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LOS ANGELES — On the last weekend of March, on a quiet residential street in South Central, a new artist studio space will open its doors to the public. The group show Ceremonies will showcase the work of the 11 artists who share the 3,700-square-foot warehouse, dubbed Tlaloc Studios, after the Aztec Rain God. “What he represents and what I want this to represent, is growth, fertility, and abundance,” Ozzie Juarez, Tlaloc’s founder, told Hyperallergic.
More than simply a place for artists to make work, Juarez envisions Tlaloc as a resource for the community, and hopes to offer art workshops once pandemic restrictions loosen up. Born in Compton and raised in South Central, Juarez has had a passion for art, especially cartoons, from an early age, but didn’t take a formal art class until college. “I didn’t realize being an artist was a thing until I met friends who have parents who were artists,” he explained. “I didn’t think it was even possible for me to become an artist when I first started going to school.”
Juarez is well aware of the often fraught and tangled connections between art, community, and gentrification that have emerged over the last several years in Los Angeles. Most of these conflicts have been centered on the predominantly Latinx neighborhood of Boyle Heights; however, three years ago, they spilled over to South Central, to the very space that Tlaloc now occupies. It was then called the Dalton Warehouse, and was the target of anti-gentrification activists, who showed up to protest the opening of an exhibition there on April 14, 2018. They hurled red paint on artworks, splashing people and one dog in the process, before running out. Juarez was in attendance that night, as he was scheduled to be in a two-person show there with artist Matthew Sweesy the following month. Juarez had met the founders of Dalton through his own short-lived gallery, SOLA, which itself was forced to close when the building’s owner sold it — another casualty of rising Los Angeles real estate prices.
Juarez, who was hit with paint himself, ran after the protestors, but stopped just short of physically engaging. “I was literally almost going to grab them but something pulled me from behind. I was like, ‘what are you gonna do?’ It wasn’t my place. If I catch this guy, he’s gonna go through a lot, and I’m gonna go through a lot,” he recalled. With links to both the community and the art space, Juarez could empathize with both sides of the conflict. “I was torn, right in the middle.”
In the fallout from the attack, Dalton canceled his show, and the warehouse withdrew to being simply a group of studios with little public presence. “I was like, ‘that’s crazy because the space is really kind of nice,’” Juarez said. In the following months, Juarez kept thinking about the space and hatched a plan to remake it through his own vision. “I thought, ‘man something needs to change,’ and so I decided to come in and take it over, to change it to the way I wanted to have it.”
He rented a small studio there in fall of 2019, and rented more studios as other artists moved out. “Eventually, Lydia [Maria Pfeffer, one of Dalton’s founders] kind of figured out what was happening. She’s like, ‘I think it’s great. I would love for you to take it on,’” he said.
“He’s giving it a second life, and that’s beautiful,” Pfeffer told Hyperallergic via email. “This transition came out of friendship, mutual respect and a common interest to keep the space open to the artist community and provide opportunities. Sometimes things need to have a chance to grow and evolve — people forget that often. That’s what happened here. I am grateful Ozzie took over the space and started Tlaloc Studios. He turned it into something positive, productive, and hopeful again.”
Then COVID-19 hit. Juarez laid low for several months, but then last autumn felt it was time to reach out to friends to build his intentional artists community. “I kind of hunted them down,” he joked. “Everybody who I chose, it’s like their first studio. I encouraged them, ‘you need a studio space.’ They all agreed, they just needed a little push.”
The other artists who share the space represent a broad interdisciplinary range, from painting and photography, to screenprinting, ceramics, and performance. There’s even a tattoo artist plying his trade there. Many have known Juarez for years, if not decades, and the majority have roots in the area.
Mario Alonso, aka KRAB, went to high school with Juarez, where they played in punk bands together, bombed the streets with graffiti, and put up anti-Bush political posters. Like many of the artists here, Alonso’s practice is wildly heterogeneous, including punk flyers and zines, paintings made from spray foam insulation and fake cockroaches, and graphic cutouts resembling tattoo flash (he graduated from LA Trade Tech’s esteemed Sign Graphics program). During a recent visit to Tlaloc, Alonso pointed to his painting of a building’s facade with a sign reading “Florence,” spelled out in cursive. “That’s a car wash spot on Florence near the blue line,” Alonso said. “They’re going to basically demolish it and put up condos or something, but they’re going to use the original lettering,” he explained — another example of art-washing in the service of development.
Next door is Cosmas And Damian Brown, who met Juarez when they were art students at Santa Monica Community College a decade ago. The son of American-born artist James hd Brown, who tragically passed away in a car accident last year, Cosmas was raised in Oaxaca, before moving to England for High School and then Los Angeles, where his father grew up. His work ranges from large surrealism-influenced canvases, to mystical performances, videos, and books.
Lizette Hernández has a small studio in the front of the warehouse, no bigger than a large electrical closet, which it actually is. “Ozzie was actually the reason why I started making art like 10 years ago,” she said. “He would always be drawing so he kind of encouraged me.” Originally from Compton and a recent graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Hernández is a ceramics artist, and says she hopes to give workshops once she gets a wheel and kiln for the space.
Then there’s Juarez’s work, which spans drawing, painting, and sculpture, incorporating elements from pre-Colombian sources with contemporary cartoon imagery, twisting them into new, often unrecognizable, forms. “I was thinking about ‘what would it look like if this kind of civilization kept on making more work?’” he said, noting that the Aztec aesthetic production was brutally stamped out by European colonization. “What would it look like if they were making abstract paintings?” His love affair with cartoons extends to his day job at Disney, where he has worked for the past three years as a finisher, putting all his various skills to use.
Tlaloc’s other tenants include screen printer Abe Garcia who also runs Descontrol Punk Shop on 7th Street; graphic and tattoo artist Al Dubber; painter, photographer, and graphic artist Catrina Esperanza; painter Matthew Sweesy; and Jorge Cortez, Ed Urbina, and KIE, who make up the photo collective “Dog House Foto.”
For Ceremonies, a few pieces by each participating artist will be on view in the main exhibition space, while the artists will also host open studios. “To be honest, a lot of people around here haven’t been to studios before,” said Juarez. “When people come in, they’re blown away and feel like they’re behind the scenes. It’s something special and something that I think needs to keep happening.”
The more Juarez speaks about his plans for Tlaloc, the more excited he gets, even stopping himself unnecessarily to apologize for going off on tangents. His exuberance is infectious, however, and it’s clear that Ceremonies is just the beginning for what he hopes to accomplish. “We really need these people,” he beamed, referring to the artists. “There needs to be more and I want to encourage people to follow this kind of lifestyle because it’s a lifestyle worth living.”
Ceremonies opens at Tlaloc Studios (447 East 32nd Street, Historic South-Central, Los Angeles) on March 27, 3–10pm and continues through April 10.