In 2010, the writer Chris Kraus wrote a profile on the Los Angeles-based artist-run project space and collective Tiny Creatures. Written after the group broke up, and told through a series of vignettes from the artists who ran the space, the essay is a nostalgic picture of the space and its "short, vivid life span." One of the main organizers, Janet Kim, described her upbringing and her relationship with the church, which she grew away from as she grew older. "But for me, the church was really always about love. And I can still take that with me," Kim said, and she seemed to find a similar devotion in the Tiny Creatures collective.
That quote colors much of the rest of the essay. Tiny Creatures' goal was never to even approach the level of a major commercial gallery. Many of the artists involved with the project did not follow the typical artist career trajectory steps of a BFA, an MFA, and some kind of day job while attempting to hack away at crippling debt, while also attempting to maintain a studio practice and market your work. Tiny Creatures existed, it seemed, outside of the art market and they made it work (for a few years) because they wanted to make cool stuff that they cared about.
Most artist-run spaces operate on a similar principle, and call it a labor of love. (That's also used as an excuse for why some spaces aren't open when they say they will be, or when they don't send out press releases, which bring to mind problems of exclusivity and access, but that's another essay.) Much like Janet Kim, Nick Peelor of Baltimore's Open Space collective recently told City Paper, "For me this is probably what a church is like," adding. "It's like a thing that's bigger than myself." Weekly ritualistic meetings and their shared dedication to the space are what keep them going.
Artist-run spaces are like a spiritual salve for so much of the art world, which revolves around money rather than actual contributions to our culture. As a kind of retort to the overly commodified aspect of art, Guest Spot at the Reinstitute and New York's Transmitter galleries present their show "Self-Organized—Aesthetic Politics of the Artist Run."
Hosted at Guest Spot, in the middle of the rapidly changing Station North Arts and Entertainment District, this show, which runs through Aug. 22, is a portrait of two artist-run spaces and their tastes of the moment. This show presents work by more than a dozen artists (all of whom are also curators, and/or have run or currently run spaces of their own) in a range of media that covers several bases: conceptual and abstract art, figural painting and drawings, and political pieces. Disjointed as any group show might appear, it's unclear which gallery selected which artists, but that is partly what's interesting about it.
There's the funny and well-crafted wall-mounted text piece by Niels Post called 'On Spam, Love #07' which reads, "That is all about/ mee in this time/ if you want, you/ can ask about/ me else." The text from this series, as the title suggests, comes from spam emails, but are recontextualized, taken seriously (at first) as something like poetry, until the absurdity registers.
The two pieces by Julie Torres are both conceptual works about capital-p Painting: 'Room with a View' is a small canvas on which super-thick layers of acrylic paint make something that appears, all at once, like a window, a picture inset into photo corners, the back of a stretched canvas. This application of multiple immediate reads is what keeps it open and interesting, and the artist's color choices (mainly yellow and black, which always turn a little green when they're placed and mixed together) and paint application are intentionally excessive and grotesque, maybe in the same ways as consumption and consumerism within the art world.
Some pieces, such as photographs by Trevor Powers and graphite drawings by Kat Chamberlin, are lovely in a docile, gentle, scrolling-through-Tumblr kind of way—which is not meant as a jab, but these works feel pretty and benign when placed next to others that seem to be more adamantly advocating for something.
Then there are a few more politically bent works, such as Joaquin Segura's 'Essays on Reconstruction,' a short, three-channel video with still shots of abstracted and close-up footage of pieces of a town outside of Granada, Nicaragua, in which narrators discuss the unknown origins of a monument to the revolutionary/poet José Martí in the town.
Right next to this piece, on the floor, is Lauren Adams' uprising-inspired piece '101 Uses for a Brick in Baltimore' in which black and white photos of protesters' signs are cut out and isolated, printed onto a large, bright yellow square of fabric. In the middle of this is, as if weighing it down, a brick covered in white gesso. The piece is sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement and to those who express their justified rage and pain that is caused by inequality toward black people. It represents how Baltimore felt during the uprising, how it felt like it was on the cusp of huge change. And where are we now?
As Station North continues to develop and gentrify, how will the art within it change? The grassroots, artist-run initiatives such as Guest Spot and Area 405 and everything in the Copycat and the Annex, which arguably shaped it into the arts district it is now, could change to make way for more commercial projects. As areas become more developed, everything steers toward bringing in money. Setting aside problems with insularity in artist-run spaces, these groups still feel like some kind of escape from a city that concerns itself more with capital than it does with what its citizens actually want and need.
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