Last month, Pioneer Place Mall came down hard on Portland’s art scene when it suddenly forced closed its own local experimental arts space, Place Gallery. But the closure did little to stop Place Gallery Director Gabe Flores. The artist and curator has already stepped up his game, starting up a host of new independent projects.
Foremost among those projects is the new experimental space, Surplus Space Gallery, which Flores co-directs with curator Travis Nikolai. Originally scheduled to run concurrently with Place’s programming, Surplus is a house that was converted into an art exhibition space as an experimental project. In addition to Surplus, Flores and his collaborators are also launching a radio project titled Some Lady in New York on XRAY 96.1 FM, beginning this week.
Flores initially expected Place to run through November 2015. But in late February, after a series of exhibitions led to a chastising letter from Pioneer Place General Manager Bob Buchanan, things began to change drastically. Though Flores reached out to make what adjustments he could to continue operating the space, Place received a notice of lease termination on March 19.
Pioneer Place Mall, which subsidized the art space’s rent, cited financial reasons in the termination notice. The Place staff remain convinced that the termination was a response to a recent series of controversial exhibitions. But while Flores regrets the string of canceled shows caused by the change, he remains upbeat.
“It reminded me that it was just a project,” he said of the closure. “When you’re in and performing a project, it’s hard to remember that there is an endpoint. Even if you tell yourself that it ends, while you’re in it there’s still a sense that it’s something more like a job. It’s nice to be able to look back at what we did, and have some time for reflection before the new project begins.”
Information about Place’s closure, including transcripts of final correspondences, is available online at placepdx.com.
Flores pointed out that the location and context of Surplus makes it a fundamentally different project from Place. Whereas Place’s location in a downtown mall gave it the feel of an institution, Surplus will have what Flores described as lived-in and neighborhood components, all of which will figure prominently into the work showing. He also noted that there will be an aspect of going through the remaining belongings of the owner, a friend who consented to the process.
“In the same way that Place was an experiment, Surplus is an experiment on multiple levels,” Flores said. “When you go through someone’s collection, you’re looking over their values and making decisions based on those values. Galleries and institutions are very similar in terms of collecting on someone’s values: What is allowed in, what isn’t allowed in?”
Nikolai, Surplus co-director and curator, explained that part of the project entailed Flores living in the house and residing with the art itself.
“Part of the interest in it for Flores is having to live around somebody else’s curation, to broaden his own vocabulary,” Nikolai said.
For Surplus, Nikolai is adopting a curatorial direction focusing on politically-engaged work. The current show, which features artists Caitlin Rose Sweet and Daniel Duford, involves installation, paintings and drawings gathered around themes of gender. Their previous show, by the Naught Collective, involved social practice sessions discussing new, anarchistic approaches to the education system.
“A lot of people make work like this, but I think part of the interest in this space, is having the work centered around a parlor as a space for discussion of these sorts of things,” Nikolai said. “I’m interested in hearing what other people are interested in talking about.”
Flores agreed and pointed to the neighborhood as a particularly important aspect of the politics weaving through the works showing at Surplus.
“We’re using current events and phenomena as social and politically relevant work, and asking artists to respond in that way,” Flores said. “What’s really interesting about these two folks is that they’re very familiar with the neighborhood. I could probably hit a tennis ball through his house from my house. And [Rose Sweet] used to live in a house next door, so they’re very familiar with the area. So it’s really fun to have these embedded responses.”
Place, which operated for nearly four years, joins a number of Portland-based contemporary art spaces that have closed their doors in recent years, including Alberta’s Appendix Space in winter 2013 and Worksound in summer 2012. Place’s abrupt closure, as well as its location in the mall, set its end apart from others. But Flores asserts that Place’s clash with the American consumer culture of the mall illustrates important questions for today’s art world.
“I think that it’s really important because of how we end up seeing art, and what we think art should and shouldn’t be allowed to say, and the kind of conversations that are acceptable in art,” he said. “When it becomes too challenging, it’s because it mimics too close what we see in the everyday experience.”
Flores acknowledges that while Place is closed, the project around Place is ongoing. Currently, he hopes to ensure that Pioneer Place continues to reserve his former space for future art endeavors, and that those art spaces are held to the same standards as the mall’s consumer spaces. Much of the debate around Place’s closure centered around complaints leveled with the gallery about issues that were overlooked for consumer spaces. Among the complaints against Place were the use of a visible swear word, references to violence in art versus interactive violence in video games, and a video critique about American consumerism itself.
Ultimately, Flores is gracious for the experience of Place and is looking forward to the advance and completion of Surplus. He also has a few other upcoming projects in store, though he opted to keep the details close to his chest. But he pointed to the opportunity to work with others, such as Nikolai, to be a primary benefit of his new situation with Surplus.
“In the house, living with somebody else’s work becomes very important,” Flores said. “Being able to do it with someone like [Nikolai], who is incredibly respectful and polite, but is also willing to push it. By adding other voices, I can add a level of strength to the process, and it becomes a more interesting engagement for myself. And I think if it’s more interesting for me, it’s probably going to be more interesting to someone else that might be coming to it for the first time.”
As of this printing, Surplus’ second exhibition opening has ended, but works by both Duford and Rose Sweet remain available for viewing each Saturday through the month. Surplus will also have a temporary quality, operating no later than November 2015, but Nikolai pointed out that this was an important and positive aspect of the alternative project space.
“I do hope the project goes on for awhile,” he said. “But in alternative spaces, it’s very important for them to be ephemeral. To keep moving and to adapt to the needs of the community itself.”