What would it be like for an artist to hear people discuss their work as if they weren’t there?
That’s what artists found out last weekend at Corner, Lynn Basa’s gallery in Avondale, during the Cabinet of Secret Paintings Show, which is both an exhibition and a performance.
Curator Betsy Zacsek wrote of the show, “The Cabinet of Secret Paintings is an exhibit of artworks that were never meant to be seen. It features works that tell a private story, works for personal reflection, works have a loaded past, works that reveal too much vulnerability to ever be shared with the public, displayed in a conventional gallery setting, or subjected to critique. This is a rare opportunity to examine artists’ personal creative practices through dialogue and revelation and to confront otherwise forbidden works.”
Visitors to the event walked into the gallery to see completely empty walls and a very, very large wooden cabinet. Zacsek removed a painting (or drawing or work on fabric) one at a time from the cabinet and read from what the artist wrote about their secret painting.
Adding to the unusual nature of this event, no photography or social media was permitted in order to respect the secret nature of the work. The artists, who may or may not have been present, all went unnamed.
As Zacsek read the artists’ words, there were gasps, or laughter. Exactly the opposite of what usually happens at a gallery opening. Following the performance part of the evening, any artists who were present then had the very unusual experience of hearing others discuss their work as if they weren’t there.
The removal of the opportunity of the artists to brag about or even claim their work combined with visitors’ inability to say something nice to the artist about their work – because no one knew whose art was whose – completely transformed this exhibition.
Lynn Basa said “whether the artists felt the work was unfinished, or felt vulnerable by the emotion revealed in the work, she was touched by the trust they put in Zacsek and Corner in allowing us to present it."
An unnamed artist who had work in the show and was present at the event writes, “For me it feels empowering to show my work that was never intended to be shown. I feel like I got something huge off my chest, while protecting the identity of not only myself but also the person involved in my story so there's no fear of retaliation.
“Most importantly, the parameters of the show were very clear so I could trust that my work and myself would have complete anonymity. Being in the show doesn't change how I feel about showing the work as my particular piece reveals something about a person, but it feels cathartic to tell this story and know others are hearing and seeing a painful moment in my life.”
That quote came to me through Zacsek, who has guarded the identities of the artists as a therapist would the words of their patients. Zacsek also reported that one participant in the show brought their partner of 20 years to the show, where the partner saw the artwork for the first time, along with the room of strangers.
Another unnamed artist shared that post-showing, they realized “having this piece in the show has taught me that I am just the caretaker for it.”
What motivated Zacsek to become this guardian of this un-showable art? Like many artists, any experience she has in life may end up in her art or curation. Years ago, an artist friend of hers invited a small circle of trusted friends over to her studio to share artworks. The artworks had never been shown to anyone and she never intended to exhibit the works.
One by one, the artist pulled the artworks out of a large cabinet, and told the story behind the piece.
That idea stayed with Zacsek all these years until it coalesced into this show, where she replicated the experience, only this time with a wider group of artists’ work and a larger audience, including strangers.
I asked Zacsek about that:
What prompted you at this time, to take the inspiration and make it into a show?
BZ: The original experience--when my friend showed her secret painting to her few close friends after a group critique, in a similar manner, removing it from a storage cabinet that was filled with supplies rather than artworks and telling us the story and how it manifested in this art work -- was so powerful that the we realized as a group that it would be a really interesting premise for a show.
It was allowed to marinate for years in my mind, shifting form a little bit until Lynn Basa opened Corner this year. Since we'd worked together on community projects before, Lynn wanted to know if I had anything in mind for her new social/neighborhood integrated storefront gallery, and this seemed like the perfect fit for this show.
I do a lot of happenings that deal with scarce resources or urban terrain, but this show needed a warm, friendly space that understood the mission of bringing artists together and the experimental format. The opportunity was perfect.
It's a challenge to work full time, teach part time and also curate a show like this andbuild a custom cabinet, why is it worth it? or, what motivates you to take on this kind of labor of love?
BZ: Of course that's a challenge!! Artists' motivations can be hard to express.... I just thought this could be such a powerful idea, that I never consider the fatigue that comes in close to a deadline or an opening. I had a phenomenal support system in having a partner with wood working skills, a gallery that gave me free range, and a network of wonderful artists who bolstered my confidence as I got to meet with them individually and collect their works and enthusiasm. The project had a lot of inertia to carry it through. And I feel so grateful to everyone involved that I think its more than worth it.
It sounds like this experience has been cathartic for the artists involved, and perhaps instructive, in terms of works that they thought should never see the light of day are actually not sucky. What's your experience around this show? Have your thoughts on that issue changed as a result of doing this show? Will you now be more willing to show work that's crazy-vulnerable or that feels raw or unfinished?
BZ: I experienced a lot of anxiety around this show--I think some of its because of the personal subject matter and the responsibility I feel in keeping others' secrets. But some of it was the vulnerability of using my body and my presence as a figurehead in their stories. I am basically telling a first-person story while installing artwork as a public performance. I work as a Teaching Artist, and I've done other performative happenings, but not at this level before. The entire show is a crazy vulnerable unfinished experience for me, but I think any time people validate a risk that you take its encouragement to do it again and bigger next time, so yes, I'm more willing to take risks in both my studio work and my hybrid events.
There will be an encore performance on Wednesday, June 3. Doors will open at 7 pm, show starts at 7:30.
Closing reception -- Tuesday, June 16, 6:30 - 9 pm
Photo by Juneer Kibria