Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Partners at Art Access
by Geoff Wichert
Art Access is a gallery with a purpose: a mission abbreviated in its name and personified by the photo of collaborating artists Joe Adams and Brian Kershisnik displayed in their foyer. Yet because of the generous interpretation of that goala reading as broad-minded as the mission itselfpursued by director Ruth Lubbers and abetted by Amanda Kaye Finlayson-Moore and Sheryl D. Gillilan, the art shown here is as fresh and innovative, and at times as experimental, as can be seen in any established Salt Lake venue. In a sense, then, the 13th annual Partners show now up, which brings Art Access close to its roots, closes a circle, proving that when artists whose voices would otherwise be silenced by disability are assisted in getting around their physiological obstacles, what follows can be both compelling and original art.
Ruth Lubbers is quick to agree that the Partners project brings Art Access closer to its original goal than some shows, but emphasizes that it's also an innovation, a corrective of sorts, for an oversight in its program that was identified in the early 1990s. In those days, the gallery fielded a wide range of programs that enabled children and severely disabled adults to make art, but none that focused on the needs of promising artists whose work fell, frustratingly, just short of exhibition standards. The Partners project came into being in 1994 as a kind of custom-tailored art school that would match those artists with working professionals whose skills were strong in the areas where they were weak.
In the beginning, with the groundbreaking offer of Larry Christensen to teach Neldon Bullock oil painting, the role of Art Access was to pay the artists' expenses and exhibit the results. Their story, by the way, is an excellent example of why no one can afford to be complacent about disability: a fate that awaits us all. Bullock was a fully functioning adult who augmented his career with marquetry, a form of inlaid wood mosaic often seen on furniture in art museums, when a medical accident robbed him of the ability to carve. Christensen's belief that the physical demands of brush and oil were within what remained of Bullock's strengththink of Matisse with brushes strapped to his hands, or Chuck Close's electric easel that brings the work to where he sitsmade it possible for the artist to re-emerge from those diminished circumstances.
That narrow description of "partners" didn't last long, though. Soon the process was thrown open to application from any artist seeking assistance in learning a new technique, overcoming the challenges of professionalism, or connecting with the local arts community. In a sense, Art Access built an art school where students draw on an unlimited faculty of practicing artists to find one qualified to teach the skills they need in one-on-one partnerships. The only qualification for admission to this dream academy is a legitimate non-artistic disability.
Emerging artists are not required to divulge their conditions, in keeping with the gallery's policy of labeling art but not artists. One small stroke of genius lies in asking the mentors to exhibit work done while mentoring, under the unusual circumstance of having strangers in their otherwise solitary studios. The result is a rich mélange in which the familiar and the unfamiliar interact and we are challenged to tell who is mentor to whom.
For example, both George Salerno and David Ruhlman work largely from memory and imagination, and here both exhibit odd, potentially unsettling scenes that set brightly lit subjects against inky black backgrounds. The apparent similarity quickly dissolves as characteristic elements emerge: Ruhlman's molar and cat forms, Salerno's area-filling, ambivalent plants and animals. Learning to paint gave Salerno means to galvanize the shallow space and flat patterns of his essentially graphic vision, but teaching him also seems to have emboldened Ruhlman to posit organic relationships between elements of his private, rhetorically suggestive, but usually isolated glyphs. His title, "As a Leaf or a Stone," recalls Hans Arps' statement: "A painting not modeled from real objects is in itself as concrete and sensual as a leaf or a stone." And Ruhlman adds, "From George, I was able to remember why I love painting."
Other pairs also found a common path to individual results. Josee Pribbinaw and Downy Doxey recount their mutual discovery of transparency and the use of veils to integrate materials and techniques. In Pribbinaw's self-portraits her translucent image suggests separation from her world even as she encloses elements that locate her within nature. Doxy, the more practiced artist, achieves a technical breakthrough: toil overlay allows her to seamlessly integrate painting and photography in portraits that place their subjects as much among family members as iconic locations. Blake Palmer and Trent Call's common curiosity about layering and depth served to connect two otherwise contrasting programs, putting Palmer's new female figures into settings that lend them a narrative dimension, while Call's figure-ground game of patterned hide-and-seek expands optically into the viewer's space. |1|
Cori Redstone and Susan Gallacher's efforts recall the brief, epochal moment in art history when van Gogh and Gauguin painted side-by-side, and suggest a happier ending to their story. Gallacher's illusionistic landscapes and floral still-lifes cautiously approach the moment when the academically correct surface will dissolve into self-consciously apparent paint, which Redstone's energetic black outline and coats of confectionary colors heartily embrace. |2| Holding hands, they dance around the great divide in consciousness that has preoccupied artand in turn been illuminated by itfor over a century.
Roger Reaves and Sam Wilson, two men of my generation, raise issues that come to life with aesthetic dimension. |3| Paul Heath saw the potential for Joe Fairbanks to cut out and color-separate his gleanings from the graphic culture both men enjoy manipulating. |4| Perhaps the longest reach allowed Deena Lee's poetry to find a setting through the language elements in Travis Tanner's poetic collage. All fourteen artists stretched themselves, and anyone who enjoys the sort of exercise that comes with that will want to encounter the result.
