Closet Case

University City's newest art gallery is not for the pretentious -- or the claustrophobic

Mar 8, 2000 at 4:00 am
"I had a closet, and I could either store all my shit in it or have an art gallery in it." Michael Williams hunches over a cup of coffee at Meshuggah, discussing the motivation behind Gallery Michael Williamses (sic) Closet. Williams has reddish-blond hair that refuses to lie flat. He's tall and could even be considered physically imposing if not for a remarkably babyish face -- a face that nonetheless expresses a joyful expression of larceny much of the time.

The first Gallery Michael Williamses Closet newsletter that appeared at the RFT was unceremoniously chucked into the trash: A Washington University art student shows work in his closet and wants some press -- not this week.

But subsequent newsletters arrived, each more clever and amusing. The GMWC newsletter consists of color snapshots and text -- typed on Williams' Webster XL500 typewriter, purchased at the Disabled American Veterans thrift store for $4.95 -- documenting each exhibition opening. For example, Wash. U. professor and artist Ron Leax receives this newsletter bio: "In addition to being a professor of sculpture, Ron is a trout hunter, a crossword enthusiast, and in his younger years an alligator wrestler in Florida. As a child Ron came one piece from completing a 1,000 piece puzzle of a teddy bear picnic."

The newsletter includes guest reviews of exhibitions, stories about the goings-on at the openings themselves -- such as the night Williams broke a baseball bat over his knee to sell Jesse Abramowitz's muffler sculptures -- and odd, lurid tales surrounding the artists' lives, such as a night of drinking whiskey and shooting windows out of parked cars with a shotgun in Des Peres.

A blurring of fact and fiction, a celebration of bad behavior, an unsubtle parody of the gallery system -- such activity deserves appreciation.

At Meshuggah, Williams, with a smile offers a position with the gallery and presents a standard Kinko's job application. Throughout the form,"gmwc" has been pasted over the copy company's logo. For example, "Join gmwc, a world leader in business services and named in 1999 by Fortune magazine as "one of the 100 best companies to work for in America.'"

The job offer is refused for fear of a conflict of interest.

With Williams this day are two "employees," Justin and Brian. Last names? "It doesn't matter," says Justin, who, naturally, works as the official "gallery nihilist." Brian serves as Dumpster diver: "I go through Dumpsters to collect interesting stuff." When Justin applied for his job, his résumé consisted of "some pocket trash." "Of course I accepted his application immediately," Williams deadpans.

Also present is artist Lezlie Silverstein, whose work is to be featured at a Gallery Michael Williamses Closet opening the next evening. Whereas Williams is laconic and droll, Silverstein is responsive and vocal. She openly discusses inner gallery politics, explaining how she was once a curator but "I showed up late for an opening and I was fired." Williams suspects that "she wanted to get fired so she could have a show."

Williams' curatorial process is far from exclusionary, though. "Anyone who wants to have a show can have one. Whoever is pushing the most to have a show can have a show. I'll hang it even if I don't like it."

Williams acknowledges he's partly making fun of the gallery system, "but at the same time I'm having a gallery and starting a scene, which I like more."

Williams came to Wash. U. from Providence, home of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, choosing to come here to become independent from his parents and because "I liked it out here. I like St. Louis. I like the fact that downtown is large and bleak."

The discussion moves to GMWC's revolutionary tendencies, its drive to topple the gallery system, which apparently disinterests Brian and Justin, who make an exit. "I'm just going to get a turkey sandwich," says the nihilist.

In his stead arrives Abramowitz, who not only makes art from mufflers -- or exposes the art within mufflers -- but also holds a permanent position in the art-critique department of the newsletter. He has taken it as his mission to critique anything relating to the closet, including letters from the parents of his fellow artists.

Thin, angular, with a nest of hair on his head as disheveled as Williams', Abramowitz comes ready for some radical talk. "I'm for the art-in-the-apartment movement," he pronounces. "I like how it destabilizes the gallery system. It allows everybody to participate in some kind of gallery system. It offers the idea of open-mindedness into the system. Go to a gallery in St. Louis, and you come out empty. At Michael's gallery, there's an association with people. It's a warm and fuzzy thing."

