“THE CITY BURNING is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself,” wrote Joan Didion in 1965. Driving along I-10 toward Southern California’s newest art fair, the Malibu Annual, I only had to glance to my right to see the orange fires running like scars through the hills and ominous, billowing clouds stretching across the blue sky to the northeast. The sense of impending doom stood in odd contrast to the unflagging optimism of the dealers assembling their booths across town in Malibu.
The Hamptons have long been the place for artists and dealers’ summer flings, so it makes sense for Malibu, the aspiring Hamptons of the West, to be taken over by the Los Angeles contemporary art world—even if only for three days. The first-ever Malibu Annual felt less like a vacation retreat, though, and more like dealers dragging their wares to summering collectors, which, on second thought, may not be so different from the Hamptons after all.
I arrived an hour before the 7 PM opening at the Malibu Country Mart, a name that summons visions of hot dogs and deep-fried Twinkies, to discover what must be the most highbrow strip mall in the universe (or at least outside Scottsdale), with outposts of Los Angeles’s most au courant shops, places like Ron Herman, Madison, and Maxfield; there, for the cost of a sweatshirt ($1,600), you could easily purchase a painting from one of the young galleries at the fair.
The opening party got off to a slow start—no surprise given the traffic from the city. The site, a former school for troubled teenagers, had been stripped raw for the seven galleries that composed the fair. It eventually filled up with artists (Tim Hawkinson and Brendan Fowler), nonparticipating dealers (like Mihai Nicodim, Martha Otero, Marc Richards), and even a smattering of collectors, including Blake Byrne and the Jangers.
The warren of hallways made for a tight opening party. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a whole art fair,” remarked one dealer, whom I spotted heading for the door early in the evening. But this fair, with strong showings from the Company, Sister, and Chung King Projects, was well worth seeing. Steve Hanson of China Art Objects had some great new work by Jonathan Pylypchuk, including a sculpture made specially for the fair of a sickly-looking frog, which held a sign that read: MALIBU BLOWS. WHICH WAY TO LA CRESCENTA?
I ran into dealer and Malibu resident Jeff Poe sniffing around with his dog. He wasn’t participating, and I expressed my surprise that he had come out to support the younger dealers. “Of course I did,” he said. “I live here.” I slipped away to watch Dan Finsel’s creepy/amazing Beverly Hills 90210 lip-synch video at one of Parker Jones Gallery’s rooms. It all became especially surreal when former 90210-er Tori Spelling came in to catch a glimpse; a bemused expression crossed her face, and she left as quickly as she’d entered. (When fair founder John Knuth found out that Spelling had come with her husband, Dean McDermott, he freaked out, grabbed my arm, and insisted I photograph him with the actress. “I’ve had a crush on her since I was fifteen,” he admitted.)
I left shortly before the fair’s closing and headed with friends to Nobu—not out of any allegiance to the pricey restaurant, but because this is where people in Malibu eat. Feeling refreshed from the sushi and cold sake, I repaired to the afterparty in a partially burned-out house in the Colony, where dealer/DJ Patrick Painter loomed above his laptop, playing hip-hop. As I leaned over the railing and looked onto partygoers running through the sand toward the ocean, I realized that this was one of those rare and uncanny moments that actually resembled the (mostly false) fantasies of the LA lifestyle. (Visions of The Big Lebowski’s Malibu scenes danced in my head.)
Malibu has been the site of its own terrible blazes, but the city and its new contemporary art fair handily ditched—or at least safely ignored—the disasters going on across town. It was a good start. A few of the dealers even bragged of good sales. But then again, don’t they always?