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Lydia Glenn-Murray and Chin's Push

Evan MoffittComment
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If you travel down York Boulevard, not far from the bustle of cafés, vintage shops, and huarache joints in Highland Park’s main commercial area, you pass an unassuming storefront known as Chin’s Push. It’s more than just a storefront, though: the white stucco and glass façade of this very small art gallery is tacked onto the front of a house where Lydia Glenn-Murray, the founder of Chin’s Push, lives with three of her friends. The house is also more than just a living space, used variably for exhibitions and performances. An Airstream trailer and wooden shed in the backyard garden house an artist residency program. The experiment of an artist barely a year out of her undergraduate studies at UCLA, Chin’s Push has quickly made a name for itself, with early shows featured in LA Weekly, Artforum, and Art in America. I sat down with Lydia on an old loveseat and she offered me homemade kombucha, as we discussed Chin’s Push and her two kittens, Pilot and Bandele, played at my feet.

Evan Moffitt: How did Chin’s Push get started? How did it end up here?

Lydia Glenn-Murray: I started producing events while at [UCLA], getting excited about gathering a group of people and making something happen rather than presenting artwork in a more traditional sense. And then Lucy [Blagg] and I did Babe Pad. We had a space in our living room in Westwood…it’s funny to hear it come out like that, because I never ever would have thought of it as “starting a space” at the time but now that’s a phrase I hear around all the time. We would just have an event every Monday night at 8:00. It was something different every week: we did a talent show, a séance, a figure drawing class—so many different things. It was really spontaneous and fun, but people could depend on something happening every Monday at 8:00, so they started showing up regularly, not even knowing what to expect.

EM: This was two years ago?

LGM: Yeah this was two years ago. There was no ambition behind it all, and it had a lifespan that was predetermined [by the academic quarter]. And then my mom actually was the first to notice this place. This whole neighborhood has so many storefront spaces attached to residential properties, and it’s so cool because they’ll be this big [holds up her hands a foot apart]—and people will just do amazing stuff with them, and each one has a totally different personality.

EM: Had the storefront space already been gutted?

LGM: It was so dilapidated. I don’t think there had been anything in there for 10 or 15 years. There were no windows, it was all boarded up, but it was just so exciting to see, and think “this is nothing now, but it could be anything”…

EM: It had been the front of a restaurant, right?

LGM: It had been a bunch of different things. I tried to figure it out by going into the Hall of Records downtown, and also by reading all the different layers of signage that are still sort of fading on there. It used to be a takeout restaurant. Actually, it used to be two little storefronts, and I turned it into one space—

EM: Tiny storefronts!

LGM: I know! There were two front doors and two back doors.I really wanted more wall space so I got rid of them. It had also been a TV repair shop, a bunch of different electronic stores, but nothing for very long. And then it turns out that it had been sitting on the market forever, which is shocking in this neighborhood, but because it had dual zoning it was hard to get a loan. So it took a really long time and a lot of tenacity to actually obtain the space, but we got a great deal.

EM: You came at this moment—the start of a moment, it seems like, for Highland Park—which can be contentious, depending on who you talk to. I’m curious what your take is on the recent changes in the neighborhood. As a fairly new resident, what have your interactions been like with people who live here?

LGM: Maybe it’s a silly example but I get annoyed that there are two new fancy pressed juice places moving in when there's already a really delicious, friendly, affordable jugos spot down the road. It’s such a symbol of gentrification and I'm kind of like go away! But then it's like - oh yes, they have acai bowls. So I still have a sense of customer loyalty to Jugos Azteca but I also have to realize that these other places are here because I’m here.  There’s so much focus on the gentrification of this neighborhood, and I really don’t know how to be a responsible human being here yet. How to do this in a graceful and respectful way. It’s really tricky. Face to face, responses so far have been really positive. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people who live and work in the area. I’m really friendly with this neighbor right here [points east], this old woman and her elderly roommate. They have us over for crepes, she nags me all the time but she’s super supportive—she’s like my auntie. And the neighbors on all sides really. Every time I do anything here I write a note and sign each one with an invitation and a preemptive apology and my contact info. I always make that effort because it used to be an old lady living here, and now it’s a bunch of “youth” having parties… [laughs]

EM: You’ve been talking about programming events, which is something that seems to contest traditional models in the commercial art world. And then you did the Holiday Shop, which was explicitly commercial. How did that come about, and what were your motivations for getting people involved?

