Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned
Remember that childhood feeling of impending freedom when a snow day was announced and the elementary school shut down? That's the elation of stolen time. Snow days, extended layovers in foreign countries — even brutal storms and their accompanying hardships — shut down daily routines and jostle us enough to revive a dormant sense of community, a strange time when people who wouldn't normally converse do. Good Weather, where curator Haynes Riley stages monthly art shows, is one of those places that run on weird time. It's part art gallery, part picnic. It's high art, but down South. It's ahead of its time, and yet there's something old school in the way it fosters camaraderie.
Riley makes his home in the areas that lie in between. The native Arkansan and graduate of Cranbrook Academy of Art installed his master's of fine arts thesis show in the joints and passages between the exhibition halls of Cranbrook, leaving fragile sheets of porcelain folded into the angles where the wall and floor met, as if they were on strike from the wall. He installed an enigmatic neon phrase over the doorway and lowered a light fixture to floor level. This artistic practice of nudging viewers to look where they normally wouldn't has grown into a daring curatorial initiative in his home state.
Good Weather is in a small brick-walled garage of a Lakewood home that belongs to Haynes' older brother, Zachary Riley. It serves as an 8-by-11-foot exhibit space (the span of a single-car slot). From the gallery, you might see strolling families or girls doing track practice; most people walking the lakeside promenade below the home in September don't seem to notice the gallery on the opening night of its 31st show. The people who have noticed dot the lawn and chat about ancient Greek aesthetics and the Razorbacks, enjoying bowls of simmering tomato basil soup crafted by Riley's mother, Marilyn Riley.
Had you opened the mailbox near the garage door during the September exhibit, you'd have found hand-bound pamphlets describing the work of young New York-based artist Anne Vieux, and if you'd ambled into the garage on the night of the opening, you'd have seen a quartet of lush microsuede abstract panels and their creator standing on a floor that she'd dusted in two inches of flour.
Vieux "captures light" by bending and photographing holographic and other reflective papers, which she then renders more abstract with software and prints on faux suede panels. Vieux paints over the printed surfaces and leaves further artifacts of her gestures through disruptions in the suede from tape marks and hand imprints. She talks about "bringing virtual space down into material space" and the "confusion between ... digital and physical, and painting versus print."
At the opening of her installation "same window, different day," pastel marks in three succinct pale blue stripes extended beyond the canvas onto the fresh white walls. The faux suede of the — let's just call them paintings — asks to be touched, but we knew we can't. The artist provides other tactile experiences, though; the cushiony suede benches situated neatly in the center of the gallery and the coating of bleached flour on the floor. Anne calls the flour a "mysterious white powder" related to "the idea of entropy, people's tracks made and erased, and information lost."
Just before the opening, Vieux, Riley and I talk about the New York art world as we had experienced it. Chelsea, the sterilized main gallery district in New York, we agree, is the baseline for what it means to go see contemporary art. The globalized nature of the art world and the homogenizing force of big money give that locale a sense of groundlessness. The frenetic pace of the city — the day jobs that support the off-hour artistic practice and the rent-to-income ratio — means you rarely feel in complete ownership of the experience of viewing art; rarely do you have the time or mind space to fully succumb to the demands of the artwork.
Riley views all gallery spaces as a sort of purgatory: Art has "left somewhere and it's not sure where it's going next," and it's true — galleries can be alienated and alienating. The artworks are far from the context in which they were made. Work is often hung in a standardized way, although it's common practice now to play with the idea of where art belongs, as long as it's still inside the safe confines of the gallery space. "How you approach Good Weather, how you get to Lakewood, these are all things that show inequity and accessibility to the public," Riley says. "The white cube is not a pure space, but it is the accepted model of exhibiting work, and that's shifting."
Artists generally get these distinctions and bring into their curatorial practices the aesthetic and conceptual rigor of their art-making. As master's of fine arts graduates flee the untenable economic circumstances of the major coastal art hubs, artist-run spaces are cropping up. Simply put, only rich people can afford to indulge in art-making in a place like Los Angeles or New York — or, increasingly the case, afford to be there at all. Artist-run galleries like Holiday Forever in Jackson, Wyo., Yeah Maybe in Minneapolis, Green Gallery in Milwaukee and Tops Gallery in Memphis are making the best of it. Michelle Grabner's The Suburban, an art space that began wedged between a home and a garage in the Chicago suburbs, seems to be the model, but the link between the artist-run space and the avant-garde goes back to the Fluxus movement, the Situationists, the Bauhaus and further back still.
Good Weather comes off at first like an idealized version of home, a place where uninhibited conversation thrives: good food and company are abundant. At the Anne Vieux show, members of the Riley family convivially drift in and out of the house. Marilyn Riley garnishes the kitchen table with pineapple chunks and cookie-crumble peanut butter; her husband, John, a formidable talker, rhapsodizes about everything from local lawn care services to the vibrant installation downstairs as guests track pale powder footprints all around. Haynes' cousin, Erin Weindorf, describes the "neat dance" of pro-wrestling, the "precision of combat without hurting another person" and the difficulties of pursuing that profession during a gender transition. She regales with her bad-guy persona "Joey T" and demonstrates a very effective arm bar, perfected during her days on the Oklahoma circuit. Camden Riley, a younger brother, sets up some visitors in the TV room with the football game and tries to minimize the extrusion of flour through the house.
