Phantom Galleries Haunt Orange County


The smell of fresh bread and sugary treats lurks in the air of the Santa Ana marketplace. The sound of the Spanish language wafts by your ears, bright signs glow and glare down. Here, nothing is slow. Walking around downtown Santa Ana, it can feel like stumbling across the border into some bustling, anonymous Mexican city. But the art in this area is a reminder of stateside California, and the creative passion hidden herein. In this city, the economic crisis has arrived, the evidence is everywhere: empty stores and old warehouses, homeless people on most corners, business suits walking right next to downtrodden families begging for change. The vacant storefronts are sad reminders of the poverty and the skeletons of businesses. But on a First Saturday art walk, the abandoned city comes to life. But it is in covert galleries, the ones not shown on the art walk map given out to gallery goers, with no sign or announcement, that intrepid city adventurers might find something out of the ordinary. Here, they might find inspiration and hard work, bleeding through paint and primer, the sharp expressive line on a canvas or parchment, bright white lights, showcase surprise paintings and drawings in random storefronts, opening up the art conversation to a wider audience. They might find a phantom gallery.

Santa Ana Art Walk | Photo: Evan Senn.
Santa Ana Art Walk | Photo: Evan Senn.

The downtown Santa Ana arts district is made up of over a dozen art galleries, art studios, arts businesses, and unique independent restaurants and bars. But the center of it all is the historic Grand Central Art Center (GCAC). It is in the middle of the promenade on 3rd street, in downtown Santa Ana. This large and gothic-style building is the home for more than 25 grad students in art, three galleries, and three other artistic independent businesses. The galleries on the main level of GCAC are run independently from their parent institution, Cal State University, Fullerton (CSUF). GCAC originally started as a partnership between CSUF and the city of Santa Ana, and still answers to both authorities. The troubles of juggling the caring woes of major donors and institutions leaves little room to make all other parties involved as happy. The residents of Grand Central are graduate students from the art departments of CSUF, and in the last year or so, an uprising has started to rumble in the studios and artistic differences of the institution of GCAC and the residents. But these artists have banded together and are breaking through the art scene in their own way. They're adding some spice to the already spicy Santa Ana scene.

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Sara Dehghan | Photo: Evan Senn.
Sara Dehghan | Photo: Evan Senn.

Drawing and Painting graduate students, Sara Dehghan and Devora Orantes have started phantom exhibitions in vacant storefronts in downtown Santa Ana area. A "phantom gallery" is a ghost-like gallery that has a short lifespan, often even for one night only. They come and go in almost a passing moment. The vacant storefronts in Santa Ana are not prominent in this busy bustling little area, but in a handful of 30 businesses on one boulevard, there might be four or five that are vacant. The economic climate called for something creative and independent, and the residents of the area have responded with these new additions, as temporary as they are. The Santa Ana area, like many areas in the metropolitan Los Angeles area, has a lot of poverty-stricken families, and crime. It has good neighborhoods and bad ones. Downtown Santa Ana is a predominantly Hispanic and Latin in population as well as cultural strength. Historic 4th Street in downtown Santa Ana serves as what the residents of Santa Ana call "Calle Cuatro." It's a kind of mini Tijuana with shouting street vendors, Latin jewelry stores, Mexican food stands, and quincenera party stores. Old timey ranchero music coming from all corners. Dehghan and Orantes said the community inspired their phantom exhibitions. "We decided that we wanted to interact with the community on a more direct and less formal way by taking art to storefronts," Dehghan says. "In doing so, it would allow us to have a space to showcase work without the formalities of a gallery. We had seen it done in other places that have art walks, like the downtown L.A. art walk, and thought we could do the same in Santa Ana." These girls took advantage of this concept and this economic state to explore the notion of repurposing empty storefronts for beneficial art experiments.

The business-savvy property owners of Santa Ana are more a part of the community here than many other places, and they approached some artists at GCAC to see if the spaces could still be used and shown in a positive light even though they weren't being rented. Dehghan and Orantes have a year-long series planned with these phantom galleries, popping up in different spaces each month, for the First Saturday art walk in downtown Santa Ana. With little advertising and a strong community, these pop-up exhibitions draw in over 100 visitors each opening night. For the time being, these phantom exhibitions are few, but Dehghan and Orantes claim that they are convincing other artists to join in and approach other property owners about repurposing their empty spaces for temporary shows. The girls admit that these shows are not as polished and finessed as the legitimate gallery shows at GCAC, but they wanted an avenue to exhibit the work of their peers and themselves, without the bondage of financial-backing and people pleasing. These galleries don't look like much in the daylight; empty storefronts with broken signs and small holes in the floor and walls, nothing to signify that the fiery passion of creativity is flowing in and out of there. But as the sun goes down, the lights turn on. Large scale paintings and drawings cover the walls, and a calm ease of expression and thoughtful creativity seems to emanate out of these spaces, like a perfume. The community pours into these spaces to explore the rogue style exhibitions, yet the majority of attendees do not include just the art elite. A vast array of people stops by during Art Walk, including the Santa Ana local Latino residents, young neighborhood thugs, hipster musicians and artists, skaters and taggers from the street art scene, and out-of-towners looking for eye candy. "I was excited to participate in the event because I like the idea of setting up an art space in an unexpected location," Orantes says, "it allows a different type of crowd, who may not be active gallery goers, to interact with art and artists."

These phantom exhibitions give artists many more showing opportunities, especially art school students, and provide them an audience to experiment with. It opens up an intelligent conversation on art for the community and art scene in Santa Ana. Phantom galleries forge their own way in the art world, with or without permission.


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Top Image: Photo by Evan Senn.

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