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Daniel Rolnik serves punk art with a smile. The 27-year-old proprietor of a La Cienega Boulevard gallery that bears his name, Rolnik works with up-and-comers and art scene cult figures. He collaborates frequently with John Kilduff, the L.A.-based artist known for his public access-turned-web series "Let's Paint TV." The two have concocted unusual shows, like "Kilduff's Flower Shop," where the artist painted flowers for Mother's Day, and "Kilduff's Bakery" at the L.A. Art Show, which brought together paintings of baked goods and steaming cups of coffee.
When asked for a photo at the L.A. Art Show, Rolnik, bearded and wearing a lightly paint-splattered apron over a hoodie, breaks into an open-mouthed grin as he lifts his hand to wave. That's become his trademark pose, much like the word "epic" reads as his signature on text messages. Rolnik is gregarious, enthusiastic and 100 percent committed to making art accessible.
As a teenager, he played in Right Hand Band. That only lasted a year, but it took him into the L.A. DIY music scene. Rolnik, who also wrote for music publication L.A. Record around this time, hit up all the spots that were big with the semi-underground crowd in the mid-aughts. The Smell, Echo Curio, Il Corral, Pehrspace and 2nd Street Jazz were part of his turf. Now, he's bringing a similar cheerful disregard for the establishment to the L.A. gallery scene. Just as the DIY music scene was purposefully welcoming to local young people and artists who work outside of the mainstream, so is the Daniel Rolnik Gallery. Rolnik often arranges the output in record store-style bins. He paints the interior gallery walls in bright, friendly colors, lest you confuse it with the stark high-end establishments that surround him on the border of Los Angeles and Culver City.
He shows artists who produce a lot of work and keep their prices low, sometimes high school-budget friendly. Rolnik occasionally goes out on road trips to find people to add to an artist roster that already includes the likes of Bwana Spoons, Turtle Wayne, Tripper Dungan, Kat Philbin and many more. He looks at the people as well as their art. "They're artists and characters," he says of the group he's gathered through the gallery. "They have to be fun to hang out with and work with to be part of this."
Inside a downtown coffee shop on a recent afternoon, Rolnik confesses that, as a child, he thought art was "really, really boring." That all changed after his dad took him to a group show at La Luz de Jesus. Once he realized that art didn't have to be like the museum staples, he was hooked. He poked around the Internet and found artists like David Choe. Later, when he was studying music engineering at Ex'Pression College for Digital Arts in Northern California, he launched an art magazine. When he graduated, Rolnik landed a job working for an art blog, which led to writing for many more online outlets. Then, back in Los Angeles, he started curating shows.
When he had a chance to sublet a gallery on Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica for the equivalent of an apartment's rent, he gave up his downtown pad, moved back in with his mom and set up shop. A little over a year later, after his time was up at the Santa Monica space, he landed the La Cienega spot, which opened in early March.
Recently, Rolnik has been podcasting with friend and fellow gallerist Eric Nakamura. Rolnik speaks of Nakamura, of Giant Robot fame, in the highest terms. "He's the coolest person," says Rolnik, "the most inspiring person." The two originally met when Rolnik was 18 and wanted Nakamura to join a panel on toy makers that he was organizing at his school. "He was hearing out my ideas and giving me ideas, advice, on what to do," says Rolnik. "He didn't have to do that."
Last fall, after the Pasadena art event DesignerCon, Nakamura suggested that the two podcast together. "I thought Daniel was the perfect partner," says Nakamura. "He's 20 years younger, he's energetic, with a perfect twisted sense of humor. He's Jewish, I'm Buddhist, he's inquisitive, and we're both on a journey of doing art right."
Their show, "The Jew and the Lotus," derives its name from the 1994 book on Judaism and Buddhism "The Jew in the Lotus," which Rolnik remembers seeing on his mother's book shelf. Rolnik and Nakamura discuss their views on art, but identity can also be part of the conversation.
In the first episode of "The Jew and the Lotus," Rolnik and Nakamura discussed their backgrounds extensively. They talked about how religion shaped their youth and about their family histories. Rolnik mentioned how a pogrom in Poland brought his father's family to the United States and how his maternal grandfather escaped Germany shortly before the Holocaust.
"We've been thinking more about how to weave that in too, the cultural stuff, like how he's Buddhist and I'm Jewish," says Rolnik.
As a child, Rolnik lived primarily with his mother, who he says explored other forms of spirituality in addition to Judaism. "I grew up around spirituality," he says, adding that he celebrated the Jewish holidays, but didn't keep kosher.
His connection to Judaism today, Rolnik says, is more cultural than strictly religious, although he also brings together his creative pals for occasional shabbat dinners. "I identify as Jewish, but I don't really want to go to temple," he explains. His Jewish identity, though, has impacted his work. "In the world, there aren't many of us," says Rolnik. "I traveled around enough to know, I don't see a synagogue there, I don't see one there, there's no temple there. It's only in a few places and I feel like the notion of rebellion and being an underdog are built into my psyche. Also, the notion of survival and trying to not die."
In an article in Notes On Looking, the typically upbeat Ronik, adds a personal touch to his insightful critiques. He discusses his family's story while critiquing an exhibition including the infamous artist ManWoman, whose work claims to repurpose the swastika as a universal sign of peace from the pre-Nazi era. He writes: "There were videos of him talking about reclaiming the symbol from the Nazis in order to bring it back to its original meaning -- which can range as diversely as the symbol of eternity to East Asian Buddhists and as a symbol of healing to the Navajo. However, his painting was without argument representative of the swastikas employed by Hitler and not those of ancient civilizations -- evidenced by the familiar Nazi style red background with a white circle in the center and a black swastika in the middle of it all... On a shallow level, I should’ve been satisfied by all of this. Obviously, I had nothing to worry about, since this particular artist had no intention of being anti-Semitic. Yet that acceptance would also have meant ignoring an entire part of history that took place during WWII. I cannot forget that multiple branches on my family tree literally stop because a soldier laden in swastikas killed them off... I mean just going into recent art history means that if the Holocaust wasn’t stopped or the artists themselves didn’t escape from concentration camps, key contemporary figures like Mark Rothko, Sol LeWitt, Judy Chicago, George Segal, Gary Baseman, and Roy Lichtenstein would never have been able to have shared their wonderful works with all of us... It’s hard to even think about it without breaking down into tears. And Jews like me, as well as gentiles, can’t help but subconsciously feel those things when they view the image of a swastika -- whether it’s from India or on the walls of a gallery in Los Feliz."
The rebellious spirit is something Rolnik evokes every day when he's on the job. Like the DIY music scene he inhabited as a teen, Rolnik eschews perfection, saying, "I don't want to live with flawless things." And, like the punk rockers of the past, he has no problem with disrupting the gallery model. "There's no actual engagement or fun," says Rolnik of galleries and art fairs. That's why he turned his L.A. Art Fair booth into a boisterous bakery, even if it did upset a nearby gallery. The connection between Rolnik's life as a teenage music fan and his adult job as a gallerist aren't lost on him. "I have the venue now," he says. Out of that space, he's building his own scene. "We're forming our own little society."
Top image: Graham & Graham, courtesy of Daniel Rolnik Gallery.