‘In London, Mercury was never in retrograde’
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The artist most famous for living in Los Angeles is arguably a Yorkshireman. David Hockney moved to the Californian city in 1964. His motivation? The beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial and a photo of the sleek Case Study House #21, plus a light that is “10 times brighter than anywhere else”. Ensconced in the Hollywood Hills, the painter captured the LA lifestyle of glistening pools and endless sunshine in glorious technicolour for more than half a century. In 2019, however, and just as LA’s reputation as a vibrant art-world destination was really spiking, Hockney decamped to France. Today, the city’s cultural landscape is being boosted by a new generation of British creatives, from artists such as Tahnee Lonsdale and Kour Pour to jeweller Polly Wales, who are carving out a niche for themselves between the surf and sprawl.
“LA has always been a very creative city but it definitely feels like it’s snowballing right now,” says Welsh-Italian LA transplant Alex Tieghi-Walker, 35. “I think a lot of British people always moved over to work in music and film, but now it has broader appeal.” Tieghi-Walker’s offering is Tiwa Select – a craft gallery of sorts. “I still don’t know if I’m a shop or a gallery or a curator or a platform,” he says of the endeavour he started in 2020 to showcase the work of self-taught artists and makers such as textile artist Megumi Shauna Arai and woodworker Vince Skelly (whose work is on show at LA’s Farago gallery until 12 July).
“There’s a really diverse and interesting mix of art being shown here at the moment,” says British-born painter Tahnee Lonsdale, who moved to LA with her husband and two young children in 2015. “Everyone is opening spaces,” she adds of the city’s art scene, which was whipped into a frenzy by the arrival of the Frieze art fair in 2019. Her gallery highlights include Hauser & Wirth (“the most beautiful space”), Jeffrey Deitch (“always quite epic”), Matthew Brown (“a really young, exciting gallerist”) and Harper’s, a New York outfit that opened its LA outpost on Melrose Avenue last year. The chain reaction of blue-chip arrivals continues with Pace, which opened in April, to be followed by Sean Kelly in September and Lisson and David Zwirner in 2023.
“The energy around Frieze in February was amazing,” says Tieghi-Walker, who curated the exhibition Everyday Rituals with photographer Max Farago to coincide with the fair. “It was housed in an old theatre in Downtown. We didn’t want it to feel like an art show but to be more informal. We just did it differently and were like, ‘Fuck it, let’s paint the walls pink and put Moroccan rugs everywhere.’”
For Lonsdale, this more ad-hoc counterbalance to the mainstream art offerings is what makes LA feel so vibrant. In May and June, she had a solo show at Night Gallery, a space founded in 2010 by Davida Nemeroff in a strip mall, and originally only open from 10pm to 2am. “It really feels like there’s a lot of opportunity here. And anything goes; anyone can set up a gallery in a garage,” says Lonsdale, citing Five Car Garage, run by another Brit, Emma Gray, as a favourite space.
Lonsdale began painting at art school in London. “I did not make good art there, though,” she says. “I did this weird series of whale paintings…” The change in her work over the past seven years in LA has been significant: busy colour-block canvases resembling hectic cityscapes have given way to bold, spare compositions of semi-abstracted figures. “There’s just less stuff in there now; it’s much more simplified,” she says of her newest paintings.
Her parting from her husband was also pivotal. “I was working and showing solidly up until that point, but there was some kind of block. When you’re in a bad relationship, nothing can flourish. Then when you free yourself, you have the time, the energy and the good, juicy stuff to work with. It’s fertile soil to create.”
At the Night Gallery show True Romance, paintings ranged from the monumental (a 2m x 3m diptych) to the minuscule, while a soft sculpture – “a giant figure that folds into itself, which you can lie on” – was a new addition to her practice, which Lonsdale says is increasingly meditative and spiritual. Is that the LA effect? “Being in LA, it’s just so acceptable to do the work, go to therapy, stop drinking and meditate three times a day – it’s becoming less woo-woo and more real,” she suggests.
