Joseph Huppert, Lee Lavy, Michael James Armstrong and Thomas DeMello have been meeting for what they call “Art Night” for the last five years. Every Sunday, they huddle around a table at Café Bassam, and their conversations tend to range in both content and quality.
“There's a lot of dick and fart jokes,” Lavy jokes.
“But, usually there is art conversation,” Armstrong adds.
“Art Night has kind of helped us form and inform each other's opinions and thoughts about things over the years,” Huppert says.
“It's interesting to watch everybody grow as artists,” Lavy interjects, redeeming himself. “Everybody's changed a lot with their interests and their work, so that's been interesting.”
The four artists are spread around the newly refurbished inside of Ice Gallery (icegallerysd.com). A beautifully engineered sculpture by Huppert hangs in the center of the room. There's fresh paint on the walls and floor, the wood ceiling looks almost elegant and the unscathed, bright-blue “ICE” logo beams through the top of one of the windows—a remnant of the building's dry-ice-factory days. From the inside, at least, it's starting to look like a decent gallery. All of the young men have experience working as preparators—preparing exhibits for display—in museums or galleries, and their meticulousness is beginning to manifest in the space.
“Cut,” says Armstrong, as the conversation continues with the four artists jumping in and out, finishing or expanding on one another's sentences. Armstrong pulls up his newsboy cap, grabs his video camera and clears his shot. He's in the middle of documenting the light hitting Huppert's sculpture at different times throughout the day. It's part of a larger video he's making, which will document each of the men's solo shows happening in the space now through the end of the year.
This isn't the first time the small room has served as an art gallery. Perry Vasquez, an artist known for his prints and performance pieces, ran the space as a public art gallery from 2001 to 2005. For a short time in 2005, Vasquez brought in City Works Press, a local, independent book-publishing group that held public readings in the space. Before and after Vasquez's run, the building was home to private art studios that occasionally opened for small parties and shows.
“The space has this really—.” Vasquez pauses as he searches for the word to describe the rundown, yet charming, building. “It's got good mojo somehow. Even the roof—it's a porous roof, and the crumbling walls can't distract from that underground mojo. It's just got it, you know?”
DeMello was the first to notice the potential. He and Lavy were sharing a studio in the back of the building, but the work he was doing demanded a bigger, cleaner space. He started clearing out the front room and was surprised by what he found.
“We were kind of amazed at how it cleaned up,” DeMello says.
Fueled by an art-installation idea, Huppert sort of took the reins from there and, with the help of the others, spent three intense weeks ripping out wires, patching walls and preparing the space. For the past two years, Huppert's been working alongside installation artist Robert Irwin, and the time spent with Irwin—an artist famous for his subtle, site-specific work— both confirmed and challenged Huppert's ideas about art, enough so that he took time off from showing and dramatically changed the trajectory of his work. By the time Ice Gallery was cleared out, he was ready to experiment.
“Really, the whole piece became the space to me,” Huppert says, eyeing his sleek sculpture, which is a departure from anything he's done in the past. “The size and position of the piece was determined by the space. And I ended up having to transform the room around it to fit with the piece.”
Minus Lavy, all of the artists helped install Irwin's show at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 2007. They say it was refreshing to see an artist so involved with the actual installation. Most of the time, in galleries and museums, the artist isn't even around when the exhibition is going up. As preparators, they've reached a point where they can't imagine relinquishing that control and trusting someone else to show their work—they say there's no way they can go back to being part of amateur group shows and have their art thrown up without much thought to where it goes and why. They've become perfectionists, and it's that professional experience, mixed with the fact that they now have their own space, that seems to be influencing their recent work. And then there's Irwin's process of creating art that responds to space—it's something they've discussed several times at their weekly meetings.
“That idea of paying attention to everything has really done a lot for me and my work,” Armstrong says. “That germ of an idea, obviously, Irwin didn't invent it, but he's definitely perfected it. Plus, if you can do anything you want with a space, you want to do a lot more than just hang a painting on the wall—you can do that in any other space. So when you have your own space, you start looking at everything about it, its flaws, the windows…. If you have an opportunity to then do whatever you want in a space, then maybe you will go out on a limb and do something you've never done.”
For Armstrong, that means either continuing his experiments with florescent lights, spray paint and reflecting color or—because of the dangers of electricity under a leaky roof— trying something completely different. Lavy, who comes from a comic-book-art tradition, has abandoned representational work and, for his solo show, which opens from 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18, will use his preferred medium—ink—and do some experiments in controlled chaos. And for DeMello's solo show, he'll create three-dimensional pieces made from cloth used for packaging art.
“The cloth is really strange, really textural and really odd, and I've been making these three-dimensional cubes with it,” DeMello explains. “It's my first attempt at sculpture. It's something I never would have thought of without this space. So, this space has dictated a lot. It's really made a lot happen for this entire group.”