Art can be safe, saleable and accessible, or it can be bold, experimental and adventurous. The same could be said of art galleries, of which San Diego has its fair share. But does it have its fair share of adventurous galleries?
“You have the key players: myself and Mark Quint. That’s IT in San Diego,” said Scott White, who recently moved his Scott White Contemporary Art from La Jolla to the Little Italy Arts District. “We’ve been trying to make things happen in this city for a long time.”
Quint, who is still in La Jolla near the south end of Girard Avenue, is willing to go a little further, pointing out that “there are some adventurous galleries in San Diego — so many of them have opened and closed. It’s hard enough if you have a product everyone wants. When you have a product that is very subjective, that very few people pay money for, it can be hard to make a living.”
Still, Quint cites Girard neighbors like the R.B. Stevenson Gallery and Joseph Bellows Gallery for their boldness, and calls Madison Gallery on Prospect an “up and comer.” Quint also suggests that in the art business — and it is a business — an “adventurous” show means different things to different gallery owners. Adventurous, he said, “can be a well-known artist’s body of work that hasn’t been shown before.” For La Jolla in particular, he said, it may mean “a mid-career artist who’s very well known in other places but hasn’t shown here.
“Most young, adventurous galleries are started by artists for their friends,” he pointed out.
In the case of artist Lynn Susholtz, she started a gallery for her neighborhood. She purchased the former North Park Produce and turned it into Art Produce Gallery, which is not only a storefront gallery entirely visible from the sidewalk on University Avenue, but “a kind of cultural collective urban community center” with three different artist studios, a coffee shop and a gallery “to create the kind of synergy that would happen in a cultural space.
“The kind of work that I show and the intention for the gallery is to have a space that is really artist-driven, where artists are required to use the site as part of the context of the neighborhood. They have the option to do experimental work — not necessarily the kind of commercial, object-based, market-driven work you’d find in commercial galleries.”
Art Produce can safely be called adventurous. “Much of the work is performative as well as interactive,” said Susholtz, “so there’s an engagement component to most of the shows, whether it’s a piece of sculpture that is motion-sensitive or actual social engagement shows where if you come in there are participatory activities, either with another person or just by yourself in the gallery.”
Susholtz’s recent show, “The Fence/La Barda,” was an installation that divides the gallery to reflect both the realities of the San Diego/Tijuana border region and how women in general negotiate borders. “A commercial gallery has a different driving force,” said Susholtz. “You’re compelled to make work that sells well. That’s not the goal here.”
You want non-commercial? How about an installation space that advertised the opening of its most recent show, “How the West Was Fun,” with the promise of “Cold Beer! Live Snakes! New Work!” — that’s Josh Pavlick’s Helmuth on Fifth Avenue in Banker’s Hill. That show’s objets d’art included the rear door of a pickup truck and beer cans … and yes, live snakes. (They were rattlers, too, behind glass.)
Pavlick lives in and operates the 1,600-square-foot space, and Helmuth’s call to would-be displaying artists is “Come do something you couldn’t do anywhere else.”
The space has been open about a year and a half and is thriving on word of mouth. Its openings “have become like (movie) wrap parties,” said Pavlick. “People expect it to be like gallery hours here, and it’s just not.” He says he’s not in this to make money: “That’s what makes it awesome. We can’t fail.”
As for whether he’s on an experimental island by himself, Pavlick believes “San Diego has always had a vibrant underground, but it’s a thin layer.”