It wasn’t easy spotting the place. The Hive is deceptively camouflaged, with its maroon canvas awnings and glass window storefront. It could be anything, I thought. A pizza place, a café closed for business, or an empty store. I hunted nervously for the address from where I stood across the street. 729. This was the right spot.
It was Tuesday afternoon and I was standing at 7th and Spring, in search of the owner of the excited voice that greeted me on the phone yesterday when I called to book my interview and tour: Nathan Cartwright, the self proclaimed Bee Keeper, and founder of the infamous Hive Gallery.
Nathan greeted me at the locked front of the gallery, and ushered me in. As he slid the gate open, I could almost hear a low buzz emanating from inside.
Was it bees? No, that’s the sound of good old-fashioned hard work. Something that unlike many Angelinos, Nathan isn’t any stranger to. “If you’re a hard worker and you’re talented, you’ll do well here,” he said, his hand gesture encompassing both Los Angeles and his gallery at the same time.
If the proof is in the pudding, the Hive is oozing with pudding. Or honey, as it were.
The front part of the gallery extends into multiple exhibition spaces, and then into artist studio catacombs, performance spots, crannies and booth-like nooks, every inch covered in artwork. I wanted to absorb as much of the sensory overload as I could, abandoning my note taking in the process.
First stop on the tour was the main gallery entrance. Immediately noticeable, the first two walls are home to resident artists, respectively titled artist 1 and artist 2. The clever dichotomy between the two styles wasn’t lost on me. To my right, Macsorro’s dark surrealist pieces, and to my left, Danni Shinya Luo’s coquettish, and mostly bare breasted illustrations. A Hellbound Pup across from Charmer, Hide and Seek facing the Hate that Boils Deep.
I was impressed.
Toward the back of the front room, Nathan stopped to explain that the Hive always features five resident artists, with additional larger monthly themed shows. The current theme was Hive Land. He pointed out a piece from Macsorro’s collection entitled Saving Princess Chuy. A woman in yellow jacket styled superhero gear climbs to safety atop a man’s shoulders, as they wade through icky, alien creature infested swamplands.
“He really went there,” Nathan said, as we leaned closer to the painting. “I mean, there it is—he’s saving bee girl from the evil darkness!”
We moved slowly toward the inner recesses of the Hive. The hum got louder.
Into the heartland, full of healing and soothing pieces. Then the dark lands, with a militia of grotesque, nightmare creations. Opposite walls of course. No metaphor is squandered in Hive Land.
Finally, we came to a large painting that looked like Alex Grey’s DMT daydream. Nathan informed me that this artist, Christopher Ulrich, was the only one who had access to the 7th realm. A sort of secret realm in Hive Land.
I was pleased to find out that Alex Grey wasn’t the only celebrity to hang out at the Hive. Nathan told me that someone at the Hive had a rather awkward star struck conversation with Danny Elfman the other day, who had stopped by to purchase some pieces.
I had to agree. Los Angeles is full of celebrities, but the one that might make me stutter uncontrollably or say something retarded, would be Danny Elfman.
Nathan, who meandered his way across America, to settle in downtown Los Angeles, says that he just fell in love with the West Coast. The idea that he could live in the forests and make regular forays into the cities to show his artwork, lured him from his birthplace in a small town in Ohio. His first show, in a head shop in Santa Monica of all places, spawned his permanent urban relocation.
“I sold some pieces from that show and made a few thousand dollars, which was enough to get me started,” Nathan said. He eventually started showing at large warehouses and other venues, until four years ago, when Bert Green tipped him off about the large gallery space that was opening up on Spring Street. And the rest is…the Hive. Nathan didn’t envision himself as a gallery owner, but he likes the luxury of being able to be picky about his artists.
“The best thing about LA, it’s untapped, in a sense. NY and San Francisco, you have to pay so much for rent, it forces artists to charge thousands more for their art. LA is a young scene. LA is the Wild West.”
“It’s wild. Not wild like West Hollywood. But,” Nathan stopped, searching for the appropriate word. “It’s…dirty wild.
“You can walk around down here in your pj’s if you feel like it. And if I had pj’s I’d would walk around in them,” he added.
Nathan is all about fostering the ‘wild’ downtown artist community. This includes his current project, a book featuring his resident artists, coming out in fall 2009. He hopes that it will help anchor the artists in a steady way to the Hive Gallery.
I asked Nathan if he minded perching with me on the black sofa in the ‘heartlands’ of the Hive while I caught up on my notes. Before I went back and wandered through the gallery, to pick up artist business cards and scribble in my notebook, I wanted to pick Nathan’s brain about his Hive Land concept. He launched into an explanation that was surprisingly complex.
The outer appearances of the Hive aren’t the only deceptive thing about the place. One would assume it was a gallery, for instance. One that hosts annual events and shows, free movies on Wednesdays, and caters to artists and performers alike.
No, no. Don’t be fooled, folks—this unassuming ‘gallery’ is also a DIY multilevel universe, based loosely on the chakra system, concocted entirely from the hyper creative musings of its owner’s brain and its enthusiastic co-creators. That and decades of inhaled paint fumes, I can only imagine. Judging from the artwork its inspired, Hive Land strikes a precarious balance—three paws (and a tentacle) in the non-physical realm, and one foot in consensual reality.
That’s right—Nathan Cartwright dreamed up an imaginary world, and then invited a bunch of crazy artists to camp out in it. And what a world it is! Every honey dripped, yellow and black themed sculpture, painting, drawing, and figurine, said only one thing to me—come play with us.
Where is the leasing office in this place? F**k downtown. I want to live in Hive Land.
But I felt bad. I had already made more than a full lap around the place. It was Nathan’s day off and here I was forcing him to talk my ear off all afternoon. We had arrived back to the front of the Hive. The hum of busy bees already fading in my ears.
“You’ve made it out alive!” He said.
“I like how we toured the whole place, you gave me your abridged personal history, and we even had time for a layover in the story about all the weird coincidences you experienced,” I said.
“Yeah, we had a connecting flight,” Nathan said, his face lighting up boyishly. “And we still made it!”