Working in alternative spaces has been invaluable for my career as an artist.
A few weeks ago, an acquaintance was at my studio looking at some of the work I had completed over the past decade. A water pipe had burst in my space the previous weekend, and I was in the process of checking the work for damage (there was none, fortunately). My friend stood patiently as I looked things over. As we were preparing to leave, she finally confessed that three or four artists could have produced my work rather than one set of hands.
Every several years, I go through a stylistic molt. I become restless and begin to fret that my work is becoming too easy to execute and think about. I then enter a period of disposable experimentation during which most of what I produce ends up in the garbage can. Out of many false starts and tribulations, a new series emerges with little or no overt resemblance to the preceding series. Connections do exist, but they are, admittedly, subtle. Ten years ago, I was making atmospheric drawings of deep space and particle chambers. These I followed with small, hard-edged paintings of patterns cut from folded paper. The scissors I used to cut these patterns migrated to my latest series, which consists of oozy acrylic pours that are excised and arranged into chromatically exuberant paintings that sometimes fill an entire room.
Needless to say, such stylistic indeterminacy is a tough sell in the commercial gallery world. Few places are willing to take chances on artists who refuse to adopt a signature “look.” Collectors who bought work at a particular time might be turned off (and bewildered) by the artist’s latest project. Just last year I was approached by a New York gallery interested in my aforementioned drawings. When I sent images of my current work in addition to the drawings, the director told me to contact her again only if I decide to revisit the drawing series.
I confess I have been tempted, on occasion, to settle down in order to gain entrance to a commercial gallery. What has kept me from doing so—besides the claustrophobia that overtakes me when I imagine being bound to one series till death do us part—is the thriving scene of alternative spaces both in Chicago and throughout the U.S. These spaces can range from well-funded and critically regarded nonprofits and university sponsored galleries to artist-run storefronts, converted garages, apartment rooms and even hotel rooms. What they have in common is the willingness to show new, unconventional and sometimes embryonic work. Their decidedly noncommercial bent allows artists to focus on a process, rather than a sale, and pushes them to make conceptual, material and methodological leaps—even if those leaps sometimes fall short.
My personal experience has been primarily with nonprofit spaces. Time and again, these spaces have abetted my artistic maturation. In 1998, when I was just starting to put my work in the public sphere, I was given a solo show at Chicago’s now defunct Artemisia Gallery, an artist-run space. The Artemisia show impelled me to pull together, for the first time, a body of work that was aesthetically coherent. It taught me how to present that work professionally since I was responsible for curating the pieces, hanging and lighting them, and preparing marketing materials, from an exhibition card to press packets. I also learned about some of the ways an artist can cover exhibition expenses when I applied for and received a grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs for my show.
Several years after the Artemisia exhibit, which consisted primarily of delicate graphite and pastel drawings, I was wrist-deep in acrylic paint and coveting a white cube of a room in which to execute a painting installation. I had never before worked with these materials or on this scale, but I was determined to find a space in which to realize my project (despite recurring night sweats over the thought I may be overshooting myself). The Urban Institute for Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids, Michigan agreed to take on my project, and after two years of diligent labor and editing, I installed Some Assembly Required in one of their galleries. Because of the site dependent nature of the project—which was made up of bright acrylic circles that wrapped around the gallery’s four walls from floor to ceiling—neither I nor the UICA staff knew what the final product would look like until I hung my last circle. The uncertainty did not rattle the UICA, which supported my efforts from start to finish.
After the UICA show, I immediately began searching for ways to expand upon the ideas I had introduced at that venue. I wanted to ramp up the scale of the project and tighten its conceptual foundation. This time, I was fortunate to partner with a Chicago-based nonprofit, the Hyde Park Art Center. HPAC turned their downtown space, In the Loop Gallery, over to me. They also invited me to do a corollary installation at their main facility. In addition to reaching hundreds of new viewers and garnering press attention, the project (entitled Bilateral Symmetry) boosted my confidence substantially. After spending more than 20 hours installing the HPAC show—which was two stories tall and required the services of a lift—I feel certain I can handle pretty much any project I conceive.
While I haven’t given up hope of finding a commercial gallery that tolerates my stylistic peregrinations, I continue researching and applying for shows at alternative spaces throughout the Chicago region and beyond. If it weren’t for this network of spaces, I may have felt compelled to narrow my artistic practice and focus long ago. Or, as my friend suggested with her tongue in her cheek, concoct a collection of alter-identities and submit proposals for a group show. Now that’s an idea worth considering...
Vera Scekic has been exhibiting her work at a variety of spaces in Chicago and beyond. She created painting installations for the Hyde Park Art Center and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (Michigan). Scekic has also participated in solo, two-person and group exhibitions at Artemisia Gallery, 3Arts Gallery, the South Bend Regional Museum of Art, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, the Evanston Art Center, Klein Art Works, the Baton Rouge Center for Contemporary Art, Roosevelt University and Loyola University, among other spaces. Scekic attended Stanford University, where she received a B.A. in history.