Track 16 Gallery
Where Convention Jumps the Tracks

Where Convention Jumps the Tracks
At a Bergamot Station gallery, a weekly gathering of artists, poets, popsters and politicians creates a hub of activity . . .

By ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR, Times Staff Writer

It's Friday night in a city where creativity spins in a Hollywood whirlpool. But in a cavernous dark room at the Track 16 Gallery, the spotlight shines on a writer. And everybody is relishing his tale of troubled sleep.

 "The refrigerator goes off like a space shuttle launch! There's no point in trying to sleep anymore. It's too much work," Joe Donnelly reads. "It won't take but a second to think of all you've lost and how you've lost it."

Laughter ripples through the room. Who hasn't been there?

 Maybe even Track 16 owner Tom Patchett, who is standing in the back of the room looking like a hip, more distinguished Smothers Brother, wearing a camel-colored blazer and an enigmatic smile.

 Patchett is presiding over one of his Track 16 Nights, a Friday cultural feast where art, music, poetry and conversation collide. On a really hot night, the mood here is electric.

And if you have something to say, Patchett--a passionate modern art collector who started Track 16 as a sort of cultural mini-foundation with the money he made as co-creator of the TV show "Alf"--might ask you to curate an evening yourself.

"People come to us with brilliant ideas," Patchett said, now relaxing in a Modernist chair at the gallery, part of the Bergamot Station arts complex in Santa Monica. "We don't like to be bored. We believe art should be a part of everybody's life."

Art appears in many guises on Track 16 Nights. This night, it's a literary free-fire zone.

"Your cigarette is your ally," Donnelly reads, trying not to laugh, from his over-the-top insomniac ode. "It almost talks, but it does better. It listens."

A Track 16 Night on St. Patrick's Day last year was pure theater, with Brian Dennehy and other actors reading from a play about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, "The Rat and the Skull." Track 16 set up cafe tables, and the actors moved among the audience.

"We want a place for people to take chances," Patchett said. "Art is the catalyst, but it doesn't mean we have to be limited to pictures on the wall."

When Track 16 opened, it was just another gallery in the matrix of Bergamot Station. But Patchett was restless with the placid pace of showing art. He and his collaborators envisioned a dialectic, an exchange between the gallery and other creative people.

Their first big event coincided with a March 1996 exhibition of political posters protesting the war in Vietnam. Called "Decade of Protest," the show featured graphics from Vietnam, Cuba and the United States, lent by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

Pilar Perez, then a freelance curator who was coordinating a Track 16 Man Ray exhibition, pulled together "Song of Napalm," which explored the human toll behind the images. She invited Vietnam vets to read their poetry alongside Vietnamese poets. John Densmore, the former drummer for the Doors, accompanied his own spoken prose. The place was packed.

"All the performers were amazing," Perez said. "The art was a great launching point."

Serendipity fueled the encounters, which Perez, who was named director of exhibitions, began to orchestrate.

When legendary beat poet William Burroughs came through town in 1996, Track 16 invited him and Allen Ginsberg to hold court. Frank Gehry discussed urban planning with once and future California politician Jerry Brown on another night. Later on, the gallery staged a raucous and enormously popular revival concert of L.A.'s seminal punk bands and threw a sit-in-style birthday party for Tom Hayden's 60th, complete with testimonials from everyone, from former gang members to writer Susan Faludi and Warren Beatty.

By then, Patchett and Perez were beginning to talk seriously about making the evenings into a regular series. In February 2000, they formally launched Track 16 Nights. The events now run every Friday from February until the end of June. Artists typically perform free, so most costs are covered by a $5 donation.

As the series has evolved, Track 16 has developed a community of collaborators.

Take guerrilla artist Robbie Conal, who is perhaps best known for his political satire posters that mysteriously turn up overnight all over Los Angeles.

He has shown at Track 16 such work as a photomontage on the LAPD Rampart scandal called "Disbelief," and an oil painting about the '50s, "Ghost in the Machine," that features then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in a leopard-skin pillbox hat and matching earrings.

Conal also turns up on panels. He has spoken on art from Belfast, Northern Ireland, alongside Los Angeles author Mike Davis. He was part of a recent Track 16 Night forum called "Aesthetics and the Specter of Revolution."

"One guy was quoting Mao, another was quoting Nietzsche, and I was quoting Marx--but Groucho Marx," Conal deadpanned, adding: "They do some of the most interesting and provocative stuff around."

Other notable regulars and irregulars simply add to the ambience. Leonardo DiCaprio has been known to wander in. Mariana Botey has shown artwork at Track 16, co-curated various Track 16 Nights (including the panel discussion with Conal), and presented her rock-umentary "Descontento Total" on another evening program. Densmore has made returnappearances as well. "I love the gallery," he said. "The vibe and the people they draw are kindred spirits."

The other night, that draw included actress Anne Heche joining ranks with the Los Angeles authors, reading her own work and schmoozing afterward.

("That was amazing. I can't wait to read your book," Heche told Rachel Resnick, who had just read a short story about a not-so-eroticencounter--"This is taking forever!"--between two women.)

"Sleep is the opiate of the masses," read Bernard Cooper, an award-winning fiction writer and a contributing editor to Los Angeles magazine. "Surrender yourself to churning worry, to indecision . . . time better spent regretting the past."

Then came Jerry Stahl, author of "Permanent Midnight."

Doesn't anybody sleep in this town?

"I don't know anywhere else they're doing this kind of thing," said Victoria Ruskin, a movie set designer in black leather, as she put on her motorcycle helmet afterward. "It's a pretty interesting group of people."

The waning nights of the 2001 series feature Emily Levine tonight, with her one-woman performance of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Free Market" (which will be introduced by Conal). The June 29 season finale will be a kind of artistic decathlon of videos, performances, installations and music.

Perez is talking about hosting Track 16 Nights on a monthly basis until the next season begins in February. And next year's Track 16 Nights, she said, will sharpen the focus on writers, poets and spoken word. She would like to invite "some of the leading thinkers of the city to talk, not only about art, but about what's going on politically, which for us, ties in. The community has to expand at Bergamot Station and the art world, go beyond borders."

The mixture of politics, pop and art is exactly what Patchett had in mind. "We like to open the dialogue," he said.