Merry Karnowsky Gallery’s early years were in a 900-square-foot space on the second floor of a building on S. La Brea, which already had a rich history in the L.A. art scene. Between 1997 and 2003, she filled every bit of those 900 square feet with exhibitions by dozens of artists who would go on to become icons of a new illustration- and street-inflected movement everyone used to call Lowbrow. Legendary purveyors of richly detailed, lavishly stylized, intensely colorful, narrative and symbolism-packed alternative visions like Todd Schorr, Becca, Kent Williams (back at the gallery this September), Coop, Erik Brunetti, Richard Colman, Jim Houser, Dalek (James Marshall), Friends With You, Toshio Saeki, Keiti Ota, Mark Ryden, and more, came through that first fierce little space — many of whom Merry is working with, still or again, 25 years later.
“My career as a gallerist has been a beautiful ongoing experiment. When I first opened, there was resistance to “high “and “low” culture blending together in a critically legitimate way,” Karnowsky tells L.A. Weekly. “I’ve always wanted to hold space for artists with a clear vision, skill, and determination that challenges the status quo rather than serves it. I am very proud of the fact that many of the artists I’ve helped nurture over the years have grown and thrived organically with very little initial endorsement from the art world gatekeepers. It shows the power of art to connect and resonate with people in a very pure, visceral, and sustainable way.”
It was when she moved to a 1,500-square-foot ground floor space in 2004, the full 3,000 square feet of which she later fully took over and occupied until 2015, that things started to get noisier. At the gallery, she was working with even more artists who were destined for greatness — Shepard Fairey, Camille Rose Garcia, Mark Whalen, Tara McPherson, Deedee Cheriel, Edward Walton Wilcox, Greg “Craola” Simkins, Johnny KMNDZ Rodriguez, Travis Louie, Andrew Hem, Audrey Kawasaki, and many others. During those years, she regularly created lines down the block (and saw folks hopping fences and sneaking in through the alley) for sold-out shows and book signings with Craola, Garcia, and Fairey — and later, more lines down La Brea for the first of her blockbuster Vivian Maier photography exhibitions.
“Young artists were fixated on technique, and that brought about an unorthodox revival of the traditional craft of painting and drawing — something that art schools have been trying to exorcize out of their students,” says Karnowsky. “It was a movement swimming against the current, and I saw its value,” she says. “I wanted to help push and support this important surreptitious shift in our sense of what is beautiful, well-made, and serious, which is exactly what good art should do.”
Long time gallery Associate Director Jessica O’Dowd concurs. “To think, 14 years later, what I have experienced and seen of the L.A. art world — it would have blown my mind at the time. What I recognize most strongly is the undercurrent of constant change and innovation. Not only did Merry start her gallery from within a place of counterculture and contemporary relevance, but I have watched her continue to change what that aesthetic means, both contextually and visually, for the collectors and the artists she nurtures and supports. I think that’s why Merry and I work so well together. The understanding that whatever has to happen and whomever has to do it, the show most literally must go on.”
Perhaps the best known gallery alum would be one Shepard Fairey, an artist of multidimensional renown; and Fairey told the L.A. Weekly about how their beautiful friendship began. “I found out about Merry Karnowsky’s gallery and the roster of artists I admired while living in San Diego in the late 90’s. When I’d make the drive to put posters up in L.A., I’d frequently check out Merry’s exhibitions and throw a few posters up on La Brea, hoping to catch her eye because I was too shy to ask directly for a show in her gallery. I guess the strategy worked because in 2000, Merry offered me a dual show with Ron English, a friend whose billboard liberation work was a huge influence on me. Since I only made prints on paper at that point, Merry encouraged me to push my materials further, resulting in my first prints on patinated aluminum plates. The show was an important progression for me, but the sales were modest — yet Merry still invited me to show together many more times over the years… thankfully with increasing success.”
In 2011 Fairey’s “persistent poster bombing” in the area near Merry’s gallery resulted in Merry suggesting to the developers of the former Continental Graphics building at 2nd and La Brea that he paint a mural wrapping around the building. “Showing in Merry’s gallery while painting a large mural on the same block felt like the ultimate embodiment of my ‘inside/outside strategy,’” Shepard says. “Merry, thank you for enabling that, supporting my art on many fronts, and being a friend for over 20 years. Most of all, congratulations for showing and nurturing powerful and important art and artists for 30 years. It’s a tough business, but you do it with style and grace.”
