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Actual Size / Los Angeles

Actual Size Los Angeles is a new exhibition space that recently opened in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. To talk about this new spec on the cultural landscape of the city, Flash Art asked co-founders Esteban Schimpf and Samia Mirza some questions.

Alexander Ferrando: Who founded Actual Size along with the two of you? What are your backgrounds and how did you come to establish the space?

Samia Mirza: Five Los Angeles-based artists founded Actual Size: Lee Foley, Justin Greene, Corrie Siegel, Esteban Schimpf and myself. We started our gallery because we wanted to add a malleable space to the Los Angeles cultural landscape that supported emerging artists via traditional exhibitions as well as innovative projects.

AF: Where does the name come from?

Esteban Schimpf: Actual Size is the title of a work by Ed Ruscha. It is the painting with SPAM written across the top; on the bottom half a true to scale can of Spam flies like a rocket. Our gallery space is one basic and discreet room. What you see is what you get.

AF: I am using the term ‘space’, which I typically like to avoid due to the word’s ambiguity, because Actual Size itself is a bit ambiguous. Tell me about its distinctive programming?

SM: Artists often feel that the efforts they put into an exhibition are too concentrated on the opening. They need to make a big impression and hope that their artistic efforts communicate successfully for just one night. There is something interesting about being involved in the developmental stages of an artist’s practice. The program at Actual Size gives artists the opportunity to further engage their audience within the culture of their work through programming that they create. Our responsibilities extend further than putting on a show every month; we are an artist run gallery and in many ways that changes the context of the way our audience engages with us. We encourage experimentation and offer artists the opportunity to create unrealized projects in a forum that is free from commercial or institutional pressure. Most importantly, we strive to maintain an open environment that encourages artists to creatively approach their exhibitions.

AF:As artists, what drove you to open your own space?

ES: We saw something missing from the Los Angeles art scene. We were hungry and saw that everyone around us was too. At a panel discussion at Honor Fraser earlier in the year Piero Golia and Jeff Poe discussed Los Angeles’ artists use of the city and landscape. One of the highlights of the discussion was when Jeff Poe, who had just opened a massive new space for his gallery, passionately exclaimed, “My huge retail store across the street doesn’t do anything for the emerging Los Angeles Art scene! It’s the artists that lead the way and make the scene! It’s your responsibility.” We were inspired by what he said because galleries and museums are often assumed to be the architects of the cultural landscape; that they have the power to determine the shape of culture but really it’s the artists! Artists may not have all of the power, but they create the work and ideas, they are the reason why the art world exists.

SM: The gallery is also an extension of our studio practices. Working as a unit compared to the singular has been an incredible experience for all of us. We are developing our curatorial, artistic, and social practices in this endeavor. It’s good to ask ourselves: what can we do for each other rather than what can I do for myself– we’ve developed a great community this way.

AF: Why is Los Angeles an appealing place for young artists? Why isn’t it?

ES: The concept of Los Angeles has yet to be solidified. It takes effort to understand what the city is, and as an artist you have the opportunity to help define the cultural persona, and to contribute to how it is understood. Los Angeles is oriented from the bottom up in many ways. Youth culture permeates everything. People pursue youth here. I always joke that in New York young people want to wear Chanel cocktail dresses and expensive pearls, they want to be establishment. In L.A. the executive driving an Italian sports car to work wears a t-shirt and a backward baseball cap. Here, the establishment wants to be young. Also, the California landscape itself is unclassifiable, you can drive 40 kilometers in any direction and be in a different world and that world is often vast in scale.

SM: All of the vastness and space can sometimes come with a price though, and that is the feeling of isolation and lonesomeness. Being an artist and working in your studio is already a very singular activity. We are not in a pedestrian metropolis where one frequently encounters acquaintances and friends on the street; we’re in a vehicle. It is a private place, and the best artists utilize that privacy to form distinctive and strange practices. Look at artists like Jim Shaw, Paul McCarthy, and Tim Hawkinson.

AF: Actual Size is located in Chinatown, which is home to many galleries. Can you describe the neighborhood?

ES: Chinatown has a reputation for bringing fresh new ideas to the scene. There is a bit of the Wild West here. Galleries and artists do what they don’t do elsewhere and they generally take risks and have experimental programs. Actual Size is several blocks away from the main gallery drag on Chung King Road. We like that because it gives us room to breathe but still allows us to participate in the more established scene. Steve Hanson started China Art Objects and solidified the neighborhood as an art destination. He has been a great mentor and guide in this whole process as has David Quadrini who does excellent projects in this city. Right now a lot of young spaces are opening up here, and there is a fresh wave of creativity in the neighborhood. I recommend looking at Young Art, Dan Graham, Human Resources, and François Ghebaly’s new spaces.

SM: I’m always amazed at how the shops and bars here are very much involved in the neighborhood art scene. Once in awhile Hop Louie, a local bar, hosts video screenings proposed by artists. Mountain Bar is where the Mountain School of Art meets bi-weekly. Galleries use the old signage of stores they inhabit; it’s all very connected.

AF: Describe your first opening.

ES: We had an incredible first show! Butchy Fuego, who is a drummer for The Boredoms played a 20-minute drum improvisation that blessed the space. All I can say is that the sound was loud, beautiful, and above all else, percussive. The other two artists in the exhibition, Bobbi Woods and Eamon Ore-Giron, presented striking works that manipulated pre-existing text and imagery from old movie posters to quotes from the Popol Vuh.

SM: We had an overwhelming public response. Over 150 people came, from artists, writers, and musicians, to dealers, curators, and collectors. Since our space is so small, when 150 people show up it feels like an enormous crowd, with people spilling out into the street. We felt supported that evening and knew Los Angeles really was the right place to do this.

AF: What does the future have in store?

ES: In August we will have our first solo presentation by painter, Katie Herzog. September will be a great month for us we are going to host a show of media and performance art from dozens of artists both famous and unknown. September is big in LA and our contribution will be a late night exhibition/party of music and media art. The show will run from 11pm to 4am. Overall we are so excited and the artists we’re working with are the ones making our future exciting.

by Alexander Ferrando