Gallery Spotlight: Exclusive Interview with Matt Kennedy of La Luz de Jesus

by Nastia VoynovskayaPosted on

Matt Kennedy became an art collector at the age of 12 when he bought a drawing from a classmate. This first purchase gave way to a life-long fascination with the art world that only continues grow. Kennedy is the gallery director of La Luz de Jesus Gallery, the Los Angeles art space credited with spurring the Pop Surrealism and Low Brow movements since the gallery’s inception 1986. Founded by Billy Shire, La Luz was the springboard that launched the careers of many well-known artists — according to Kennedy, Mark Ryden, Gary Baseman and Tim Biskup all sold their first pieces there. We sat down to speak with Matt Kennedy about the origins of La Luz de Jesus, his love of comic book art and the history of the Low Brow movement.

Install of the La Luz de Jesus 25th Anniversary Show

How did you get into the art gallery business and what were you doing before you joined La Luz as gallery director?

I bought my first piece of art at the age of 12, and I still have it: It’s a turkey being led to the guillotine, as realized by John Ray, a classmate of mine at the time. Shortly thereafter I worked for an entire summer at my local comic book shop to pay off an original Saga of the Swamp Thing production page with pencils and inks by Stephen R. Bissette and John Totleben from the Alan Moore scripted run on the series. I lost that to antiquity, but the worm had turned and I was hooked on collecting art, primarily illustration.

When I moved from north of Boston to Los Angeles in 1990, I got a job working at another comic shop after selling them my own extensive collection. I became friends and roommates with the shop’s manager, and we started a business of buying and selling classic comic art. That was Gaston Dominguez, the future owner of Meltdown Comics. I remember riding the bus to visit Jack Kirby out in Thousand Oaks to buy Captain America and Avengers pages and passing Glenn Danzig in the driveway on the way in. The shop was paying us less than minimum wage at the time, and we were working twelve hour days, seven days a week. I got burned out and quit and it wasn’t long before Gaston did, too, to open his own shop. I helped out with the original Meltdown Comics shop and actually directed the first TV commercial.

I went scouring Melrose for employment opportunities when I stumbled upon Soap Plant, Billy Shire’s flagship store at the time. I handed in an application, and the person who received it (by strange coincidence) happened to be from the same city that I was: Lynn, Massachusetts. I was originally hired to work in the bookstore, and then moved upstairs to the gallery. I worked there from 1991-1995, and was a manager when I left to go into the entertainment industry, but it had always been my favorite place to work, and had helped inform my pop culture taste. If Mel Brooks hadn’t pulled me off register to be in a commercial he was shooting down the street, I probably would’ve stayed at the gallery for the ensuing decade and a half. I wouldn’t have been able to run my own production company if I hadn’t worked for Billy, and many of the great people with whom I worked at the original Melrose location of La Luz de Jesus Gallery. Coming back as the gallery director in 2009 was like coming home.

Mark Ryden, Marion Peck and Billy Shire

La Luz de Jesus was a huge pioneer of Low Brow art in its early days. Can you talk about some of the well-known artists that got their start there?

When I first stepped foot in the gallery, the curtain was just closing on a Joe Coleman exhibition. I had actually witnessed the aftermath of the infamous “infernal machine” incident in Boston, and was a huge fan of his. The girl at the front desk let me open the curtain and check out the work and invited me to another performance Joe had planned for that evening on the Santa Monica pier, so I got to see him actually blow himself up this time — not just the pandemonium after his exit. I think Joe was showing alongside Suzanne Williams at the time. Later that year were shows by S. Clay Wilson, XNO, R.K. Sloane, and I was there for the very first Coop & Kozik exhibitions, as well as a few Robert Williams and Gary Panter shows. Let’s see, there was Manuel Ocampo, David Sandlin, Stanley Mouse, Eric White, Chris Mars, Alex Grey and Paul Mavrides… the Zap 13 show was out of this world. I think the very first Mark Ryden painting to sell from a gallery was in one of our group shows. That’s probably true of Tim Biskup, Gary Baseman and a few thousand other artists, too.

Artists at the Zap 13 Show (L-R: Aline Kaminsky, Robert Crumb, Robert Williams, Suzanne Williams, Ron Turner, Gilbert Shelton, Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez, Mary Fleener and S. Clay Wilson) upstairs at the original La Luz de Jesus on Melrose in 1994.

How has the gallery’s focus changed over the years in terms of what kind of art it shows?

