Lisa Derrick Fine Arts, Chinatown’s Newest Gallery Gem, is Not Burning at the Stake Anytime Soon

Lisa Derrick in her gallery

Lisa Derrick Fine Arts is a recently-opened gallery on Chung King Road in Chinatown which has been drawing large crowds since opening with its first exhibit “ALLEGORY AND CYPHER” last January. Lisa Derrick, proprietor and curator, is a well-known presence in the LA art scene who made her name as a journalist and writer, mainly writing about unrepresented art germinating from the LA underground scene. Her work appeared for many years in various publications including the LA Weekly and the Huffington Post.

Derrick’s exhibits have a life span in her gallery of approximately one month, so blink for a few weeks and you can miss one. After her opening night in January, she exhibited a second large show “Joy of Sin” that included works from Ron Athey, Rick Castro, Jennifer Precious Finch, Brian Grillo, Pleasant Gehman and several others. Currently exhibiting until May 4 is “Jon Huck and Leslie Laxinger: Weird Portraits”, where each artist presents portraiture in their own unconventional sense.

Derrick answered a few questions I posed to her about her background and interest in art, and her philosophy that she uses in maintaining her artistic aesthetic when selecting works for the gallery.

Can you tell our readers about your background in general, and what cultivated your interest in art?  

I grew up in a household that merged two streams of Southern California industry. My stepfather worked in the film industry as a composer and musical supervisor, and my mom worked for a major defense contractor, as did my father. My stepmom painted quite well for enjoyment, and she took me to my first art class when I was seven. While she painted something amazing, I slapped out a bowl of fruit, a dreadful waste of canvas and acrylics. At an early age I associated with artistically inclined and very patient adults who owned paintings and who painted, opening my eyes about alternative ways to live.

I was fortunate that my parents were open minded, we had gay friends and it was no big deal, my mom was actually more uptight about exposing me to hetero family friends who were living together—in her mind, far more scandalous than same sex couples.  I was sent to private school, Westlake School for Girls which was then, in the 1970s, the only non-religious, college prep, all-girl school in LA where people who “were in show business,” that phrase being the code words for “blacks and Jews,” could send their daughters.  Because of this, a wider range of young women from all over LA attended this school. Westlake provided me with a very eclectic, rigorous education, which I value to this day. My purely academic career ended there: I dropped out of both UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount, got a job in a book store and made my way in the world, the non-square world.

Please tell us about your evolution from art writer and critic to curation, and the influence of Los Angeles art in doing this.

I have been writing for publications since junior high when I was on the high school literary magazine, then did a zine with friends during punk rock, plus school newspaper and yearbook. As I was dropping out of Loyola Marymount, I became immersed in the spoken word and music scene that came out of Radio Tokyo Records which included The Minutemen, components of the Paisley Underground sound, plus the Anti-Club which was more avant-garde. I had attended the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado for a summer school poetry camp that featured Diane DiPrima, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. Burroughs is one the architects of pop culture for the past 50 years, his influence is a Master’s thesis, if not a whole dissertation in and of itself, so to be able to spend time with him was truly momentous.

Now a drop out, I worked in a book store that specialized metaphysics, psychology, and philosophy, plus the occult. I was writing for free for various music newspapers like Rock City News, until the late Craig Lee from the LA Weekly hired me to write some Best Ofs. After that I always had a paid writing gig as side hustle, even with dream gigs at record companies and production companies. I left the corporate entertainment industry and became a full-time writer with a column at New Times that ended after NT was folded into the Weekly. I co-founded two magazines, one for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and another which covered Western religious history, and wrote a travel guide book to Las Vegas for a major publisher, plus ghost writing.

I just wanted to write drugstore paperback novels and do paid work part time, but a major website hired me to do arts and culture coverage, which turned into a 24/7 gig. I expanded into covering LGBTQ news and issues, including Prop 8 and the battle for marriage equality, a natural outgrowth of my marching and protesting during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1990s.

Then an art website hired me to develop content for their website, around 2013.  On a kick and for a story, I decided to take Mat Gleason’s Curator College where we had to pitch a show and maybe we’d get to put it on. I pitched “Two Johns and a Whore,” with the award-winning actor and artist John Fleck and John Roecker, the notorious queer filmmaker who is quite a compelling painter. Both had wanted to do a show of their paintings. The name came to me, so I included fourteen artists interpreting prostitution. One of those artists, Rafael Reyes, now known as Leafar Seyer, the lead singer of Prayers, turned me on to a small news story in a local paper that involved a friend of his. I dug further and ended up with a feature for the LA Weekly about a scandal at the Museo of Anaheim involving independent curator Galo Canote’s show called “Con Safos, With Respect” and art that a very conservative trustee claimed celebrated gang culture.  One piece in question was by the master, Chaz Bojorquez whose work is included in museums around the world, even in our own Smithsonian American Art Museum! Like seriously? WTF racist, cultural imperialism at a city museum?  I went full Billy Jack in private and wrote a very measured piece that I am very proud of. The fallout over the show was a big deal: A member of the board of trustees stepped down before the show was pulled and the museum director quit afterwards (“unrelated,” it was claimed). That article led writer/director Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre to me, it was the catalyst for our collaborations with Dark Progressivism, and led to the show at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster where we showed Chaz Bojorquez and several other artists whose work was too controversial for that Anaheim show.

