As galleries reopen we’ll find out what, if anything, they are taking away from the last three months of displaying art without a physical space.
Were their online programmes a means to remain active in lockdown or are they going to continue to exist as part of a new hybrid physical/online existence for which Art Basel director Marc Glimcher coined the term “clicks-and-mortar”?
Many people have felt refreshed by the transparency, convenience and global access that came with online exhibitions, which in many respects level the playing field for gallerists, artists and collectors. However, the art world is not known for its openness to change, or its technological flair, so there is every chance that this will be forgotten about in the first week of private views, VIP dinners and behind-closed-doors handshaking.
This month, for what might be the final online-only Curator at Large instalment, I’m exploring four American commercial galleries that are taking the lessons of lockdown seriously and offering online access to their reopening real-world exhibitions.
Baltimore’s Galerie Myrtis focusses on artists whose work foregrounds cultural, social, historical and political themes. This group exhibition explores non-Western conceptions of a woman’s role and identity, questioning common tropes associated with womanhood. The artworks on show invite the viewer to interrogate their own assumptions, steeped in covert colonial ideas.
Lavett Ballard’s mixed media works on found wooden fencing are inspired by childhood trips to her family farm in Virginia. She uses this visual language, itself symbolic of exclusion and suppression, to recontextualise images of black women collected from across world history. In Shanequa Gay’s photographs and paintings, women’s heads are replaced with those of bulls and eagles. Instead of passive sitters and muses, the subjects of these works are imbued with power and assertiveness.
Detail from Lavett Ballard, Kindred (2020), courtesy of Galerie Myrtis and the artist
Stephanie Baptist runs Medium Tings from her home. The apartment-cum-gallery in Brooklyn rejects the familiar impersonal white-wall approach, allowing a more intimate and personal gallerist-artist-collector relationship. The space plays host to a forward thinking programme of emerging artists, including Dana Robinson and Maya Varadaraj - both of whose work is featured in this two-person show.
My favourite works on show come from Robinson’s Ebony Reprinted series. In these acrylic monoprints on board, the artist distorts and smears reproduction of advertisements taken from Ebony magazine. At first glance, especially with their unsettlingly cheery titles, such as “The Kind of World I Want for My Child” and “Things Go Better With Coke”, the works seem eerie. However, they were actually created with harnessing what Robinson calls the “healing possibilities of abstraction” in mind. In distorting the images, the artist removes (or heals) the direct and often violent visual customs of advertising in favour of less determinate marks. This shift in tone gives agency to both the viewer and the subject.
Detail from Dana Robinson, The Kind of World I Want for My Child, courtesy of Medium Tings and the artist
Like Medium Tings, Welancora Gallery is also partly defined by the space it occupies. Based in a 19th century townhouse with a largely untouched interior, the gallery’s most recent exhibition (available to view both online and in person) features a range of artists unpacking racialised ideas of access to space.
The boundaries that separate the exhibition from the gallery space itself are blurred. For example, Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.’s intimate photographs of domestic spaces are made all the more intimate and tender by contrast to the grand entranceway and large gilt mirror that bracket them. Similarly, the sole strip of floral wallpaper that extends to the floor in Zalika Azim’s Totem (Untitled) highlights the comfort of home against the solemnity of the gallery space.
Installation view, courtesy of Welancora Gallery
Formally, Wosene Worke Kosrof’s paintings are made up of characters from the alphabet of Amharic, an Ethiopian language. By enlarging, re-arranging and placing the letters into AbEx reminiscent colour fields, he strips them of their content and encourages the viewer to instead explore their form. This process, which he describes as “choreographing” allows some kind of universal understanding of the language in aesthetic terms.
For the majority of viewers, the meaning of the words and letters that make up each work is irrelevant, a fact which drives home the artist’s message, best communicated with the simple dictum in the exhibition’s title. For Kosrof, the meaning doesn’t matter. Words don’t matter simply as a vehicle for communicating meaning; they have intrinsic value of their own.
Wosene Worke Kosrof, Sea of Words IV (2018), courtesy of Skoto Gallery and the artist