Lexington curator bringing Kentucky artists to New York gallery

December 29, 2014

141104PMJones0015Lexington native Phillip March Jones poses inside the gallery he now manages in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The founder of Institute 193 in Lexington renovated the space for Christian Berst Art Brut, a Paris-based gallery that wanted a New York City presence. Jones plans to include Kentucky artists in the gallery’s shows. Photos by Shannon Eblen


NEW YORK — When Phillip March Jones started the non-profit art space Institute 193 in Lexington five years ago, his goal was to bring wider attention to little-known contemporary artists in Kentucky and the South.

Now he has taken that work a step further, opening a New York branch of the Paris-based Gallerie Christian Berst Art Brut. Already, his shows have a Kentucky flavor.

The gallery opened Oct. 30 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with Do the Write Thing: Read Between The Lines, a collection of pieces by 17 artists who live on the margins of society and use the written word as graphic elements of their drawings.

_MG_7701Among the artists featured was Beverly Baker of Versailles, who has Down syndrome and is a member of the Latitude Artist Community in Lexington.

The gallery’s next show, which opens Jan. 10, is, Making Pictures: Three for a Dime, which until recently was on display at Institute 193’s small space at 193 North Limestone Street.

That show features tiny photo booth portraits that Jim and Mancy Massengill made in the 1930s as they traveled around rural Arkansas. Their goal was to earn extra money during the Great Depression, but decades later these souvenir portraits look like playful, strange and even haunting works of art.

Art Brut is a French term to describe art produced by people outside the mainstream of artistic culture and conventions. It is about the human urge to create for the sake of creating, rather than for academic or commercial motivations.

“We’re essentially interested in people who are doing things out of a very personal and private impulse,” Jones said. “It’s really a private exercise, one that’s based on their own vision without any concerns for audience.”

Jones, who grew up in Lexington, has had a diverse career as an artist, writer, curator and publisher. He worked with the Souls Grow Deep Foundation in Atlanta and is curator of the University of Kentucky’s Chandler Hospital art museum.

Institute 193 has published a number of books based on its shows. Others have published two collections of Jones’ photography: Points of Departure, a collection of roadside memorials, and Pictures Take You Places.

Jones had been shuttling between Atlanta and New York for two years when the Paris-based gallery hired him to create its New York space. Last summer, he moved to the city and started searching for locations. He settled on a dilapidated former hardware store and synagogue at 95 Rivington Street, just a few blocks from the New Museum, one of New York’s leading contemporary art museums.

The split-level space has the main gallery upstairs and a downstairs area Jones calls the workshop, which will show new discoveries or smaller exhibitions related to the main show upstairs.

When I visited there in early October, the place still had a long way to go and Jones was busy juggling contractors. But three weeks later, everything was done, and Jones said nearly 500 people showed up on opening night.

Art Brut would seem an odd genre for a gallery whose business is selling art. But like any genre, it has its devotees. “The goal of this space is to unearth these various things happening all over the world and to share them,” Jones said.

Baker has been displaying her work for more than 15 years. It has been exhibited three times before in New York and is in the collection of the Museum of Everything in London.

“For years, she has been making these drawings and paintings,” Jones said. “I don’t think she’s really concerned with who’s looking at them and what they think of them. I think it’s something she has always done and will always do.”

Although Jones has turned over the day-to-day operations of Institute 193 to interim director Coleman Guyon, he remains chairman of the board and sees a lot of future synergies between it and his New York gallery.

“Over the next few years, there’s probably half a dozen artists from Kentucky I would like to work with,” Jones said.

“In Atlanta or wherever I’ve been, I’ve always been an advocate for artists from Central Kentucky, because it’s my home but also because there’s really great stuff happening,” he said. “I think this will be an even more tangible way to do those things.”

141121PMJones-TE0006Dean Langdon looks at a recent show at Institute 193, a non-profit art gallery at 193 N. Limestone St. that Phillip March Jones founded five years ago. The tiny space has featured cutting-edge contemporary art from Kentucky and around the South. Photo by Tom Eblen 

Artist who usually helps others shows his own work

January 17, 2010

Bruce Burris is best known in Lexington for helping other people create art — and for pushing the boundaries of what art is and who artists are.

He directs (with Crystal Bader) the Latitude Artist Community on Saunier Street, which for nearly a decade has helped people with disabilities express themselves through visual art. Latitude artists’ work has been displayed at galleries in New York and Paris, France.

Burris started ELandF Gallery, a “small-projects accelerator” for art in public spaces. It has sent poets to read in nursing homes and on LexTran buses. And it has paid small honoraria to people who wrote winning essays about why they wanted to watch clouds or read a book while sitting in a streetside parking space.

