Features: April 2010 – The BS Gallery is not pretentious.

“It’s a nice flexible space,” says co-curator Chris Reno. “But it doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a basement.”

Basements seldom do. And if you stopped at the top of the stairs leading down to the BS Gallery, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this basement was nothing special.

But, past the nondescript backdoor entrance, the kitchen and the rough wooden staircase is a surprisingly clean and well-lit art gallery.

While the BS Gallery still falls far short of a commercial space in the interior design realm, it makes up for it in mission.

Founded in the basement of their rented house (220 West Benton Street) in August of 2009 by UI M.F.A. students Caleb Engstrom, Josh Black and Reno, the gallery’s objective is to bring fresh art to Iowa City.

“We wanted to provide exposure for decent art,” explained Black. “To let people experience something they wouldn’t get in a commercial establishment.”

Certainly, the majority of the work displayed through the gallery’s first six shows would feel out of place at the established galleries downtown. From a video projection on a six-foot block of snow to a voodoo-inspired worship altar, the art is often high-concept and raw, a sharp contrast to the unobtrusive polish of mainstream commercial work. Black says that the absence of a commercial aspect is a blessing.

“There’s no pressure to sell,” he said. “It’s just a chance for artists to show and discuss their work with people who wouldn’t normally have a chance to see it.”

Part of the allure of the gallery is the curators’ commitment to bringing in artists from outside the region. The gallery has hosted artists from New York, Chicago, and, in April, northern California and Oregon. Showing national artist is a lofty goal for a gallery with no outside funding.

The day I dropped by the BS Gallery was the last day of Exoskeleton, an installation by Chicago-based artists Laura Collins and Natalie Smith.


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“It was great to [to have] an opportunity to show in a different city,” said Smith. “They are really working hard to seek out interesting and diverse artists and went out of their way to make sure that I got what I wanted out of the space.”

“We’re trying to identify artists that we like, that are willing to pay their way to Iowa City and set up a show,” said Reno. “They’re usually living hand to mouth. So what can we do for them with no money? We take care of them, give them a place to show, a place to stay and throw a big party. It’s a lot of fun.”

The ‘big party’ is the gallery’s semi-regular monthly opening, always coinciding with the city’s long-established first Friday gallery walks. The BS Gallery schedules their get-together after the other galleries close, hoping to draw a crowd hungry for more art because as much as the gallery is about art, its also about the party–a chance to let loose and talk art with whomever shows up.

Art hits us in two ways: the visceral impact of a first glace and the slow burn that only comes from prolonged exposure. Too often, we judge art by its ability to please us immediately. So often, in fact, that the first words frequently uttered in any museum gallery are “I like this one” or “I don’t get it.”

But Exoskeleton was not created to please. At either end of the gallery hung Collins’ floor-to-ceiling black and white reprints of domestic dispute scenes from 1960s era movies, framed on the long side walls by Smith’s shades-of-gray drawings of empty spaces.

It was deliberately designed to match the BS’s bare environment. Collin’s subjects ached to get free from their cramped frames and, standing alone in the gallery, I felt their discomfort. But as the slow burn set in, the appreciation came with it. This is the art that makes us think, but it is not the art to hang on our dining room walls.

“I think spaces like the BS Gallery are an important part of creating a network among young artists and a place to challenge and experiment with ideas,” said Smith.

So why, in a town often lauded as “the Athens of the Midwest,” is the art shown at the BS Gallery such a rarity?

Reno, co-curator of the BS Gallery with Black since Engstrom left for New York City, acknowledges that creating a lasting presence would be a major challenge.

“It would take a unique individual to make this work in Iowa City. And deep pockets,” Reno said. “We’re leaking money left and right. As a pure business endeavor, it’s a failure. But as a social experiment, it’s a success.”

The BS hasn’t been alone in their attempts to bring art to the people. But results have been a mixed bag of late.

Arts Iowa City recently closed its Underground Gallery off the ped mall. While the group will be opening a new space this summer, it won’t feature the same kind of experimental work.

“The Underground Gallery featured edgier art,” said Arts Iowa City secretary Linnell Phillips. “With the new space we’re hoping to go a little more mainstream…more upscale and sophisticated.”

Certainly, a gallery must cater to its patrons, and Arts Iowa City’s future direction should come as no surprise given the more traditional leanings of its members.

The BS Gallery, and other non-commercial galleries like Public Space One, serve as covered wagons headed into that unknown artistic frontier. Funding, community engagement and the desire of their volunteers are all obstacles they’ll have to overcome along the way to long-term viability. But like any good trailblazers, their primary goal is to keep moving forward.

“We’ll keep the gallery open through our lease in August 2011,” said Black of the BS Gallery’s future. “Hopefully, somebody will keep it going after that.”

Just as the BS picked up where a gallery called Frontier Lodging left off, Reno is confident that even if the BS Gallery becomes just another basement another gallery will rise in its place.

“It’s always been under the radar,” he said. “But people who are connected will always find out.”

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