The American artist Sayre Gomez, best known for his hyper-realistic and at times dystopian paintings of everyday life in Los Angeles, has a heightened sense of what it means to be an LA artist. Gomez was born in Chicago and moved out West for his MFA at CalArts, where he met early-career mentors (and employers) like Kaari Upson and Paul McCarthy. He began showing with François Ghebaly in 2013, and in collaboration with Xavier Hufkens he has emerged as one of LA’s most sought-after painters. We sat down with Gomez at his Boyle Heights studio to ask him how his experience working and showing in LA has changed amidst the ongoing explosion in its art world.
The Baer Faxt: Can you tell us about your plans for the next few years?
Sayre Gomez: Next year, I'm doing a show at Hufkens’ new space in Brussels. I'm going to do all four stories, so that's my big ambitious project that I'm already starting to think about and work on. I also have a solo show with Nagel Draxler this coming May in Köln, and my work will be included in the upcoming National Gallery of Victoria Triennial in Melbourne this year and a group show centered on photorealism at MOCA Los Angeles in 2024.
You earned your BFA at The Art Institute of Chicago. Why did you decide to enroll at CalArts for your MFA?
I only applied to four schools and didn’t get into any except CalArts. I didn’t know that much about LA. Amanda Ross Ho and Sterling Ruby had just come out here, so there were already these artists coming from Chicago and killing it. You have ideas about what things are going to be like, then you get here and there’s not really any other city like it. It’s super isolating.
New York always seemed like such an uphill battle. The whole romance of moving to New York and struggling seemed like an unrealistic endeavor. I always thought I would move back to Chicago, but it dawned on me: I just spent two years and a load of money putting myself through grad school here. I went into grad school not realizing that it’s really a “professional” school—a big part of it is building these bonds with different people in the community. If you leave right away then why did you even come?
When you graduated, did you find the art community here particularly supportive?
I graduated at a weird time. It was 2008, so the recession. I had a show right when I finished and it really did poorly. I didn’t sell anything. I was moving furniture. It was hard trying to figure out how to make ends meet, even though our rent was like $1,100 and we split that. I got a cheap studio in this building and I’ve never had a different studio.
My friend Kaari Upson was the first artist I ever worked for. She was a year ahead of me but she was crushing it already. When I started working for her, she was making this big grotto based on the Playboy mansion grotto. After her thesis show, she paid me in beer to repaint the gallery because she had painted it black.
I wouldn't say my other classmates were super supportive. It’s also competitive. Everybody’s gunning to get the shows.
How has LA changed since you moved here?
The arts district used to look like Boyle Heights. It was vacant. Where Hauser & Wirth is now was just a weird abandoned building that people went in to do graffiti. But now there’s these beer gardens. On the one hand, it’s wack that all the charm is gone, but before it was just depressing vacant buildings and that’s not that charming either.
In the last ten years, LA has gone from a moderately affordable city to one of the most expensive cities in the world. All that real estate got bought up and it turned the city into this boutique space that caters to wealthy people. That’s part of a larger shift in the US economy. There’s no middle class, especially in a major metropolis. That’s all been pushed out, but you couldn't say it’s Hauser & Wirth’s fault.
What do you think has been the impact of that on artists?
If you’re young and just got out of college I think it would be exponentially harder than it was for me 15 years ago. But there’s also more opportunities—way more than there ever were when I first started.
It’s funny—I had started showing a little bit in Chicago and everybody said, “Yeah, it’s a great place to show but you’re never gonna sell anything—there’s no collectors here.” Then I was like, “Oh, but once I move to LA there will be collectors.” Then I got here, and everybody was like, “There's no collectors here.” And everybody said that for a long time. I was selling work, but a lot of the sales were going to Europe or New York.
I feel like there’s a lot of collectors here now. I think the smartphone opened up the floodgates to a whole new tier of collectors—24-year-olds, or collectors who only bought sneakers for 10 years and now they buy contemporary art. This is the home of celebrities, and it seems like more and more celebrities are into it. Maybe Jay-Z rapping about Murakami opened people’s eyes. It’s more mainstream than it’s ever been.
If you’re a young artist, you weigh your options. But it’s still between New York and LA, and LA is probably still easier.
With so many new opportunities, has it been equitable between emerging artists and blue chip artists?
I think there's a ceiling you break through and then your career grows and you just follow it. There’s a badge that comes with being an LA artist—a credibility it gives you just by sheer location because so many people are focused on LA right now, for whatever reason. There’s all these tremendous artists from LA who have become not just successful but really significant voices. People started becoming curious about how this region has defined or impacted their work.
People come here with a preconceived idea and discover it’s very different from that. There’s a lot to unpack and learn about LA—it’s actually a very complex and idiosyncratic place. I think the artists working here are really responding to that and coming out of this legacy of historical figures. Hockney’s been here for 60 years.
What has it been like to have this LA “badge”?
I think people need to categorize things to understand them. In New York there’s a real championing of the avant-garde. In the 20th century all the major movements came from New York, and built into that is a real elitism—that film or TV is pedestrian, not an intellectual thing.
LA’s always been almost the antithesis of that. You've got this big machine to push up against. There’s crazy theme parks here and Disneyland an hour away. Paul McCarthy almost made his entire career critiquing Disney. I can’t think of a New York artist who’s made a whole career critiquing Bloomberg news.
What surprised you the most when you came to LA?
How crappy it is. This place is a wasteland. It’s pretty shocking. When I first moved here, the downtown gentrification hadn’t happened yet, so it was just empty. You could do whatever you wanted and it felt a little dangerous, which you like when you’re a kid.
The other thing is that it's the most photographed city in the world. You see your city in this very weird light where it’s constantly being re-contextualized. I can’t watch movies the same way I could before. Contending with that is always an interesting thing for an artist in this city.
My work for the last five years has been my interpretation or my vision of LA, basically made up from my commute. LA is still LA at its core.
So many “megas” have moved here recently.
If you look at the course of the art world in LA, it’s not the first time it’s happened. Gagosian has always been here. They’re not moving here to try to tap into the LA market. They’re moving here to clamp down their control of LA artists, right? I feel like what’s happening now is just a big power grab.
That’s why you see middle tier galleries struggling. The majors are coming in and shoring up power and they're taking young artists on earlier than they may have before. The nature of the beast is you’ve got artists whose names you didn’t even know two years ago and now their paintings are $850,000.
What should change about the art world here?
I think to be honest the art world is the art world wherever you are. It’s this insane unregulated market where you can be a cowboy and do whatever you want. Everything’s just a handshake, It’s insane. A million dollar painting—you could just buy it, just write a check and that’s it. You can sign a thing that says you won’t sell it for five years and then sell it tomorrow. You might burn a bridge, but there’s other bridges.
I see younger and younger people doing better and better, so it must be getting easier. It also comes down to: if Tim Blum likes your paintings and he gives you a show, now you're made. They're like the best version of salesmen. Sometimes you just need that one person to advocate for you.