Tucked away in North Park, behind Glenn's Market at University Avenue and Utah Street, an inconspicuous screen door opens into a large area that had been vacant for 10 years. The space, about 1,500 square feet, was once additional storage space for the market but had fallen to the wayside and become all but abandoned until David White discovered it in November 2006 and decided to turn it into an art gallery.
It's dimly lit, a bit cool and obviously unfinished within the walls of Agitprop Gallery, but, White says, this is all part of the plan. For a little more than a year now, White and fellow artist Josh Bellfy have been knocking down walls, putting up new ones and watching an old ice cooler become a contemporary art center. While Agitprop has had nearly one art show a month in its short life, the space is still a work in progress and, if the gallery's owner has his way, it always will be.
Unlike most gallery owners, White doesn't mind having his construction projects out during gallery hours. The holes in some walls and the absence of paint on others prevents Agitprop from being a “stuffy, austere, white-walls kind of a space,” he says, and that, consequently, puts guests at ease. Currently, he's finishing construction on one of the several small artist studios within the gallery. The studios are rented by other artists, although White intends to keep one as his own, hoping that an open-door environment will allow gallery visitors to peek inside and artists to peer out. “I would like the space to be a place that artists feel comfortable enough to do whatever it is they would like to do in terms of work,” he says, “and where spectators feel comfortable enough to be critical of all the artwork.”
White, whose day job is teaching art to adults with developmental disabilities at St. Madeleine Sophie's Center in El Cajon, is a local artist with a background in sculpture and video. Naturally, much of the gallery has been transformed by White's two hands. He builds his own furniture and fixtures and has also established a diverse series of shows created by—and often run by—local artists. While White likes to think Agitprop is a sculpture in and of itself, the constant changes inside the gallery, and even its imperfections, are qualities he hopes can be interpreted on an intellectual level as well. As a physical space, Agitprop is simply a catalyst.
“Part of my interest is not so much to create a single object, but a space where people can create their own opportunities,” he muses. “I've had a couple other events where it's more like people have approached me, and then they've more or less organized the shows.”
Making the gallery available as a community space, where visitors are expected to think actively and encouraged to criticize the art, and the gallery itself, is White's primary goal. White believes all art is political.
“In my opinion, if you choose to paint a picture of just a sailboat, and you say there is no political connotation, then there is—on some level, there is.”
Whether you agree with him or not, you probably have an opinion on the matter, and the folks at Agitprop want to hear about it. In addition to White, there are a number of like-minded artists who have shown their work there. New School graduate Megan Willis, who works with Estudio Teddy Cruz and teaches architecture at Woodbury University, displayed her thesis at Agitprop last July. The show, called Urban Interventions, examined residual spaces in San Diego and used small-scale models to demonstrate how a little utilitarian thinking can go a long way toward increasing public access and allowing citizens to engage their city.
What Willis examined, White says, were “spaces between buildings that are basically unusable the way they are.” The spaces White refers to are areas in urban San Diego that were never fully developed due to poor planning or building projects that never took place.
At one location off of India Street, “you know, on the buildings where all those monkeys are hanging?” White prompts as he tries to describe an obscure, vacant portion of a building near the airport where Willis proposed installing a viewing pavilion. From her theoretical structure, anyone can look out over the bay, see planes fly overhead and watch the trolley go by.
The idea behind it, White says, is “finding a new appreciation for those things you see every day.”
While the notion of public space, community and open dialogue are quickly becoming the main tenets of Agitprop, White hopes that these ideas are not confined to the gallery. Right now, a broken pedicab sits in the middle of Agitprop, waiting to be fixed. The pedicab is part of White's plan to take his ideas out of the gallery and into the city.
“I'm going to give people rides,” White says, “but instead of charging them money, all I want them to do is tell me about the neighborhoods we're in.”
White hopes to turn his pedicab adventures into a video piece that will eventually be displayed at the gallery. The emphasis, however, is on social interaction. The videos would merely be a record of his attempt to use the city as space for artwork.
For now, White must focus on organizing his next show, which features an arrangement of ceramic heads constructed by Escondido artist Colby Jackson. The show will run from March 22 through April 19, and White hopes Colby's display will continue to address the issues that Agitprop's other shows have examined.
“How do you get people to realize that their criticism is legitimate?” White wonders aloud. “How do you encourage people to think differently about art?” Agitprop Gallery is at 2837 University Ave. (entrance on Utah Street). The opening of Jackson's ceramics show, Colby Jackson's Alien People, will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 22. 619-384-7989 or email@example.com.
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