LOS ANGELES — On November 9, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area tweeted that Western Town had burned down in the Woolsey Fire. Now the largest wildfire in Southern California history, the Woolsey fire has torn through more than 96,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties and claimed at least three lives.
Western Town, a faux Wild West village, is located on Paramount Ranch. Paramount Pictures bought the property in 1927 and built the frontier to serve as a filming location for its Westerns. The set had been actively used for decades, serving as the backdrop for Hollywood classics like Bob Hope’s Caught in the Draft (1941) and more recent television hits like the HBO drama Westworld.
The old Wild West movie set was also home to a short-lived alternative art fair, Paramount Ranch, which ran from 2014 to 2016. The art fair was conceived by Venice’s Paradise Garage and Los Angeles’s Freedman Fitzpatrick Gallery (which now has an additional outpost in Paris). According to Paradise Garage cofounder Pentti Monkkonen, Paramount Ranch started as a lighthearted foil to more esteemed, serious art fairs like Art Los Angeles Contemporary.
“I thought it showcased all the best things about Los Angeles. The nature that’s nearby, LA’s history of this film town … it played into a fantasy that you could have about the West,” Monkkonen said in an interview with Hyperallergic.
Though the mashup between fine art and the Wild West may sound unorthodox for an art fair, Paramount Ranch attracted galleries and collectors from around the world. “The first year we showed up not that soon before it was supposed to start, and there were already several international collectors walking around,” Monkkonen said. “I’ve heard from many people how much fun they had because it was a new situation that wasn’t the typical museum, gallery or art space.”
In the background of a video produced by Green Tea TV for the 2015 edition of Paramount Ranch, you can spot a triage of surfboards propped against the façade of a saloon; posh fairgoers peering through a jail cell to look at a small diorama of a power plant perched on a tower of bath tissue; and a bank covered in graffiti, hollowly demanding the art collectors to “stop greed.”
“There was something leveling about the experience of going to Paramount Ranch,” Morgan Mandalay, founder of the San Diego artist-run space, SPF15, added over email. “Maybe because it was disconnected from the typical cold fair format or urban location; everyone’s feet were kicking up the same dust. Looking at art on a former stage set made it hard to take the usual sterility of other fairs seriously and … made me more willing to speak with people I might otherwise feel uncomfortable approaching.”
One of Monkkonen’s inspirations for Paramount Ranch was a video work by Jose Pardo and Jason Rhodes, “Ranch” (1996), which was filmed in an empty pool nearby at Peter Strauss Ranch. The Woolsey fire also claimed that property, famous for its art exhibitions and concerts — Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson once played there together. Other Hollywood sites, including the replica of the M*A*S*H* television set and a village built for Planet of the Apes (1968) also burned down.
As reported by Curbed, the fire encompassed an area teeming with historic architecture. The cities affected by the fire, including Agoura Hills, Calabasas, and Malibu, have many homes designed by architects Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright, iconic restaurants like Neptune’s Net, and museum institutions like the Getty Villa, most of which survived the blaze. The Villa, for instance, was built to withstand the frequent wildfires in this region. Should fire touch the property, a robust network of sprinklers pumps water from a one million-gallon water tank located below the Villa’s parking garage to extinguish the flames. Though the museum is unharmed, it is closed until Friday, November 23 to accommodate traffic along the evacuation routes and disaster relief efforts.
The Woolsey Fire has destroyed more than 600 homes and structures, and people who had to evacuate the area now have nowhere to return. Among those residents is the painter Keegan Gibbs, who was supposed to have a solo show, Marie, Is That You? open on November 17 in Malibu. The exhibition organizers, the DEPART Foundation, have postponed all their upcoming programming at their Malibu outpost, which also includes the group show, Light in the Age of Darkness.
Gibbs told the Los Angeles Times, “[Malibu is] built off the shoulders of hard-working blue-collar families, and that’s really going to show when we rebuild this place.” There are no replacements for the unique architecture that lined the coast, but with the fire now 96% contained, the Santa Monica Mountain communities are now turning their attention towards the future.
The National Parks Service announced that they will try to rebuild the beloved Western Town within two years. But the Paramount Ranch art fair is unlikely to return. “The art, the energy of the space, and the repertoire of who you want to exhibit there ran its course,” Monkkonen said.