Press Release: Al's Bar Collection - Client: Al's Bar - Date: July 2001

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Melding the stark world of a poolhall with a generous splash of surrealism, downtown LA arts venue, Al’s bar has spanned generations of regulars throughout its 22 year history. The unpretentious watering hole has been better known as a music venue in its latter day incarnation, though beyond the beer and guitar solos, it historically provided a furtive cultural environment for a range of artistic media, from theatre and visual arts, through to performance art, poetry, and mime.

Things have indeed come a long way since owner Marc Kreisel first created the bar on Easter Sunday, 1979 with a six pack of beer and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Nowadays, Alís Bar itself is not just testament to the labors of various artists, but more a living artwork in its own right, splashed with experimental sculpture and wall paintings, photography, multi media installations and various oddments.

Cliche for some, though discovery for others. Als Bar has embodied the constantly evolving nature LA’s art landscape, and as both it and the adjoining American hotel and gallery are threatened with closure due to high rents, the Als Bar Collection/Retrospective, a spectrum of work created by artists in and around the venue throughout its history will be launched at the nearby Sogo gallery, three blocks from the bar in early September.

Spawned by the entrepreneurial vision of Marc Kreisel (also known as Al), visual artist and the bar’s owner, the Als Bar collection recounts 22 years of big, bold and beautiful artistic chaos, conjured by the likes of Skip Arnold, Bob Zoel, Katy Crowe, Doug Henry, Colleen Sterritt, Monique Safford, Ron Linden, and John Schroder. The collection will embrace a range of artistic media, including photography, collage, video and audio, sculpture, painting and etching.

The artwork of Als recalls another era of LA art. Down and dirty realism spiced by a hefty polemic, flying in the face of monied benefactors and ornate pretentiousness. According to Kreisel, Al’s is art as a living idea, art as a verb, in a lot of ways, just one big art show. The venue was opened with an eye to being a money pump, to provide an economic support system in the art community without government help.

Marc Kreisel founded the venue in 1979 on the ground floor of the Antiquated American Hotel became a highly revered arts venue and hangout for loft dwelling Hollywood artists, providing both a place to socialize and a venue for exhibiting work. Money turned over from the venue was used to finance and support its adjoining gallery (The American Gallery) curated by over five different artists throughout its lifetime.

Fast forward to Al’s backyard on balmy Saturday this July. Fondly recalling the glory days of the early 80’s, LA performance artist Skip Arnold is perched on a rickety chair in the barís amazingly graffitied courtyard.

Arnold plays king of the kids as a group of twentysomething skatepunks address him by name, he doesn’t seem to know any of them personally, yet he is still worthy of their recognition. Iím here with Skip not to bond with the skatekids, not even to slamdance to the punk band next door, but to recall the halcyon days of Al’s Bar, when it was an arts institution, when punk music meant more than dress sense and the melding of music, art and politics held believable synergy.

Arnold has done everything at Als, from my bumper stickers to ceiling frescos and video installation work. Nowadays he does a little more than skate with the boys. A fine arts lecturer at Pasadena Art Center College of Design, he has shown at the Guggenheim, has several international galleries and dealers who represent him and can cite the likes of Paul Mcarthy, Cindy Sherman, Joseph Beauys and Bruce Nauman as his peers. Arnold points to a pink ovular figure on the ceiling. After my focus makes it out, he prompts my gaze with a description of the work, a comment on the political correctness of the late nineties, tied to the issue of feminism. Not that Arnold has any problem with empowered women of course, this is just his art, comical, disposable and precocious.

The work is titled DayGlo nudes, it was basically my comment on the whole political correctness of the late eighties, when anti-male sentiment seemed to be at its height. It’s a woman without a head, hands or feet, meaning she can’t talk or run away (girlfriend present cringes). Yes I was scolded for it heavily at the time, he confides.

Skip, as he prefers to be known is decidedly sentimental about his involvement with Als Bar. There were only a few skyscrapers in LA when I first arrived here as a 23 year old from NYC in 1980, the LA arts scene was an entirely different place.