Feature: Hints & Tips
The Ins & Outs of Cooperative Galleries
by Sue Martin
Some of us "emerging" artists are not quite ready for prime time, that is, the highly selective galleries where prices tend to start at around $1,000. For us, an artist-owned and operated cooperative gallery might be a better venue to show and sell our work.
But a relationship with a co-op gallery is like any other kind of relationship there are good and bad matches. Before you get entangled, here are some things to consider:
Who are the other members and what kinds of work do they do?
Before submitting an application to join a co-op, visit a few times and get a feel for the types and quality of work represented there. I've been in galleries where the work was, frankly, beneath the quality of my own or where the gallery organizer's work seemed to predominate. In either case, I had little confidence that the gallery would attract the types of buyers who would appreciate my work.
I've also applied to co-ops and been rejected because, in their view, my work was not quite on a par with their other member artists. Rejection never feels good, but it's better than wasting time and money on a relationship that isn't a good fit.
What does the gallery expect of its members?
The very name cooperative gallery should tell you that the operation and the success of the gallery depend on cooperation among its members. This usually means that members pay a monthly fee (typically $75 - $100 or more, depending on rent), a commission on work sold (from 15% and up), and sometimes additional fees for special marketing campaigns. In addition, co-ops usually require members to staff the gallery one or more days per month, help with hanging or taking down shows, and serve on committees or help with special events. If you don't have the flexibility or resources to fulfill these expectations, a co-op might not be the place for you.
Joy Nunn, one of the founding members of Art at the Main, a non-profit gallery at the main Salt Lake City Library, also says that one of the things that can make a co-op fail is "members that don't take their responsibilities seriously." A co-op gallery is a team effort and you'll be happiest in a situation where all team members contribute fully.
What does the gallery do for its members?
Exposure is, of course, the greatest benefit of being part of any gallery. When someone asks you where they can see more of your work, you'll have a response that sounds more professional than "in my basement." Your work is displayed consistently in most co-ops along with opportunities to be the featured artist during some months. You'll want to ask exactly how the gallery decides what to display and whom to feature.
And that brings up the question of management and decision making. Some co-op galleries try to involve all members in most decisions. However, if you have 20 members, that structure can be unwieldy and impractical. Some galleries, instead, use an "executive board" or "equity partner" structure in which a smaller group of people run the business but involve the other members in some of the decisions. Just as business teams benefit from strong leadership, co-op galleries usually work better when there are owners or members willing to work on the organization of the business and either make or poll for decisions. To avoid misunderstandings later, it's best to ask up front about who makes which decisions.
By pooling resources, co-op artists can afford to do more marketing and promotion than most individuals could do by themselves. And, while some artists may not enjoy the business side of the profession, co-op members can pool their skills and interests for a businesslike approach to running the gallery.
Another clear benefit of a good co-op gallery is the camaraderie that members feel toward each other. "It's like family," one artist told me. Members share information, skills, encouragement, and empathy. Without such an association, artists can feel isolated.
Being part of a co-op or any other gallery forces you to paint consistently. The galleries want fresh work so there's always something new for repeat visitors to see. If you complete only a few works each year, you may not be ready to approach a gallery.
Does the gallery require "exclusivity?"
Most co-op galleries do not expect their members to show their work only in that gallery. So you may be able to have relationships with several different galleries. But it's important to check the policies before entering into a relationship.
How much of your work can you show at one time?
The answer to this question may be purely practical. If you have 30 artists and a small amount of space, and if your work is large in format, you may not be able to show as much as the other member artists. Be sure to ask how much space you will be allocated. Also, are the space assignments rotated occasionally, so that member artists take turns being in more prominent spots? And is there an equitable appeal process when an artist feels she's being slighted on space?
Art at the Main, for example, has limited space, so they compromise on the sizes of work they will accept. Generally, their artists have space for about eight paintings, four unframed works, and about 10 original cards. Artists are encouraged to exchange their pieces with new work whenever they choose, thus receiving optimum exposure.
What does the gallery want to see and how will it make a decision about artists applying for membership?
Ask the gallery for their call-for-entry form and be sure to follow it. Some will ask for photos or slides; some may ask for actual pieces of art. They will also want an artist's statement and resume that outlines your training, experience, and awards. If you've never put together such a portfolio, seek help from a more experienced artist. Or contact the Utah Arts Council, which sometimes offers seminars on this topic.
The better co-ops seem to want diversity in the art products they show and sell. A range of art media, sizes, prices, etc., will attract a more diverse clientele and will encourage repeat visits. This means, of course, that if the gallery already has an artist whose work is similar to yours, they might not accept you as a member at this particular time even though your work is wonderful. Be patient and keep applying.
If the gallery is interested in your work, they may also request an interview. This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you have a positive attitude, you can play well with others, and will make a good contribution to the team. Remember, the success of the business depends on each artist being able to sell the work of all the others. The gallery will look for a sense that you are willing and able to work for the good of the gallery and not just look after your own interests.
Art at the Main is always looking for emerging Utah artists. Nunn recommends visiting the gallery on the ground floor of the main library and speaking with their member artists. Additional cooperative galleries in the state include: Local Colors, now located at 535 S. 700 East, SLC (801-363-3922), and Gallery 25 in Ogden.