Should you find yourself out in Los Angeles, and if you have a penchant for contemporary art, the odds are pretty good that at some point you’ll end up at Night Gallery—perhaps on the later side of the evening, with a beer in your hand, some kind of eyebrow-singeing performance underway, and in the company of some of the most exciting art (and beer-swilling artists) the city has to offer.
That’s because ever since the photographer Davida Nemeroff founded the gallery in a Lincoln Heights strip mall in 2010 as a wee-hours clubhouse-cum-laboratory for her Columbia MFA peers and other artists of her generation, it has been a consistent energizer of the city’s youthful art scene and a driver of the cultural conversation. It’s also been a star-minter: Mira Dancy and Samara Golden are just two names from its roster who have become celebrities over the past year or so, with others who have been involved with its program, like Adam Gordon, about to break out.
Based in downtown L.A. since 2013, in a building shared by François Ghebaly Gallery and in a growing art nexus now populated by Venus Over Los Angeles, Maccarone, and Gavin Brown’s 356 S. Mission Road, Night Gallery has grown from an upstart into an institution. When Art Los Angeles Contemporary opens this week, for instance, expect to find a crush of collectors gathering at the gallery's booth (which showcases the diversity of its program, with new work by Golden, Sojourner Truth Parsons, Sean Townley, Jake Kean Mayman, Andy Woll, and Christine Wang).
For this month’s edition of our NADA Network interview series, which arrives just as the L.A. fairs are bringing the spotlight out to Tinseltown, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Nemeroff about the unlikely history of her plucky gallery, why figuration has been its enduring source of strength, and the inspiring story behind the rise of Mira Dancy as one of painting’s newest stars.
Well, first of all, I am Canadian, so I came to New York from Toronto to get an MFA in photography at Columbia. When I was there I met all these other artists and just developed some seriously strong relationships, with Mira Dancy, Samara Golden, Paul Heyer, Anna Rosen—who today are all on my program—and a few others. Then, when I graduated in 2009, after the economy collapsed, everyone that I knew at Columbia was either getting fired or holding on for dear life to their jobs, and I just kind of knew I wasn’t going to make it in New York. Like, “This is straight-up not possible. I don’t have the social skills or the 'in's.” This isn’t to say that I didn’t have the talent or the will, but looking around I saw all my allies getting fired from Columbia and it made an impact on me, specifically with Blake Rayne, who was a phenomenal teacher at Columbia and taught so many of us. When he got let go it was really fucked up.
What made you look out West for opportunity?
Because I had international status as a Canadian student, I believed I could only stay in the States for one more year after graduation, so my idea was to head to out L.A. for a year and then go back to Toronto and resume my previous life. So I set out with all my stuff, and as soon as I got here I was stuck. I was like “What the fuck?” I had never been to L.A., and the city was unlike any I had ever seen before. It functioned in a way that was very unfamiliar. I couldn’t really find out where anyone was. I just didn’t understand the neighborhood that I was living in. I didn’t understand the nightlife here.
What was going on in the art scene at the time? This was still the Chinatown era?
It was around the time of the death of the Chinatown scene. It was one year after Giovanni Intra of China Art Objects OD’d, so people were still very sensitive and shocked by his loss. Meanwhile the market had collapsed in New York, and it had also collapsed in L.A. The people who were here were kind of closed-off—they didn’t necessarily want newcomers, or at least that was my experience—and, because I wasn’t an American, I didn’t necessarily have friends here, or anyone vouching for me as a person or as an artist in any way. But, on the other hand, real estate was available everywhere. You really felt you could just rent a space and start something.
So, I went back to New York and had one of those very important conversations with my friends there where you smoke joints and stay up all night and soul-search—a tête-à-tête. It was really to ask the question, what do we need? What do people need? What do artists need? The conclusion was that we needed was a place of our own where we could work out our ideas.
