ART

THE WILL BROWN EXPERIENCE

thinking about the man and the gallery

By McKenzie Toma

Happy People at Will Brown Gallery
The first time I went to Will Brown, I ended up in the basement. As show-goers tipsily traipsed down the steep ladder to get there, I almost tripped on my dress. Bounding into the subterranean gallery to get a good look at their show, “Illegitimate Business,” I realized that I wasn’t just at another opening, but that the Browns were showing me an entirely new way of seeing and experiencing art. Another time, they reconfigured the gallery into a luxury condo, tastefully done in Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel style. But there was a twist: beneath this innocuous depiction of the San Francisco dream was the supposed sarcophagus of Kasimir Malevich. The only way to see the burial site was to hunch over and peer through a convex lens fitted into a hole in the floor. If only all open houses were like this.

Every time I’ve attended Will Brown it has required a bit of physical and mental athleticism. This element of covertness and concealment seems to be a theme at each show. The gallery is situated in the Mission District of San Francisco between a taqueria and a clothing boutique—what isn’t—with the word “GALLERY” printed in huge letters on the fa├žade of the space. However, I’m not convinced that Will Brown is, in fact, a gallery or even a man.

Gallery openings can be dangerous
Before praising Will Brown’s few but superb shows, I’d like to talk about Will Brown. Linguistically, Will Brown offers a lot. It is a name. It is also a complete sentence. It is a command. Sometimes when I go to a show and read “Will Brown” I picture an average, hum-drum, but good man. He’s wearing jeans, a t-shirt and humble footwear. Other times I think of it as a sentence or a command. Whatever my many responses, this malleable name is perfectly suited to the space’s flexibility and the gallery’s ambitions. It is as if “Will Brown” informs the space’s functions and the gallery’s goals, both of which resist clear definition. As in the name, the space begs the question: is it a gallery, an idea or something else entirely?

Take my first show at Will Brown, the before mentioned and infamous, “Illegitimate Business.” Instead of showing the pieces in the main space (the honored spot in any gallery), they were relegated to the basement. Not quite legally acquired art lined the walls in the low ceilinged and concrete room. It featured pieces from “lenders” or maybe “stealers,” which gave the whole show the patina of high-minded criminality. It’s one thing to view a Chuck Close at SF MOMA, but it’s another thing to view a possibly, illegally obtained Close—I don’t need to tell you that the latter experience is a lot more fun. In the end, I’m not even sure the art mattered, but the show did and it was a conceptual triumph. Will Brown clearly understands what it means to create an experience around art, something that is too often lost at the big museum shows as well as the high-end galleries. It’s as if Will Brown takes the ritual out of the ritual of seeing art.

Is any business legitimate?
On my way to Will Brown last weekend, as with every other time, I was expecting something good. This was a show featuring Jason Fulford. He was in San Francisco promoting his new book of photographs, Hotel Oracle. Black curtains lined the first room of the space with gold birthday celebration letters drooping on the walls. Upon arriving I was given a pamphlet, which instructed me to contemplate the letter “E,” along with a convoluted story about the letter “E.” The pamphlet also had a number on it, “149.” Behind one of the curtains, a red light was glowing. I tried to go in but was stopped by a woman with perfect black bangs and rounded glasses who told be to wait my turn, that my number was on my pamphlet and that I needed a penny.

Will Brown is fly


I heard an ominous sounding man’s voice yell, “54!” Then I saw a man go in. After a minute, I heard a loud metal bang and the man came out smiling. I went across the street to get a drink with my friend to pass the time. My friend was “150.” I was one better. Coming back into the gallery from the bar, there was hardly anyone left, had they killed them all? “149!” I eagerly entered, penny in hand. I won’t disclose exactly what went down in that weird red room – I don’t want to ruin it for anyone else – but once again, Will Brown is a place where certain basic points of art going are beside the point. The show, like all the others, had a strong element of covertness, which I’ll protect. The mystery of something behind a curtain is a well-worn trope, but it still packed a punch and kept everyone at the gallery much longer than an ordinary show.

An ordinary name for an extraordinary gallery
Later, I talked to David Kasprzak, one of the three members of Will Brown. Lindsey White and Jordan Stein are the other two brains behind the name. We discussed what Will Brown really is. It is not in fact a gallery—I knew it. Will Brown is an art collective. Let me put it this way, if Will Brown sells Will Brown and wanted to open up a publishing house, the publishing house would be Will Brown. The fact that “GALLERY” is inscribed on the building is another subtle mystery. I have been to many shows at Will Brown and have never seen anything for sale. It is as if Will Brown is refusing to perform they’re agreed upon art world function, but have instead executed a meticulous and hilarious art stunt.

Everything or nothing is for sale
The goal of Will Brown appears to be to tinker with the form of the exhibition. By jettisoning standard notions of what a gallery or a show is, Will Brown makes the gallery and the show the art, rather than the “place holder” of art. They aren’t even trying to sell art, which is what galleries are for. By doing this, they challenge viewers to think and act in new ways. Here, you can’t buy art, but must attend to the art. Participation is mandatory for the experience, which is a radical idea. Imagine that, the art world offering you something you can’t buy.

You could say that every show Will Brown curates is a comment on the arrangement and layout of art, just expressed in different ways. I think this is the perfect response to an art generation infatuated with the “meta.” Will Brown explores the “how” in a world of “what.” Art is not meant to be sold; art is meant to be experienced—it is a practice that Will Brown faithfully practices.They are radically reconfiguring the way we look at art and commerce. The space relies and depends upon not “what” is there or being sold, but “how” it is being presented and how the audience is engaging with art. This is why I love going to Will Brown. You engage with art. You are mentally and physically engulfed by it, and all without a price! It’s a practice that seems on the verge of extinction. Whether it is “meta” or not, Will Brown doesn’t sell art, Will Brown creates the art experience.

Anything can happen at Will Brown Gallery

©McKenzie Toma and the CCA Arts Review


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