Cultural: News, Travel & Trendsetters

Patrick Painter

At only 31, he should not have been fazed by something of common vulgarity. But he was. Driven by his ire and wonderment at what exactly caused his anger, he decided to learn all he could about contemporary art, and to that end embarked on a viewing marathon through Paris galleries. Financed by his well-to-do girlfriend at the time, Winnie Fung, he found quite a bit that he liked and subsequently bought from galleries. The girlfriend became history (though they are still close friends), but Painter’s burgeoning passion for art made him determined to get into the business himself. After all, he had just proven his buying savvy, and selling was already part of his resumé. “I’ve always sold things for a living,” he says. “But for me, selling is finding people who share your passion and then going out and finding just that.”

After Paris, he moved to New York and sought out Leo Castelli, the grand champ for gallerists, who obliged (when asked) to teach the acolyte all that he knew. Today, Painter has boiled down six months’ worth of advice thus: “Leo told me to always keep my word, to treat everyone the same, and that often it is the work that does not sell that will make you.” Further motivated, he also sought out Walter Hopps, co-founder of LA’s seminal Ferus Gallery. “Walter taught me art dealing and how to treat artists and sell their work—those two aspects were key to me,” he recalls. Painter also cites Ed and Danna Ruscha as long time mentors, personally and professionally.

He entered the art business publishing editions by John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and Andrea Zittel, among many others. Editions, explains Painter, are a way to allow artists greater creativity in more mediums while also making their work more accessible to a wider audience. “It is an ongoing part of the oeuvre of an artist; experimentation is always encouraged,” he says with a smile.

He was unenthusiastic about running a conventional art gallery until McCarthy and Kelley convinced him to open one in 1997. “At first I was an unwilling participant, but now I love it,” he says. He now has three galleries that he runs with his wife Soo Jin Jeong—two at Bergamot Station and one on Melrose Avenue. He has also exhibited at Art Basel (Switzerland), Art Basel Miami Beach, and The Armory Show in New York, to mention a few.

Painter with Ed Ruscha. Photo by Jim McHugh
This love affair with the gallery business remains fueled by his high regard for art and the men and women who make it. “Artists are the key to our success—without artists you don’t have anything,” he says. “Paris didn’t become Paris because of art dealers, but because of artists. New York didn’t become New York because of dealers—again, it was the artists—and now, LA is what it is today because artists live here.” he says. Incidentally, his roster of artists includes many Angelenos, as well as artists from Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

When asked to elaborate on his preferences, he says he picks artists based on one criterion: whether their work changes how he looks at the everyday. This attitude is reflected in his sales and through his collectors—Dean Valentine, Blake Byrne, David Hoberman, and Kourosh Larizadeh, to name a few in Los Angeles. Painter believes that they all work together for this shared vision: the artists make the work, the dealer shows the work, and the collectors buy the work and help push it forward. “It is this kind of unity in action that makes this city great,” he says. When asked about his favorite artists, he is uncharacteristically shy, as many are personal friends. “My favorites are all the artists I represent, and also Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke, and Kerry James Marshall.”

While running three successful galleries, the Painters have also made significant contributions to the Los Angeles art community. Early in 2005, the couple donated 80 contemporary works of art to the Hammer Museum. The cache of works in a variety of media includes works by Roy Arden, Ed Ruscha, Christopher Williams, Peter Doig, Robert Gober, Rodney Graham, Douglas Huebler, Won Ju Lim, Stephen Prina, Collier Schorr, Bruce Nauman, Nancy Rubins, and others. The gift’s estimated worth is around $1 million.

“Patrick and Soo Jin have been incredibly generous to the Hammer and are an important part of our community,” says Hammer Director Anne Philbin. “Theirs was among the first large gifts we received for the Hammer Contemporary and that early leadership was crucial and very meaningful to us.”

“It was great to help support the Hammer’s establishment of a permanent collection,” says Painter. “Hammer stands out in its support of young artists—it’s better than the Whitney in that regard.” The couple has also contributed a smaller number of works to Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

When asked about his greatest triumphs as well as failures to date, Painter is clear. “You learn from all of it,” he laughs. “In these challenging times we learn even more. It becomes important to believe; if you do what you believe in, you really can’t fail.” As for his greatest triumphs, he says that still being here is the one. Consequently, he relishes positive reviews of his shows, such as the one in the December 11 issue of LA Weekly in which Doug Harvey called his current exhibition featuring Jim Shaw, Peter Saul and Glenn Brown a “triple whammy.”

Painter is, by his own description, a self-taught entrepreneur who says that he lets his life experiences determine his judgment. “I’m out on an adventure and look what I still have to learn,” he quips. “For me, learning is lifelong—school is never out,” he says.

But, most importantly, his calling centers on the artists and the LA community. “In LA, we have (social) mobility and community, and it’s my job to be part of it,” he says. “What I want to do is to keep building relationships with artists, collectors and friends and to continue to be surprised by what these damn artists come up with. It is truly amazing.”