Ready Maid

Los Angeles
08.23.08

Left: Artist Mike Kelley. Right: A Royal/T maid serves espresso martinis. (Photo: Basil Childers)


No sooner did I get in the door to the Royal/T Gallery in Culver City last week than I was accosted by a gelato-wielding young woman in a housekeeper’s uniform—brown dress with frilly white slip showing, topped with frilly white apron and collar. Smiling sweetly, she asked what flavor I preferred.

Hmm.

Royal/T is a gallery with multiple personalities, among which are a bar, a teahouse, and a retail shop. Collector Susan Hancock opened it early this year, moving from New York to Los Angeles at the suggestion of Tim Blum and Jeff Poe, whose gallery is down the road from the space in Culver City. I was there for the opening of “All of This Is Melting Away,” an exhibition named for a Jim Hodges text collage hanging just inside the door. This in itself was not unusual. But I felt ever so slightly disoriented by the regressively costumed receptionist.

“This is a maid café and a gallery,” the woman said, gesturing toward three other women in French-maid costumes scooping gelato out of a mobile ice-cream freezer brought in to go with the exhibition’s “melting” theme.

Hmm.

Left: Musician Masaya Nakahara. Right: Collector Susan Hancock with Greene Naftali's Jay Sanders. (Photos: Basil Childers)


“Culver City is like Mayberry,” the jolly Hancock told me, adding that the ten-thousand-square-foot Royal/T was the first maid café in the US. (A second, Bar C, has just opened in Little Tokyo near MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary.) In case you are as ignorant of this phenomenon as I, maid cafés (meido kissas) are an outgrowth of “cosplay,” the performance-art part of the cutesy-poo, sexually deviant otaku culture imported from Japan. (Cosplayers act out their favorite manga characters. In LA, apparently, a Lolita-style nymphette is one of them.)

Looking around, I saw café tables and a bar to the left, beside a Plexiglas, hospital-style gift shop selling editioned toys by a passel of Japanese popsters. I turned to the exposed-brick wall on the right, where there stood three more display rooms that included a white fiberglass Yoshitomo Nara dog, some black glass sperm by Fred Wilson, a Tracey Emin JUST LOVE ME neon sign, a phallic Franz West, and a tabletop installation by Beth Campbell of fake potted orchids laid out in a grid on a “magic” carpet. The piece was new, made when Hancock requested such a carpet and Campbell complied, even though she does not take requests.

None of the art on the floor was for sale. That is because all of it belongs to Hancock. The works were selected for the show, or rather the shop—I mean the salon-de-thé—by Jay Sanders, more often found working as director of the Greene Naftali Gallery in New York. “I thought it would be nice to try something like this,” he said, looking around for familiar faces. On this dull, late-summer evening, there were, at that point, only a few: dealer Lisa Overduin, artist Paul Sietsema, and Campbell. “But,” he added with enthusiasm, “I got to book this great DJ to come from Tokyo.” He was speaking of Masaya Nakahara, a noise-music veteran who was to jam later that night at a club called the Echo with LA art luminaries Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, who were making an exceedingly rare local appearance together.

Left: Dealer Lisa Overduin, artist Paul Sietsema, and Jay Sanders. Right: Royal/T costume designer Lun*na Menoh. (Photos: Basil Childers)


The downside of keeping up with art in LA is the driving. Getting to the Echo, which lies on the east side of Silver Lake in Echo Park, is something like driving to the Hamptons on a summer weekend in New York. There’s a lot of traffic, and when you finally get there, you start to suspect it was not worth the trip. But according to Sanders, “the boys” wanted to play in a proper music venue, not a gallery, so the Echo squeezed them in after the evening’s main event, a three-piece band called Xiu Xiu whose interminable set alternated between extremely harsh and beautifully delicate sounds.

The artists had been scheduled to go on at 10 PM. At midnight, they began setting up the stage: Kelley laid out a big baby blanket to cushion his amp and various noisemaking dolls; Nakahara set up a table crammed with wires, tape players, mixers, and portable hard drives; and McCarthy brought a guitar, some brown paper tubes (through which to blow), and electronic effects boxes he had bought only that day and never tried before. Had they rehearsed? “We try not to,” McCarthy said. “But we did have dinner together last night.”

At 12:30, a small crowd of devotees young enough to be Kelley and McCarthy’s grandchildren—former students, I guessed—pushed toward the stage, and the performance began with sounds so inhuman I can only compare them to a night in the jungle when every animal alive is either mating or feasting. For added effect, every now and then Nakahara, rolling his eyes back under their lids, would shriek into his microphone. In fact, sonic surprises abounded, and for all the wild sound, the performance was quite visual, thanks to the various props. So what if you couldn’t dance to it? You could liberate your mind to it, and isn’t that the proper pursuit of art—or at least a good reason to chase it into the night?