Jeff Soto, another absolute legend to come through the gallery, recalls discovering Merry Karnowsky Gallery as a student. “In the back of Juxtapoz magazine they had addresses of galleries, neatly sectioned off by city, and I’d try to visit as many as I could in L.A. Merry’s gallery was a must visit!,” he tells the Weekly. “I was much too shy to ask to show my work, but I did speak to her a handful of times. I remember summoning up some bravery and asking her about the rubylith cut-outs in a Shepard Fairey exhibit. We had a great talk about his process, and she was so nice. Merry seemed genuinely interested in discussing art. She had to know I was not there to buy anything. Still, she took the time. That meant something to me, and I still appreciate it twenty years later. She made me feel welcome, unlike some of those cold and snobby galleries!”
O’Dowd is proud of keeping this welcoming energy going as part of the gallery’s identity. “One of the first compliments Merry ever gave me was telling me, ‘I really like that you find these collectors that are people you wouldn’t think were necessarily going to buy something, and then suddenly you’ve been nice to them and they’ve bought some $10,000 piece.’ And I was like well, that is the whole point! We’re in Los Angeles, don’t make that judgment. People all the time say thank you so much, you were so nice to talk to me; and I say well, you’re here in person and we all love art. That’s why we’re here. So we’re going to talk about art!”
“That’s really important to me, personally,” says Merry. “Nobody will ever feel unwelcome coming into this space.” And that welcoming attitude, that willingness to education and awareness of championing something that was new to most in the mainstream art world, resulted in the gallery becoming an epicenter of the movement and a kind of bridge from the street to the ivory tower. Twenty-five years later, many of the same artists and certainly the same core aesthetic is still the driving force of the program — even though no one calls it Lowbrow anymore.
“I think that was one of the harder things to wrap my head around,” says Karnowsky. “Because it’s been very intuitive and it’s been very natural to me, and I kind of have to step back and say, why is it natural to me? What was my attraction to this work all about? Because it’s a contrast to me as a person. Even though I’m a little quieter and I’m introverted, I like work that’s the opposite of me. I like work that’s sort of vibrant and challenging, maybe in a way that can convey things that I don’t convey. But there is energy in that vital connection that I feed off of.”
Karnowsky does feel that her Japanese mother, who would have news novelettes that came from Japan where there would be a serious story about air pollution next to an illustration with cartoon imagery or manga, where, “there wasn’t as much of a distinction between the high and low, and cartoons told very serious stories, often in fantastic ways using allegory; they were poignant and entertaining at the same time. I think I inherited this aesthetic culturally, and perhaps the openness that goes along with it. I gravitate to work that is narrative, pictorial, painterly, high in craft and detail, skillful, challenging, humorous, and engaging.”
And while being a woman-owned art gallery was not particularly unique when she started, there were many fewer women in the Lowbrow and street spaces. “One time, really early on, this very kind of high-powered attorney came and he was looking at the work and he was looking at me, and he said something like, Why do you show such boyish artwork? And I was speechless and I thought to myself, Well, is it that boyish? Because I’m a tomboy, I played sports, I got on skateboards, I did everything boys could do. But the fact that the genre was so categorized, it just made me want to be more of a representation for other women and girls who might feel the same thing that I do when they look at this artwork. So if I’m a female gallerist representing this work, that’s an entry for other women like me.”
Becca, who first became known for her street art work, was one of the first artists where Karnowsky saw her work on the street, and started to put the word out, really seeking her out. “I finally got to meet her and talked to her, and showed her early on,” Karnowsky says, “and she was this female street artist that had plastered these girls with smeared lipstick and boxing gloves everywhere. I showed her for a good amount of time, and I think that’s kind of where the balance was — a female artist operating in a male-dominated space, making work that spoke to her own story. It represented in some ways how I thought of myself and about the program.”
“Working with Merry over the years has been incredible for many reasons, but one of the things I like most is sort of small,” Camille Rose Garcia tells the Weekly. “On the day I deliver the show to her, after years of work, and last-minute varnishing and driving the work personally 600 miles, her reaction to the paintings when I unwrap them and lean them against the wall is so genuine and moving. It’s like we’re two teenage girls discovering The Clash for the first time in some parents’ basement. That’s the level of excitement in the room. And it wasn’t just the first time I showed with her, it’s every time. Every time is that level of appreciation and genuine excitement about what I’m bringing in. And I don’t think I knew how rare that was until I showed with many other galleries over the years, and it’s probably the thing I missed the most the years I didn’t have shows with her. Her enthusiasm about art is truly infectious, and it makes it so satisfying, after all that hard work.”
Jennybird Alcantara also appreciates what working with Merry is like for an artist. “We all know Merry is a legend, but until I got to know her on a personal level, I didn’t realize she’s equal measures badass, good listener, kind, and funny, too,” she shares. “Merry has a calmness about her that is very reassuring to the often impassioned or delicate sensibilities of an artist. One of my favorite things to do with Merry is laugh, I honestly couldn’t tell you an exact story that we’ve laughed about, but as I think of her now, I can hear her joyous laughter, and it makes me smile.”
