By Christopher Schnoor
Boise's newest art space is something of a departure from what we normally see in galleries here. The Visual Arts Collective (VaC) on the corner of Grove and 15th streets is housed in a former NAPA auto parts warehouse, and despite some fixing up, has retained the air and attributes of the building's mundane commercial past.
Founded by local artists/arts activists Sam and Anneliessa Stimpert, Christophe Guigon and Corrin Olson (with the assistance of Boise State sculpture professor Francis Fox), VaC's unique space has not been divided up into multiple spaces and gentrified. Rather, they left the almost 4,000 square feet wide open, save for a storage and office area in the back, leaving exposed the insulation and ventilation system high above a rough, wood beam supporting structure. Large sections of the cinderblock walls have been drywalled to accommodate art, but the concrete floor still has long, rectangular outlines on it from the rows of storage shelves that lined the space for years. The wooden shelving, glued together into 3- by 4-foot blocks and set on wheels, has very efficiently become a mobile mode of furniture. In short, VaC has an industrial look that is nevertheless fresh, youthful and inviting. It seems to promise a much needed influx of new blood and ideas.
VaC opened in September in an area of downtown that has unexpectedly become Boise's art district. For years, city agencies and local developers have sought to impose a replica of New York's "Soho" phenomenon on Boise, but such contrivances never take hold. As has happened in countless other cities, the visual arts community has gravitated to a neglected, commercial neighborhood with reasonable property values, low rent, and open possibilities, in this case the western end of Main Street and Fairview Avenue. Virtually chased there by the prohibitive rents imposed by shortsighted downtown property owners, artists and art dealers are making this area their own.
The VaC's team is counting on the versatility of their new space to allow them to pursue innovative projects that will lure others to this part of town. Anneliessa Stimpert explained that they plan to experiment with various presentation concepts, exploring the use of layers, textures and suspension from the rafters, which will enable them to play host to a range of visual and performative art forms.
The height and expansiveness of VaC's interior make it a challenging exhibition space. Any work without a strong presence will be easily diminished here, and Stimpert acknowledges that they will have to be selective in choosing art to show--not everything will be suited. While the industrial ambience gives the space a special personality, they have tempered it enough to keep it from inhibiting flexible programming. VaC's first exhibit in September-October, which featured works in metal by Fox and a number of his students, suited this space well in terms of overall feel, but was difficult to see given the preponderance of gray metallics against the grayness of the architecture.
Its current group show, "Superdelicious," which opened on November 11, fares better. It is an appropriately Pop title for a show that seems to be a celebration of artifice, from Laurie Blakeslee's surreal, trippy Babes in Toyland vignettes, to Grant Olsen's three-ring circus banners, to Bob Neal's neo-Pop icons. Altogether, the show has a colorful, carnival and cotton-candy demeanor, perhaps inadvertently enhanced by the cool, subdued setting.
Blakeslee has been making inkjet prints of staged scenes using miniature figurines since her "All Dolled Up" show at J Crist in 1999. Typically small in scale, their impact as psycho-dramas has been reduced by the "cuteness" of the figures and their accessories. This new work is in a much larger format that subverts daintiness and gives the images an unsettling edge. Some present strange encounters that eerily transform plastic into flesh and still lifes into social commentary. Bright artificial colors and beauty-pageant lighting and sets imbue other images with an extravagant, yet fragile preciousness, as summed up by the work The Artifice of Security. (In what may be considered a sister piece, Charm and Betrayal could also be titled The Artifice of Sincerity.)
In pieces like The Magic of Thinking Big and The Backward is Non Forward, the seemingly life-size and life-like presence of Blakeslee's doll and clown figurines are startlingly, nightmarishly real. The off-kilter Peace Off captures an hallucinatory funhouse experience in which a female figurine confronts the camouflage eyes of an enormous pair of masquerade glasses, the girl reaching out as if attempting to communicate with an alien being. Throughout, Blakeslee instinctively makes subtle, evocative maneuvers that manipulate the eye and mind.
Demonstrating VaC's clever use of its air space are Grant Olsen's acrylic paintings on paper which hang suspended at center stage. Olsen's playful depictions of acrobats and other circus acts, culled from various sources and painted on large sheets of Strathmore drawing paper, are given an added dimension by the use of spotlights which create reverse, negative images on the back of each. The titles, appropriated lyrics from Prince songs, are pretty funny (like the girl and dancing bear entitled You've Got to Talk to Me Baby, and What's It Going to Be for the acrobat in mid-stunt), providing a cheeky commentary on circus kitsch. But it is the presentation that really makes this work.
Bob Neal is present with three art forms--installation, sculpture and painting/collage--in what can be seen as a tribute to three aspects of the Pop sensibility which he nevertheless makes his own. I Can't Wait to Grow Up features a wide section of wall painted in a heraldic design of deep blue and red on which reside heraldic plaques displaying stuffed animals rather than hunting trophies. The work has the look of Jeff Koons' satires on popular cultural consumption with one important difference. Rather than exuding Koons' mocking smugness, Neal's piece is totally sincere. Its references to lost innocence and the fact that adults learn to kill things to decorate their walls are touching.
Likewise, Neal's boldly designed, vaguely yet insistently familiar soap products are obviously inspired by Warhol's transformations of consumer commodities into art, but Neal has given the idea a political spin. The collective title, "Soapbox," has both a literal reference and a historical one, i.e. the "soapbox" as a platform from which to spout one's opinions on current events. Votex contains "neo-con stoppers" while WANT comes with the warning that "it's really more than you bargained for."
Finally, Neal's two wall works entitled, respectively, Power and Flower, recall Rauschenberg's kaleidoscopic blend of found imagery and painting. These two works are really one, offering two sides of the same coin, their exploding frames implying a collision of ideologies. Summing up this latest phase of his art, Neal describes it as: "Weird Al Yankovic literalism," and who could argue?