The concept of space has gone through innumerable transformations over the centuries, with both philosophical and scientific nerds discussing, debating and sometimes vehemently arguing over what exactly space is--and, boy howdy, there's nothin' like watching the tweed a flyin' at an academic catfight! What cannot be denied or clawed away is the fact that space, however defined, has a profound effect on the brain and the psyche. The size of a space impacts our perception of and reaction to it physically, emotionally and psychologically. Add a color or many colors and the perception/reaction changes. Add an object or many objects and change occurs again.
Artists--at least those who know what they're doing--use spatial effect in their work to influence the audience experience, imparting feelings of anxiety, surprise, joy, discomfort, or some combination thereof to varying degrees. In the presence of the most abstract of works, it's not always apparent why or how this is happening, but it can be a very powerful thing indeed.
Curators also employ spatial effect as they decide where a work should be displayed within the larger space and in relation to other work. Like visual artists, they usually begin work with the 3-D equivalent of a blank canvas, standing before it mute and terrified, vacillating between thoughts of "You can do this!" and "Run away!" So when a curator faces the planning of an exhibition for a gallery housed in a building not specifically designed for the display of art, the stakes and the terror are ratcheted up to another level.
Usable Space, founded by artists Keith Nelson and Michael Roberts, presents just such a challenge to the exhibit-master. Tucked away on South Hilbert Street and nestled on the ground floor of an underutilized industrial building in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood, a garage door functions as the front door, with an incline leading to a long and narrow 500 square foot gallery space with no natural light--a peculiar spatial configuration guaranteed to give even the very skilled curator a few sleepless nights.
One chilly and rainy night back in March, I made my way to Usable Space to meet Nelson and discuss the gallery's upcoming exhibition schedule. I'm not gonna lie to ya, kids, twas a bit creepy wandering down Hilbert Street, which runs all of two blocks and turns into a service drive once ya get past the railroad tracks. As I stood under the protection of my umbrella, waiting for Nelson to join me at the gallery, the dark quiet of the old industrial complex triggered visions of film noir and a shiver played down my spine.
Anyhoo, the first Usable Space exhibition, Information Processors, curated by Shane Walsh, was held waaay back in October of 2013, bringing in about 300 attendees. Watching Nelson open the gallery garage door, I understood immediately why there had not been any shows during the winter months. Too damn cold, people!
Moving into the gallery, he noted all the work he and his partner Roberts had done, like scrubbing the stone walls clean, building and installing the white walls inherent to the traditional gallery space, etc. It looked great and definitely felt bigger in person than photos would suggest.
But there was more, much more. Nelson opened the back door and revealed something that I had no idea existed: A courtyard garden, shooting just as straight and narrow as the gallery but adding some 10,000 square feet to the exhibition space. Holy cow and other sacred animals! At the time of my visit, there were piles of dirt and some trees waiting patiently for spring to come so Roberts could turn his green thumb upon them, but a great promise of art displayed in the natural elements was most certainly there.
Okay, so the Usable Space 2014 exhibition schedule will include six shows from April through September, one per month, each curated by different folks. Again, winter months are off the table, so those of you who really enjoy frostbite on your sensitive areas--you know who you are--will just have to find somewhere else to feed your desire for tundra art.
The first show of the season opens tonight, Friday April 18. It's a double whammy of painting, Some Night's When Nothing Happens, curated by Kristopher Benedict, and an installation by Kristina Rolander, Missing You, in the fabulous courtyard garden.
Swing on by Usable Space, 1950 S. Hilbert Street in Milwaukee, anytime between 6 and 9PM. The gallery will also be open tomorrow from 11AM-3PM, or you can make a fancy appointment by emailing Keith Nelson at keithchristo at yahoo dot com or message him on Facebook.