Lisa Derrick with Leslie Laxinger’s “Flower Girl” 2019, (left) and “Two Love Birds #2” 2017 (right).

You focus on presenting outsider art, is that how you would describe the common thread of the works that you choose to show?  What is your personal philosophy that dictates how you select artists for the gallery.

While some of the artists I show may be outside the eye-zone of larger galleries and institutions, and while some are autodidacts, none are true “outsider artists” in the academic sense of Outsider Art, capital O, capital A. I show a wide range of artists who primarily represent the Southland, and who might be called under-represented artists, which basically means: women, not-white people, LGBTQIA.  That being said, I show artists whose work provokes a reaction in me, and sometimes that’s a white dude, so whatever, what are you going to do, burn me at the stake? Art should create a reaction, emotion, experience, a sense of awe, regardless of the race, creed, gender or orientation of its creator. All of those consciously or unconsciously factor in the creative process, naturally — along with the spark that makes it be Art, which is that indefinable “you know it when you seen it” thing that speaks to you.

Some threads in work I show include aspect of the arcane, occult, esoteric and mystical-slash-metaphysical, which has been a lifelong interest of mine. That’s in every show, though it may not be obvious, except to me. I also feel that along with the Southland’s history as a refuge and incubator for what some consider zesty and zany belief systems, we cannot ignore the queer, indigenous and immigrant cultures as important forces in shaping a Southern California aesthetic, and that’s another a reason I show a wide range of artists.  I love my region! I love Southern California, and I hope that within this current boom, we take stock and see how we can preserve and re-use the areas and their buildings which give SoCal its charm. No one wants to live in or visit Blandville.

Derrick with artist Jon Huck and some of his works in the “Weird Portraits” exhibit.

You mentioned “Dark Progressivism” and the large show you co-curated at MOAH, the Museum of History and Art in Lancaster in late 2017.  How would you describe this type of art for our readers who are unfamiliar with it? 

Dark Progressivism is a style of art that draws on the underground river of Southern California. It’s very real and pervasive, and like the number 23, you’ll see it if you look for it. The first person who saw it, began to codify it, wrote about it was the brilliant scholar and writer Rodrigo Ribera D’ Ebre with whom I co-curated several Dark Progressivism shows including the MOAH show. To further his theories and explore them more deeply, he wrote and directed a documentary which became the award-winning Dark Progressivism. I am honored to have been an associate producer— or producer depending on which credits you see—on this film. Like, total rush and a high point of my life.

Dark Progressivism draws on street chirography—lettering skills honed by graffiti and tattooing styles usually associated with historically Mexican and now Hispanic immigrants, their children and grandchildren. Another influence is German Expressionism as filtered through film noir and horror movies as well as its lettering and art, as well as the later crossover with NY style graffiti. While Dark Progressivism began in the shadows, it has moved forward with many artists like Big Sleeps, Gajin Fujita, Prime and Leafar Seyer gaining both institutional and pop culture recognition. Despite origins in what is dismissively referred to as “gang culture,” Dark Progressivism artists range the many cultures of the Southland, which we expressed in the MOAH show “Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment.”  For me, Dark Progressivism has so many layers. Our region was birthed out of “valley of big smoke” and grew up soaked in blood, booze, oil and the movies. There is a sorrow from Santa Barbara down through to Baja’s tip, and that expresses itself to create new worlds on canvas, on walls, on arms, on the radio. We progress.

Lisa Derrick Fine Arts has had successful opening nights for of your shows, what kind of interesting feedback have your received at your shows from people who are unfamiliar with type of art? Or any other interesting responses that you’ve received?

One of the things I enjoy about openings is that people have the opportunity to interact with people they haven’t seen in ages and meet new people in a social environment where you don’t have to yell over loud music or bring a chips and salsa. I have a slight touch of compulsive hostess disorder, so it’s wonderful to hear after opening, “I had so much fun, I saw so-and-so and I had just been thinking about them!”

