If COVID-19 is a marathon, not a sprint, then “Baton” plans to see it through to the finish line. For the duration of the pandemic, Northern-Southern Gallery will be hosting a series of artists who will each take over the space for a week before passing the proverbial baton. It is an ongoing, ever-evolving installation of one-at-a-time collaboration; what the show’s statement calls “lacquers of successive nows.”
“COVID is just another challenge for the gallery,” shrugs Northern-Southern’s director Phillip Niemeyer.
Niemeyer has remained relatively undeterred since the shutdown in March. He has kept busy with two outdoor group exhibitions in addition to this new project, which began in late July. Whereas other galleries have dipped their toe in the water with “by appointment only,” Niemeyer is exploring new forms brought on by the pandemic.
Unlike his outdoor group exhibitions, simultaneous and dispersed over the city, “Baton” is concentrated in a space and dispersed over time.
I had a chance to view “Baton” in early September, during Stella Alesi’s week and soon after Emily Lee’s. (The project commenced with Northern-Southern’s Rachel Freeman and Phillip Niemeyer hanging each other’s work.)
Group exhibitions often feel like an archipelago of individual artists, though “Baton” is more of an island ecosystem with the work becoming increasingly symbiotic over time.
“Every person who participates has to make choices. What stays, what goes,” says Niemeyer. “How do we make those decisions, and how do we justify them?”
By the time I visited, “Baton” was already an organic blend of four artists. Both Stella and Emily had fun playing around with the letters of Phillip’s “YEAH,” and Rachel’s “en cage, cone, and elsewhere” (2020) found its way to Phillip’s pale pink wall painting, “Transporter.”
“If you look at Stella’s black orb — which looks like you’re walking into an English seaside — and the pink tube I painted next to it, where Rachel’s piece is now mounted, it seems like the work of one artist,” says Niemeyer. “But they’re the work of three artists over time. To me that is the most beautiful revelation of “Baton” so far, that it suggests an expansion of what we see as authorship.”
Alesi’s paintings indeed act as portals into a pleasant unknown. The circular panels, (including the one which resembles an English seaside) from her “aftermath series” (2020) complement the gallery’s windows which themselves have the feel of a ship’s portals.
“It’s different than a group show, we’re reacting to these pieces as we come in,” says Alesi, who ended up removing three of Niemeyer’s paintings and bringing in an earlier one from his collection, “Lebanese Wrist” (2019), which she felt fit better with her own contribution.
A candle that had long been on display in the gallery’s window suddenly became of great interest to Alesi, the words “Let Go” painted on the front of the bottle. She asked Niemeyer about it, and he mentioned there was another one: “Truth Time.” Alesi placed the pair beneath the gallery’s two windows, an offering of solace in symmetry.
“I started paying attention to everything in the gallery. It wasn’t just the art, it was the boombox and the box of tapes,” she recalls. “Those thumbtacks throughout the space, they were from a previous show earlier this year.” Vestigial clues of some other version of 2020.
Lee also discovered certain themes while installing her work. The gallery’s two-tone walls, for instance, and how the front space and back space were really the same space. This prompted Lee to question the nature of contradictory relationships. Is there a healthier, non-competing way to look at two’s, she wondered?
“I like the thought of something very small and delicate having a relationship to a larger environment, it’s very David and Goliath,” she says when describing the thin metal hoops she used to pierce the gallery walls. “Inserting these small penetrative moves into something as rigid as architecture is a beautiful metaphor materially.”
Other than a few punctures in the front space, Lee’s installation “Puppet (Frame)” is site-specific to the back area of the gallery. A portrait of her friend Jack is covered in tracing paper, obfuscating the image in an effort to create distance from when she used to paint exclusively. The tracing paper filters and translates information, she explains, as a way to “straddle a line of nearness.”
A small photograph of a dock quietly leans against a corner with a canvas-covered stick protruding from the frame, like some crude 3D continuation beyond the lake. Even as you physically get closer, there is still so much psychological distance.
“Back in March when COVID started, I was really taken by the idea that each person’s body materially expanded to a six-foot-diameter sphere,” she recalls. “There’s no distinct edge to an installation piece — it’s equal parts empty space and material objects, which I think encourages us to reconsider the idea of emptiness as a type of fullness instead.”
Ok, but how do these notions of space, time, and distance relate to the title “Puppet (Frame)?”
“I was thinking about façades, how things are not what they appear to be,” she tells me. “I like these two words existing next to each other. A puppet is not an acting thing, but the product of some other agent moving it. ‘(Frame)’ is framed by parentheses and it’s something that delineates where we look and don’t look at the same time.”
It’s an interesting comparison given how much of Lee’s install was in anticipation of the artists who would come after her. She found herself tagging certain quirks of the space. The heavy presence of the black ceiling, for instance, and other anomalies outside our line of vision — the things in a gallery space we aren’t necessarily encouraged to look at.
“Nothing is communal these days, so if someone were to move my work, it would become a type of collaboration between me and that person — and that’s pretty powerful right now.”
The gallery will be open to private viewings by appointment while Austin remains in Stage 3, and will host limited hours when the city’s risk-based COVID guidelines reach Stage 1-2. For more information please visit www.northern-southern.com.