Today Joe La Placa tried to convince me that the art of ‘All Visual Arts’ isn’t themed.
London’s All Visual Arts is made up of a trinity. Joe La Placa: the art insider, Mike Platt: the wealthy financier and last but not least, the artists. One wouldn’t be the same without the other two – a truly dream team of the art world.
I met Joe La Placa. Here’s how it went:
Tell us a little about your role at All Visual Arts.
JLP: AVA is a partnership between Mike Platt and myself. Mike is the CEO of BlueCrest Capital Management and I have a good forty odd years of training in the arts. The partnership was formed to build a collection by producing and representing some artists that were heavily collected. Essentially I do all the day-to-day running of AVA. I’m the CEO of the company. Mike serves as a financial advisor and I would say that his role is more of an overseer of how we run certain decisions that we make.
Take us through your journey so far: Your gallery in New York, then to London as a writer for Art Review, then director for artnet.com, now this…
JLP: Phew! That’s a lot! OK the bullet points…
…did I miss anything essential?
JLP: No, the bullet points would be: I’m from a marriage of art and science. My mom was an Opera star, my father was a physicist and crystallographer. I used to spend time in the laboratory, helping him with the experiments. I was bread to be a scientist.
One can still see the physics in the art here.
JLP: That’s true. My science background is very influential to what I do today. I started training in art when I was eight years old. I got some scholarships and ultimately settled at the School of Visual Arts in New York. There, I met Keith Haring, and [we] ended up sharing a place together. The 80’s was a sort of ‘Renaissance’ period in New York. There was a flourishing of culture that I’d never seen since. When I was a student I worked for Julian Schnabel and other abstract expressionists. I had a lot of experience in fabrication…
JLP: Yes. Everything from building sculptures, welding…
Hands on material stuff.
JLP: That’s correct. Welding, carpentry… I then started working for galleries. I worked for Leo Castelli, Gian Enzo Sperone and then spent six years in the basement of Annina Nosei’s gallery with Jean-Michel Basquiat producing his first show. Which later together with Michael Holman wrote a film script and then bought by Julian Schnabel who then completely transformed into the film ‘Basquiat’. 
Do you approve of it?
JLP: Ummm I hate the film. [laughs] I have to say! I think Julian is an amazing artist and film maker. For me he’s one of the best film makers out there, and a great person. Big warm huggable person. But what happened with that film was a bit of a distortion of events.
Was it sensationalised?
JLP: No, Basquiat didn’t know Julian. Frankly he didn’t like him very much and once invited him to a boxing match! Julian’s role in his career was slightly exaggerated in the film, therefore making it slightly fictitious. You know – certainly overblown. I wonder if that film was more about Julian then Basquiat. Jean-Michel spent three months with my newly wed wife and I. We spent many nights talking while I watched him work. He could make a drawing with the same familiarity like we write our signature. Even to this day I never saw an artist with such talent. Natural built in talent. Then there was a point when my wife told me I love Jean-Michel and I love you. But one of you has to go. It was clear who was going. I took him to Annina Nosei’s gallery and in 1982 we had a sellout show. I remember we used to make our own water-based paints which kind of gave his work a sort of special vibrance.
What else did you help him with?
JLP: I must make it clear, I was simply the guy next to the genius. I used to lay grounds down then he used to go over them… In general, I kind of protected him from the world because he was fragile.
After my experiences with Basquiat, I knew how to go along with artists, and directors and the collectors. At that time Julian was the equivalent to the Damien Hirst in New York. (So I kind of felt I can do this myself).
How old were you at that time?
JLP: Young. I was in my early twenties. I was selling 19th and 20th Century masterworks – believe it or not! I used to close the gallery to the public and have graffiti writers, I call them writers, work in the studio space. In 1984 we were invited to the Basel Art Fair, where they gave us a huge booth. This was a very important time for graffiti.
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At this point Joe La Placa showed me pictures from his book collection with clear nostalgic excitement. He then went on telling me about his journey that took him to France to work for four years in the IT sector, but then couldn’t wait to get back in the art scene and moved to London [in the early 90s]. “It wasn’t easy in London at that time. In those days you couldn’t sell anything except a few of the British modernists. It wasn’t the hub of contemporary as it is now.” He later started writing for ArtReview and eventually ended up being the foreign editor of ArtReview. His first article was about Grayson Perry. And later working for artnet. And finally ALL VISUAL ART.
