Photo by Matt OttoThere's a long, ugly journey between "starving" and "artist" in Orange County. Sure, polish your chops enough, and there's a host of galleries in Santa Ana, Long Beach or Laguna Beach that will be happy to shave you off a little sliver of space. But it's too far a stretch from the lonely artist's garret (or musician's parent's garage, for that matter) to meaningful public engagement, with only a spotty set of coffeehouses, college backrooms and bizarre one-off venues like San Clemente laundromats to help someone clamber out of total obscurity. In such cities as LA, San Francisco and New York, where the arts—in all their scruffy glory—are considered legitimate, it's a gradual path from nobody to somebody back to bitter nobody again; in OC, creative types currently sporting more potential than talent—or more talent than taste—have to grappling hook from gray zone to gray zone after anyone who will have them. And a lot of them don't make it.
But that's where Chris Hoff wants to put himself: alongside slightly skewed art-for-art's-sake idealists such as Anaheim's AAA Electra 99 art space or Costa Mesa's defunct Gallery 23 and inside an empty business park so anonymous it's almost invisible, where he has just opened the Office, OC's newest alternative art venue. It's kind of corporate, he admits—indeed, it's just two doors down from his day job and right across Bolsa Chica Avenue from the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. But we need it.
"I know it's kind of out of the ordinary," he says, "but that gives it a charm. If you go back through history, in the art scene in New York, guys like Kenny Scharf would rent a warehouse and run an opening just for a night. And the Impressionists—nobody would show their work back in their day, so they'd go to someone's house, hang out and have their own little party. And I want to capture that spirit in OC."
Hoff, a for-all-intents-and-purposes lifelong Huntington Beach resident, never had any formal training in art. "I saw a painting once," he says, "and it moved me. Literally one piece—Starry Night." And when he's not dragging his wife to galleries, he says, he's co-owner of Two Roads Professional Services ("I thought the Frost poem captured the spirit," he says), an IT staffing and consulting business with offices around California and a reputation as one of the up-and-coming-est companies of its kind. But, he says with a smile, he still knows what he likes. And he hopes to become something of a "champion" for local artists—just in case they need one.
"Shift," the inaugural exhibit at the Office ("An Art Space"), is a blueprint for what he hopes to develop: one piece by the experimental San Francisco duo known as BULL.MILETIC (a slo-mo video exploring the poetics of rodeo) and one piece by Claremont graduate student Monica Furmanski, a series of photos exploring the Office itself. He'd like to pull in contemporary artists that might never otherwise make it to Orange County, and he'd like to give locals an alternative to the Laguna Beach/Santa Ana establishment. He's not going maverick, he says, but there needs to be something more.
"I like Monica's piece because in today's age, with the TV showing 'shock and awe' and everything becoming so visual—the night vision, the bombs over Baghdad, all that—she took an office space and found something poetic," Hoff says. "And that's what we're going to have to do—find beauty in things that at first glance maybe aren't there."
He seems a tiny bit self-conscious about his gallery—and since he's a guy who has visited galleries all over the world, maybe you can understand why he's shy about the Two Roads Xerox machine visible down a hallway to the left. (The Office was originally slated to be used as an actual office, but serendipity and inspiration determined otherwise.) But there's something proudly local and contagiously independent about it, too: If all we have in Orange County is strip malls and industrial parks, why not fill them with art? And since we're never going to get rich off our strip-mall art galleries, why not do anything we want? The Office is "lo-budg," but he's not going to limit anybody, either. Contact him, Hoff says.
"Orange County—we've got it all," he says. "But it's in the eye of the beholder."
"Shift," featuring Monica Furmanski and BULL.MILETIC, at the Office, 5122 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 110, Huntington Beach, (714) 767-5861. Open Tues.-Fri., 1-5 p.m. Through May 2; Contact Chris Hoff about arranging future exhibitions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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