At Columbia, you get to hang out in the studios after school, so you drink there and you end up talking to whoever’s work is in front of you in a much more vulnerable way than you would during the day, because, you know, there’s a youthful inebriation happening. That’s not necessarily how I participate today, but it’s definitely how I participated then, and what we wanted was space to continue our conversation and—I think is this very important—to defend what we were doing. Blake Rayne was an important inspiration for that, with the ways he would lead his critiques.
It was decided that what we needed was a space, and I was like “I’m going to do that.” So, in many way, my gallery started as a post-studio space.
It was during this time that you also did Whitney’s Biennial, a Whitney Houston-themed group show at Greenpoint’s c.r.e.a.m. projects that you curated with the artists Elise Rasmussen, Martha Mysko, and MaryKate Maher. At the time, I thought the concept was so cool and random and hilarious, and the 37-artist roster was surprisingly impressive, with people like Kara Walker and Roe Ethridge. What was that experience like?
The show was in a black-walled space, and it was all about art and music and hilarity and being a social gathering. We had limo rides and pizza and ice cream, and friends from Toronto who were in a band came down and played. That show taught me that I had a strength with working with people and a desire not to curate with a capital ‘C,’ but to bring people together and give artists opportunities and throw a big party.
To go back to the group of artists you fell in with at Columbia, was there any common thread to your interests that brought you all together?
That is a very good question, and it was the body. It wasn’t necessarily about identity politics—it was really about the body in space, the body up against things. That was something that, individually, our practices really brought into focus. In my own photo practice, for instance, I’ve always have a very art-historical, or photo-historical, conversation about technological disruption that addressed the body in a very poetic way—how it takes up space, and particularly the vocality of a woman’s position.
Even when we did Whitney’s Biennial we used Whitney Houston as a stand-in for the proverbial artist—that physical incarnation was something that was interesting to us. It was body at the center, with Mira in terms of the figure, with Samara in terms of the psyche, and Cara Benedetto in terms of trauma, and Paul in terms of romance. We were trying to develop a full figure, with the interior and exterior.
When you returned to L.A. after this New York trip, what did you do to get by?
At the time I was working a job teaching kids open-source image software after school, which wasn’t a very good job but took up the middle of the day. I was also working for a gallery in Chinatown every once in a while that a Toronto gallerist named Katharine Mulherin ran briefly as a satellite space in L.A. That was actually the connection that drew me out to the city in the first place.
It was called KMLA, and she just opened the space and then left L.A. again for Toronto, which was a mistake—now I realize you can’t just leave L.A. It’s a very specific city, and you need to be here and be responsive to the city. If you’re going to open something and then spend your time in New York, there’s a very good chance that it’s going to fail. You need to take note of what the city needs, and what the city wants—the city and the scene.
So, you were determined to open a space. How did you hit upon Night Gallery as the name? Was it an intentional reference to Rod Sterling’s lesser-known follow-up to “The Twilight Zone,” in which each episode would begin with a tour through a spooky painting gallery showing the occult theme of that show?
Well, in the beginning we were open from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., which in L.A. is nuts—no one is out that late. If it was in New York and had those hours, I probably would have developed a serious drug problem. It would have been open until 7 a.m. But the hours of operation were developed before the name, and then Mira Dancy said, “You should just call it Night Gallery.” And that’s how it was born.
I only found out about the show later, but it actually worked out really well in one of those funny ways, because when I watched a few episodes of the show I felt the existential, psychic thing they were doing was in line with what it felt like to be at the gallery. Especially in the beginning parts when Rod is walking around and all the works are hanging salon-style in a dark room—that’s how the gallery really was. Its walls were all black, so it was dark.
Why did you choose to go with black walls?
I came from a music background—I was a music photographer for a long time. I spent a lot of time in music venues, and they always look their best in the dark. Then, when the lights go on, you discover the space in another kind of way. Also I felt like the black background had a relationship to photography—like when you’re in Photoshop and you look at an image, you’re looking at it against a black background, not a white background. So it made so much sense for me, and then I would approach a painter, and they would say, “I’m never showing in your gallery, man. Fuck you.” And I would be, like, “Why?” They’re like, “My paintings aren’t going on black walls,” and I was like “Oh.” I didn’t even realize that it was offensive to people.