Most of the art constructed in the bar exuded an air of spontaneity, while it was the work of trained, “real” artists there. Rather than embellish city walls, local artists were invited by Marc to decorate the bar. Hence Al’s is an artwork in itself, an archive or landscape of 22 years of art history.

From its conception, Als Bar was the umbrella for many bands, artists and playrights, nationally and internationally, with the music element providing a financial infrastructure that helping sustain everything else. I should add that while the music nowadays is fairly rank and file, the music that played in downtown LA in the early eighties, at its peak was decidedly left of field, political and bizarre, in line with the likes of John Cage.

Al’s was part of the whole downtown movement a creative network of venues that housed many name artists who have since graduated to bigger and better things,” Arnold said. “Als provided a foundation for art resources, though in all it was more about celebrating the work and existence of downtown artists. The key to the place was that was more about participation. The venue for many was a chance to be exposed.”

Painter, Bob Zoel, is another contributor to the Alís collection. Zoel has recently released a new book about his work and makes commercials to pay the bills. “Back in '81,” he says “most of the walls were still empty but enough was there so you were left with the fee ing that this place was very unique. The old rusty hotel sign above the entrance of Alís had my name on it and Mark seemed more than glad that I wanted to paint it”.

Over the years, whenever the sign got boring, I erected scaffold and changed it. During that same period, I produced a series of parking signs titled "The End Is Near Let's get Married" which were serigraphed by Future Perfect on cardboard for the street as well as on metal in a limited edition of 25 which actually appear in the Al's Bar Collection.

In some ways Traction Street, with Al’s and the American Hotel being the focal point represented our little West Coast hope that LA was more than provincial and possibly a new West Coast So Ho was being born. This illusion lasted only a few years. It became clear that the collectors on the west coast were not really interested in the new energy in the dangerous and dirty downtown loft district, the few galleries that were opening in the area soon packed up and joined others in the much cleaner and safer Santa Monica area.”

Unlike New York that had a European influence in its culture and has traditionally supported the avante guarde and enjoyed the nastiness inherent in artist's hovels as in the early days of So Ho or The East Village, LA I feel was threatened by this and our little So Ho soon became no no. This, of course, has changed and even though downtown still had only a few galleries until recently with the China Town boom, LA is recognized, and rightly so, as a world class art producer and market, second only to New York”.

Colleen Sterritt, sculpture/arts lecturer first became involved with Alís Bar as an Otis graduate in the late 70’s, after specializing in sculpture, she now heads a department devoted to such at a leading LA arts college. “I didn’t see Al’s as an arts institution, but more as a gathering place. It was a great focal point for arts oriented people who did a lot of networking there. When it first opened there really was nothing else available in the area, so it ended up as the place that never died.”

Al’s has changed and so to has the LA arts scene. It is now a hugely sophisticated and international market, whereas in the early eighties it effected a small number of people housed in about 10 downtown buildings. The scene has changed from being something very small and familial to being big, global and monied.

Nowadays art in LA is a lot less encumbered by tradition and is much more free, with a much more international slant. It is now a place where budding and established artists want to be. There is less money than in NYC, though, with people such as Mike Kelly and Larry Pittman, and Charlie Ray, in LA, the notion that it is only possible to establish an arts career in NYC is being proven wrong. People donít want to leave for NYC, they want to get the attention here. LA also has such a great base of art schools now which serve as such a great infrastructure for the art scene.

Katy Crowe, visual artist recalls her first memory of Al's, “Its was a beer in the afternoon, probably around 1981. My God, 20 years ago, and it was dark and the booth was funky, and it was only artists there, the patina the place has had just begun to evolve. Marc and I ran the American Gallery for a few years, until I wanted to wring his neck. It was a great place while it lasted, and ours was the 2nd incarnation of the American Gallery. There would be one more before it became "Deepriver" .When Al's first opened, downtown was "the" happening art scene in LA, and that scene is only now, in the past few years coming back this way. Its sad to think that Al's won't be there for the next movement.

Written by Craig Stephens

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