Historic bendix building becomes a downtown art haven l.a. weekly

"I love having artists around!" says Steve Hirsh, owner of the Bendix Building, Beaux-Arts princess of the downtown Fashion District skyline, at 1206 Maple Ave. Familiar to all for its fabulous neon sign tower (the "B" alone is 25 feet tall), the Bendix has presided over the Maple Avenue/Santee Alley district since 1930, back when it was the HQ of an aviation company, long before it became the globally famous fashion industry destination of today. Hirsh’s late father, Stanley, bought, renovated, occupied and promoted the building in the 1970s, turning it into the hub of garment-centric production and creative space it remains to this day.

But thanks to Steve Hirsh, the building now has a wickedly cool new dimension.

He and his wife are avid art fans and collectors; infusing art into the business mix has been a sort of long-term pet project for Hirsh since he took over the family business, which is anchored at the majestic Cooper Design Space at 860 S. Los Angeles St., and includes the Gothamesque 1928 Merchants Exchange at 719 S. Los Angeles St.

And it’s not like the company is perpetrating some huge rebrand as an art center. They’re not flogging it but rather just letting it happen organically. "When a space becomes available, we see what’s on deck," Hirsh says. But longtime businesses are staying put, so the building has developed this mix of industrial operations right alongside the galleries, artists and other creative businesses, scattered across every floor of the building — including the HQ of peripatetic dance company Heidi Duckler Dance, which recently staged a performance and soundscape on-site. "The garment folks were a little suspicious at first, but now they tell me that they like their fascinating new neighbors," Hirsh says.

"Do you know about Florence Caster?" Hirsh asks. Caster was a trailblazing figure who crushed it in the real estate development market as a solo businesswoman in 1923. Finished in 1930, the Bendix was something of a jewel in her proverbial crown; she is largely responsible for the whole area’s establishment. "She was a special woman. Thanks to her, the Bendix has 70 years of street cred behind it!"

The Bendix is the third home of artist-run nonprofit gallery collective Durden and Ray since its founding in 2009, but this one is definitely the charm, with its sunny corner, lofty view and the most wall and floor space so far. Being in the Bendix has helped fuel this group’s ambitions in a big way. Currently with 24 artist-curator members, the D&R roster generates shows both from within its ranks and open to any artist or other collective who is down to join forces. The results are a dynamic mix of emerging, established and renowned artists sharing wall space. D&R group shows are always thematic and on-trend, examining issues of style, medium and story with eclectic, intersectional enthusiasm and unapologetically progressive social and political perspectives. It has new exhibitions about every six weeks, and the next opening is on Aug. 4 (7-10 p.m.) for "Collectivity" — part of a back-to-back exhibition exchange with another like-minded artist collective, the Colorado Springs group Hyperlink.

PØST has produced what seems like hundreds of group and solo exhibitions over the years, but the best-known thing it does are the Kamikaze shows: one show each night for every day in July. PØST started that tradition in 2009 when it was still in its original space on Seventh Place, when the Arts District wasn’t all pretty like it is now. Now a nonprofit, which allows for more experimental actions, PØST was always a Herculean labor of love for its founder, painter H.K. Zamani, whom everyone calls Habib. It was something he did in the public space at the location of his own studio space. When he moved to the Bendix in 2015, he intended to just be one of the artists who were already using the building for their studios. But in 2016, when he was presented with the chance to work with the marvelous Kim Abeles, he carved out the clean white-box space facing the hallway, and that was that for a quiet studio life.

Monte Vista Projects is another artist-run collective, with a rotation of about 10 members currently. It was established in 2007 and had been a pillar of the famous NELA (Northeast Los Angeles) art walks. As one might imagine, it has an exceptionally diverse program, from VR to designcraft, which proceeds in a collaborative curatorial model, with solo and one-person shows from its ranks, the broader L.A. community and also exchanges with other collectives nationally and internationally.

Track 16 began in 1994 as a co-founder of Bergamot Station — at the time a half-abandoned campus of open metal train hangars and intrepid galleries with metal roofs and no air conditioning or bathrooms. Times have changed, and where Track 16 once held court, there’s now a Metro station. Following its transit agency eviction to make way for the light rail, and after a brief sojourn in Culver City, Track 16 moved to the Bendix in 2017, occupying an expansive upper-floor space where it continues to produce surprising, socially impactful programs. Founder Tom Patchett is a voracious collector of contemporary post-pop art as well as memorabilia and ephemera (neon, lunchboxes, movie stuff) at a biblical scale; and gallery director Sean Meredith is skilled at navigating those intersecting realms in the service of 20-plus years of cross-platform, interdisciplinary exhibitions. Known for large-scale and wide-ranging projects including but not limited to work by Sandow Birk, Man Ray, Manuel Ocampo, Llyn Foulkes, contemporary art from Cuba, the art of early punk, and the urban billboard, Track 16 delights in turning Americana on its head. Recent shows featured grand political satire by Birk and feminist ceramics by Elyse Pignolet. In September it opens a show of paintings by Alexander Iskin, and October brings a long-awaited show from the master of politically charged oil painting and graphic resistance, Robbie Conal.