That’s very funny.
Yeah, I wasn’t super well versed in the gallery world when this all started. At that point, remember, I was really an artist. I wasn’t a dealer, I wasn’t a manager. I was an artist, and at the time I was smoking a tremendous amount of pot, and I just had all these ideas. So all the shows in the beginning were group shows, with a lot of conversation and collaboration—I really believed that when work was in the presence of something else, it was given greater power.
It was kind of a feminist space, in that it was against the norm. It was against Modernism, in a way, just by having black walls, by having hours at night, by not being from the art world. Most people are born into that world, and when you’re not born into that world it’s very different. I was also very uninterested in maintaining the hierarchy and class structures that exist in that world.
Obviously, since I’ve been running the gallery I’ve realized there are some things that I can’t change, but back then I was much more rebellious. Now I figure out ways of sustaining the gallery—how to maintain and sustain and grow and make change but without necessarily being rebellious. I do feel like that’s something for the next generation to do, but now my role is to get people into the institutions and change the canon, or to contribute to the canon. But back then it was just punk, 100 percent.
What’s an example of something that was rebellious back then but now you would see as unbefitting a gallery proprietor?
Well, for one thing, I didn’t sell any art. Sales were never an issue. I guess I just did every single thing from an emotional place, and I don’t do that anymore. I do things from a realistic place now, and I also have a team of people who work at the gallery, so it’s not just me. When I started the gallery, I didn’t necessarily want me, personally, to be the focus of attention. There was so much belief in the gallery back then that it could’ve become a cult, and, as a stoner, sometimes that would freak me out—you know, “I don’t want to be a cult leader.” I don’t necessarily even want to be a leader.
I just don’t want that role. I’m not particularly… I have very low self-esteem, I have a lot of problems about my own physical presence, and I never wanted to be the face of the gallery. The face of the gallery was always this mythological woman, and we spoke about our gallery as that woman. Our press releases, I would say, were pretty punk—they were often written by Cara Benedetto. Our show with Abigail DeVille and Christina Wang was probably the most insane thing we’ve ever done. It was just trash—such an unbelievable amount of trash that part of the art was the path that was excavated to walk through the space.
Our show with Adam Gordon was incredible too. He’s amazing. This was right at the moment when people had kind of gotten used to the gallery—when everyone had been to a million openings, they knew where the beers are, they knew where everything was situated. So Adam came in and totally changed everything about the space. He made the entire gallery into his own show, and I actually saw people literally trip over things, they were so confused. It was like one of those scary nightmares where you can’t find the door out of the place you walked into. For a lot of people who are close to me, it was their favorite show. Sam Anderson was part of that show too—she had a video installation in the space.
That sounds pretty ambitious for a tiny gallery open four hours a night.
Well, I had this relationship with the landlord, so I got the space next door too, and slowly but surely we carved holes and did all this shit that was so crazy. Once you’re in this business for a while you realize you have to change the space every so often—the big galleries do it all the time—but when you’re a tiny operation and it’s literally people off the street are who are helping you build this stuff, it was magical. And I knew at the time that I was experiencing something magical—it felt like we had joined a lineage of magical spaces.
What are some other “magical” spaces that you had in mind when you were growing the gallery, historically or from elsewhere in the art scene?
Actually, I think the reason that the gallery became successful was because I didn’t really know anything about other spaces or galleries at the time. Of course, now I see other spaces that are open today and think, “Yeah, that’s like my gallery,” so I know my gallery wasn’t totally original, but in my case it was because I didn’t have any experience. I came from Toronto, and I didn’t even know what the art market was. I didn’t know that you don’t paint your walls black, or that you don’t open your gallery on the wrong side of town. I didn’t know any of these things.
I just wanted to be up all night, you know? I also wanted to be able to smoke inside, so I was like, “Where can you smoke inside? Let’s make our own space!” But I think that because I had gone to Columbia, and I wasn’t a kid—I was 28 or 29 when I started the gallery—we did have strong aesthetics and a level of professionalism. We kept really rigorous hours, for instance. I think that’s actually another big part of why we were able to make it. If we decided that our space would be open randomly, I don’t think we would have lasted, but because I kept those hours it became a real destination that people could rely on.
