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Cultivating 'amazing things'
The nearly year-old Machine art space aims to be a laboratory where the art and the artists come first.
By Jessica Hundley, Special to The Times
A volcano was about to erupt in Echo Park.
Inside the gallery Machine, 100 or so people waited and watched, standing on the wall-to-wall lawn. A low, threatening rumble emanated from the center of the room, where an 8-foot mountain of fragrant white petals vibrated violently, about to blow.
That recent explosive installation by artist Holly Vesecky is exactly the sort of off-center work that Machine specializes in showcasing — a blend of high concept idea and uninhibited playfulness. Opened last April by art impresario Mark Allen, Machine occupies an unassuming storefront with a wide, plate-glass window that surveys the stop-and-go traffic on North Alvarado Street. It fits snugly into this bustling block just north of Sunset Boulevard, a strip that features a cafe, a bookstore, a filmmaking co-op and soon a new library.
"I saw the space was for rent, and I just had a real intuition about it," says Allen. "Literally three days later I had signed a lease. It's a really fantastic building, with great tenants. It seemed like a part of L.A. that had the best sort of community aspects of urbanism, a place where there really is a sense of neighborhood."
Allen, who was raised in Vermont and schooled at California Institute of the Arts (where he majored in art), arrived in Echo Park with years of trial-and-error experience. He ran a few galleries in Houston after moving there in 1993 for an artist's residency. The first, called Revolution Summer, had a sort of Marxist theme. "For instance," he explains, "if it took the artist two hours to make the art, then you could buy the art by working for the artist for two hours." His second gallery, LAX, sold the work of L.A.-based artists.
When Allen returned to Southern California in 1997, he immediately integrated himself into the arts community, working at CalArts' campus galleries and with collaborators at the C-Level space in Chinatown. At C-Level, he organized a number of successful installations, most memorably a simulated video cockfight in which participates donned rooster suits and fought their opponents via on-screen avatars.
"C-Level is fantastic," admits Allen, "but I wanted to have a walk-by space, a space where people had immediate access off the street." The storefront on Alvarado was just the thing.
Allen, who teaches at CalArts and UC San Diego and freelances as a computer programmer, wanted a cheap space that could double as a gallery and personal workspace. Working with the artist and architect Fritz Haeg and builder Beau Haggen, he constructed a series of movable walls, creating a versatile room that changes from studio/gallery to performance space.
"Mark is incredibly inspiring to be around," says friend and collaborator Haeg. "He's trying to create a space that's different from a traditional gallery, a space that serves almost as a laboratory, where the art and the artists come first."
Allen likes to frame his work as promoting "overambitious amateur enthusiasts." He brainstorms with artists, turning the ridiculous into the executable.
"There's something so exciting about that," he says, "when it goes from that moment of inspiration and makes this beautiful transition to something that's actually going to happen. There's something really magical about that process."
With that philosophy, Machine has played host to everything from Tom Jennings' "Story Teller," an installation using early computer technology, to Vesecky's "Mt. St. Holly." shown last month. This summer, medieval knights will battle for control of the gallery in "Untitled War," by Brody Condon.
Currently on view is "page_space," a collaboration between technology-minded artists, computer programmers and writers. Later this month, Jessica Hutchins puts in her installation, which features a leather bodybuilder torso astride a mechanical bull.
Hutchins has found Allen to be open to all types of artwork — sculpture, performance art, installations — but he has an overarching intuition about what belongs at Machine. It's a collaborative space after all; Allen helps conceive new work, not just hang it on the walls.
"One of the great things about Mark is how stubborn and opinionated he is," Hutchins says. "Mark only does what he really wants to do, and when he tells you what he thinks, he will always be abrasively honest."
At the Mt. St. Holly show, when the crowd gleefully applauded the volcanic eruption of fresh flower petals, another of Allen's collaborations had fully blossomed. With Machine, he has created a space that fosters a local artistic community and embraces unlimited imagination.
"There's something so fantastically beautiful about being a part of a group of people where your friends do amazing things that you want to see. And you can create a venue to make that happen," he says. "That's what I'm going for; that's what I attempt to facilitate."
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