For former fashion designer Iskander Lemseffer the jump to owning and operating the largest street art gallery in the nation is about keeping it fun and carving out a place for Street arts future.
Iskander why did you opened Lab Art?
My sister Rachael and I realized that Street art didn’’t really have a home per say. We used to go to a lot of openings and we noticed that these Contemporary art galleries would usually carry or exhibit 1 or 2 street artists at the most. There was no one in L.A. that only specialized in Street art. When we wanted to open a Street art gallery we never, we didn’t plan on opening the nation’s largest one. It’’s just where we are at (laughs).
Do you find it overwhelming at all?
Actually not at all it’’s a lot of fun. It’’s not work, you know. I used to be in clothing before. For around 15 years I was designing clothing and manufacturing. That was fun. So it wasn’’t really a job, you know. I always thought “”Do you know how lucky I am that I’m doing something I actually love to do?”” So it’’s not a strain on me or anything. When I realized the H&M’s the Zaras’ of the world, you couldn’’t compete with them, because I was doing high end denim. I wanted to move into something else. I always loved art and funny enough opening a Street art gallery has made me even happier than when I was in clothing.
You came from clothing design what is your design background?
I stumbled into clothing. I graduated high school @ 16. And I was supposed to be a plastic surgeon or a lawyer or you know what ever parents want their kids to be. And at the same time I started this little t-shirt company as a hobby for fun. It just grew and took on a life of its own.
Where was this?
Here in L.A.
Are you from L.A.?
I was born in Chicago moved to Morocco schooled there graduated @ 16. Moved to L.A. and went to Pepperdine and studied in pre-med. And that’’s when I started a little t-shirt company.
Where the t-shirts your designs?
They were my designs. I knew Dov who owns American Apparel today. He was in the beginning stages of American Apparel so I used to get t-shirts from him. Another friend of mine Dotan who used to own a dye house now owns a clothing company called Gypsy05, I used to dye the t-shirts there. And another friend of mine owned a print shop so it was between friends. So I go and I started this little t-shirt line, I did the magic show way back when and someone walked into my booth and said hey I could rep your line and all of a sudden, I started getting orders from a lot of stores from all around the country. That’’s how I got into the clothing industry.
At first did you find it was the same idea with Lab Art? Were you bringing in only artists you knew?
Before starting Lab Art I was still in the clothing industry per se. I had a friend who had a 50 to 100 square foot showroom downtown in the fashion district. I thought “”He has high ceilings, a lot of wall space. Why don’’t I throw a party?” Call up my artist friends; fill up the walls with art. Do an event, let’’s see what happens. 300 people showed up. I had Alec Monopoly doing a live installation during the event. Sold 11 paintings that night and I thought this is my calling, the next day I went out looking for locations.
Success! (Laughing) You said you run Lab Art with your sister Rachael.
Yes my sister and I own it and run it.
Does she have a similar background?
She graduated from Loyola Marymount with a degree in art history. She knows a lot about art formally. I know it informally (laughs). She has been into art for a very long time. I think she was 12 or 13 when she bought her first major piece of art. She bought an Invader piece 4 or 5 years ago. Mind you she’’s 23 now. When she was 12 or 13 she would tell our parents for my birthday buy me a piece of art this is what I want. And it’’s turned into a career for her; she’’s always had a good eye.
It’s certainly working. Just looking at the past artists that you’’ve had at Lab Art…. Alec Monopoly, Kai Aspire and the upcoming show as well.
The show coming up is DD$ on Saturday night. In the past we have had 56 artists at Lab Art at one time. We have 6500 square feet, so we have a lot of wall space. We went down to 40 artists we’’re eventually going to go down probably to 30 or 35 where it will fluctuate. There’’s no use having 56 artists if they don’t want to produce or if they are going to bring in a piece and don’t care about it. We want people that are involved with the street art community. That being said we don’t carry Brainwash we don’t carry Shepard Faiery or Banksy. We don’’t carry the established ones. We carry the cream of the crop of the new generation. Who knows maybe in 10 or 20 years something you got at lab art will be hanging in a museum. Regarding DD$ If you are familiar with the gallery we have 3 major rooms. We usually spotlight an artist which is every 4 to 5 weeks; we give them the front room as a spot light. For DD$ we changed it up a little bit. We decided to give DD$ the entire gallery. The entire gallery is covered with DD$ pieces and it looks amazing. I’’ve always been excited about our shows, this is the first time I’’m really this excited.
When you have a show how much involvement do you have with the artist in choosing the art?
We don’’t like to give the artists creative direction. We let them do what they want. However Rachael and I usually will go to their studios 2 months prior, then a month prior then a week prior to see the development to see how it’s going along, what they are planning on showing, to talk price point, to talk about the show’s theme. I’ve had artists that have walked in with pornography. Which I can’’t have in the gallery, we have families here we have kids we can’’t do that we can’’t allow that here. So we are very much involved in what the artists do for us. Also price wise we have to discuss together. We know what sells, what doesn’’t. Even esthetically what the art is itself what might sell what might not. In the case of DD$ I’’d say it’s the first time that every piece that came in the first time was approved.
