Hyattsville added another feather to its artistic cap this summer with the opening of AWork Gallery. East City Art had the pleasure of sitting down this week with gallery director Garth Rockcastle and his assistant Laura Schlifer to discuss the genesis behind this unique space and review the current show Intellectual Property featuring the work of local Maryland artist Courtney Miller Bellairs.
AWork is devoted to exploring the numerous links between the realms of architecture and the visual arts, a fact deftly (and immediately) alluded to in the physical layout of the gallery space. Rockcastle, a long-time collector of art and an architect by training, is both a professor at University of Maryland, College Park as well as a partner in the architecture firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd. AWork arose from his desire to investigate the commonalities between, and forge a creative dialogue amongst, artists and the architecture community.
That creative dialogue is immediately apparent as one enters the front door. While the four perimeter walls function just like a “traditional” gallery (with works professionally hung and labeled), the interior of the room is given over to the full-time architecture practice. Ingeniously, the office furniture is on casters and can be collapsed around the room’s two central beams (which hold all the wiring and electronics), becoming all but invisible for gallery openings and special events. Schlifer likened the rotating exhibitions to the changing of the seasons, noting the changing exhibitions, “put you in a different mood” as new shows transform the space. AWork is more focused on a specific genre or type of content than many galleries, and we wondered how artists are chosen for representation. Not surprisingly, Rockcastle is keenly interested in artists who reinterpret or challenge our visual assumptions around the layout of three-dimensional space. Further, in his day-t0-day practice, he focuses on adaptive reuse of architectural spaces and thus leans towards artists who exhibit knowledge of, or reference past artistic practices while at the same time placing their own creative stamp on their work; think of it as “adaptive reuse” of art.
With this explanation in mind, we turned to the art of Courtney Miller Bellairs. Bellairs’ intermingling of her architectural studies (M.Arch from Yale) and painting (study in London) gels nicely with the ethos of the gallery. The title, Intellectual Property, is apropos; these works are meant to be studied — not merely gazed upon. The fifty-plus works in the exhibition display a range of media from traditional oils to to recycled fabrics. With such a large, diverse body of work, the show takes on gleanings of a retrospective (as it turns out, some works in the show were created as far back as 2001) and its becomes harder to focus intently on any one artistic idiom. That said, certain themes continually rise to the top, and we have the pleasure of watching her ideas crystallize over time. Bellairs is clearly interested in the “architecture of everyday things” when, through uniform repetition and spatial manipulation, she imbues seemingly mundane objects, such as in Coffee Cups (2001), with a unique sense of scale and a feeling of almost reptilian consciousness. Other pieces from that time frame, such as Lipstick Palette (2001) seem to reflect the artist’s desire to harness the random, chaotic energy of nature via carefully devised architectural structures.
By mid-decade she is working with a variety of mixed media that give her work a greater sense of depth and texture. Untitled (2005), an austere piece composed of tags, string and graphite, gives a bow to 60’s minimalism, yet also pushes her investigation of creating order amongst chaos, through tightly controlling the layout of the elements. The addition of objects into the piece heightens the sense of drama by literally leaping out of the two-dimensional plane.
Fully half the show was created within the last year, and this is where we find the most edifying works, as her ideas have continued to germinate. Her work now runs the gamut from fabric-laden pieces to handmade mono prints, and display a new-found playfulness while still honing closely to her interest in
manipulation of space and form. Highlights include the VS series, a mixed-media series featuring scraps of fabric torn from a Victoria’s Secret nightshirt. Here Bellairs not only works within an architectural grid, but also appropriates the old letters to create new text, and therefore new meaning. The resulting new patchwork has the look reminiscent of a 19th century quilt while feeling thoroughly modern in form. Also striking in its simple marriage of form and idiom is Circles, 2011 (image below). Disjointed, rectangular swatches of grandma’s wallpaper form the molds that hold in place well-known circular shapes immediately identifiable as beloved kitchen treats. Here the artist distills nostalgia down to geometric shape, and once again heightens that tension by confining it within a tightly formed grid. Its definitely food for thought!
All-in-all this is a great show for art lovers who demand their art to be as intellectually stimulating as it is pretty to look at. We’re excited to see what future shows AWork has in store!
AWork gallery is located at 4328 Farragut Street in downtown Hyattsville. For further gallery information, visit their website at www.aworkgallery.net