How Much is That Metaphysical Totem Pole in the Window?

I was recently talking to a Minneapolis artist who was, as many Minneapolis artists of a certain generation are wont to do, rhapsodizing about the glory days of the Warehouse District art scene in the 1980s. Before it was home to a hundred thumping dance clubs and one of the most heroically awful franchises in the annals of professional basketball, downtown Minneapolis’ Warehouse District was a primo fine arts destination where one could live, paint and party in relative peace, on the cheap and with minimal interference from police, creditors and obnoxious suburban disco jocks. During that decade, there were a few dozen arts spaces which had carved out homes for themselves in the many spacious, abandoned buildings on and around First Avenue, and collectively created a little scene that carried on until the Target Center and the Federal Reserve muscled everyone out in the early 1990s.

One of the most attractive aspects of a lot of the Warehouse District galleries, my artist friend went on to say, is that many of the best spaces were situated in storefronts. Storefronts are, in many respects, the perfect venue for an art gallery. They’re right on the street level and generally built all the way up to the sidewalk line in pedestrian-friendly parts of town, so they interact directly with passers-by. The windows encourage the viewer to engage the art inside, creating a sense of (literal!) transparency into the gallery’s inner workings. Storefronts are usually fairly cheap to rent and maintain, and modest enough in size that an emerging artist can focus their work in a clearly-defined space without having it be completely overwhelmed by cavernous ceilings or an all-consuming sea of white drywall. Art museums and more prosperous established galleries can seem citadel-like and exclusive – think of the MIA’s imposing neoclassical façade, or the Weisman’s metallic tangles sitting up on that river bluff. Storefronts, on the other hand, invite the casual person on the street to peer into the window and come in for a plastic cup of wine. They’re a fully integrated part of the city, and if they’re sitting next to a taquería or piano repair shop or discount plumbing service, all the better for that elusive "street life" your urban planner friends are fond of chattering on about.

So theoretically, the most perfect way to interact with the community would be to strip down the storefront gallery to its most basic essence, and eliminate all the superfluous elements so that you’re left with just a front window. That’s the concept, anyway, behind south Minneapolis’ Shoebox Gallery, where the idea of the storefront gallery really is distilled it to its most basic essence. The Shoebox, run by artist Sean Smuda out of his upstairs apartment, is almost literally just a shoebox: an 8′ x 8′ display window on the Chicago Avenue side of Roberts Shoes on Lake Street (you know, "hardly a foot we can’t fit"). The window is two feet deep with drywall backing, and that’s it – minimal lighting, no floor, no front door, and certainly no wine and cheese table. When there are openings or performances, they happen out on the sidewalk on Chicago Avenue. It fulfills the basic democratic promise of an alternative arts space in essentially making the city itself a physical part of the gallery.

The Phillips-Powderhorn neighborhood in which the Shoebox is located has come a long way in the last couple of years – an early opening was interrupted by an on-street five squad-car drug bust – but it still isn’t an area that one would tend to think of as an arts Mecca. Artists had lived in the building for several years, but there was no real sense of interaction between them and the community at large. When Smuda moved into an upstairs space in the Roberts Shoes complex six years ago, one of the first ideas he had was planting some traveling vines in a problematic, crime-ridden back alley to add some green space. He then went about installing a video camera back there and looping the footage in one of the store’s display windows 24 hours a day for public viewing – putatively to monitor the growth of the vines, but also to reflect the everyday life of the neighborhood back on itself. X-Ray Alley, the first show at the Shoebox, went live in July, 2003. Indeed, criminal activity in the alley dried up almost immediately, and the owner of Roberts asked Smuda if he wanted to continue to program art in the window on an ongoing basis. He and early contributor (and current UofM printmaking professor) Jenny Schmid dubbed the space the Shoebox Gallery. It has been going ever since.

There are, of course, certain inherent limitations to running a gallery in such a space. Potential exhibitors are presented with a checklist of every conceivable calamity that could befall a piece of artwork: the space is uninsured, in direct sunlight much of the time, separated from the outside world by a mere sheet of plate glass, and alternately furnace-like or freezing, depending on the season. Moreover, it’s run by Smuda out-of-pocket, so work must be shipped by the artist at their own expense. Despite these limitations, Shoebox has consistently shown strong work by well-known artists and performers such as Schmid, Xavier Tavera, Alexa Horochowski and Emily Johnson in the last five years. The current show by Tynan Kerr, Metaphysical Totem Poles, is a charmingly ramshackle collection of art objects obsessively cobbled together from paper scraps, geometric shapes, photos, found text, wood, brick and paint. They look, sitting in the window, as if they could be the remnants of a fire sale for a psychedelic shamanistic wholesaler. Kerr left a number of his colorful, garish paintings on wooden panels outside the gallery, which over the course of the show have disappeared from the sidewalk, absorbed into the bustle of the gallery’s surroundings – who knows what southside bedroom wall they’re presently decorating? The line between the gallery and the environment it interacts with is blurred further.

For the gallery’s fifth anniversary, a group show called Beautiful Deleuzers/Guattari Hero, based on the writings of post-war French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, will be opening June 21 with a performance on the sidewalk by Kelly Meister. That’s the beauty of a storefront gallery like Shoebox. It serves as a counteractive measure against both the idea of fine art as something mystical and unapproachable, and the idea of the American city street as an alternately bland and disintegrating public space being choked to death by corporate greed, rampant crime and/or civic shortsightedness. The storefront gallery promotes the almost utopian idea that in the marketplace of ideas, Felix Guattari can exist right across the street from Wireless Toyz.