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Thoughts on Pharmaka - Laura Hipke

During one of my early visits to Pharmaka, I walked into the gallery to find John Scane sitting behind the front desk with his camera fixed on the back wall of the gallery. I was puzzled by what he was trying to capture because to my eye the wall seemed to be completely void of anything worth photographing. It only took a couple of seconds for me to see what John had been seeing during the long hours of sitting in the gallery. Every 20 minute or so a bus would pass by on Main Street. The reflection of the afternoon sun off of the bus windows would flash into the gallery, and when the traffic light outside would change the whole room seemed to spin as shadows and flashes of light filled the room and raced across the gallery walls in the opposite direction of the rushing traffic. The Pharmaka logo would appear for a split second on the wall behind the front desk. Each time John would check the display on the back of his camera. I don't know how many times he must have tried before he captured it.

I found Pharmaka in 2005 after going on a rainy guided tour of the galleries in the downtown Los Angeles. I had heard good things about the downtown Art Walk but after driving there in my car I was afraid to park and get out. Gallery Row was only a couple of blocks away from skid row so I ended up taking the guided tour of downtown galleries with Ashley Emeneger and one of those uniformed officers we called the "Purple Police". We stopped at Pharmaka along the way and John Scane spoke about how the gallery came to be and what they were trying to achieve. John was just so accessible and open. He possessed something that was truly remarkable. An unusual mixture of truth, directness and humility. I couldn't quite put my finger on it and as the tour made its way through the streets of Los Angeles I couldn't get Pharmaka out of my head. I wanted to know more about it and the other people involved. I gobbled up every bit of information I could find about their exhibitions and publications. I was hungry for a meaningful dialogue with other artists. I felt that these were artists who were reaching for something that was really missing in the art world and they were willing to put themselves out there to find it. They were an inclusive group not exclusive or elitist. They were generous with their time and feedback sometimes spending hours talking with other artists or collectors who came there seeking that intangible that was missing from other galleries. I went to Pharmaka every chance I got. I would show up for their openings but my favorite thing to do was to come to the gallery on a weekday at 2 o'clock. It was quiet there in the afternoon. I would find a chair and talk with whomever was sitting the gallery that day, Vonn Sumner, Timothy Isham, Michael Rosenfeld, Fumiko Amano and Shane Guffogg. I learned that Shane was at the gallery every Thursday and so I went there every Thursday. We had long discussions about why we make art. This may seem like a simple question but it consumed me at that time. If he grew tired of speaking with me he never let it show. I baked cookies and tagged along like a stray cat and I guess I hung around the gallery so much that the "Phamakans" decided I was one of them. Eventually I was invited to come to their meetings. I would sit quietly and marvel at their courage (or audacity depending on who was speaking.) I would pick up little treasures in the conversation and put them in my pocket, mulling over them in the days that followed. 

Laura Hipke

Pharmaka Gallery was located at 5th & Main, downtown Los Angeles from 2005 - 2010.  Unfortunately I lost those images on an old computer.

Pharmaka Gallery was located at 5th & Main, downtown Los Angeles from 2005 - 2010.

Unfortunately I lost those images on an old computer.

Thoughts on Pharmaka & Guest Posts...

In late 2003 I was invited to a Christmas party with my new friend and colleague Vonn Sumner. Vonn and I met when we were both hired as art instructors at the Orange County School for the Arts in Santa Ana, California. Vonn had invited me to the party at an artist friends house he knew from his time living in New York. It was there that I was re-aquainted with artist Shane Guffogg ( Shane and I knew each other from a group show we were in at Kantor gallery in the 1990's ) from that chance meeting the group known as Pharmaka would be formed. Originally the group consisted of artists Vonn Sumner, Shane Guffogg, dealer/curator Adam Gross and myself. We would meet weekly at one of our studios, a gallery, museum or bar to look at work, "talk shop" and just hang out enjoying the camaraderie we had found. It didn't take long until we had invited a few other painters into the mix and started calling the group Pharmaka. The name was chosen because of it's roots in ancient Greece, the cradle of Western civilization, and means to paint or an artists colors. It also means a poison and a remedy. Although Pharmaka started off as a group of like minded painters who's primary goal was to open up a dialogue about painting and what was going on in the art world, it took a turn when Pharmaka was offered a space to renovate in the newly designated Gallery Row district of downtown Los Angeles. From 2005 - 2010 Pharmaka opened it's doors at the corner of 5th & Main as a non-profit gallery headed by Shane Guffogg. We became a central point in the downtown LA art scene and had many exhibitions and events. Like has happened so many times where artists come in and help with the revitalization of a historic part of town, the landlords saw their chance to jack up the rent. The price was unsustainable and in 2010 Pharmaka the Gallery was no more. While we don't meet as often and some of us have moved on, a majority of us still do studio visits and enjoy the friendships we've created. 

Over the next few weeks/months I will be posting "Thoughts on Pharmaka". I have asked members and people involved with Pharmaka and the Downtown Gallery Row area to write guest posts on what those years were like for them downtown and how they feel it added to their art and the Southern California art scene.

If you were/are a part of the downtown scene and would like to write a guest post on your experiences please feel free to send me an email. 

Pharmaka Gallery was located at 5th & Main, downtown Los Angeles from 2005 - 2010.

Pharmaka Gallery was located at 5th & Main, downtown Los Angeles from 2005 - 2010.