The Los Angeles Gallery That Found a Market in Great Experimentalists

It’s not that Young Chung and Kibum Kim dislike traditional paintings, but as the owners of the gallery Commonwealth and Council in Los Angeles, they prefer artworks that can spin your head sideways. Their roster of 39 artists are known for eccentric practices that sometimes involve welding spacecrafts, transforming into a human disco ball and studying tree bark.

“I don’t think our clients would even know what to do if we started representing traditional painters,” Kim said, explaining that Commonwealth has supported artists who consider figurative art as a flawed approach to the thorny complexities of identity politics. Instead, the gallery has nurtured a new generation of West Coast conceptualists who apply the philosophical rigor and satirical swagger of the 1960s and ’70s to contemporary issues like marginalization and decolonization.

Chung, a longtime L.A. resident, and Kim, who is from South Korea, laid that groundwork over the last decade while running on the tight margins of the art business. Survival was never guaranteed — and still isn’t.

The gallery nearly closed in 2020 and its owners have been reluctant to increase overhead costs during the fizzy market of recent years. But the two dealers have persisted in taking risks on what they call “unsellable” artists who, for example, transform their bodies into cyborgian low riders (Rafa Esparza); feature electric netting and dried blood in their works (P. Staff); and hire men off Craigslist to gyrate like horseback-riding cowboys on film (Kenneth Tam).

“Corpo RanfLA: Terra Cruiser,” a performance by the artist Rafa Esparza at SFMOMA in 2023. Credit…Myleen Hollero

Over the years, they built a cult following of influential curators and museum directors. And in 2022, the gallery opened a second location in Mexico City. But creating a market for great experimentalists is always challenging. Most works at their L.A. gallery — a modest spot near a liquor store and a Korean BBQ restaurant — cost $20,000 to $50,000.

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