I think the focus has always changed, but the aesthetic is something that’s hard to nail down. Certainly the guiding force of this gallery since day one has been Billy Shire and his vision created everything that most people take for granted. He’s the godfather of this whole scene, and he’s been like a big brother to me for over two decades (I’d call him a father figure if I wasn’t absolutely positive that his eyes would roll back). I think when we first hired Aaron Smith, it opened the door to a lot of Art Center students and graduates. Within a year, we’d host the first shows for both Aaron and Owen Smith, Rob and Christian Clayton and Nathan Ota. This was not just the second wave of lowbrow, this was the integration of a new art school sensibility into the scene. We presented shows from prominent tattoo artists when that was unheard of, and animators when it was still considered kitsch, but we had photography shows with guys like Dean Karr, and miniatures by Rick Araluce and pottery by Alex De Leon, and blood paintings by Axel, so it’s hard to pinpoint the focus outside the taste of one man. As it happens, that taste was adopted by the culture and the rest is history.

Guests at the Jessica Dalva and Krystopher Sapp exhibition in 2010

It seems that what is labeled Low Brow and Pop Surrealist art now has the widest appeal, even among people outside the art world, though these terms once represented something that was outside what was accepted in the art establishment. What are your thoughts on these once-counterculture genres becoming mainstream? Do you consider it important for artists to continue pushing boundaries?

There would have been no pop surrealism movement if it weren’t for this gallery and the shows Billy Shire produced. I don’t think that can be disputed. If you look at the first few years of Juxtapoz Magazine, I think almost every single show covered was here at La Luz de Jesus, and certainly the artists were all part of Billy’s revolving roster. There was also Psychedelic Solutions in New York — another gallery that doesn’t get properly credited, and a few blocks away from us at La Brea was Zero One, but their shows weren’t as frequent, and they didn’t have the same crowd which seemed somehow more electric at La Luz. As other galleries attempted to copy the Billy Shire blueprint, what started as a sort of fringe thing here got more commercial. Being in Los Angeles and with set decorators constantly shopping here, the aesthetic soon wound up on television and in film. That Melrose Place show wanted to use the Wacko sign in the opening titles, but Billy turned them down. That’s a true story.

I’m not somebody who hates the mainstream, but I have a specific taste and I guess I wish that sometimes the specific aspects of counterculture that wind up breaking through the boundaries and into the mainstream were better or more clever than they sometimes are. When Wall Street and Madison Avenue saw that there was money in it, they came running, and that both hurt and helped. I think it inflated the prices at times prematurely, and that ended an era of interesting work for some artists, who, having tasted success, were afraid to meddle with the recipe. At the same time, the tools to create became more obtainable by a greater cross section of the population and so we saw the emergence of a new DIY culture. I don’t know if I consider it important for artists to push the boundaries, because that sort of presupposes that there are boundaries. There are only boundaries if you’re inside them. If you don’t care about success or financial stability, there are no shackles. Unfortunately for most people, these things are a concern, but I also don’t think someone should push just to push. That would be as confining in its own way as conforming or assimilating.

Exterior view of La Luz de Jesus

What are some art shows from the past year that have stood out to you, not just at La Luz but in general?

The most powerful thing thing I’ve seen in a long time was Ed Keinholz’s “Five Car Stud 1969-1972, Revisted” at LACMA in early 2012. I also really enjoyed Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” which is genius from an editing perspective, and it really energized the public about the possibilities of video art. Coming from 15 years in the entertainment business (three as an assistant editor), most of the video “art” that shows in galleries is too self-indulgent for my taste, and much of it lacks the technical ability of even the worst Hollywood films.

I’m a huge fan of craft over concept, but they needn’t be mutually exclusive. The best art to me is both high concept and high craft, so the best exhibition of new art that I saw last year was Christopher Ulrich’s “The Reckoning,” and I had the good fortune of being able to stage it here. You’d have to go to the Louvre in Paris to see painting on par with what he produced in the two years preceding his exhibition. There was a Caravaggio retrospective at LACMA at the same time, and patron after patron pulled me aside to tell me they found more vitality in Christopher’s pieces. There is a current exhibition at the Norton Simon called “Beyond Brancusi,” which I’m finding quite inspirational right now. The post-war period of painting is a very frustrating one for me, and yet the sculpture of that time blends diversity without sacrificing technicality, and I can see why those artists objected to the term “minimalism.”

