Emi Fontana


Left: Jennifer Bolande, Plywood Curtains, 2010, installation view: South Lake Avenue, Pasadena, CA, dimensions variable. Right: Olafur Eliasson, The Colour Spectrum Series, 2005, 48 color monoprints, 94” x 156.”

Influenced by the Italian student movement of the 1970s during her childhood in Rome, dealer turned curator Emi Fontana recently closed her Milan gallery to found West of Rome, an organization whose events are redefining public art in Los Angeles. Eschewing this American city’s more conservative tendencies, she commissions projects by international artists that draw out the psychogeography of LA’s confusingly interstitial urban space.

I OPENED THE GALERIE FONTANA in Milan in 1992, but I always looked for ways to work in different modalities. I never wanted to be a dealer! I was always less interested in exhibiting work than in producing adventurous things. In 2005, I began living part-time in Los Angeles because of a romance, and I decided to start working. I didn’t want to just open another gallery. The planet didn’t need one more gallery. I had the idea of doing things without any fixed space. I would find spaces for each exhibition based on the needs of the artist and the nature of each project.

I like the name West of Rome for various reasons. It indicates a vague geographic position, but it’s somehow a nonplace as well. I stole the name from the Los Angeles writer John Fante. I have such a soft spot for him. The first time I traveled to Los Angeles, I was reading Ask the Dust on the plane. And then I got into him and read West of Rome. It’s a novel about a southern Italian who moves to LA and becomes a successful scriptwriter.

The first project I did was with Olafur Eliasson. His work, to me, is connected with California art—light, movement, and space. I asked him to name an ideal place to exhibit his work in LA, after he’d just had a big show at the Tate, and he decided he wanted to show at a more domestic scale, in a house. I found one in the hills of Pasadena that had been built by the architects Escher and GuneWardena, and I convinced the owners to lend us their home and move into the Beverly Hills Hotel for two months. The show was called “Meant to Believe In: Today I Am Feeling Prismatic,” and when the owners came to the opening they couldn’t recognize their own house!

In 2006, I produced Not for You with Monica Bonvicini at Shops on Lake, a mall in Pasadena. At first, Monica didn’t like the space. It was too weird. But it was perfect for her, because her work explores consumerism as a critique of modernism. After that, West of Rome started growing. I organized a show in an empty bridal store with Diana Thater and T. Kelly Mason. And then, my big public project: Women in the City in 2008. That project is ongoing, though it started with Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Jenny Holzer. I wanted to recognize women artists from the ’80s because that was the first generation that broke through into the art market. To me, this was really important. My idea was to bring Holzer’s and Kruger’s work back to its origins, which was the street. Sherman made billboards, and they looked almost like ads for B movies.

Last year I closed the Milan gallery and moved to LA to do West of Rome full-time. This summer, Jennifer Bolande continues the Women in the City series with a set of sculptural plywood curtains installed on various buildings. At first sight, the curtains seem like boarded-up store windows and doors, but if you look closer, they have an undulation. There is elegance to it, but I feel it is also extremely timely: Beyond the financial crash, there is a crisis in retail. Who is buying from retail stores anymore? We all buy from the Internet or the big malls. And at the same time, we have Mike Kelley and Michael Smith’s collaborative installation The Voyage of Growth and Discovery installed at the Farley Storage Building in Eagle Rock. The collaboration was initiated by West of Rome. It debuted in New York last year at SculptureCenter, but seeing it at the Farley building is a real trip. Built in the late 1960s, the Farley doesn’t have any windows, and it takes up a whole city block. It was always used as a storage facility until Kelley turned it into his studio in 2008.

Curating locations is very important to me. Generally, people believe that public art needs to occupy planned and assigned spaces. What we’re doing is much more fine-tuned: You have to find the space that resonates with the work and with the artist’s practice in general. This is fascinating to me. It’s something you can do well in a city you love, and I really love Los Angeles. I came here for romance, but when the romance was over I realized I still had a huge romance with the city. It is a constant source of inspiration for me.

— As told to Chris Kraus