LGM: On a certain level I just wanted to do this, I thought it’d be fun. I don’t want to over-conceptualize everything, but I’m super interested in developing an economy that’s not necessarily so straightforward. The shop really manifested that. With my roommates, for instance, I’m like the landlord—I gather the rent and deal with the bills—but then there’s the trailer in the back that houses an exchange-based residency program, and there’s tons of trading and bartering that goes on with the Trade School program. I’m very interested in these symbiotic relationships. The Holiday Shop was a really exciting way to confront these issues while collaborating with a ton of other people. Like, how does value get assigned? Mark Rodriguez gave me some of these pieces that he’s put in several shows before. They’re kind of a signature piece of his, a napkin that’s been cast in plastic and hung in a particular way. They’re really beautiful. And he also made these hand-cut and hand-painted puzzles. It was this interesting moment where an artist had made an artwork and a non-artwork and it was like, how to value these two things? One has a market price and the other does not. It would happen a lot. People would price things high when they considered them “artworks” and low when they were not. Even if the time, materials, and craftsmanship going into it were the same or more. It kind of pointed out how ridiculous this whole system of valuation can be.  We had a lot of conversations about how to assign value to objects, and context was also a question: retail space in gallery space in “alternative” or non-commercial space, there were so many different layers.

EM: You’ve shown work here too [scans living room]. We started the conversation talking about holding events in your college apartment, but what is it like having a bigger show up for a long period of time in your own living room?

Lydia points to a small closet-sized space just off the living room. Through the parted door, I can see a bed, bounded on all sides by walls painted dark green.

LGM: Well, that right there is my bedroom [laughs]…so…I don’t have a lot of personal space. I don’t have a lot of time to myself, and I suppose I could benefit from that, but I don’t desire it all that often. And for me, it’s really exciting to use this space in a really variable way, in a way that plays with what’s public and what’s private. I’m trying to create a different experience here every time. It’s super exciting to me that someone could come to the store and say, “oh, that’s a store,” and someone else could come to a show in the living room and think that it’s a gallery and not a domestic space. Or someone comes over to hang out and have dinner and they just think it’s a home. That makes me really happy, in theory at least…that the space unfolds for people. Stick around long enough and your understanding gets richer. I’m really open in conversation like this about my thoughts, but I try not to put full documentation of every show on the Internet, because I feel like that spoils the mystery.

EM: Yeah. What seems so unique about Chin’s Push is that it’s something people live with, you and your neighbors and the guy in the trailer in the back. It’s a space that’s experienced not just on Saturday or Tuesday afternoons between noon and 5pm. And it also has a story, which you started to get into.

LGM: On that note, it’s cool because people have slowly moved in. It wasn’t like, Ok! Now it’s a house! At first no one was here, it was just empty and we were about to remodel it, and I thought, cool, we can draw all over the walls and do whatever we want. So that’s what happened with Christian Cummings’s show, which was the first show here—he literally drew all over the walls in Sharpie. There was this crazy green carpet everywhere, and these weirdo curtains with ducks embroidered all over them, and really crazy lighting. And the wall in what is now Lucy’s room had been repainted so many times around the furniture you could see exactly where the headboard was and a round grease stain where someone’s head touched the wall when they slept. One of the construction guys who worked on the house carved a heart with an arrow through it in that wall too. There are so many weird things like that where the space physically changes. Just above the lock on Lucy’s door is a Sharpied “Or” with an arrow pointing down, and there’s a poem written on the back of the kitchen door, both leftover from Christian’s show. Emily Jane color-matched the carpet when she painted the walls for her show, and now my bedroom is green-on-green. So it’s really changing all the time. We pulled up the carpet for Aaron [Wrinkle] and Michael [Decker]’s show, and now it’s a much more comfortable living space. I don’t want to hide the fact that I live here. I think the fact that everything here exists in a sort of gray area where it’s like, with the store—is this retail space or gallery space? And with this, is this private space or public space? After we moved in we lifted up my bed and Odwalla 88 played a show in my bedroom!

