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Michael’s is not a gallery, but rather a venerated, upscale Santa Monica restaurant nestled between the Third Street Promenade and the Pacific Ocean. The private upstairs Palisades Room accommodates 75 standing and boasts a fireplace, a full bar, and a wall-mounted TV. Since January, however, the Palisades Room has moonlit as The Gallery, an unorthodox exhibition program guided by whim. To say that the programming lacks cohesion might read as a mode of lambasting its bill. Instead, this deliberate disjointedness appears as an original curatorial strategy. To begin, neither of the two inaugural shows bore a formal title (opting instead for a dry numerical system of Show 1 and Show 2). The shows are laid out in an index of artists, like a list announcing appetizers, entrées, and aperitifs. But the menu, perhaps, is beside the point.
In 1979, art school students Michael and Kim McCarty opened Michael’s restaurant for Los Angeles with a focus on the art community. John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, and others gathered at the eatery, a watering ground for local artists and a hub for a thriving art center that has since crept steadily eastward. Early exhibitions at the restaurant featured iconic Los Angeles artists and even included a show centered around the color yellow—fitting, given the beach-adjacent geography. While no formal documentation of these informal, impromptu exhibits remains, the legacy, or anima, of the restaurant’s early days lingers. Revivifying Michael’s as an art space opens up a time capsule into Los Angeles’ history, when Santa Monica rents were lower and Los Angeles was not the same vital nerve center of the art world that it is today. Michael’s now houses these stacked histories: water- colors, drawings, and all manner of canvas from this original era furnish the stairwell walls, chronicling the restaurant’s remote past.
For Show 2, works in the gallery room were multifarious, an odd collection that read more as one zany collector’s vision than a methodical or cohesive curatorial approach. Louise Lawler’s small black and white coloring book outline of a dining room interior Still Life (Candle) (traced) (2003/2013) depicts wine glasses, angular plates, ornamental salt
and pepper shakers, and an ashtray piled high with cigarettes. Her stark tableau resembles a window, a literal link to the restaurant’s storied past, but also a mirror to the dining experiences that take place in this very room today.
Lawler’s domestic scene is at once sloppy and expertly arranged, the soiled napkins crumpled just so. A date painting by Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara hanging behind the table setting sites her backdrop in a wealthy collector’s dining room, a mise-en-abyme that foregrounds the rapport between fine dining, expensive art, cultural access, and other aspirational extravagances. Ultimately, this gallery inserts art into a domestic space—an inevitable part of an artwork’s lifespan if it doesn’t breathe its last breath in an artist’s studio, or in museum storage.
A purple tinted circular window across the room provided a more radiant background in the Show 2 gallery space. Martine Syms’ monochrome glass work Belief Strategy IX (2015) leant an ethereal light that simultaneously evoked the Los Angeles-based artist’s interest in the 1985 African American period drama The Color Purple and the vibrancy of an abutting magenta bougainvillea. One might have wondered how the politics of an artwork shift when it enters a private collection, like the On Kawara outlined in Lawler’s nearby illustration. Here, the upscale environment seemed to underscore the fetish of ownership. Syms’ window was immediately decorative, a setting whose rounded form found parallel in Jennifer Bolande’s video Earthquake movie (2004), a close up looping shot of a dryer rotation. This shape also repeated in the rounded outlines of the gallery’s dining room tables and plates.
The experimental program at Michael’s is not specific to a singular vision of what and how art is defined. There were no official press releases for the two exhibitions that have taken place so far, which have included works by Silke Otto Knapp, B. Wurtz, and recent Made in L.A. 2018 alumna, Luchita Hurtado, along with other notable artists. The gallery is open when the restaurant is open, so the experience itself might include the discomfort of viewing art in a busy dining room, drawing attention to the commercial underbelly of art. This art might not be listed on a menu, but it is certainly for sale. Yet even if you can’t afford the steak, you can come in and see the art. Still, the crossover of food and art is irrelevant here, surpassed by a desire to embrace this space’s past by pulling it into the present. As wait staff whiz by with stacked platters, you become a witness to a dual functioning site, both in terms of its current use and its historical layering.
Originally published in Carla issue 13