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The Underground Museum: LA’s Secret Art Haven
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The Underground Museum: LA’s Secret Art Haven

Picture of Vernon X. Odemns
Updated: 11 December 2015
Since 2012, The Underground Museum has successfully hidden in plain sight. Despite its penchant for showcasing work as diverse and innovative as Kahlil Joshua’s m.A.A.d. collaboration with Kendrick Lamar and South African artist William Kentridge’s Journey to the Moon, the Museum has maintained relative obscurity. Nevertheless, the space consistently offers hard-hitting exhibitions at no cost to the public, making it a mysterious mecca of the Los Angeles art scene.
A glimpse of William Kentridge's Journey to the Moon on display at The Underground Museum. © Vernon X. Odemns
A glimpse of William Kentridge’s Journey to the Moon on display at The Underground Museum. | © Vernon X. Odemns

The unusual charcoal walls and isolated setting of The Underground Museum provide the perfect format to experience South African artist William Kentridge’s Journey to the Moon. Very little appears to exist in the dark vacuum of the main gallery. Devoid of distraction, the space is sparse, home only to the seven video projections of humor, heartbreak and primal intrigue that Kentridge presents. Sourced solely from the nickelodeons of yore, the artist’s antiquated aesthetic is complemented by Philip Miller‘s beautifully haunting piano melody, a nocturne that echoes through the space without pause and adds pitch perfect intensity. The genuine privacy and inherent tranquility of the Museum coalesce to offer a truly intimate viewing experience.

The modest exterior of LA's secret art haven. © Vernon X. Odemns
The modest exterior of LA’s secret art haven. | © Vernon X. Odemns

That’s exactly what the founder, painter Noah Davis, wanted to share with Los Angeles. Once occupied by a pupusería and a church on Washington Blvd., the opening of the Underground Museum brought a venue wholly unfamiliar to Arlington Heights, a predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood. No one believed a nonprofit museum showcasing prestigious and meticulously curated exhibitions could exist in the low-income area – it was a challenge Davis accepted. Unfazed by the initial absence of donated works from established museums to his newest endeavor, Davis re-created installations pieces by canonized artists On Kawara, Marcel Duchamp, and Jeff Koons in a pivotal exhibition. Ironically enough, Davis’s re-installation, entitled Imitation of Wealth, is currently on display in the storefront of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art and will remain through February 29th, 2016.

Three vignettes of Kentrindge's Journey to the Moon. © Vernon X. Odemns
Three vignettes of Kentrindge’s Journey to the Moon. | © Vernon X. Odemns
The largest room in the museum; a temporary home to five of seven pieces from MOCA's private collection. © Vernon X. Odemns
The largest room in the museum; a temporary home to five of seven pieces from MOCA’s private collection. | © Vernon X. Odemns

Now more than ever, Davis’s goal of bringing museum art to an unlikely place is being met in the most literal sense. Through collaboration with MOCA’s chief curator, Helen Molesworth, The Underground Museum will showcase exhibitions handpicked by Davis from MOCA’s permanent collection throughout the next three years. Journey to the Moon is the first example of what the collaboration has to offer. The show will remain on display through November 15th, 2015.

Past Underground Museum exhibits include works from Davis’s brother, celebrated L.A. video artist Kahlil Joseph, who is known for his work with Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and FKA twigs; Jeremiah Cole’s personal collection of African art; and selected works from the 40-artist group exhibition Veils, in addition to works by Kandis Williams, Ruby Neri, Henry Taylor, Aaron King, and Underground Museum co-founder, Karon Davis.

At age 17, Noah Davis was already painting in his own studio. Shortly after, he attended Cooper Union and then moved to Los Angeles, where he was recognized as one of the most important painters of his time. At 29, he opened the Underground Museum; he passed away shortly thereafter of cancer-related complications, at 32. Noah is survived by his mother, brother, wife, and five-year-old son. Meanwhile, the Underground Museum lives on.

As reported by the LA Times, Molesworth spoke candidly about MOCA’s collaboration with Davis, preceding his death: ‘I told him, ‘I’m your curator. And I’m the curator of a lot of work where the artist is not present.’ At the Latin root of “curate” is “to care for.” And while I’m not in any way prepared for Noah to leave us as soon as he might, I’m prepared to do the work of tending to his work. And there are a group of people around Noah who are prepared to tend to the work.’ In absence of its father, The Underground Museum will prosper through the efforts of its family.

The museum's perfectly warm storefront library. Full of books to be browsed, but never purchased. © Vernon X. Odemns
The museum’s perfectly warm storefront library. Full of books to be browsed, but never purchased. | © Vernon X. Odemns

Open Monday through Saturday, 2PM-9PM, there is ample opportunity to visit the free museum, which includes a public library, a backyard used for occasional film screenings, and a friendly resident black cat: Reverend.

The Underground Museum, 3508 W. Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA, USA + 1 323 989 9925

MOCA Grand Ave Campus, 250 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, USA +1 213 621 2766

By Vernon X. Odemns

Vernon X. Odemns is a writer, director, photographer, future philanthropist, and potential detective currently residing in LA.