an old bus depot in Mérida. Still confounding the art world, they plan to call it China Art Objects.
The Pit, 918 Ruberta Avenue, Glendale, Tuesday-Saturday
Smart Objects, 1828 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, Thursday-Saturday
Five Car Garage, open Saturdays and by appointment, email@example.com.