Giovanni Intra died much too young on 17 December 2002 in Manhattan. He will be remembered for his achievements as an artist, writer and co-founder of China Art Objects Galleries in Los Angeles, and equally for his enthusiasm, intelligence, integrity, warmth and all-around obvious decency in an art world where those characteristics can sometimes be in short supply
Born in New Zealand, in 1968, Intra was one of a group of young artists who founded the influential artist-run space Teststrip in Auckland in 1992, described variously as 'chaotic', 'ambitious' and 'fun', and known for its commitment both to independence and to a wider context for the work it showed. In 1996 Intra moved to LA on a Fulbright scholarship to study art theory at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. His thesis focused on Daniel Paul Schreber's paranoid epic Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), drawing on texts by artists such as Salvador Dalì and Robert Smithson to suggest ways that art writing might be reinvented. He went on to become a respected art critic: a regular contributor of sharp, individual - but accessible - writing to many journals, including Artforum and Artnet.com, and LA editor of artext. He developed his critical method over the course of in-depth essays on the work of Frances Stark, Diana Thater, Julia Scher and many others.
Intra was initially surprised at the similarities between the art world of his homeland and that of LA, observing that 'Los Angeles, just like New Zealand, is most significantly intrigued by the development of its own artistic mythology'. Characteristically, he soon added to that mythology when, along with Steve Hanson, Mark Heffernan, Peter Kim and Amy Yao, he started China Art Objects in LA's Chinatown. Intra and Hanson came up with the idea after an all-night party in the Californian desert and, with the goodwill and support of well known figures such as Jorge Pardo and Laura Owens, opened their space in Chung King Mall in 1999. The gallery was designed by Pae White, while the name was famously taken from the box-sign already attached to the unit, which was too good to change. Since then, China Art Objects has worked with a new generation of LA artists as well as presenting international projects and mini-retrospectives, bringing the energy, community feeling and innovative outlook of an artist-run venture together with an intuitive understanding of how best to use what Intra called 'the pleasure and idiocy of the free market'.
Since its inception, China Art Objects has tapped directly into what, in LA at least, had been an under-used resource - the commitment of artists themselves to the creation of an interesting and worthwhile scene. It should be obvious (but for some reason mostly isn't) that artists would want to work in a collaborative exhibition process with a gallery that tries to offer them as much freedom and control as possible. Even successful artists are happy to engage with a venture that's going to support their future rivals, because they know you don't have perceive the art world process in these competitive terms. Intra's experience of this situation as an artist himself, his critical understanding and personal motivation, were essential factors in making the equation work. China Art Objects has worked with young artists - such as Andy Alexander, Julie Becker, Edgar Bryan, Kim Fisher, David Korty, J. P. Munro, Jon Pylypchuk and Eric Wesley - in a way that high-finance-led spaces can't, because it has a commitment to and relationship with a local scene that's about more than simply jockeying for position in the marketplace. Put another way, the gallery has served its young artists so well that it has persuaded the market to adapt, which is about as close to a victory as the economic facts permit.
The gallery's success has been the catalyst for the emergence of Chinatown as the centre of a new LA art scene. Intra and Hanson took the China Art Objects spirit out into the wider world, quickly gaining respect for their astute, unpretentious approach and earning the gallery a reputation as one of the most interesting operations around - a blueprint that is probably inimitable without the personalities involved.
Writing about his LA experiences Intra said that 'my initial exoticizing of America has expired - to become an amazing, endless surface punctuated by friends and art'. It was this open-hearted attitude that made an instant impression on everybody that met him, that made it easy to be his friend and to share his passion for the art that he believed in. A lot of people are going to miss him a great deal.
First published in Issue 73