Five years Fresh

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March 14, 2011
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// It’s anniversary time for the Chambers’ Burnet Gallery. The Downtown art space rounds up 10 artists from the gallery’s first five years //

Can the Chamber’s Burnet Gallery — not to mention the breathtaking luxury art hotel that houses it — really be only five years old?

It seems like it’s been a Hennepin Avenue fixture forever, its street-side windows tempting passersby with brief peeks into the lavish, brash aesthetic of its namesake, Ralph Burnet, the real estate mogul and Midwestern titan of contemporary art collecting.

But back in 2006, when the Chambers first opened, it wasn’t even a gallery. It was almost an afterthought, a spillover room for the immersive chic of the attached hotel. Or at least it was a convenient home for pieces that Burnet and his wife Peggy couldn’t find a spot for in their Wayzata mansion, which is often crowded with significant pieces from the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Gary Hume and Damien Hirst.

“Initially the place started out not as a commercial gallery, but as a place where work from Ralph and Peggy’s collection would rotate every three months or so,” explained Jennifer Phelps, staff curator for both the gallery and the hotel at large. “When the hotel opened, we had our first showing of some of their work, and it was up for three months, and [Ralph] said, ‘This is so incredibly boring. I don’t want to do this.’”

So Phelps and Burnet spiced it up. They found artists that Burnet, a globetrotting art hound, didn’t yet own, but wanted to. They drew up a schedule, started rotating shows every eight weeks, put everything up for sale, threw some wine-and-cheese parties, and basically made it a real-deal gallery.

Five years later, the two have mounted the work of more than 106 artists in 15 solo shows and seven group exhibitions.

To celebrate the milestone, the Burnet Gallery has rounded up 10 of the solo show artists for a bit of a reunion. An anniversary group show, entitled “Fresh,” opened on March 12.

The names in the show are big ones — local artists that boast multiple Jerome, McKnight and Bush Fellowships; that have mounted solo shows in the coveted MAEP gallery of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; that teach at the University of Minnesota, MCAD and the College of Visual Arts.

They’ll be showing mostly new work, and, as it happens, many will be stepping outside of their usual comfort zones. It’s what led Phelps to the title “Fresh.”

“It’s new, in that definition of the word. But it’s also ‘fresh,’ as in cheeky.”

The most veteran of the group is photographer Angela Strassheim, the first artist outside of Burnet’s collection to ever show in the space. Strassheim’s star was already rising when that first exhibition opened, in the spring of 2007. She had the triple crown of arts fellowships — Jerome, McKnight and Bush — on her resume and had just participated in the 2006 Whitney Biennial Exhibition in New York City.

Five years later, she’s back in the space with some new pics. Both are vintage Strassheim, voyeuristic thrills documenting the banality, both garish and beautiful, of everyday drama. In “Untitled, (Breaking up),” a girl pulls her knees up beneath the steering wheel of a parked car, gazing off as a boy leans dolefully into the open window. The scene is angst-y in a theatrical way, brushed with the red neon from the darkened street outside.

Strassheim’s other contribution is a self-portrait — a rare instance of the artist training the camera on herself, Phelps says.

“Untitled, (Nude in bus, self-portrait)” is exactly what it sounds like: a nude girl curled onto her side on a mattress in the back of a van. It’s anonymous and personal, with Strassheim exposing her naked back and rear end to us but not her face.

On preview, other standouts include new watercolors by Megan Rye, famed for her painted interpretations of her brother’s photos from the Iraq war. A big step away from her trademark, representational works, Rye’s new watercolors are bleary Rorschach tests in bruised, berry tones.

Andréa Stanislav, famed for her glitter-shellacked homages to pop culture, will show abstracted photographic prints.

Janet Lobberecht, another veteran of the Burnet gallery, steps away from her conceptual explorations of space to do some very tangible, technical graphite drawings.

Chris Larson, known for photography, video and for building enormous wooden contraptions, will also try his hand at drawing.

Matthew Bakkom presents a digital print on canvas for the gallery’s window, which Phelps says “has to do with anagrams and word play.” Collage artist David Bartley shifts gears to painting, as does pencil sketch king Allen Brewer. S. Catrin Magnusson, who usually does photography and video work, will shift to embroidered drawings on felt. And Sonja Peterson will show “cut drawings,” woodland scenes that she’s exquisitely excised from paper.

The breadth of media in the show — and of experimentation — mimics the brief history of the gallery, says Phelps.

“We’re so brand new…But [the gallery] has really included all media,” she said. “We’ve had painting and drawing and mixed media, video and watercolor and graffiti and glitter construction and photography. We even had Janet Lobberecht” — for her first show in the gallery, back in 2007 — “carve into the wall’s sheetrock with an Exacto blade.”

So it’s a bold mix. But it could always be bolder.

For the next five years, Phelps says she’ll ask herself, “How do you step outside of the box even farther? That’s what we want to do.”