In 1994, the year Kara Walker graduated from RISD, Jeff Koons made his first balloon dog, and OJ’s white Bronco became a celebrity, Timothy Blum and Jeff Poe opened a gallery in Santa Monica. In 2003, the year Charles Saatchi called white walled galleries “antiseptic” and Arnold Schwarzenegger became California’s governor, Blum & Poe relocated to Culver City. Now, in 2009, the year Holland Cotter proclaimed that ‘The Boom Is Over’, Eli Broad bailed out MoCA, and Obama won the Nobel Prize (not to mention the presidency), Blum & Poe has crossed the street, moving into a renovated 1968 manufacturing building.
Blum & Poe Gallery, which played a central role in making Culver City a “scene’, is celebrating its 15th anniversary in its new space with an exhibition that features its whole roster of artists. The inaugural celebration took place last weekend and caused a bit of a stir in the world of society blogs.
I visited Blum & Poe a week after its debut, having just browsed the New York Social Diary’s Gossip Girl worthy photos of the opening and feeling a little suspicious of bigness in general. I tend to romanticize the margins, to prefer grainy video art to pristine footage or to assume that something like the Watts Towers, built in obscurity on a laborer’s budget, deserves its place on the historic registry more costly venture like the Bradbury Building. But Blum & Poe’s new space wins me over without even threatening my proclivity for underdogs.
Renovated by Escher GuneWardena Architecture, the same firm that transformed Blum & Poe’s previous headquarters from a warehouse into an art space, the building is stunningly spacious: 5 galleries, 21,000 square feet, a door onto La Cienega, a second private door that opens onto a parking lot out back, office space galore. But it’s also refreshingly awkward. The first floor walls are tall in proportion to the rooms’ width; the broad foyer, furnished with only a raw wood desk, could be an exhibition space itself; and the upper level room unexpectedly resembles a Brooklyn loft. More important than the space’s specs, however, is the fact that it’s full.
At first, I worry that Blum & Poe have caught the overhanging bug that seems to prey on big venues — Ace notoriously overhangs, and MoCA will never accept that it’s not MoMA. But this show isn’t meant to be coolly composed; it’s a jamboree, a compilation of everything the gallery is proudest of.
In the first gallery, Friederich Kunath’s whimsical, minimally expressive watercolors hang behind Matt Johnson’s A shape in time, freestanding tires that I’m tempted to topple with my breathing even after I learn they’re bronze and not rubber. Country Produce by Nigel Cook, an artist whose grungy panoramas I am still learning how to like, has a gonzo color scheme and leniency that offsets the meticulousness of Keith Tyson’s and Florian Maier-Aichen’s work on the adjacent wall. The two Mark Grotjahn drawings in the show – from the series Untitled (Full Colored Butterfly) – have radial colored pencil stripes that look weathered and wrought. The surface has been cuffed up and this “damage” acknowledges the dated legacy of Grotjahn’s compulsive lines and systems.
Murakami’s youthful porno-kitsch side and his sleek, grown-up side coexist in this exhibition, and Yoshimoto Nara’s signature wide-eyed prepubescent figure is present in the form of fired clay. But LA’s Dave Muller has the most work in this exhibition – upstairs, downstairs, above doorways, on support beams – though his nostalgically loose paintings of record albums and disco balls hardly steal the show.
Each artist has contributed new work, staking a claim in the gallery’s future, and together they represent a range of sensibilities: from contemplative to pristine, to severe, to humorous and nostalgic. Blum & Poe’s artists veer away from gut-spilling viscosity, the sort of art Libby Lumpkin would call “adolescent”, and I always associate a certain breed of elegance with the gallery. But beyond that, its artist roster doesn’t quite make sense to me – why is Murakami next door to Sam Durant? What could Sharon Lockhart and Chiho Aoshima have in common? While I suppose not making sense could be a strategy akin to “staying ahead of the curve” or “keeping people guessing”, I prefer to think of it more optimistically, as the project of two dealers who know what they like. Luckily, when it comes to the art world, promoting what you like and strategizing have everything in common.
The last time Blum & Poe moved, they essentially transformed Culver City from a landscape warehouses into an art district. We’ll have to wait to see if this new move proves equally influential, but, for now, the gallery is full of infectious good-will.