EM: The public or private question is one better left unanswered, maybe?

LGM: Yeah. Or trying to figure out the answer becomes a really rich experience itself. It’s not about not asking the question, but about not having to pin it down.

Someone came in here once during the Odwalla 88 concert and told me, “I really appreciate that it doesn’t feel like I’m in your house,” because we had removed most signs of domesticity for that event. The walls were covered with black tarps, we lifted up my bed and Odwalla played in that tiny room, and we didn’t really have furniture yet. But for our next event in here I want to allow it to feel a bit domestic. Patrick Belaga is going to play an experimental cello set, and we’re going to screen two new music videos by my roommate Peter Hernandez, who goes by the name Julius Smack. And then we’re going to screen this short film by a filmmaker from Mexico City named Carlos Reygadas. So we’ll use our hodgepodge furniture and project on the wall partition that Emily Jane made by herself.

As we step out into the sunny backyard, I feel something slide past my right leg. It’s Lydia’s cat Bandele, who immediately darts underneath the trailer. We spend the next few minutes trying to catch him. Andrew Storrs, the current Chin’s Push Artist-in-Residence, eventually coaxes him out and carries him back into the house.

EM [to Andrew]: Are you in the trailer?

Andrew Storrs: I’m in the trailer.

EM: And you’re using the shed as a studio?

AS: Yeah, in the shed.

EM: What’re you working on?

AS: I make videos.

EM: Are you filming there?

AS: Right now I’m finishing editing a video that I shot in Florida last year, it’s halfway edited, like the biggest project of its kind that I’ve tried to do so far. So I’m about to finish working on that, and then once that’s done there’ll be a break of a month or so, and then I start shooting with Peter.

EM: Are you planning on showing that here?

AS: Probably not the Florida piece. That was more of an exercise, the first time I tried to do something like that. But the L.A. piece for sure will be shown here in LA.

The “shed” lies just past the trailer, next to a small dirt plot encircled with bricks and shaded by a broad guava tree. A lazy line of electrical wiring strings across the yard to the wooden shed, where metal shelving units hold art and gardening supplies, and buckets on the floor are filled with cassette tapes. Lydia and I step into the makeshift studio and look around.

EM: Looking forward, do you think you might sell more work? Is that commercial element something you’re interested in or opposed to?

LGM: I’ve sold work out of shows before, done the shop, but honestly when I’m working with an artist on a show we don’t usually discuss sales and money breakdown up front. I don’t want that to be in the forefront of their minds going into a show. If there’s salable work and it sells, that’s awesome and I can’t be opposed to it. But I’m not trying to cater to the market like that. It’s tricky to determine how to make it sustainable, but maybe it doesn’t have to be sustainable. I’m working my ass off to support this, and I enjoy it. It would be amazing if it could support itself, because I love the idea of exploring different support systems and economies, and figuring that out would feel like a certain type of success. I’m starting to experiment with ways of doing that and so far it’s working, but I definitely don’t want to rely on exhibition sales to support the project.

EM: Space can definitely be leveraged in a transactional sense, but it seems different when you’re working with friends and giving them full creative freedom. There’s a lot of interest in artist-run spaces right now, and it’s hard to imagine what other systems enable artists to avoid the confines of the market and explore their practices openly.