“When the right partnership with a gallery happens at the right time, magic can happen,” says Merry. “I give a lot of credit to the artists themselves for having the drive and integrity to put themselves out there, and then understanding the value of the partnership with a gallery and respecting what a gallery brings to the table. I feel really grateful for having great partnerships with artists over the years who have been not only working relationships, but lasting friendships.”
“The day I got invited to show with Merry is as visible in my head now as it was the day I received the call from my friend Johnny “KMNDZ” Rodriguez, asking if that was something I would be interested in,” Greg “Craola” Simkins recalls. “INTERESTED IN?! Showing at Merry Karnowsky Gallery was on my bucket list! Ten years later or more, and we have nothing but love for Merry.”
It’s impossible to list all the highlights of gallery and increasingly museum projects that have illuminated Merry Karnowsky/KP Projects Gallery’s roster over the years — Camille Rose Garcia at San Jose Museum of Art in 2007; Todd Schorr’s show there in 2009; Shepard Fairey’s massive Boston ICA Show; the hugely ambitious MACRO (Museum of Contemporary Art Rome) exhibition with Tara McPherson, Nicola Verlato, Mark Whalen, Camille Rose Garcia, Todd Schorr, Kathy Staico Schorr; Schorr again, at the Aldrich Museum in 2013; a major group exhibition at the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil in Mexico City in 2018-19 — but some of the most interesting are the most unexpected.
In September of 2011, the gallery presented an off-site curatorial project downtown — 5 Lite —with the late, great painter Ed Moses as curator, and featuring Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Laddie John Dill and Robert Wilhite in a show of five eminent friends. “These were stellar mega-artists willing to show with a gallerist who had little to do with their world,” remembers Merry. “I’d known Cedd Moses for a long time, and he came to me saying, ‘I’ve talked to my dad about you and he knows of you, what you’ve done, and he really respects it. And I want to do something with this empty storefront. I want us to have fun.’ I have felt really appreciative that there have been people who have trusted me to do something interesting outside the box, and bring maybe a different audience and mix things up. I just feel so grateful having the opportunity to talk to some of these people that are so brilliant, and so worldly and so talented. Larry Bell is the warmest person. It was amazing, you know, because I started to talk to him about the art show, and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I really love comic book art!’”
It was the same thing with working at Tamara Bane Gallery back in the ‘90s, with Robert Williams. “Because Robert’s this guy that comes off like, golly, ‘I’m Bob, I’m just a painter,’ and then he starts rapping all the shit that he knows about art, history and culture and cars, and people are just blown away. How can you not love this man?” she says. “And then, seeing an exhibition where Nicholas Cage is selling his watches to buy Robert’s paintings, and Anthony Kiedis and Deborah Harry are on a waitlist of 300 people! I have a special relationship with Robert and his wife Suzanne, who are really ground zero for my love and appreciation of Lowbrow. Seeing Helter Skelter at MOCA with him in it along with artists like Manuel Ocampo, Lynn Foulkes, Paul McCarthy — that was a formative moment for me.”
Maybe that profound lifelong level of emotional involvement is why the gallery made every effort to stay open as much as possible during COVID, even as far back as Fall of 2020. “I don’t know how anyone made a decision not to stay open,” Merry says. “Honestly, it never occurred to me. I mean, we did some pivots in terms of getting a nicer website. We started to figure it out; we tried to do more interactive things. But I don’t see how you can work at home and represent art. Also, I think, for mental stability, for me and for Jessica, we’re workers. This is what we do, and so we need to be in the element where we are inspired. There are worse places to be than to escape to the gallery. Plus, when you’re responsible for other people and you have artists that are really scared, that’s when my instincts kicked in like: no, we’re moving forward, we can do it a little bit. There’s going to be delays, but no, we have to put our best foot forward now and show people that art is important, even in these times — maybe more important than these kinds of times.”
Maybe that’s part of why she let folks talk her into celebrating the 25th anniversary — especially with the giant group show currently at the gallery through August 27, featuring artists from her once and current program — even though she’s not personally a fan of the spotlight. “It really is making my year for something that I shied away from celebrating,” she says. “Everybody was pushing me, all the people that I care about, and now I really appreciate it!’
Merry Karnowsky Gallery’s 25th Anniversary show is on view at KP Projects, 633 N. La Brea in Hollywood, until August 27, with a closing reception on the evening of Saturday, August 27. Visit kpprojectsgallery.net for more information.
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