The Domestic Art Space: Tales from Two Cities

December 21, 2009 · Print This Article

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran a lengthy article profiling what writer Penelope Green described as “a new wave of gallerists who for a grab-bag of reasons—economic, philosophical and purely pragmatic—are turning their homes into art galleries” in New York City. Titled “Is it Art or Their Shoes?” the piece’s headline image featured Sarah Gavlak, one of the curators of such spaces, wearing a bright red mini-dress whilst sitting primly on her cream-colored bedspread, framed on either side by the artworks displayed on her bedroom walls.

New York Times

Green goes on to note that Gavlak’s home is “stunningly spare”:

Ms. Gavlak’s personal effects are in one of two walk-in closets; artwork is in the other. Like a good saloniste, she eats breakfast on a tray in bed and then slides it underneath the dust ruffle. Her kitchen is as clean and uncluttered as that of a model apartment in a new condominium. (Home gallerists as a whole are not given to the display of random tchotchkes; further, they know how to hide their hair brushes and the Verizon bill).

This description made me laugh. Although no two apartment galleries are alike (therein lies the true beauty of the form), if you visit a domestic art space in Chicago you’re apt to see freely trafficking pets (and kids), overstuffed bookshelves, and cozy kitchens where something yummy-smelling always seems to be bubbling on the stove. Whereas Gavlak has transformed her entire home into an exactingly considered art installation (a tactic that I admittedly find compelling) many (though certainly not all) of the domestic art spaces I’ve visited in Chicago favor an alternative tactic: one that embraces the unabashedly lived-in.

I found the Times article to be an especially interesting and somewhat ironic read, given that it appeared during the same week that we ran a series of essays on domestic art spaces here at Bad at Sports (an extension of a writing project initiated by the apartment gallery project Floor Length and Tux. To read the full complement of writings, available in downloadable .pdf form, click over to the FLAT website here). Because Chicago artists have been using their homes as project and exhibition spaces for a long time, the apartment gallery scene here has pretty much lost its initial novelty–nowadays most proprietors of domestic art spaces seem to be more concerned with the unglamorous, gritty reality of the how-do-we-keep-this- thing-going side of things.  Chicago’s thriving network of apartment galleries proves that domestic art spaces are not just about showcasing one’s beautifully appointed home (although hell, if you have one, by all means show it off!). Instead, they argue that art and life are messily inextricable. As Caroline Picard, director of Green Lantern Gallery and Press, puts it in her essay, On the matter of public space : or my apartment gallery is an arctic explorer,

“Any Chicagoan who’s hip to the jive knows that an apartment gallery poses a unique set of problems. Someone actually lives there—sleeps and cooks and poos there—and yet the obligatory neutral space of the gallery must remain white-walled, spacious, antiseptic.”

Yet as Picard and others have discovered, domestic galleries can be made all the more provocative–and an unexpectedly powerful showcase for art–when the curtain of separation between the private domain and public exhibition space is allowed to fall away, exposing the nest of domestic entanglements–food preparation, bills, correspondence, pets and children–the sorts of domestic realities that inevitably frame both the production and display of art, whether we want to admit it or not.

Carroll Dunham at He Said She Said in Oak Park, IL

The best apartment gallerists also know, as Jennifer Breckner argued in her essay On Hosting, that a successful apartment gallery requires a skilled and gracious host; a person who knows how to make strangers feel welcome and not like a foreign body who doesn’t belong there. Breckner writes,

…for a new visitor entering an apartment gallery that tries to mimic the pristine controlled exhibition space, the body feels doubly unwanted as one enters both a space for contemplation of art and a private, domestic arena that acts as a small, tightly packed social scene as well.  In addition, many apartment gallery owners fail to engage strangers in their space, and may seem indifferent to new visitors, encouraging the idea that these spaces are more for the cultural elite that exist at this ground level than for a variety of new people.

Apartment galleries provide a sense of connection and community among artists and other alienated culture workers, but the question remains: over the long term, do these spaces serve any purpose other than networking on a local level? Numerous contributors to the FLAT project expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that apartment galleries in this city haven’t brokered much in the way of discursive connections beyond the confines of the local. In her essay, Lucia Fabio expressed her dismay with this complex issue in painfully honest, and somewhat melancholic terms. After leaving Chicago (and her much buzzed-about apartment gallery, minidutch) for Los Angeles to care for a close family member, she’s finding the loss of her old identity difficult to come to terms with. “Have I just wasted two years of my life by being part of this microcosm within the little known Chicago art community, just to move to another city to be dismissed?” Fabio wondered.

I don’t have any answers to this question, but I do feel strongly that Chicago’s independent, artist-run domestic art spaces are collectively participating in a grand experiment, one that tests the vitality and sustainability of art in the absence of a viable art market. But in order to mean something, experiments need to feed into theory, and this is where the gears seem to have stuck. The history of domestic art spaces has never been adequately historicized nor theorized in this country. For example: New Republic art critic Jed Perl, who was interviewed for the Times article, admitted that he “was not sure” if there was a history to the types of domestic galleries that Gavlak and others have initiated:

“My impression of many of the hostess/salon running/gallerist types — from Peggy Guggenheim to Holly Solomon — is that they made a fairly clear distinction between home and gallery. Certainly in the secondary market there has always been a strong tradition of people who deal out of their homes, where ‘everything’ is for sale….

As for the East Village-to-today galleries in the home, maybe in spirit it’s related to Happenings and so forth. But isn’t the truth that as soon as the cash flow is strong enough, people prefer to move the business to a separate location? So it’s also–let’s face it– a style born of necessity?”

My own strong suspicion is that there is indeed a rich yet woefully undocumented history here, a history of home-based exhibition spaces that, like so many other areas relegated to “the domestic,” has been pushed aside, dismissed as charming and little else, or otherwise deemed irrelevant. It’s a history that still needs to be written. And it’s a history in which Chicago and its artists have played an essential role.

Got a response to this post? Let us know! Email your comments to  mail@badatsports.com. We’ll feature thoughtful responses to issues generated by our posts in our Letters to the Editors Feature on Saturdays.

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