On the surface, the opening held at Papillion gallery recently might seem like any other. There were the requisite gleaming white walls displaying cut-paper collages and abstract assemblages made from vintage encyclopedias. There was the crowd of onlookers, who wove around a hanging installation by L.A.-based artist Raksha Parekh, a series of sugar cane casts assembled in the shape of a ship. And, on the sidewalk out front, a group of artists and patrons -- including MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch and London gallerist Jay Jopling -- chit-chatted and mingled, discussing past shows and future projects.
But the opening of Papillion in Leimert Park had other significance as well. For one, there was the space itself. Located on a commercial strip where Degnan Boulevard dead-ends into Leimert Plaza Park, Papillion occupies the building that once belonged to the Brockman Gallery, L.A.'s first African-American-owned commercial gallery. Run by brothers Dale and Alonzo Davis, it operated from 1967 to 1989 and served as a proving ground for important American artists like David Hammons and Betye Saar, both of whom are now represented in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But what also makes the Papillion gallery special is its location right in the heart of Leimert Park, the historic center of African-American cultural life in Los Angeles. This is where crooners Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald once resided, and where visual artists of all stripes have lived or kept studios -- from assemblagist Timothy Washington (who now has a show on view at the Craft and Folk Art Museum) to internationally-recognized painter Mark Bradford (whose work has been the subject of museum exhibitions all over the U.S. and Europe).
"It's so exciting knowing that this was the old Brockman space," says proprietor Michelle Papillion. "Artists like David Hammons, John Outterbridge and Elizabeth Catlett -- they all showed here. This is a place with a lot of history." In fact, in addition to housing the Brockman, the whitewashed space at 4336 Degnan was also home to the Leimert Project, a temporary arts space run by collector and patron Eileen Harris Norton three years ago. Norton, who attended the opening of Papillion's space, is happy to see the space once again reborn as a gallery. "It's fantastic," she says. "This has been a vibrant arts community since the Brockman days. It's important that there be contemporary art here in Leimert."
For Papillion, the gallery has been part of a long-running interest in art. Born and raised in Oakland, she attended a performing arts high school and later studied art history at Howard University. During her school years, she spent a lot of time in New York, interning at an alternative gallery called Artists Space. A seminal moment came when she met Renee Cox, the artist who ignited a media controversy in 2001 with her photographic work "Yo Mama's Last Supper," which shows a nude Cox taking the place of Jesus in a tableau that recalls Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper." When the piece was shown at New York's Brooklyn Museum, it drew the ire of then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who called for "decency standards" at public museums.
"I was at Artists Space then and I was lucky to know this circle of photographers who were close to her," recalls Papillion. "I got an introduction and interviewed her for a class I was taking. I was really intrigued by this artist who was making a statement and not backing down or apologizing for her work." Since then, Papillion has had a keen interest in helping emerging artists show their work. In 2010, two years after moving to Los Angeles from the East Coast, she opened the Papillion Institute of Art in downtown, a non-profit art space that organized shows, conducted workshops and featured a rotating array of artist lectures.
Now she has turned her attention to the commercial gallery world -- as well as Leimert Park. At Papillion, the plan is to organize exhibitions, such as the opening show, titled "OPEN," which featured more than half a dozen young artists from around the U.S. and the world. She is also planning to build a stable of young artists that she can represent commercially, such L.A.'s Kenturah Davis, who makes large-scale drawings of people that incorporate symbols and words. "We also will do a pop-up shop, one in the summer and once in the winter," says Papillion, "where we will invite a collector, curator or artist to take over part of the space and transform it."
The opening of the gallery marks the return of a contemporary art space to a neighborhood that has buzzed with talk about maintaining Leimert a center of African-American culture in Los Angeles. (The impending arrival of the Crenshaw line has community members concerned that the appearance of the metro may drive up real estate prices -- and drive out long-time African-American businesses.) Already, the neighborhood is home to some important institutions. Around the corner from Papillion is the Vision Theatre, an Art Deco treasure designed by California architect Stiles O. Clements in 1930. Up the block is the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, where the jazz crooner and other performers regularly put on shows. And just across the street from the gallery is Eso Won Books, which has hosted discussions and book signings by everyone from Maya Angelou to Stokely Carmichael. "This is exciting," says painter Mark Bradford, whose family has roots in the neighborhood and who keeps a studio in the area. "It reanimates all of this history with contemporary ideas."
Papillion, for one, is hopeful that her space can help ignite a cultural revival -- one that will include plenty of contemporary art. "I have a vision that we are the first," she says, "but that we won't be the only."
"OPEN" is on view at Papillion gallery, located at 4336 Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park.
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