Is that unheard of? Have you been blown away before by artists?
Well we have had some artists that have come in brought in 10 or 15 pieces which we said no on everything.
Yes we’’ve had that happen. One of the things we talked about previously the biggest mistake an artist can do and it has happened is that an artist does not make an appointment just walks in demanding that we look at their art immediately. And they walk in with a bunch of pieces of paper not canvas not a print just paper with scribbles on it saying look at this put it on the wall sell it. Or an artist that walks in that demands to curate an upcoming show. We don’’t know you, who are you excuse me!
Some people don’t realize that it’’s a push/pull between the artist and the gallery owner.
Yeah it is exactly.
There’’s a certain level of professionalism that needs to come from both.
Some don’’t get that. But I have to tell you we have an amazing group of artists. What I’’ve noticed is that whatever beef some artists have on the street. You know one artists work will cover anothers piece on the street. When they come to the gallery what I like; which is a form of respect, is that they leave that beef out there in the street. They do not bring it with them to the gallery. I like that they leave it outside.
It’’s not a battleground.
Exactly they all get along once they are inside the gallery. What goes on outside isn’t my business.
What do you like about the area that you are in? What drew you to your spot on La Brea?
The thing is I’’ve always loved La Brea because there has always been a lot of Street art that interested me here. Without me even knowing that I was going to get into this. Driving to downtown everyday and back I’’d be stuck in traffic, La Brea was always my route to get to downtown. And there was a lot of Street art; I was always fascinated by the colors by the pictures and it kept changing every day. Because it would get taken down or covered by another artist, it’’s always changing and when I looked at La Brea I was actually looking at another space; which coincidentally funny enough I don’t know if it’ was a sign is owned by Brainwash but the lease price was just out of this world so I said alright forget it. And by chance I was looking around La Brea again and I saw this space which actually you couldn’’t see from La Brea it just looked like a garage door and it had a sign on it for rent. I went to the back knocked on the door went inside and was immediately in love with the space. It didn’’t look anything like it does today at all.
Immediately I walked in and fell in love with the place. Funny enough that within the day I found it and the day I signed the lease it was exactly 6 weeks. And from the day I signed the lease to the grand opening was 6 weeks.
Street art at the moment is growing. Some say it doesnt get enough artistic recognition though. It moves so quickly very much like how hip hop moves quickly. A Shepard Faiery has great renown and his work gets a lot of exposure, but you blink and you may miss some great stuff by other players in the movement.
What we want to do. Is the fact that it gets glossed over, the fact that it disappears immediately in the street, we want the street artists fine art. We want that art to be captured put on canvas or wood panel or installation that way you can immortalize it. It can live forever. You can give it the place it deserves in art history. It can live on. And I hope it’’s not just a fade. I truly love street art. As I said earlier for me it’’s fun. I could have picked Pop art, Contemporary art is a broader spectrum. But Street art in it’s self is what fascinates me.
What about it draws you in?
The fact that it’s so fickle. It’’s like the fashion industry that way. Fashion is so fickle. You’’re only as good as your last collection if you’’re a fashion designer, for these street artists you’re only as good as your last mural. It keeps changing on a daily basis for them and that’’s what makes it exciting. That’’s what I was saying earlier. You have an artist, their art just sits there for 3 months they aren’’t happy we aren’’t happy. The way it works at Lab Art you purchase a piece today you take it home with you today. It’’s immediately replaced by something else. It’’s like Street art, it is like Street art in itself. You know its constant changes constantly. We have people that come in on a weekly basis and they feel as if the entire space is different because it’’s all new art. It might be the same artist yes but it’s all new pieces it’’s all new art.
You won’’t allow it to be stagnant.
(Laughing)Well it is real estate.
Who is your dream show?
Roa and Blek Le Rat. Roa it comes even close to his name because he is so raw. It’’s like animals in pain, but there’ is a beauty about it. Blek Le Rat I don’’t know he’’s French I’’m French Moroccan. I like the rat. I like to see where Banksy got inspired by the rat. There is something about Blek Le Rat that is so simple yet so inviting. I mean rats are disgusting in real life if you see them next to you but for some reason when you see them on a painting on a wall I don’’t know I would like to live with a piece that looks like that. I don’t mind it.
DD$ “Everything Popular is Wrong!” is opening on December 10th what can we look forward to?
For one week we are allowing the DD$ to the have the entire gallery. After one week they have the first and the second room. The backroom goes back to being the collection of other artists. The show goes from December 8th to January 8th. For the opening night on the 10th we have 2 dj’s. We have DJ Keith2.0 who has a huge following in L.A. and DJ High Def performing.
Images Courtesy Iskander Lemseffer/ Jennifer Leigh Strauss