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“It’s huge,” said one man in a hushed tone to his date. He was talking about The Mistake Room, a large-scale, nonprofit exhibition space housed in a 4,500-square-foot former Forever 21 warehouse in the burgeoning Downtown Arts District, which had its opening night Saturday.
The star of the evening was swiftly minted art star Oscar Murillo. The Colombia-born, London-based artist milled about a concrete block — part of his exhibition “Distribution Center” — teaching a young woman how to flatten bottle caps with a hammer. “No, no. Like this,” he told the woman, flipping the cap over and skillfully pounding it on the concrete. “Flatten it from this side.” He gave the cap three last whacks. “See? It’s sharp on the edges.”
The woman continued to gingerly work at the bottle cap. “I used to do this when I was a kid,” Murillo told her.
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That cap-flattening station was but one element of a dense show that raised questions about the nature of labor, and the relationship between labor and art. Videos of a candy factory in Colombia, where members of Murillo’s family work, were projected on the walls. All around the space canvases lay on the floor, while tables were stacked with Cray-Pas on paper drawings.
Materials in the show were the result of an ambiguous process of local day laborers coming into the space and working with Murillo, and construction workers and carpenters in Tijuana collaborating on tables and other art objects in the show, but it was hard to tell who made what. And that certainly was the point: Did it matter? The processes were obfuscated, and the materials left in various states of finishing — the paintings and drawings were in similarly unfinished states — giving the show a work-in-progress feel.
Up at the front desk of the space, The Mistake Room’s energetic director, Cesar Garcia, beamed as art patron Stefan Simchowitz passed into the exhibition space. Another guest said,“Looks amazing, Cesar” and kissed him on the cheek.
“It was interesting to see the similarities between what we consider the artistic practice and the interrelationship with manual labor and mass distribution, particularly in this neighborhood,” Garcia told The Hollywood Reporter about the show.
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Garcia comes from a decorated background: he previously held a position at LA><ART as its associate director and senior curator. While there, he co-curated Made in L.A., Los Angeles’ first biennial, in 2012. He had been playing around with the idea of The Mistake Room for a few years.
“When I started pitching the idea to certain people, everybody said, ‘This is exactly what we need,’ ” Garcia said, “because in L.A. you have a history of small nonprofits or big museums, but we’ve never had a Renaissance Society [Chicago] or an Artists Space [New York].”
As part of The Mistake Room’s programming, Garcia plans to bring three international curators per year to Los Angeles on a research trip — mainly Latin American, African and Middle Eastern curators at the start — the sort of thing that is sorely lacking in Los Angeles. Bringing curators will mean meaningful attention on the L.A. art scene, which Garcia hopes will make a reality the media-driven idea that Los Angeles is a cultural hotspot. “We made a list of the 15 most popular biennales, and looked back at the last seven editions of each, and we made a list of artists from Los Angeles there,” says Garcia. “That list actually isn’t that great.”
What is great is the amount of support Garcia has received from major players in the L.A. art world. The Mistake Room’s board of trustees includes artists Glenn Kaino (whose art duo A. Bandit gave a performance at LA><ART Annex in 2011 called “The Mistake Room,” which inspired Garcia to found the space) and Eduardo Sarabia, as well as arts supporters Dr. V. Joy Simmons and Tina Perry, senior vp, head of business & legal affairs of OWN, among others.
“The deep level of commitment to artists that Cesar envisioned for the organization and his global scope for the program were some of the things that really drew me in,” Perry told THR. “Here was an opportunity to be a part of a forward-looking group of professionals with different creative expertise, not just the typical personalities that often serve on Boards, but a genuine group of patrons who wanted to help increase access to an international art program in a long-term and serious way.”
The space is within blocks of dealer Francois Ghebaly’s gargantuan new space, as well as hot L.A. gallery Night Gallery. Huge crowds shifted from space to space, comparing notes, wandering about in the unlit warehouse district. In the darkness, the walk had a Wild West feel — the way Los Angeles tends to from time to time. The Mistake Room, on the other hand, feels like a big step in the maturation of the city.
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