In late May 2015 I went to interview Los Angeles gallerist Luis De Jesus. It was a Tuesday and the day was already insolently sunny and warm. La Cienega Boulevard looked at its best. No palm trees on that one; instead, on each side of the boulevard two lines of white cubes/cutting-edge galleries that stand out against the Cobalt-Blue of the sky. So L.A.!
The show that day is “Run Up” by California-based, visual artist Ken Gonzales-Day. He is presenting a new series of photographs featuring the latest chapter in his “Erased Lynchings” project. “The exhibition draws parallels between the history of lynching and police shootings today, at times blending the two events to create images that collapse history and provocatively speak to our own time.”
The display in the first room is minimal, not too many photographs but just the right ones — enough to understand the intention of the artist. Luis knows that the first room is like the first pages of a book and that it must catch your attention. It’s a teaser for the rest of the exhibition. Then your curiosity leads you naturally to the second room, the core of the exhibition, where photographs and a video provide more clues and require more attention. On one wall a screen reveals a short film with the characters full of anger, moving in very slow motion — quite disturbing for the viewer.
If this exhibition demonstrates again the talent and commitment of Gonzales-Day, it also illustrates perfectly why Luis De Jesus is the great gallery owner and curator he is.
When Luis met a memorable Lion
When I asked Luis De Jesus when he fell for the Arts, he answered: “As far back as I can remember, from the time I was in kindergarten. My first experience with art was going to a museum with my kindergarten class in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the town where I was born. The architect Edward Durrell Stone had just finished this beautiful modern museum and they filled it with this fabulous collection including this huge historical painting, like a Gerico or Rubens. I couldn’t even tell you the size. It was hanging at the top of the curving stairs and depicted a battle or hunt scene with a very big, fierce lion. I remember climbing those steps and looking up at this lion which appeared to be leaping out! It made such an impression on me and I think that it planted the seed in me for art.”
This is how Luis De Jesus was hit by the arrow of Love for the Arts. That Lion never quit his soul. Not only did the image impress Luis, it captured and empowered him. Luis still has the same sharp eye; he’s got the strength in the business, and he is as Zen and calm as a Lion.
From a growing sharpened eye to curatorial exhibitions
Years later Luis entered Parsons School of Design in New York. At that time he wanted to be a painter. He says, “…this is where I really started to learn how to paint.” He painted 24/7, and he learned about perspective, colors, and subjects. His eye became sharpened. It is where he began to understand the conceptual processes behind art.
“At the same time, Luis adds, I got my first job in a gallery, on the weekends. I was painting and studying full time and then on Saturdays I worked at a gallery in Tribeca. I did that throughout the time that I was in school. It was a contemporary art gallery where graffiti artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were being shown and it was very exciting to be part of that. I had landed in NY in the summer of 1983 and the East Village was booming. It was all about hip hop. It was just so alive! And of course for the young galleries it was such a big time.”
“After graduating from Parsons,” continues Luis, “I went to work full-time at the galleries. After spending 5-6 years doing gallery work, I was awarded an NEA curatorial internship at The New Museum and was able to work with Marcia Tucker, the Founding Director of The New Museum. That was a wonderful experience as well, to be part of the Curatorial Department, because I was allowed to sit in on meetings with the Department. We were putting on some great exhibitions at the time. Also, under Marcia Tucker they had a very democratic process, so everyone who was an employee of the museum, including the guard, would be invited to attend the weekly staff meetings. They would discuss anything concerning the museum and everybody had to participate, to contribute something.”
Over the second part of this interview, held during a group show at the gallery last July, titled “HA HA! BUSINESS!”, Luis recalled his very first museum exhibition. He understood then the power of a good curatorial project.
“Twenty-five years ago I organized an exhibition titled ‘$PENT: Currency, Security, and Art on Deposit’ for The New Museum in New York. I was one of a number of young applicants invited to apply for new NEA-funded “multicultural’” curatorial internships, a nationwide initiative to bring more women and minorities into the field. $PENT was the culmination (or ‘thesis exhibition’) of my yearlong internship in the museum’s curatorial department and it was supported by a cast of very talented emerging artists, including Glenn Ligon, Moyra Davey, Gary Simmons, Paul Ramirez Jonas, Carrie Mae Weems, Donald Moffett, and Julia Scher, among others—for many of them it was also their first museum project. Installed at a bank next door to The New Museum (concurrent with The Decade Show), $PENT was a serious exhibition designed to inject a big dose of subversive humor and provocative criticality upon a well-meaning host. It still amazes me that I managed to circumvent a cadre of, frankly, very suspicious bank officials who were left to fend with the effusive congratulatory and community-building cheerleading of the museum’s larger-than-life, never-say-never director, Marcia Tucker.”
A stable to grow in exciting L.A.
Those three events: the Lion, Parsons, and his first museum curatorial experience became the foundation for Luis De Jesus, gallerist and curator. Since then he’s never stopped growing. After spending twenty years in New York City he moved to San Diego and opened Seminal Projects in 2007, which he relocated in 2010 and re-branded as Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.
About Los Angeles Luis says, “It’s exciting. L.A. is entering a new phase, an expansion of the arts. I’ll be interested to see how it really changes in terms of a collector-hub. I know it’s been a challenge for galleries in the past because dealers don’t feel like the collector base is very large in LA. It’s also been a challenge for art fairs to establish themselves. I think there’s been more of an appeal for collectors to travel to NY and Miami than LA and perhaps that is now changing. The development and continued growth makes the art scene stronger and more vibrant, which is always good.”
Luis extends his stable–today counting 18 artists–carefully, with loyal artists who’ve shown with him for a long time because they know that he takes care of them, offering regular solo exhibitions and excellent connections with strong collectors. He also promotes his artists through art fairs in the US — New York, Miami, Chicago, and also others in Europe, like Basel and Brussels, because he knows that “International” is another key to success.
The artists at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles are committed. They all have an idea to argue and a point of view to defend, whether it is the technique itself, the making of their art, or socio-political ideas they want to expose.
When I asked him what he expects from an artist, Luis answers: “I expect they are fully committed to their art, to be serious about their careers. I just want to see people who are really engaged, really exploring their work, exploring new concepts, new territories, whether it is in photography or painting or whatever.”
As Luis De Jesus has become successful, he continues to stick to his fundamentals: “I want to see things that open my eyes and make me think differently. Art is not just about making you feel good all the time you know.” When curating a new exhibition, every good Gallerist should have that same “open my eyes and make me think differently” in mind, because this is what we, as Collectors, expect from Art Galleries.
Los Angeles, October 14th, 2015