La Luz de Jesus 25: The Little Gallery That Could


Billy Shire’s La Luz de Jesus Gallery celebrated 25 years of groundbreaking art shows with its biggest event ever: “La Luz de Jesus 25,” a major retrospective exhibition and companion book. This historic show, which featured work by more than 250 artists who have shown at the gallery over the years, was so extensive that owner Billy Shire split it into two parts, spanning October and November 2011. The book, La Luz de Jesus 25: The Little Gallery That Could, features images of all the art in the show, a personal essay about Shire and the gallery written by each participating artist, essays by La Luz gallery directors and a foreword by Shire. The book is more than a simple record of the show; taken together, the images and essays constitute a history of La Luz de Jesus through the eyes of the artists whose careers are intertwined with Shire and his gallery.

Robert Williams: Through all of these 25 years, Billy has had his eyes on the prize, growing from a kid who worked in his mom’s soap store into an influential arbiter in the international alternative art world. There is not an important collector in the progressive art market who has not heard his name.

Frank Kozik: Simply put, no Billy Shire, no resurgence of alternative contemporary art. Every single vital school of “new art” can be traced back to Billy Shire and his successive galleries. Prior to La Luz de Jesus, American contemporary art was in a sad state of nothingness, with no new ground broken since the Pop Art movement of the early 1960s. The modern “cool gallery” with ties to entertainment, fashion, and music, now a mainstay, was invented by Billy. His personal tastes have single-handedly defined art for 25 years. Virtually every single “important” modern artist can be traced back to an initial showing at his gallery, and entire schools of art have grown around the artists he discovered and introduced. The proof lies within the pages of this very book.

Mark Ryden: In the 80s, La Luz was a beacon of artistic inspiration. Billy actually exhibited art that didn’t bore me. La Luz was a place I could go to see an artist like Robert Williams showing in a gallery and think, “You mean maybe I could do that?” Now, there are a great number of galleries showing a rich diversity of art. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that for 20 years, La Luz de Jesus was the only place where you could see art that was new and exciting.

Don Ed Hardy: Billy’s vision, displayed in his stores and galleries, is the best summation of LA’s amazing mix of cultures, time, styles, and basic raw energy. Beyond that, it really emits the unique energy of California in all its unexpected ways.

Joe Coleman: It is hard to realize today just how against the grain La Luz de Jesus was. Juxtapoz magazine did not exist, and tattooing was illegal in New York. Billy had the passion and the balls to get behind artists whose work did not fit into the narrow-minded constraints of the established art world of the time. I, for one, will always be grateful.

Billy Shire opened La Luz de Jesus in 1986 to showcase the work of underground and folk artists largely ignored or dismissed by the legitimate art world. The first permanent gallery space to exhibit alternative art, La Luz quickly became famous as much for its splashy, raucous monthly opening parties as for the often outrageous and confrontational art on its walls. When choosing artists, Shire challenged received notions of “good taste” and “high art” and rejected the arbitrary but long-cherished distinction between commercial and fine art, embracing illustration, underground art, outsider art, animation and comics, both underground and mainstream. As a result, many artists hugely successful today credit Shire with having launched their careers, and he is widely acknowledged as a seminal figure in contemporary art movements including Lowbrow and Pop Surrealism.

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