Zachary Riley didn't know precisely what his little brother was doing in his garage until the first exhibition, paintings by Tony Garbarini. He calls himself an "anxious host," and laughs at the incongruity of artists hanging out with his family. He worries someone might "shut it down," like an unsanctioned house party. When the night's over, Zachary lives with the work of artists like Sondra Perry, Devin Farrand, Ezra Tessler and Michael Assiff for a month and half, mirthfully eyeing it each time he takes his bike out for a ride. On the travails of hosting, he says, "In New York, you'll visit 12 galleries in a night, no problem. People linger in Arkansas ... . We're competing with the Razorback game. In the South, if you want people to come over at 6, that's eatin' hour." And so, the Rileys provide dinner.
Popping his head in through the kitchen door, local artist Layet Johnson joins the conversation. His drawings were exhibited at Good Weather in 2013, and he talks about the difference between showing there vs. more traditional galleries in Brooklyn and Manhattan: "Nobody talked to me about my work ... . I don't know who showed before or after me ... . People talk about how you don't have to live in the big art cities now because of the internet, but without forming a sincere community it's really hard to be connected to anyone. In order to create a functioning network, you have to create real relationships."
Good Weather exhibits only one artist at a time and only those with whom studio visits have been conducted; when the art and artists arrive in Arkansas, they live at the house during the week of installation.
On the topic of the decentralization of the art world, Johnson chimes in: "It all comes down to the fact that for our generation it's really hard; a lot of people are moving home ... . A large portion of [artist-run spaces] pop up where their parents live — [a] general symptom of the economy and student debt. It's not sexy. Not like Donald Judd in Marfa." He noted that Marilyn makes an entire pot of vegan soup for him each show; this time it's 15-bean.
Another artist-curator, Ian Breidenbach, is hanging out on the porch. He runs a gallery called Neon Heater in "very tiny" Finley, Ohio. Ian was born in Finley and explains, "I don't know how I ended back up there. I didn't mean to." He is certain that the $100 rent on his gallery space was a big draw and that he wants his artists to have complete freedom from the pressure to make something salable. "The community comes into these spaces ... . Art isn't always for art people. There's actually no reason to show art to art people. They get it; they know it. They've seen everything before. But when you open it up to a neighborhood, maybe even a poorer neighborhood that doesn't see that on the regular, that's when you can make a difference, that's when you can start to change the narrative about what art is." On the "blue-chip" galleries, he says: "You get a lot of people that don't have an art background, they'll walk into really sterile fluorescents and be really scared to ask questions and feel out of place, but when it's in a homey space, they feel OK and like they can ask those questions. I definitely don't think those people would ever go to a gallery in Chelsea and ever ask a question. They would feel like they were lesser or like they were being talked down to somehow, which is a very institutional way of showing art." And wouldn't they be right about being talked down to? "Totally. If you can't purchase that painting on the wall because you make less than that in a year, what's the point of even going in to look at it? ... But I think artist-run spaces don't have that narrative as much; there's an openness with the community. These are the people you're trying to give that conversation to."
When I ask Haynes to describe an ideal night at the gallery, he tells me about a dialogue between his family and Sondra Perry, who has in "the past four or five years trail-blazed a space among other black, queer, feminist artists." ("netherrrrrr," the artist's video installation, was up last spring.) "When Sondra was here, the conversation we had was so important. It helped form different thought-tracks that we go on now as a family." For that show, Good Weather in its entirety was saturated with chroma-key blue paint, the hue that filmmakers use when they want to superimpose a setting. The color is a cousin to the mind-numbing indigo that accompanies a system malfunction on PCs. For the video projection of "netherrrrrr," a Windows logo faded into a rotating "blue screen of death," during which we saw an avatar of the artist's beautiful brown face emerge in place of lines of code. She recounted to us the fatal system errors of Microsoft '98 software. Another robotic voice recited "the blue code of violence ... denote[s] the unwritten rule that exists among police officers not to report on a colleague's errors, misconducts or crimes." The video then transitioned to a YouTube tutorial on chroma-key blue, which demonstrated how the color is used in film editing to render needless objects invisible. Snapshots of black women who died in confrontations with police hovered, spun and disappeared from the screen. The video veered to a narration of a "troubleshooting tutorial." And then emerged footage of Micky Bradford, a black trans woman, encircled by exuberant supporters as she vogues defiantly and majestically just in front of a police line at the end of a frustrating day of protest.
"Zach and my father are very informed thinkers," Haynes Riley says. "But if you don't have an experience like that which Sondra has had in America, then how can you include that person's experience in your understanding of inequality and injustice? That proximity and inaccessibility ... to wealth built over periods of generations is an important factor: We're a supposedly desegregated society, but are we? ... In the suburbs — any suburbs — New York suburbs or Arkansan, we don't live next to people who are different than us. What Good Weather is doing is bringing different people into that space and forcing a conversation to occur, where — if not changing people's minds — at least we're having the conversation."
"Death of a Salesman," a solo exhibition by Elliott Earls, opens Oct. 22 at Good Weather, 4400 Edgemere Road, North Little Rock. There will be a reception at 6 p.m. Sondra Perry's work will be featured at "Sigh-Fi," an exhibition curated by Haynes Riley at UALR Gallery I, in January 2017.
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