View of Matt Kennedy’s personal art collection

Let’s talk about your personal art collection. What are some interesting and memorable pieces you have?

I am a deep collector of Christine Wu’s work, who we’ll be exhibiting next month. I’ve got a decent collection of Christopher Ulrich drawings and a few paintings, and if I had high ceilings I’d probably work just to pay him to paint for me. I discovered Soey Milk quite early and would love to exhibit her again. I was the first person to ever sell a José Rodolfo Loaiza Ontiveros painting and I’ve managed to buy back a few pieces from collectors as well as commission him. I don’t know if people are aware of this, but I won’t allow myself to buy anything we exhibit until an exhibition ends, which means I’ve seen great pieces sell rather than go into my own collection, but that’s part of a director’s job: to place the work into the right collections so that the artist has a career. If you see a red dot on my walls, the art is sold. There have been a couple of times when I’ve had to negotiate with a collector to buy back or trade for a piece that I really could not live without, and they were gracious enough to allow it.

I have an incredible papier mache angel by Myron Conan Dyal, who is an important and visionary artist. I must have close to a dozen of Click Mort’s remixed nostalgia sculptures and will be publishing a book of his work next year. I also have one of the most significant pieces from self-taught African American artist Purvis Young, which we featured in the “Simply Iconic” show back in 2011 alongside Sam Doyle and Roy Ferdinand. My wife is a SCI-Arc grad, and we are both collectors of interesting jewelry and modern photography. We’re both very excited about Jaesun Kim’s work, which is a sort of three-dimensional character work; it’s not puppetry and it’s not taxidermy, but something very new and very now. I’d love to own one of Wayne Martin Belger’s cameras, and I’ll be continuing to get him into some more museum environments. I’ve been working with a Japanese wife and husband team called Paniku/Panikku who change media frequently. They came to me by accident while I was searching a Japanese database for a title I released at my former company Panik House Entertainment. Talk about kismet!

More from Matt Kennedy’s personal collection

I have an extensive collection of important modern comic book art, too. Since I’ve written a book about comic book art, and curated the first survey show to focus on the modern era (“Pop Sequentialism”), this is something very near and dear to my heart. I’m currently working on the provenance of an incredibly significant comic book page. I can tell you that it’s a very early Batman page, and I can tell you that it is a preliminary, not a production page. It has what would appear to be an alternate origin for the most famous villain in pop culture history, and this may redeem artist Jerry Robinson’s life-lomg claim about his role in the creation of that character.

Matt Kennedy setting up the “Pop Sequentialism” exhibit

Do you believe the retail space in La Luz draws in a different kind of public than a traditional gallery?

The retail space gives us the freedom to present work that might be ahead of the public taste. It took three shows to get Joe Sorren past the tipping point, if you can believe that. There aren’t a lot of galleries with the will or ability to do that, so its incalculable the number of artists that have probably been lost at other spaces. Since we don’t have to rely solely on art sales, we can take chances. People who attend our shows may not have the resources to collect original art, but they want to support the arts so they buy a book or an accessory, and WACKO is the best gift shop in the world. We won two such honors this year. We also haven’t created an intimidating space, so people feel more welcome here and that makes them more likely to choose us as the location of their first art purchase. I’m often told that this is the first encounter that most people have with fine art, and while we do a good deal of repeat business, we have a very high percentage of first-time buyers. We get incredible foot traffic here because of the shop, so it’s a given that if you exhibit here, there will be at least four to five thousand eyes on your work before the month’s end. I don’t know of another gallery that can make that claim realistically. In fact there are quite a few museums that can’t compete with that. That also frees us from having to chase trends.

View of the La Luz gift shop

Where do you see La Luz headed in the next 5 years?

I don’t want to homogenize any type of art, but I will continue to help the artists I represent to achieve success on their terms. I’m sure you’ll see types of art you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see here, but that’s the fun of it. There will be more books. We’ve already published over 40, and there are at least three more in the works next year. After a long absence, we’ll be getting back to the art fairs and I’ve got a few more museum curations coming up. I guess that only covers the next year! The strength of any good ball team is in their farm system and I’m proud of the development that we’ve done here over the years, and which I continue to do. That’s probably the most exciting part of being here and being in this line of work. Discovering talent, offering guidance and watching ability and confidence grow and to witness success first-hand is one of the great treasures of this job. It’s a bit like parenting. In that respect, I suppose we’re all Billy Shire’s children.

Matt Kennedy and Billy Shire

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