Next question: Let’s say we have a time traveling machine, and you go back in time to meet Joe La Placa of the 1980s. How do you think he would react to the artwork you are representing now?
JLP: [laughs] Interesting question…
How would you introduce this work to him? And would he like it?!
JLP: I think he’ll love it! My approach to art hasn’t changed. My fundamentals come from my father and mother. My father, being a scientist, he was very analytical. For him if you can’t prove it, it doesn’t exist. Saying this, since he was a research scientist, as opposed to an applied scientist, he was investigating phenomena that no one had ever experienced before. When I talked about this in my book I called it ‘poetry’. I think this was influential. For me art has always been about how I can use it to live. For example Basquiat, was not making art in a self-conscious way; he was making it as a means to survive.
Me and a good friend of mine, Dr. Phillip Romero wrote a book called ‘Phantom Stress’. It’s about how non-conscious dormant memories from the past can be triggered in the present and cause a fight response and if not treated can cause chronic stress, which can eventually destroy your immune system. Escaping chronic stress is a key to a long life, and one of the things that we humans have created to extricate chronic stress, is art! We found that art is a response for us to become resilient to the anxieties of what it is to be human.
We wrote a simple idea, we called ‘Art Imperative’. This basically says that art helps fight the anxiety of attachment (in the buddhist sense); shame; gender; identity and finally the big one: anxiety over impermanence, which basically means death – eventually we will die. Which was the topic of our last show. So this idea of the ‘art imperative’, has been something inside of me for a long time, perhaps not articulated, but it was there. And that’s why I think the 1980’s me would like the ALL VISUAL ART’s collection.
You should hear me talk more about this idea of ‘Art Imperative’, which Dr. Romero wrote, very soon on television.
JLP: Yes, it should be airing next year. We are in the process of developing a series of TV programs that will talk about why art is imperative to human survival. It will be an approach that will go back to pre-history. It will discuss where art comes from in the first place and about art in the context of evolutionary history.
For my last question, let’s talk about the art at AVA as a whole. Needless to say there is a common underlying approach with a similar methodology. It’s dark and melancholy and beautiful at the same time. Is it a conscience decision to have this continuous style?
JLP: I don’t agree with that. I don’t think it’s dark.
I wasn’t expecting you to say that! The Christ on the electric chair, the skulls… And many of the works are monochromatic. I thought it was obvious that there is a defined style – and equally evident is that this style is on the dark side.
JLP: No I don’t see that. I admit I’m very interested in the ‘impermanence’ theme, however I don’t see how many pieces that we have, such as a star in a jar or Jonathan Wateridge’s work can be dark. I don’t believe there is a sort of theme either. For example in our last show ‘The Age of the Marvellous’, we didn’t plan anything with a sort of conscious manifesto. There we had artists from completely different angles.
I really find this difficult to comprehend. Can it be that there are subconscious decisions in how you choose your artists and then curate them?
JLP: Well, could be. [unconvincingly] As I said, there could be the ‘impermanence’ theme, but other then that I don’t find anything dark that groups the artwork in any way.
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All Visual Arts is a great organisation which has done phenomenal things during its short existence [opened in 2008]. I’m personally very excited to see what they will do in the time to come. A little birdie also told me that Jonathan Wateridge will have seven paintings at the Palazzo Grassi next year at the Biennale – which is exciting.
I’ve been interviewing gallery people for over two years now. I’m pretty sure that today’s interview was one of the longest and I’m also sure that it was the single time that the person I was interviewing didn’t take any phone calls or answered any doors while I was there – which I liked!
As I was leaving I was still contemplating how wrong I was to be so sure that the art at AVA is handpicked to fit within the dark and gloomy, mad scientist genre of contemporary art. I thought this was a given. Before my visit I was also planning to start this article with something on the lines of: ‘If Alfred Hitchcock dealt art, this will be his collection…’ And one of the questions that didn’t make the cut was “Did any of the artworks ever feature in one of your nightmares?”, which had to be quickly improvised to “Did any of the artworks ever feature in one of your dreams?” (the answer was “not really” by the way.)
In all honesty, I’m still not convinced. I’d really like it if you leave a comment and tell me what you think about this. In fact I insist you do! Go to their website (www.allvisualarts.org), have a look at the art, and tell me if I’m mad! Am I right in thinking that most artworks are cold, sad and dark (in a beautiful way) or do I have it completely wrong?