When would you say that the gallery began to be a success? Also, how did you link up with Mieke Marple of 1301PE Gallery?
Well, I would say that Night Gallery was pretty successful right off the bat, because it was contributing something that the city really needed. As I mentioned, the city was on the heels of the recession and reeling from the death of a really beloved dealer here who I really never knew, but there was a whole generation of MFA students who were graduating and everyone would come and hang out at the gallery. It was inclusive as a small clubhouse could be, and it was really fun.
Then about a year into it, I realized I couldn’t go it alone because I had friends involved in it but no one was paying for anything, so unless someone was going to come in and show me the way or whatever, I needed to get a partner. Because eventually artists want to sell their work—you know, “Hey, man, is anyone coming to see the show?” And I didn’t even know how to approach that kind of stuff, you know?
And so Mieke and I had met early on in my time in L.A. because Blake Rayne was doing a show at 1301PE, and Mieke was a gallery assistant there. It was my birthday, so I invited Blake to my party, and he invited the gallery assistant and her boyfriend at the time. Long story short, that’s when we met, and right from the get-go I knew that she was very intelligent. I mean, we weren’t friends, necessarily, but we weren’t enemies by any means, and I recognized her talent and business abilities and ambition, and she had put on her own show called “Musée Los Angeles” that was really memorable and had a lot of great artists in it.
So she was on my radar, and one day she came up to me—she was very restless at the time—and said, “Oh, by the way, I quit my job. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” And I was kind of scared—I was like, “Oh God, if she starts her own gallery, I’m dead.” So I just told her where I was at, that the gallery was too much for me to do on my own, and she knew that I had started something amazing, and we actually partnered quite quickly. And, you know, we’re still really great partners, and at this point we’re like family and have gone through so much together, and together we’ve made the gallery grow. Now we have five full-time staff members, and we’ve done international fairs, have traveled all over the world, placed artists in museums, and so on and so forth.
Going back to the beginning, when did the collectors start to patronize the gallery, and at what point did people actually start buying the work you were showing?
Slowly, slowly. And people didn’t necessarily start to patronize the gallery, but really the artists who were shown. I would say Samara was somebody who L.A. collectors were interested in from an early stage and supporting. The first Night Gallery artist that I sold, though, was Paul Heyer—but we didn’t really iron out our roster until we moved to our new space. It was more like we informally worked with a group of artists in the beginning, and it wasn’t until we opened our white-wall gallery and we had a website that listed our artists that it was for real. And that caused so much turmoil amongst the larger community of artists who were involved with the gallery. Yeah… it was not the easiest thing in the world to do. It wasn’t the most fun either.
This was in 2013, when you moved to a much larger, 6,200-square-foot warehouse on the fringes of downtown L.A. Since then, you’ve seen one artist on your roster, Mira Dancy, break out as one of the hottest painters of the current moment. I remember there was a period of a few months last year where I saw her work in “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1, Frieze London, Officielle in Paris, and then Miami, where she was in both Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian’s show and the Rubell Family Collection's woman-artist survey. Where did Dancy’s meteoric rise come from?
I mean, Mira is really the reason I started the gallery. I don’t want to trivialize the other artists I work with, but she’s one of my best friends, and she has always been the spirit of the gallery. She was the first show to open in the gallery, and for me she and the Night Gallery brand are synonymous. I just really believed that she was, like, Picasso, and that her talent made it all worth it. Because I gave up my own creative career, which was for a large part of my life the most important thing I had, and I have no regrets about that, especially now that things are so amazing for Mira.
And, by the way, it took for fucking ever to sell Mira’s work. We would have those conversations that you have when you’re running a business and you have to make business-like decisions: “Who’s bringing in money and who’s not?” And I straight-up said that I would never continue running Night Gallery if it didn’t involve working with Mira. So, it just took some time, and it’s mostly been women who have supported her—women collectors, other women dealers.