People have been buying art at openings and during regular gallery hours, which is so validating. And I sold two Gary Wong Cypherseries paintings after his show closed. So I’m stoked and my artists are happy.

I find in LA, and it’s most likely true elsewhere as well, that people who go to galleries are smart, educated and well-informed. Though one lady was confused at the very colorful and playful “Joy of Sin” opening. She looked around the gallery said, “But wait, I thought you showed cholo art…” My reputation had preceded me overmuch, however she loved the show.

How have you been received in the Chinatown community overall? 

I knew the gallerists on Chung King Road before I opened, so I had built-in micro-community. My residential neighbors are great, too. The galleries are invited guest/tenants whose presence here for thirty plus years draws visitors to Chinatown; it is an honor to have a gallery here. When I was a kid, I would come to Chinatown with my aunt and uncle once a month for dinner and to walk around, or during the day so my uncle could buy antiques. Now to be in this special community with a gallery here is so magical! Chinese business owners and locals have been in and the response has been very positive.

What can gallery goers look forward to in future shows at Lisa Derrick Fine Arts? 

The successful “Weird Proportions: Jon Huck & Leslie Lanxinger” ends May 4, and I am gearing up for “Fast & Bulbous: The Art of the Mascara Snake,” curated by lowbrow genius Anthony Ausgang, opening May 11. The Mascara Snake, aka avant-weird artist Victor Hayden, created artwork for Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, the Melvins, and GG Allin, and we are fortunate to be showing the artwork he gave to his good friend the author Pamela Des Barres, along with supporting ephemera from the recording sessions and that time period.

In June, it’s “Goddesses & Gods,” a show I had pitched to Mat Gleason for Coagula and was already working on when I got the gallery, so now that’s in two galleries–a huge group show with a range of artists. That opens June 22, the solstice, plus it’s my birthday party, no presents, come in costume as your favorite goddess or god. July 27 through August 24, Katie Salisbury presents “Thank You Enjoy,” her photographic study of Chinese immigrant restaurant workers in New York. Katie is a Los Angeles native and a fourth-generation Chinese-American. I was telling my landlady about the, and she exclaimed, “Katie is my cousin. Our great-grandfather had a restaurant across from Union Station.” This show will have programing focused on the community and its history, as well as a art from immigrant and first-generation artists.  After Labor Day, we are showcasing Laura Byrnes Designs, featuring the newest design work of the woman who created the Pin Up Girl Clothing line right here in sunny Southern California, and with her designs comes a group show of artists to compliment. October is “Ex voto: Santisima” a show dedicated to Santa Muerte which will include a community altar, and I close out the year with Ron Athey’s first gallery solo show in over twenty years. And next year, Guggenheim Fellowship awardee Christiane Cegavske will be showing, something we arranged long before her Guggenheim was announced.

And finally, while you are curating and promoting the art featured in the Lisa Derrick Fine Arts gallery, will you continue writing and working on your own artistic creations? 

I write occasionally for the Weekly and other publications. My art is not a daily practice, though writing is, as anyone who has received my lengthy emails or texts can attest! The pieces I make are for specific purposes as well as for the shows that have invited me, and I clear about three days to do them. For “Ex voto: Santisima,” the gracious and talented Chuck Swenson and I will be collaborating on a sculpture, which will be fun.

 

So there you have it, Lisa Derrick Fine Arts, along with its current offerings, has magnificent plans to keep our interest and desires stoked for future events…run, don’t walk to Lisa Derrick Fine Arts!

You can catch the tail end of the current exhibit “Leslie Laxinger and Jon Huck: Weird Portraits” this week thru its closing day this Saturday May 4th. Derrick’s next exhibit “Fast and Bulbous: The Art of Mascara Snake” will open on May 11th. It features art of The Mascara Snake, AKA Victor Hayden, musician and artist who appeared on Captain Beefhart’s classic album Trout Mask Replica. It’s not to be missed!

Lisa Derrick Fine Arts, 961 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, CA  90012. Open Thursday through Saturday, 1pm to 6pm or by appointment. Street parking and paid lot parking.

©Photos by Judy Ornelas Sisneros. All rights reserved.

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Judy Ornelas Sisneros

About Judy Ornelas Sisneros

I am a native Californian, born and raised in Bakersfield and eventually escaping to San Jose then San Francisco where I spent every free moment in punk and post-punk culture spaces before heading to LA permanently in 1989. I have also spent major time as an AIDS and queer street activist, which today along with my passion for punk/alternative music still informs my personal and social life. I love photography, film and playing punk/post-punk stuff on the bass. My LA Beat contributions are usually photos that give a glimpse into the vibrant art and music scene that makes Los Angeles such an amazing city to live in today.
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