Comrades in Art: Shared Studios Nurture Emerging Artists

LOS ANGELES — Their dogs play together among the canvases, drop cloths and spray cans. They crowd into cars on road trips to each other’s far-flung exhibitions. They sometimes share paint supplies.

In an art world that is often competitive, the painters who have come to share a studio in the Boyle Heights neighborhood represent an unusual model of how artists can nurture and support one another.

“Before I didn’t feel connected with other artists,” said Alfonso Gonzalez Jr., one of the studio’s tenants. “Then I met these guys. They get it.”

Over the last couple of years, Gonzalez, Mario Ayala, Devin Reynolds, Rafa Esparza and Sonya Sombreuil and others — mostly in their 30s — have found their way to a nondescript warehouse space here on South Anderson Street near the Los Angeles River.

Their studio in Boyle Heights, which has become a destination for galleries (and therefore complaints about gentrification), in part reflects the energy coming from a new generation of Mexican-American artists.

“Something big is happening in the culture that’s now coming up to the surface,” said the gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, who has shown many of the studio’s artists. “L.A. is majority Latino so it’s going to be more and more of an influence.”

Though they each rent work spaces of varying sizes and have different painting styles, the artists move easily in and out of each other’s studios, chatting, offering advice when solicited.

“It helps with all the stress, just being able to share space,” said Reynolds, whose dreamy mural-like paintings combine images and text. “I’m grateful to be here now with so many people pushing the envelope with their painting.”

Several of the artists were recently featured in Deitch’s acclaimed “Shattered Glass” show in Los Angeles as well as in the recent “Made in L.A. 2020” biennial at the Hammer and the Huntington museums.

For “Made in L.A.,” for example, Ayala focused on the underground magazine, “Teen Angels,” which documented cholo culture in the late 20th century, featuring artworks, photographs and essays by gang-affiliated or incarcerated Chicanos.

“Shattered Glass” included two Ayala paintings on the rear of pickup trucks, images that featured a flying saucer, a cactus, dice and the barrel of a gun.

“I don’t just look for individual talent — I look for communities of artists,” said Deitch, a longtime gallerist. “If you go back to the beginning of Modernism and beyond, almost always the artistic innovators are part of communities — from Matisse, Picasso and Braque to the Surrealists to the Abstract Expressionists.

“It’s something way beyond a conventional studio, where it’s just an artist working on paintings,” Deitch continued. “They’re walking through each other’s studios, they’re promoting each other.”

The artists have in common sign painting, graffiti, airbrush techniques, truck stops and lowrider car culture. They share an interest in music, fashion and skateboarding. They paint their families, friends and neighborhoods — the people and places that shaped them.

Ayala’s father is a truck driver. Gonzalez’s father is a billboard painter. Reynolds’s father worked on a fishing boat. That heritage shows up repeatedly in their work.

Gonzalez has painted beauty salons and barber shops. “I see these as landscapes,” he said. “I’m interested in how community changes. I wanted to paint people who felt familiar.”

Alfonso Gonzalez Jr., Bird, 2021.

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