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November 21 to December 20, 2008

In Gallery Two

Dead Center / Marginal Notes:
Lockett & Hermetic

Curated by John Neff for Western Exhibitions, Chicago | Images

snaphot of the Hermetic Gallery in 1996 at the 820 East Locust location, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Lockett & Hermetic is the final installment of Dead Center / Marginal Notes, a yearlong series of shows curated for Western Exhibitions' Gallery Two by John Neff. All of the artworks presented in the program have dealt, directly or indirectly, with the relationships of margins to centers (culturally, geographically, politically and within works themselves as a formal concern). Many of the pieces shown in the series were produced during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Lockett & Hermetic will profile two Midwestern exhibition spaces, the Robbin Lockett gallery and the Hermetic gallery, active during and after that era.

Chicago's Robbin Lockett gallery opened in January of 1986 and remained in business until late 1992. From its inception, the small commercial gallery's program pointedly mixed local art with work from more widely recognized centers of production. Like much mainstream art of the 1980s and 90s, the work shown at Lockett relied heavily on precedents set by Minimalism and Conceptualism, with a few notable exceptions. In this regard, Lockett's stable of artists participated in what is often seen as a generational shift in Chicago art: from the self-consciously quirky figuration of the Imagists to the more apparently polished production of a group of younger artists variously described as participating in trans-regional Neo-Conceptual, Neo-Minimal or generically “Postmodernist” movements. (Given the distance of time, all of these labels seem imprecise. Applied to post-1945 American art in general, the former terms assume a model of rupture and return where a continuity is clearly visible, while from the perspective of Chicago art specifically the latter formulation ignores the proto-postmodernity of Paschke, Ramberg et al. while also eliding their – admittedly sometimes oblique –influence on the development of Chicago artists emerging in the mid-1980s.)

In keeping with the methods of their acknowledged art-historical forbearers, the artists exhibiting at the Robbin Lockett gallery occasionally referred to or incorporated the gallery's architecture and practice into their shows, often while simultaneously maintaining a self-consciously blank aesthetic orientation. The gallery's program was thus marked by a paradoxically cosmopolitan style of site-specificity that strove to validate Chicago production not, as earlier Midwestern artists had, by emphasizing the peculiarity of a regional vision, but rather by high- lighting some Chicago-based artists' adept deployment of a loose set of aesthetic and professional conventions that was at that time formalizing as the operational code of an emergent global art culture. As gallery owner Robbin Lockett said in a 1987 New York Times article on Chicago's then-thriving art market, "It helps to have New York connections... But we're getting more press and critical support and gradually collectors are becoming supportive of young artists working here. What I'm trying to get them used to is that good work can come from any- where. It doesn't have to have the New York stamp of approval."

It is productive to reflect on the ways in which the evaluative standards for "good work" of the sort Lockett described were themselves the product of a provincial center's aspirations to cosmopolitan good taste. That is to say, to consider how the “New York stamp of approval” came to be thought of as a general imprimatur of high quality only after that city overcame – with, as is always the case, a lift from changing economic and political winds – certain struggles with the elitisms of European Modernism to become the curiously universal location of all significant achievement in visual art.

Shortly after the closure of the Robbin Lockett gallery, the artist, critic and curator Nicholas Frank opened his Hermetic gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Like Chicago's contemporaneous Uncomfortable Spaces, Hermetic mixed a DIY model of funding and publicity learned from older artist-run alternative spaces with a standardized visual style and interest in building extra-local business relationships borrowed from financially self-sustaining commercial art galleries. However, unlike some of his Chicago contemporaries, Frank did not view this arrangement as an intermediate step in a process of achieving professional legitimacy. Instead, he concentrated on developing the small gallery as a form in itself. Perhaps this change in focus resulted from Frank's apprehension of the inevitably absurd situation of any gallerist attempting to profit from the display and sale of abstract and conceptual art in a mid-sized Midwestern city (especially in an era prior to the ubiquity of the internet and international art fairs).

Frank's interest in and development of the formal properties of the small art gallery may also have stemmed from his tendency to playfully intertwine his roles in the various disciplines of contemporary visual art. From the beginning, the Hermetic functioned both as a forum for traditional art exhibits and as a platform for a wide variety of other types of public presentation, from broadsheets to lectures to radio shows. Most of these manifestations involved unique textual and visual settings designed by Frank. Further, deploying the concept of "platformism" – a term coined by artist and writer David Robbins to describe art practices using social space as their "medium”–Frank explicitly positioned some of the gallery's later activities as his own artwork. Effectively, the gallery was anything but hermetic, opening outward as it did against the multiple fields of Milwaukee, the Midwest and trans-regional contemporary art.

In this way, Hermetic as a project might be seen as extending the formal logic of some artists exhibited at the Robbin Lockett gallery. For example, like the painter Gaylen Gerber, Frank's practice in or through gallery space as such tended to conceptually unify the art object with its display context while simultaneously maintaining a clear physical distinction between the two. However, Frank did this in re- verse, constituting his platform through the objects it supported rather than, like Gerber (or, to use another example, Tony Tasset in his bench and "shipping" sculptures), stressing the art object's dependence on contextual contingencies. This meant that, for Frank and Hermetic, questions of audience were not con- fined to relatively insular debates about the status and theatricality of the art object, but rather expanded outward in two directions to ask first, what the artwork demands from the exhibition space and, second, what various publics expect from galleries.

One of Frank's final exhibits through Hermetic presented The Hermetic Archive, a collection of art- works, ephemera, essays and photographs arranged within the gallery space to form a chronological account of its career. The show was another mischievous tweaking of mainstream contemporary art's conventions of display and reception, as it is unusual for a small art gallery to explicitly formulate its own historical record (although the practice does occur in older, wealthier businesses with an economic and social stake in establishing an image of historical importance). It is even rarer for an art space to chart its history as a meta-commentary on the facts and feints of the art world: viewers of the Archive - especially those who see the project in conjunction with Frank's ongoing Nicholas Frank Biography - are left in doubt as to what in the record is actual and what is a flight of fancy. The Archive thus charts a mysterious terrain between ideas, places and concrete objects.

Dead Center / Marginal Notes: Lockett & Hermetic will present several components of The Hermetic Archive on loan from the personal collection of Nicholas Frank, whose artwork is now represented by Western Exhibitions. The show will also include a collection of announcements, invitations, images and reviews relating to the Rob- bin Lockett gallery gathered by the curator from publicly accessible archives. Additionally, a public panel held at Western Exhibitions during the show, organized by the curator and critic Kathryn Hixson, will bring together some participants in the Chicago art world circa 1990 to discuss that era. Considering the trajectories – stories that may not yet be histories – of the Robbin Lockett gallery and the Hermetic gallery, we are compelled to ask certain difficult and possibly troubling questions about the development of con- temporary art in culture. For example, how do works of contemporary art, especially those made away from acknowledged centers of production, deny or reflect their origins? Who are the intended audiences for galleries of "advanced" art located in provincial cities, and do those audiences actually see the art- works and galleries addressing their vision? Do those audiences actually exist? And why, despite their integral roles in the creation and display of much contemporary visual art, are art galleries themselves so seldom discussed in complex aesthetic or theoretical terms: why are discussions of their art-historical roles so often limited to the anecdotal?

- Adapted from the exhibition essay by John Neff

More on Dead Center/ Marginal Notes here