During the Venice Biennale last summer, the Los Angeles gallerist Esther Kim Varet discovered she was pregnant and quickly realized that her life-work balance would soon need some adjustment. Various Small Fires—her two-year old Venice Beach gallery named after Ed Ruscha’s 1964 book—needed its own space, she decided, one that wasn’t attached to her home. After looking downtown and in Culver City, she found a 5,000-square foot Art Deco complex in Hollywood. With the help of the architecture firm Johnston Marklee, she rebuilt the space from the studs up. “I wanted it to feel like a mausoleum,” says Varet, “a place where you wouldn’t be able to figure out what was going on without further inspection.”
Varet had the exterior and interior painted “Regen White”—an ultra-bright hue named after fellow dealer Shaun Caley Regen—and installed a black gate on Highland Avenue with a buzzer in order to engage visitors from the outset. She also had a five-channel speaker system embedded in a 30-foot corridor to create a dedicated space for sound installations. The adjoining granite courtyard, meanwhile, is equipped with stadium lighting to flood sculptural installations and performances with light from all angles.
For her first exhibition in this well-considered arena of art, which opened on Thursday, October 8, the L.A. artist Scott Benzel shows maquettes of the Randy’s Donuts building, a local landmark, and an inverted replica of the needle-shaped spire on the Capitol Records building, fitted with a light flashing Morse code for “Hollywood.” At the same time, a recording of a string quartet playing the Beach Boys song “Never Learn Not To Love” plays, only this rendition has also been “inverted”—the score turned upside down and backwards. “I like these dark correspondences,” says Benzel. “I was really drawn to the strong dialectic between these extreme opposites of the California scene at that time.”
Meanwhile, the entryway off the courtyard—or “the knot of the bowtie connecting the inside and outside,” as Varet describes it—features a desk designed by the artist Jim Drain. (Varet has set aside funds to commission a new reception desk every year.) Like the hatch of a space shuttle, the vestibule is painted carbon gray to offer a “visual decompression” before entering two soundproofed interior galleries spanning 3,000 square feet, where Amir Nikravan is showing ultra-flat abstractions and square sculptures made of raked rocks from his zen garden.
“I want the gallery to become a sculptural object,” says Varet. “I want it to feel alive.”