It helps that Mira is such an amazing person, and she’s also pretty flexible. She’s not me—if someone asks her to do something, she wants to make it happen. It’s very hard for Mira to say “no,” and I have to really convince her that sometimes she has to say “no.” She has a growing family now—she needs to save her energy.
Was there any one big break that she had that pushed her over the edge and made people start paying attention?
Mieke and I did this big benefit with Planned Parenthood Los Angeles in 2014 called “Sexy Beast,” and it gave us an opportunity to do some neon work. Of course, if we ever get an opportunity, I’m like, “Mira would be great at that—let’s get Mira involved.” It so happened that she had already been working on these sketches for a neon piece, so the first neon figure she made was for this benefit auction, and then we were like, “Let’s do another one.” So, we did another one that we brought to NADA Miami Beach 2014, and this was the first time the Rubells collected her work. The Rubells were the first people to collect her, literally, and they included that first neon piece that they bought in “No Man’s Land,” which was pretty cool.
That was kind of the beginning, I guess. Then we had a show at the gallery at the beginning of 2015 that was slow and steady, though it didn’t sell out, and got an excellent review. Then, unfortunately, Mira suffered the trauma of her father passing, right after she had committed to a show with Nicole Russo at Chapter NY. By that time she had done a few neons and we had gone to Mexico and she did a wall mural there, and she was really processing this extremely painful event in her life. When artists are processing that kind of trauma, and when they deliver on those feelings, it can be just unbelievable. The same thing happened with Samara in her first show at Night Gallery, which was also post-loss, with a breakup and a broken heart.
So, that show at Chapter was huge for Mira—even though it was in a tiny space, it resonated with people. She did a Yes neon for that show, and she screened a film that was amazing. It makes me cry when I think about it, that show was so haunting. I don’t know if that show sold super well, but since then other big collectors have been interested, like Budi Tek, who got a few pieces from our Frieze booth, which started a big thing. There’s also Ron Handler and Kourosh Larizadeh, who are big Samara supporters, and other Night Gallery supporters. I mean, her paintings are just getting better and better and better. This is a woman whose work is developing and just getting fuller and more confident, and it’s just so exciting. And now we have no inventory of Mira’s.
Her work seems to have emerged at just the right moment, when the tide was turning against process-based abstraction—aka “Zombie Formalism”—and paintings involving the figure suddenly seemed fresh and exciting. It’s interesting that your gallery has always leaned toward work that references the figure, and the body. Why is that?
Why is the figure so important? I mean, I think it has to do with my admiration for folk art, without being too offensive to folk art. Also, coming from photography and portrait photography, it probably makes sense to why I would respond to a beautiful painting that has a figure in it, you know? Not coming from a painting background, I understand paintings from an image perspective, and it was always much harder for me to look at an abstract painting and decipher whether it was successful or not.
Allegory and folklore are natural interests of mine, too—I like art that tells a story. You know, there’s a belief that the reason we love photographs is that they stimulate our own memory, that they move our psyche to link back to something from our past, that doesn’t even necessarily have to relate to what’s happening in the image. Like I said before, I’m very intuitive. Photography, the lens, the eye, the picture, the human, the lighting—these are really my heart and soul.
I have to imagine that another reason the conversation is gravitating to the figure is that people are a little bit jaded with abstract art that has been so thoroughly de-skilled and so confused and bloated by its financial aspect—to the point where it seems any splotch of paint with a winning backstory can become worth hundreds of thousands of dollars overnight, and then be worthless the next. It just doesn’t really make that much sense.
I’d like to believe that the resurgence of the figurative has something to do with the fact that there’s room for vocality and politics and agency in the figure. I’d also like to believe that it’s possible for there to be agency in an abstract painting, but then it has to be really good. I agree with you that there’s definitely some fatigue with the ease of process-based painting, which isn’t necessarily how abstract painting is made, right? “Bloated” is also an appropriate word.