LGM: It’s definitely an interesting thing. I felt like at school we were taught to avoid the commercial art world, to be really educated and to protect ourselves from it. But it’s extremely difficult to navigate. I think everyone’s struggling to figure out their role in it; I definitely am. I didn’t understand some of the things I did as strategic. I had no idea the first two artists I showed here would draw such a crowd. I expected the first show to be like Babe Pad! I was like, “Oh cool, some friends will come by.” And then I was so shocked when [UCLA faculty] showed up because their friends were here. After that one show Carol Cheh wrote a piece in LA Weekly about Chin’s Push. At first I was really excited, and then I had this stressed out moment where I just cried on the floor, like, “I don’t want this! I’m in college! I thought I was doing Babe Pad…what the fuck happened!?” [laughs]

EM: It just blew up! And that was mere months before you were covered by Artforum and Art in America.

LGM: Not to say this is some sort of big thing. It’s not; everyone in L.A. has a space! But I try to put things in perspective and be thankful. This will sound contrived, but the thing that makes me feel like I’ve satisfied my reason for doing this, is equally having a show advertised in LA Weekly or Artforum and then having our neighbor Bertha, who started out collecting cans after events, and now helps take care of the whole property and all of us, feel like she can bring her daughter over a few times a week to use a computer for her homework. Those things are both such a part of my intention here. Sometimes I really worry about the gentrification question, and Highland Park. Like, is what I’m doing, this cliché effort at “community building” coming across as authentic? I just don’t know how else to put it, maybe that’s why I describe it as symbiosis. I just feel like I’m not educated or responsible enough yet and don’t want to force tokenizing attempts at including the community. But these relationships matter. How do you form them in a more intentional way? How do you make the world a better place?!

EM: [laughs] You mean what does hypothetical outreach look like?

LGM: Yeah, or how not to assume that people need outreach, but to let it happen naturally, so that it means people getting what they need from each other without these colonizing assumptions. Instead of me saying, “I’m going to bring in the local community, so they can be a part of this.” Maybe they don’t want to be a part of this, whoever “they” are. There are so many weird assumptions, and I’m trying to figure out how to navigate them all the time.

EM: So you have an event coming up with Publication Studios, which you’re also hosting in the yard. Tell me more about that.

LGM: Publication Studios Oakland is an artist-run, on-demand press. They have a new book with Martine Syms, whose work I’ve been really interested in for a while. So it’s going to be a launch of her book, and she’s doing a performance in front of a screen that we’re hanging here [in front of trailer]. And then we’re going to install Quintessa Matranga’s paintings along the fence, and then under the guava tree is where I’m imagining where Lex [Brown] will do her performance. It’ll be nice to have different staging grounds on the edge of the yard and plenty of central space to hang out. I’m excited to use the yard in that way because I’ve always been interested in showing work outside, so this is kind of a first experiment.

We walk around the narrow sideyard towards York Boulevard, where Andrew is now helping his friend Chow fix an old pickup truck. I can see through the sloping front window of Chin’s Push that the main gallery space is still jam-packed with goods from the Holiday Shop: cement Christmas ornaments, lustrous ceramic drinking straws, baskets of drawings and buttons and patches, shelves covered with curious sculptural objects.

EM: How has this space shaped you as an artist?

LGM: I feel like this space has really raised a lot of questions for me about identity, and specifically the identity of an artist. I was in art school when I started this, and continue to have that identity on some level. I guess that’s the perspective I bring to the space. It continues to feel in some ways like an art project that I’m working on. But at the same time, what does that even mean? I was just talking to my friend who recently started a space, and we were talking about how we both get the terminology “artist-run space” a lot, and saying how, actually, people talk about curation as an art. And then art is curation, in a sense. It’s so fluid. People talk about artist-run spaces, and that puts the emphasis on the person who runs the space. If I call Chin’s Push a project space, that puts more emphasis on the work, on the collaboration. Not that one is wrong or right, but sometimes I’m like, do I have the audacity to call myself an artist? We all walk around and ask each other, “are you an artist?” I’m not so sure I know what that label means in this day and age, because I feel like so many people around me identify in that way, but it means such different things to different people. Each person carries a different set of expectations about what it means to fulfill the role of an artist. I’m not sure what’s comfortable for me or what I aspire to. But I think, with the space, I don’t want to just ask that question. I want to open it up.