Sept. 11 2013 01:25 PM

Edgy art duo is making a go of it in posh La Jolla

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Johnny Tran (left) and Paul Ecdao in their gallery
Photo by Susan Myrland
In an alley off Girard Avenue there's a tall, brightly colored mural by Kim MacConnel called "Girl from Ipanema." Ribbons of precise color stream down the building's surface, the work of an established artist drawing on mid-century cultural references.

A few hundred feet away, a brightly colored painting of a skull hangs on a black wall in a tiny gallery. It's fast, loose and emotional—a tattoo-shop staple done in Clyfford Still brushstrokes.

One was vetted by a credentialed committee, funded and fully sanctioned. The other was done by Jeffrey Locke, a 27-year-old artist from Nuevo, Calif., who's been painting for four years.

Both are street art, La Jolla-style. 

The skull hangs on the wall of Thumbprint Gallery, run by co-directors Paul Ecdao and Johnny Tran. When Thumbprint moved from North Park to La Jolla two years ago, some art-scene observers wondered whether urban could make the transition to urbane. Would the scrappy gallery survive in the cultured suburbs?

It's doing just fine, thank you. 

"We already had a customer base in La Jolla and North County, but they were traveling to North Park because there were not any other galleries providing our brand of art" in those areas, Tran said in an email. "We took it as evidence of an unfulfilled demand."

"Rocksteady" by snak3oil

Ecdao chimes in: "I feel we're sort of a Trojan horse, exposing work that isn't so typically seen in La Jolla."

The duo's entrepreneurial instincts seem to be paying off. Sales and attendance are up, they say. They're participating in Haute La Jolla Nights, a free music-food-art event put on by the La Jolla Village Merchants Association. With two more nights to go in the Haute La Jolla season (Sept. 14 and Nov. 16), Thumbprint is getting more walk-in traffic than they ever had in North Park.

In the midst of change, they're staying consistent. They've continued their tradition of opening a new show every second Saturday. They still represent emerging artists working primarily in street art, lowbrow and pop surrealism. The clientele still spills out to the sidewalk during events, beers in hand.

Thumbprint may be one of San Diego's most ambitious galleries. Beginning in 2009 as a pop-up show in Queen Bee's Art & Cultural Center in North Park, the team spent almost two years on University Avenue before moving north. Since the La Jolla space is only 300 square feet (920 Kline St.), they host regular exhibitions at East Village's Bar Basic, where they can show more artists. And they'll curate Double Exposure, a photography show opening Nov. 16 at the new Canvas Gallery on Seventh Avenue, Downtown.

All this is on top of day jobs. Ecdao is a librarian at Kaplan College and a social-media consultant. Tran is a legal and business writer by day and a DJ by night.

Ecdao says it's part of their mission to give a voice to new artists and nurture a sense of community. He wanted Thumbprint to be a less-pretentious alternative to other galleries, a place where people could feel comfortable taking time to learn about art without feeling pressured to buy.

A gallery has to sell to stay in business, though. Tran and Ecdao actively market, sending a steady stream of announcements and invitations to followers. They're also experimenting with guest curators, a practice they started in North Park. The show that opens Sept. 14, Deconstruction of Art, will be organized by Stuart Platt.

Just as Ecdao and Tran are self-taught gallerists, Platt is a self-taught curator. A video-game producer for almost 13 years, he began collecting about three years ago, mainly film and animation art. That led him to a Chicago-based artist who goes by the name snak3oil. Together they formed Suicidal Octopuss, a company "dedicated to promoting, evangelizing and selling independent lowbrow and urban street art from artists that you probably have never heard of but should have," according to their website.

With Deconstruction, Platt brings the essence of graffiti—controversial, interventionist, counterculture and non-commercial—right into the heart of high-end retail.

In a statement provided to the gallery, he wants to remind viewers that art is "pure emotion when you break it down [to] its basic raw components. It is an expression." High-minded ideals aside, there's an endearing cheekiness to the show. Miniature mailboxes, dumpsters, trucks and billboards are covered in tags, transforming the illegal into the collectible. Vandalism looks downright cute when it's 6 inches tall. Platt mixes these with pieces painted on skate decks and canvas, what he calls "classic art inspired with an urban twist."

Deconstruction of Art will feature 16 artists, including snak3oil. San Diegans in the show are Misty Michelle, Lord of Stink and Hawtspot. Platt says the rest are from New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Kentucky, Las Vegas and San Francisco. Although urban art generally reflects the city of origin, Platt doesn't mind mixing it up.

"It's hard to define San Diego's style because there are so many people that contribute to it from all over the U.S. and even the world," he writes in an email, adding that local street artists rarely remove or draw over each other's work. "I find the street art in San Diego less about marking territory and more about the artwork and expression itself."

Which makes Deconstruction a good fit for Thumbprint Gallery—stylistically, philosophically and, one hopes, financially. Ecdao and Tran believe in the power of collaboration to gain exposure. If Ecdao had his way, small galleries would team up, maintaining healthy competition but working together to make a bigger noise.

"Bridgette" by snak3oi

Such a Voltron Force might be down the road, however. At this point, Thumbprint's co-directors have enough on their plates. They share the same problems faced by the big galleries around the corner—selecting good work, scheduling shows, drumming up buyers and paying the rent—plus the challenges of working with young artists who occasionally have inflated expectations. It comes with the territory, and Ecdao says they're in it for the long haul.

"That's why we wanted to move to La Jolla. Although we got support as far as people showing up to the shows, we needed more support in buying the artwork.

"The artist needs to replenish their supplies and materials that they used to create this work," he says. "And what better way to support artists than being able to pay them, you know?"

Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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