AMONG THE GREAT unanswerable questions that haunt our city is this one: Why is there a giant, crappy K-Mart superstore sitting in the middle of Nicollet Avenue?
For a city that is second-to-none in making catastrophic urban planning blunders, surely the decision in the late-‘70s to plop down a strip mall in the middle of one of the city’s most-used thoroughfares ranks as one of the most nearsighted. It has essentially created two different Nicollet Avenues in south Minneapolis: the fun Nicollet Avenue north of Lake Street that is full of bubble tea, brownstones, MCAD students and Asian fusion restaurants; and the crappy Nicollet Avenue south of Lake Street, where you go to drop off U-Haul trucks and test drive your new car tires to find out how well they deal with potholes.
It’s on the latter Nicollet Avenue that Art Of This Gallery is located. While I shouldn’t write the neighborhood off as completely charmless – the Mexican place across the street isn’t bad, and there’s a great little vintage shop next door – the stretch of Nicollet Avenue the gallery is located on at 35th Street is pretty featureless. It’s a lot of vacant lots and generic mid-century beige boxes. Of course, it’s these sorts of unremarkable neighborhoods that afford the best opportunities for imaginative use of space – before the 1970s and 1980s, the Warehouse District was a gritty, post-industrial nowhere, and before the 1990s, Northeast Minneapolis was a sleepy, vaguely ethnic enclave with some terrifying corner bars and some very charming churches. Both these areas were full of pretty cheap, open, modest spaces that gave young emerging artists and curators room to try anything they could think of. Perhaps this slice of the southside, choked off from the cosmopolitan delights of Eat Street by bad urban planning, will spur similar practices in this decade. That’s how these things work. The practice of making contemporary art is so informed by real estate that they probably ought to teach land-use regulation in art school right between color theory and Joseph Beuys appreciation seminar.
Art Of This, a sort of odd name choice I always assumed must be a tribute to Peggy Guggenheim’s Art Of This Century, was started a few years ago near Powderhorn Park by a few local artists, and recently relocated to its present Kingfield location. Art Of This is, like the neighborhood in which it sits, modest – a storefront, a few hundred square-feet of open space, a basement with a bar and a small movie screen. But it’s hard for me to think of any gallery space in the Twin Cities that has so consistently in recent years devoted itself so wholeheartedly to recklessly passionate all-over-the-map programming. Perhaps the word "reckless" gives short shrift to the obvious planning that goes into each show, but every show I’ve seen there since the beginning of the year has been at the very least thought-provoking, and at best totally thrilling and strange and confounding in a way that makes me feel like I’m not quite living my life to it’s full potential, if that’s not, um, overstating the case too terribly.
Even the shows that don’t completely work (I wasn’t a big fan of the Jo Jackson/Chris Johansen exhibition, for example) aren’t for lack of trying. Art Of This succeeds largely, I think, because whatever is happening in the space is always about the artist – the gallery is very neutral and unadorned, completely blank and with no architectural or design-related distractions, but it’s small enough to impose potentially-interesting logistical restrictions. Some contemporary art spaces, especially located in reclaimed buildings, can either give the artist a lot of leeway in providing interesting distractions to play off of, like odd fixtures or textures. Others are large enough in scale to impart a kind of monumental quality to work that may not totally deserve it. Art Of This provides neither of these qualities, physically. It’s the classic "clean, well-lighted place," as the art critic Dave Hickey memorably named his 1960s-era Texas gallery.
This summer, the gallery has been using the space to positive effect to forgo standard multi-week programming in a series of what they’re calling One Nighters, a series of one-night-only openings that blend visual art, performance, video and anything else the artist brings to the table. There’s something appealingly ephemeral about this sort of undertaking, and maybe even a wry little dig at gallery-going conventions – who goes to shows after the opening night anyway? Like the Ramones used to say about their setlist, if you don’t like one song, you just have to wait around for two minutes and there’ll be a new one. You don’t like a One Nighter, there’ll be a completely new one soon enough. And regardless of whether or not you like it, you’ll certainly be moved to consider your values as they relate to art, which is something a worthwhile exhibition, large or small, will always do.
Case in point: I wandered into Golden Energy, Heartland/Hardland‘s recent One Nighter performance-cum-thrift-shop-freakout, and after ten minutes felt half like a confounded old man (I believe my esteemed Vicious Circle colleague Michael Fallon had a similar reaction to their work recently), and half like it was time for me to strip down to caveman underwear and go running through Kingfield yelling lines from Wild in the Streets at the top of my lungs. How many recent art openings can you say that for? We can debate in the comments below whether inducing complete sensory overload is a valid aesthetic technique or not, but that night at least, I was sold.
There’s several more planned for the rest of the summer and fall, including this upcoming Saturday night, August 16. A small group of Minneapolitans and Madisonians calling themselves the Rotarians Society, who seem to position themselves somewhere on the ideological spectrum between Mad Men and the International Order of Friendly Raccoons on The Honeymooners, will be making a presentation about a project they’ve been working on called "Tate Fabrication." It begins promptly at 7:30pm, and seating is limited.