Spending an afternoon in L.A.’s Arts District is a practice in staying present: You blink — or scroll through Instagram too long after posting a selfie in front of Colette Miller’s angel wings — and you may miss something. Here, works of art live on the streets, making the journey to a gallery or museum as immersive as being inside one.
When artists set up shop in the downtown neighborhood in the 1970s, its industrial feel meant cheap rent and not a lot of weekend tourist action. But times have changed: Grit is in and affordability is out. Today, you see as many people roaming in search of craft breweries, specialty sausage shops and streetwear storefronts as for anything actually art-related. And looking around, you can’t help but wonder whether any working artists can afford to live there anymore.
Despite being a neighborhood in flux, there are still deeply interesting things going on in the art department. Slow down, pay attention and take them in.
11 a.m. There’s a common saying that goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” For our purposes, a journey of multiple art viewings begins with a strong cup of coffee. There are so many to choose from. I selected Groundwork Coffee at 811 Traction Ave., which serves fair-trade, certified-organic brews in a charming, light-flooded atmosphere. Order the latte with cashew milk ($4.50 for a small, plus 75 cents for the house-made milk alternative) and enjoy it while sitting down. It’ll set the tone for the tour: being very much in the moment. Open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
11:30 a.m. Cross Traction Avenue and look for the neon Mona Lisa — no, this is not an obscure clue for a scavenger hunt. Knock on the door of the Lakich Neon Studio & Gallery at 704 Traction Ave. It’s filled with the unmissable work of Lili Lakich, the prolific neon artist behind “Flyaway,” a 114-foot-long neon sculpture for the Van Nuys FlyAway bus terminal. The 5,000-square-foot space is filled with large- and small-scale neon sculptures from the 1970s to the present, such as “Blessed Oblivion,” a massive altar-like piece that Lakich cites as one of her favorites. The space doubles as a classroom for Lakich’s eight-week neon workshops; the next one begins Jan. 14. Her studio/gallery is open to the public on request. Calling ahead better guarantees a viewing, but if she’s there when you knock, she’ll let you in to peruse. Contact Lakich at (213) 620-8641.
Noon: At the recommendation of Lakich, head toward 3rd Street, make a right and walk until you see Over the Influence at 833 E. 3rd St. You have to move fast if you want to catch the final days of an exhibit by Los Angeles-based artist Shepard Fairey. The man behind the iconic “André the Giant Has a Posse” street-art campaign is having a formidable 30-year retrospective that will energize you to stick it to the man. “Facing the Giant: Three Decades of Dissent” is a collection of propaganda-style pieces drawing attention to issues like mass incarceration, climate change and civil rights while celebrating the skateboarding, punk and DIY subcultures that Fairey came up in. “Angela” — a striking print of activist-feminist Angela Davis, featuring a pan-African color scheme and the words “power and equality” bannered across the top — is a standout. It’s on display through Dec. 29, but if you miss Fairey’s exhibit, don’t worry: The next one is sure to be thought-provoking as well. Admission is free. Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
1 p.m. Make your way back toward Traction Avenue, turn left and then turn right at Hewitt Street. Walk until you see a suited-up mannequin “playing” the piano outside a large corner building to your left. That’s Art Share Los Angeles, at 801 E. 4th Place, a dedicated community space that provides affordable housing to artists. It also offers art education and a theater space. Art Share’s galleries are open to the public and are currently featuring the show “Let’s Hang @ArtShareLA” — a large and refreshingly diverse collection of work from seasoned and new talent alike. (Look for Rachael Kucken’s “Tangerine Girl.”) Art Share feels raw, real and accessible — a welcome respite from the hyper-curated, be-careful-where-you-breathe vibe of many contemporary galleries. Time is running out on this exhibit too: It’s on display until Jan. 5. Admission is free. Open 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
1:30 p.m. Step out of the Art Share building and find 4th Place to your left, turn right and walk until you hit Alameda Street, which borders the Arts District and Little Tokyo. Walk south down Alameda toward 7th Street. On the way, keep an eye out for the old Southern Pacific complex to your right, where renowned Los Angeles-based graffiti artist Retna created an intricate (and massive) multi-building mural. It’s something to not only behold but soak in. For as long as our modern attention span allows anyway.
2 p.m. When you hit 7th, turn left and find the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1717 E. 7th St.) It was there, on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, that a little boy was discovering the joys of spinning vinyl for the first time — Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, the Jam, Dionne Warwick — in the name of art. The piece, called “Ruins of a Sensibility,” is a highly interactive portion of the museum’s featured exhibition, “No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake,” and comprises the artist’s personal album collection and DJ equipment. Blake’s retrospective deals with gender and cultural identity in a way that’s personal.
ICA’s other exhibition, “Sadie Barnette: The New Eagle Creek Saloon,” orbits similar themes. It’s a reimagining of the first black-owned gay bar in San Francisco, the New Eagle Creek Saloon, which was opened and operated by Barnette’s father, Rodney Barnette, in the early 1990s. (The elder Barnette also founded the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968.) The installation feels like a dream sequence: A hot pink neon glow beckons visitors to a room with a glittering horseshoe-shaped bar, holographic lounge seating and sparkly beer cans crushed atop metallic stereo equipment.
Finish your visit at “Play Days: Wrong Edition,” which is a much cooler, more inclusive version of your average museum gift shop, brought to you by Days, an expertly curated retail pop-up that centers around a theme. “Play Days” draws from the ICA’s current works on display and Days’ ethos, featuring items celebrating, for or by queer culture. Check out the Gamut Pins, a chic, black-and-gold accessory that states your preferred gender pronoun so you don’t have to.
Everything is on display at ICA L.A. until Jan. 26. Admission is free but donations are welcome. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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3 p.m. Head east on 7th until you see Pizzanista at 2019 E. 7th St. Reasons to love this no-frills pizza shop: as unpretentious an atmosphere as you can get while eating a quality New York-style slice. Vegan options galore, like plant-based versions of the Meat Jesus, redone with seitan, and a plant-based version of the mac and cheese pizza (available only on Sundays). On Tuesdays, cheese and pepperoni slices (and their vegan counterparts) are only $2. Co-founded by professional skateboarder Salman Agah, Pizzanista is steeped in the subculture — which will have you feeling at least 50% cooler by the time you leave. Open 11 a.m. to midnight Tuesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.