Polly Wales moved from London to LA in 2016, relocating her eponymous brand as well as her family – partner James (who is also her business partner) and her two daughters, Matilda, 11, and Freida, seven. Wales is known for her signature “cast not set” method: adding precious gems directly to molten gold. It’s a process that yields organic, textured forms, mottled with a rainbow of bling and pulled together with a punk aesthetic – from the subtly offbeat Confetti band rings to statement gem-encrusted skulls. Her setup in Highland Park is leafy and laidback, with her home and garden studio surrounded by fruit trees and roaming chickens: “I am getting to build my own LA bubble in my backyard,” she says.
Like Wales, Tieghi-Walker is based eastside but in Echo Park – “a really dynamic, still-a-bit-scrappy neighbourhood. Think 2am tacos by the side of the road.” The house he rents is an extension of Tiwa Select: a sometime showroom for his rustic craft finds, where bougainvillea canopies an outdoor dining area and a bathtub is tucked in a garden nook. Originally built as an artist’s studio, it’s a space that lends itself to creativity – “and the kind of place I would never be able to live in London”. Lonsdale, though, is out west. “Eastside is really sceney and cool and vibey,” she says. “Westside is really not cool. Everyone wears yoga gear and drives around in Range Rovers.”
And in the south-west is Kour Pour. The 34-year-old British-Iranian artist (who is also newly an American citizen) was 17 when he first landed in LA with a plan to study music production, but he ended up side-stepping into fine art. From his studio in Inglewood – the area surrounding LAX airport and a focus of recent regeneration centred on the SoFi Stadium – he has built a practice that encompasses painting, printmaking and sculpture. “I’m telling my story of growing up in an immigrant mixed-race family and finding a place for yourself,” he says of the work recently shown at London’s Gallery 1957. Included in the exhibition New Homes, New Places were some of his intricately patterned and layered paintings of Persian carpets (inspired by the small carpet shop Pour’s father ran in Exeter when he was growing up), as well as a series of tiger paintings that roam across various landscapes, bringing with them different stylistic tropes.
His adopted city is home to one of the largest Iranian populations outside of Iran, and he admits that the diverse network of neighbourhoods – “Chinatown, Koreatown, Tehrangeles” – is a major draw. “In LA, most of my friends are immigrants or the children of immigrants,” says Pour. “There’s this idea that LA artists make work about light and space, or about Hollywood, but there’s another side to it, which is the people who move here – and that’s a massive part of the city’s story.”
The others had various reasons for coming over. Lonsdale felt a push to leave the UK, and a pull to LA, inspired by family members living there. For Tieghi-Walker, a former writer and creative director, the move was less planned. A chance meeting with an old school friend led him to a biodynamic winery in Sonoma, before he ended up in LA via an old barn in Berkeley. For Wales, the move was more business-minded: “The jewellery market is so much more buoyant here than in the UK.”
“You definitely have more access to money in LA,” agrees Tieghi-Walker, referencing a rich collector culture that spans billionaire oil baron J Paul Getty to art-world provocateur Stefan Simchowitz, who opened his own gallery last year in West Hollywood. “I have a lot of clients who have these big homes they need to fill,” he adds. One such is the modernist ocean-view home of musicians Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, a jaw-dropping cantilevered concrete structure with floor-to-ceiling glass and floating staircases where there are artworks by Basquiat and Kehinde Wiley and also rustic wooden stools by Vince Skelly sourced from Tiwa Select.
Tapping into the glitzy LA scene has benefited Wales too, enabling her rough-hewn yet luxe aesthetic to become bolder. “My designs have become technicolour expressions of joy,” she says. Even as a self-confessed cynic, she has thrived in the spirit of creative freedom. “Building your dream is the goal here,” she says. “If that dream is getting famous in Hollywood, then that’s an option. But starting an anarchist gardening collective who plant only on the new moon is totally an option too.” As well as having rebranded and launched a new website in May, she is about to bring out a pearl collection and has started taking her staff on team-building hikes. But she retains some perspective on it all. “LA is really woo-woo,” she laughs. “In London, Mercury was never in retrograde.”