At the height of the controversy over Dudley Webb’s now-stalled CentrePointe development, Burris paid performance artists to publicly “mourn” the demolition of the block’s old buildings and to walk Main Street as “town criers,” giving dramatic readings of a defensive speech that Webb made to the Urban County Council.

Away from Lexington, Burris has gained notoriety for his own art. He has had solo exhibitions in San Francisco, Philadelphia and cities in California and Michigan, but never in Lexington. Until now.

“Nobody really knows about that aspect of his personality,” said Phillip March Jones, who organized Burris’ first solo show in a decade, which opened Thursday at Institute 193 and continues through Feb. 20 (Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.).

Jones opened Institute 193 last fall at 193 North Limestone. It is a little gallery with big ambitions: to showcase the work of this region’s unsung contemporary artists.

“Everything with Bruce is about Latitude or ELandF, but it’s never about him. … His own art never gets presented,” Jones said. “And, for me, it’s some of the most interesting stuff he does.”

The show is called We Will Someday, Someday We Will. The name was inspired by this season of New Year’s resolutions, when we all promise to become better people.

Burris’ sculptures, drawings, paintings and installation pieces use humor, irony and parody to comment on and raise questions about community dynamics and cultural stereotypes. He wants his art to promote activism and awareness of regional issues including poverty and mountaintop-removal coal mining. His art isn’t intended as decoration; he wants it to make viewers think.

One piece, Welcome to Lonely Mountain Community Center, is a bulletin board filled with fictional news and notices that speak to issues, concerns and cultural conflicts in contemporary small-town Appalachia.

Burris is as much a storyteller as an artist. He densely weaves words and messages into his paintings and drawings, some of which are reminiscent of funk-art album covers from the 1970s.

“What really carries the work is this text,” Jones said. “He’s dealing with the very problems we’re dealing with every day. These are serious issues, but he deals with them in a visually lighthearted way to get people into them.”

I met Burris for lunch at Third Street Stuff on a cold, snowy day. The first thing he wanted to do, before talking about himself, was to show off drawings and paintings by Latitude artists on the wall behind our table.

Burris, 54, grew up in Wilmington, Del., seeing art in everyday life. His mother was constantly taking him to museums and cultural events, “which, of course, I didn’t appreciate at the time,” he says.

He also was influenced by a boyhood neighbor, the famous artist and illustrator Frank Schoonover, who was well into his 80s but still painting and teaching. “He had an open studio where neighborhood kids could wander in,” Burris said.

“I grew up feeling like the visual arts were an approachable thing,” said Burris, who studied at San Francisco Art Institute. “But the better way for me to make art is not in an isolated environment. Collaboration and community and support; it’s a very natural thing for me.”

That belief, and a public service ethic picked up while attending Quaker schools, led him to a career that has combined art, community and social work — working with homeless and abused children in San Francisco and with disabled artists in Kentucky.

Burris moved to Lexington 16 years ago with his wife, Robynn Pease, who came to the University of Kentucky to earn a doctorate. She is now UK’s director of work life, teaches sociology and social work, and was elected last year as staff representative on the university board of trustees. They live near Southland Drive.

Originally, Burris thought he would be here three or four years then move back to San Francisco. “So I stored all my unimportant stuff in a friend’s garage,” he said. “I hope he’s had a big yard sale by now.”

After his last solo show a decade ago at a major San Francisco gallery, Burris said he ran out of steam and stopped creating work for several years. He resumed only recently, sparked by concern about mountaintop-removal mining and other issues.

Burris’ art, like the projects he sponsors through ELandF, are reactions to what he sees around him.

“I like all the projects I’ve done, but I know in my heart that they’re not innovative enough,” he said. “I don’t always feel like taking risks in this environment. You won’t see people taking these risks here; it’s a small town. But we should take risks.”

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The best show in Lexington on Saturday night

November 29, 2009

Having seen too many disappointing Kentucky-Tennessee football games, I decided the best show in town Saturday night would be at historic Floral Hall at The Red Mile. I was right.

Lexington’s Ben Sollee, an amazing musician and songwriter who is going to be really famous one of these days, was playing with collaborator Daniel Martin Moore at a benefit for Institute 193, a creative little (and I do mean little) art gallery at 193 Limestone St.

Sollee is a classically trained cellist, but sings and plays the instrument like nobody else you’ve ever heard. He mostly performs his own music, a combination of folk, jazz, bluegrass and R&B.

More than 100 people were there, and it was a terrific night of music in one of Lexington’s classic small venues. About the only illumination was Christmas twinkle lights wrapped around the octagon-shaped building’s central support posts, which made for a lovely atmosphere (and difficult photography).

For more about the musicians, go to www.bensollee.com and www.danielmartinmoore.com.  To learn more about Institute 193, go to www.institute193.com.

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