You’re right that one thing about figuration is that it’s really hard. You have to have a certain amount of skill, or at least intuitive talent, to compellingly depict the universe that you see around yourself with tubes of paint. That’s pretty amazing.
I know. I mean, I’ve tried. It’s really hard.
So, with an artist like Mira Dancy who is so of the moment and whose market is on the rise, how do you protect her from following the same trajectory of some of those “Zombie Formalism” painters who went boom and bust within the span of a year?
How does a gallery do that? That’s a really tough question, without having a ton of experience. My idea of protecting Mira is that if her work goes to an auction, it’s not the worst thing in the world. It doesn’t mean the end of anything—we would be able to buy it back. That’s what galleries do, so it’s a no brainer. But, with Mira, it helps that she has such little inventory because it takes her a long time to make those paintings. She’s not dissimilar from someone like Jamian [Juliano-Villani], who produces such small quantities of paintings a year that they’re really sought-after. That makes things a bit easier, because when she’s so sought-after then you can be selective about who gets the work, and you can pay respect to your longtime patrons and offer them work, and also start relationships with new collectors.
But, then again, Mira is the real deal, and she doesn’t just paint—she also does sculptures, Plexi works, videos, poems, and writings. If work were to go to auction at a certain point, that happens. That’s part of the reality of being an artist. You sell art to somebody, it’s their work, and they can do what they want. I think that keeping the work good, and also keeping the artist happy and healthy—that’s my main concern. Also, making sure that Mira is doing the projects that she wants to do, now that she’s getting offered millions of projects. Making sure that she’s working with the people she wants to work with, like Nicole Russo at Chapter NY.
I’m not really worried about the speculative art collectors, because I just don’t feel they were on board with Mira, so they’re not a threat. Even though we’ve sold out all her inventory, the people who bought it are so moved by the work that they’re thrilled to have it. You put it up on your wall and you live with it and life is better.
When you say “speculative” collectors, what do you make of the Stefan Simchowitz phenomenon?
I don’t know what Stefan is doing these days, but I think he has to evolve and change if he wants to continue being in the art world. I haven’t seen him around for a while, and then the last time I saw him he was in London, and he was wearing a suit. I thought that was interesting. I’ve never seen him in a suit. He could be scheming on something big, I don’t know.
Really, it’s hard to keep up with everything, because the city is so big and the gallery takes up 90 percent of my time, and the other 10 percent is devoted to the other artist-run spaces in the city. Now my job is to be much more of a mentor. I like to go and find young people who are starting out in different spaces, and if they ask my advice, I give them advice. I buy work from small galleries.
But, you know, what I really want is something like the Hollywood Reporter, but for the art world. Something industry-based, that says who has left who, who’s working with who, who’s signed contracts with who, and that kind of insider-business stuff. With some potentially gossipy stuff, you know? An industry rag. I don’t know why we don’t have one. I would read it.
So, what’s next for Night Gallery?
I don’t know what the next big move is, but we’re doing Art Basel Hong Kong with Mira Dancy, and then Frieze New York with Rose Marcus, Sean Townley, and Mira Dancy. That’s a booth I’m extremely excited about, and Rose Marcus is another one of my favorite artists. Mieke and I, along with Eliah Perona, are also doing our second edition of the “Sexy Beast” benefit for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles on September 10, and our goal is to raise a million dollars, so that will be its own insane challenge, almost a full-time job, and I can’t wait. In terms of where we are as a gallery, I’m pretty happy. But I’d love to branch out and get a space in New York, and potentially another a space in another city in the world. Those are like our larger goals.
Now, as a last question, because this interview is part of our NADA Network series, is there anything you’d like to say about why you like being a NADA member so much?
Yeah. NADA was definitely the start of the gallery. We had our first NADA booth in 2011, with Mira Dancy, and we only made sales to our parents. Then, as I said before, the Rubells came by in NADA 2014 and that changed everything. That was huge. And now, as a gallery in L.A., being a NADA member gives me access to the New York art conversation. I get to be on the membership committee, and when I go to New York you sit around with other dealers and drink beers and complain about the industry. It’s really important, and it’s really fun.