David Amico has been a fixture in the Downtown LA art community since its early days in the mid 1970s. As we sat on the roof-deck of his combination live/work studio, he told me the history of the neighborhood. “This whole area” – he gestured a 180 degree panorama – “there must have been close to a thousand artists living here.” He explained Skid Row always had the cyclical urban ailments of homelessness, drug abuse, and prostitution. But in the 70s Downtown LA was buzzing with the influx of artists.
“The city didn’t know what to do with all of us. They were glad we were here, because we were cleaning up the neighborhood – slightly – but we were all feeding the homeless, and there was a lot of resentment between the artists and the authorities.”
In the same way that Amico saw the potential of what others might have viewed as a failing neighborhood, his art reflects the transformation of rubbish into truly beautiful paintings. In the midst of Skid Row’s crime, poverty, and vandalism, the artist uses the streets for daily inspiration. When a piece of broken concrete or a busted coffee tin grabs his attention, he abstracts the object past the point of recognition and recreates its essence in paint. Unlike other artists who use found objects in a collage or assemblage technique, Amico uses only paint, and meticulously recreates the original textures. His practice acts as an exploration of the urban debris that dwells in the void between art and life, blurring the lines between the junk-objects we pass unnoticed, and the art-objects we admire. His wall-sized paintings are like visual poems, alluding to objects we recognize, while keeping them just out of sight.
As Amico described the city and the budding artist community of the 1970s, I tried to picture him as a young 20-something with long hair, owning the streets of Downtown like a popular kid owns the hallways. But the context was murky. The 70s have always seemed like a lost decade trapped between the social upheaval of the 60s and the economic forces of the 80s; as if a mysterious fog descended and transformed young people from hippies to yuppies. What happened in the decade between? Did the idealism and the activism really die out?
According to Amico it never died out, it just evolved. If the 60s gave us counterculture, then the 70s gave us subculture.
By 1978, when Amico returned to LA after a brief stint in New York City, the art scene in Venice had all but evaporated; the art community migrated Downtown, inspiring a shift in LA art that was more urban than coastal. Amico rented out the biggest space he could find – a 9,000 square foot studio occupying the entire 5th floor of the old Desmond’s Department Store on Broadway. He and several of his peers did not have gallery representation at the time, so naturally his expansive square footage became a makeshift venue for art events. He hosted exhibitions, big and small, and performances that would give any landlord a heart attack. The most notable of these was the last-minute decision to have a potluck with a 72-piece orchestra.
“It wasn’t arranged with flyers or anything,” Amico said modestly. “It was just like… ok, let’s see what we can do in the middle of the night in Downtown LA”. It was after midnight by the time everyone arrived and the instruments were arranged. The studio windows were opened and the orchestra played for over an hour, flooding the entire block of Downtown with classical music. He laughed and shook his head as he said, “These guys were bringing harps and shit up through the alley at midnight. The people downstairs must have been freaked out.”
I asked him what he called those parties; after all, the term “pop-up exhibition” didn’t exist back then. “We didn’t call them anything,” he insisted. People would simply call up friends and everyone showed up. Some nights it was beer and records, other times it was a curated exhibition – or an orchestra. He even had performances by the Kipper Kids and T-Bone Burnett. With a guilty smile he admitted that one of the local art organizations became rather displeased by the success of his events. “They thought we were going to be their competition, like we were going to start applying for art grants or something… but we were just goofin’.”
But in a way, Amico was their competition; he was an alternative art space before such a phrase existed, and it turns out his timing was impeccable. “Maybe we were the competition,” he conceded, “but not on purpose. None of us really understood the ramifications of any of that… We just didn’t have anywhere else to show our art.”
When asked about the organizing of these shows, Amico gave credit to his friends and colleagues. “My friend Jane Reynolds proposed the first group show in the studio. It was called Individual and Colaborative Works by Nine Artists and it included Fred Dolan, Jenny Holzer, Louise Lawler, Jeffery Lohn, Peter Naden, Joe Potts, Ilene Segalove, Jane Reynolds, and myself.” And subculture exhibition was born.
“New York had the same phenomena in the lower east side: Basquiat, Jenny Holzer, Richard Prince – artists and musicians everywhere were feeling it.” And he was right. The punk scene was brand new and The Ramones were rocking out; rap and hip hop were emerging in basements all over Chicago, LA, Detroit, and Philadelphia; artists couldn’t get their work sold in galleries, so they made street art and off-site exhibitions; youthful angst wasn’t out protesting like it had a decade earlier, it was brooding in the local coffee shop.
Amico sees a lot of similarities between those tough times and the ones we face today, comparing the economic uncertainty that bridged the Carter and Regan administrations to the current recession. He voiced his concerns that young artists don’t have enough economic options or an artistic infrastructure to guide them, and he applauded their adaptability, “These young kids today are four or five people to a loft. They do this couch surfing now – what the hell is this?” I tried to explain that couch surfing is for our generation what hitchhiking was in the 70s.
When we got back on topic Amico said, “I’m sure these things” – meaning off-site exhibitions – “are happening again now, I can see it with my students, they’re showing everywhere, getting involved with group shows.” And then he spoke more earnestly, “Whenever you have these bad economic times, these transitions – it builds a community.” Sitting on the roof-deck with the downtown skyline surrounding us on all sides, it seems David Amico has spent his entire artistic life being a cornerstone for community. Then he said, “This forging of alternative paths happens from time to time and when it happens it’s magical – so that’s why I’m upbeat about it now. I don’t think it’s a negative. I think back to those times, and yes they were difficult… but they were outrageously fun!”
There will be an opening reception for David Amico’s latest works on Thursday November 10, 2011 from 7 – 9 pm at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills. The show will remain on view through December.