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Meet Matt Kennedy of La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Feliz

Today we’d like to introduce you to Matt Kennedy.

In 1971, a small shop called Soap Plant was opened in Los Feliz Village by Barbara Shire, who sold her family’s hand-crafted soaps. Her husband, Hank Shire, designed the graphics for the shop and they ran the store with the help of their two sons, Peter and Billy. Peter Shire worked-out original ceramics and Billy Shire created authentic leatherware. Billy’s outrageous leather outfits garnered him clients like The New York Dolls and Elton John.

In 1974, Billy gained even greater notoriety when his studded denim jacket won a design competition sponsored by Levi Strauss. Billy’s custom jacket was later displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of their “Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900 – 2000” exhibition and epitomizes the hand-made fashions of 1970s American counterculture era. That jacket (and several belts) are currently on tour as part of the Counter-Couture exhibition that opens at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City this March.

The shop grew to include Ethnic Latino and Pan-Asian folk art as well as an eclectic collection of tchotchkes and curios. By the 1980s, Billy Shire was the sole proprietor and decided to move the business to Melrose Ave. In this larger building, he added books, other ceramics, unique jewelry and a colorful mural that helped turn Melrose Avenue into an internationally recognized shopping destination, with Soap Plant as the iconic center of the rapidly expanding neighborhood.

By 1984, Billy acquired a couple of vacant storefronts next door, which lead directly to opening the famed WACKO: a pop culture toy shop with punk rock attitude that housed the largest collection of postcards in Los Angeles (and probably the world), while offering a veritable nirvana of Japanese robots, tin wind-ups, ephemera, games and novelties.

Two years later, in October 1986, Billy opened La Luz De Jesus Gallery, upstairs from his flagship store.

Showcasing mainly figurative, narrative paintings and unusual sculpture, the exhibitions were post-pop with content ranging from folk to outsider to religious to sexually deviant. The gallery’s objective was to bring underground art and counter-culture to the masses and the shows were groundbreaking, launching unknown artists who have since become famous, such as Manuel Ocampo, Joe Coleman, and Robert Williams.

Celebrity clientele and legendary parties, coupled with Billy’s keen eye for talent, earned him the nickname “The Peggy Guggenheim of Lowbrow” by JUXTAPOZ magazine.

In 1995, Billy Shire moved his egalitarian empire back to Los Feliz Village, the neighborhood where it all began. Now housed in a former Post Office, the location boasts over 7,000 square feet of pop-culture ephemera with a private back-lot that hosts what Details (GQ Magazine) calls “the best party in town.” With equal parts, bodega, book store, swap meet, and art gallery, there is quite honestly no place on earth quite like it. Shire considers the retail shop to be a completely interactive, conceptual installation and therefore a logical extension of the gallery, which occupies approximately one-fourth of the total area.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Collectibles, art and most cultural indulgences are the first things affected by the economy, so it’s been a roller coaster. When we first started exhibiting the work that people were calling Lowbrow (and later Pop Surrealism) we were the only place really dedicated to it with monthly exhibitions, advertising, etc.

By our tenth anniversary, there were other galleries getting into the game, and by the twentieth anniversary, there were seemingly galleries everywhere and a tremendous amount of artists who were producing that type of work. The high saturation caused a lot of galleries to fail, but some of the galleries that followed in our footsteps have done quite well. We had a second gallery on Washington Blvd., called Billy Shire Fine Arts that was a more traditional space from 2005-2010, too. We decided to expand La Luz de Jesus by reshaping the back area, which yielded a single location with two rooms able to host different programming possibilities while focusing on the single, original brand.

Aside from Billy, I’ve been here the longest. I started here in 1991 and by the middle of 1992, I was one of the gallery managers. I was here when the movement really exploded and if you go back check the first few years of Juxtapoz magazine, it’s almost exclusively composed of those shows. I left in 1995 to pursue a career in entertainment–a direct result of Mel Brooks walking into the shop and recruiting me for something he was shooting down the street. I ended up doing a lot of on-camera work and became much more interested in production work. I couldn’t say no to the siren call of Hollywood and wound up running my own companies and getting positions at the studios until the business wore me out. The housing crash of 2008 ended up being a very good thing in that it engineered a circumstance that brought me back to run La Luz de Jesus Gallery as the director. But that also meant that I came back to run things at the nadir of the market. Rebuilding is always a challenge, but it allowed me a bit more experimentation than I might otherwise have been permitted.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
La Luz de Jesus Gallery is an egalitarian art space that challenges the status quo and gives voice to the community via exhibition opportunities. We are still very much in the business of talent development, and while it’s nice to have one’s taste validated by the market, I am most proud of the opportunities we have been able to give to artists who didn’t necessarily blow up overnight. Because we have this amazing gift shop through which people have to enter and exit, people who don’t have the money to buy a painting can support us with a smaller purchase. Those smaller purchases allow us to show what we want and not just what we think will sell.

What were you like growing up?
I was a TV baby with a sleeping disorder and an incredible ability to remember things. If I wasn’t such a small kid for my age, I would have skipped a few grades and graduated at 15. Since precocious kids were bully fodder in the Boston suburbs where I grew up in the 70s and 80s, I’m glad I stayed among my peers. I always had a fascination with art, film, music and comic books and I was buying drawings from classmates at the age of 12. I bought my first piece of published comic art shortly thereafter and eventually wrote a book about sequential art called Pop Sequentialism that led to the Pod Sequentialism podcast I host now. I worked in comic shops and record stores for most of my teens and twenties, and I always had multiple, simultaneous jobs.

Contact Info:

  • Address: La Luz de Jesus Gallery
    4633 Hollywood Blvd.
    Los Angeles, CA 90027
  • Website: www.laluzdejesus.com
  • Phone: 3236667667
  • Email: info@laluzdejesus.com
  • Instagram: @laluzdejesus
  • Facebook: /laluzdejesus
  • Twitter: @laluzdejesus

Image Credit:
Photos by Matt Kennedy ©2017 La Luz de Jesus Gallery

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