The three, as if on cue, all express how much they like each other.

"The gallery system exists in a vacuum," Abramowitz continues once the friendliness is over. "It's in a completely white-walled space, so sterile. Unless you are in the system, you go there with nothing but eyes. I like the art. It's nice, but it doesn't fly off the pedestal."

"And it's ridiculous you can't touch it," Silverstein adds.

"At our first show," Williams reports, "people were licking the art."

Abramowitz catches a bit of inspiration and imagines a show in which the requisite wine and cheese of a gallery opening is put on the walls so it can be purchased as art and taken home.

With Gallery Michael Williamses Closet in place, such concepts can take hold as reality. Abramowitz attests to how the closet has energized him, making possible what might lie fallow in the mind: "After doing the show in the gallery, 20 more things have grown out of it."

Counter to Marxist theory, the economics of art is based not on controlling the means of production but on controlling the means of presentation. For all its Dadaist, irrationalist tendencies, GMWC claims an important niche in the grand scheme of art and everyday life. Like all important artistic endeavors, it has the capacity to inspire.

The closet is evidence of a DIY spirit making a comeback in this city. Along with GMWC, there was a recent "Bowling Show" at Arcade Lanes -- an evening of bands, art, DJs, a pet show, a "volunteer fashion show" and other unsanctioned art actions. Folks are throwing their own small-scale raves in warehouses. Musicians are burning their own CDs. These activities actually counter the usual palaver about "grassroots." Generally, when the grassroots are discussed, the metaphor is closer to the image of grass contained on a suburban lawn. The small exuberant acts that are beginning to spring from the doldrums of St. Louis are wild prairie grasses, taking unruly hold of their own courses.

Most art students are indoctrinated into a system so closed there is no room to question. To be artists, they must be recognized by an educational institution, a gallery owner and, eventually, a museum curator. Without that recognition, they're of some lesser caste. But the artists involved in GMWC disregard the mediators of the system. They make art, show it and sell it and critique it. They do it semiseriously because art is a semiserious practice, as anyone living in the world since Duchamp knows. When Abramowitz swerves his car to the side of the road at the sight of an abandoned muffler, picks it up and raises it over his head and screams -- which has become part of his artistic ritual -- that's just the sort of goofy, subversive act that needs to be employed, especially by artists, in an increasingly restrictive society.

The seat of all this subversion is a third-floor apartment on Melville Avenue in the University City Loop -- anyone who remembers attending a Wash. U. student party anytime in the recent past would recognize it. The evening of the opening, a bona fide party is going on, with people hanging out drinking beer and wine, Johnny Cash skipping on the stereo.

Silverstein is in costume. She's developed a performance persona of a charismatic cult leader and dresses in state-surplus white overalls, her pet rat Igor hiding in her hair. Most of her photos are self-portraits -- or her persona-self-portraits. These hang in both the kitchen and in the notorious closet. The closet installation exposes Silverstein in her various cult-leader guises: thoughtful; ranting; sometimes wearing a grotesque rubber mask; sometimes wearing ribbons of chenille in her hair, giving her a Rastafarian look. She's made large prints, about 3 by 4 feet, and fastened them to the walls with pushpins. Their color is just as lush, warm, inviting as the images are both provocative and disquieting.

In the living room hangs the work of Amber Moore, 3-D collages made from found materials -- an altar form made of galvanized steel, '50s magazine advertisements, strings of beads, matchbox covers. The pieces are all very composed, very pretty.

The opening mixes laid-back college-party antics with impromptu performance. A woman enters the closet with Silverstein (a very large closet; at least 10 people can fit inside) after telling the artist, "OK, let's do a Q&A." The woman begins an on-the-spot critique of the work, hitting on many of the issues Silverstein has intended: the power of charisma; the leader as part evangelist, part rock star. As she pauses in her critical riff, someone pitches in with the observation that in one of Silverstein's poses, she makes a gesture like the boy in The Shining when he's chanting "Red rum."

Through it all, Williams is in his dealer mode, pointing to a stack of Silverstein's' photos: "Ten dollars," he says with a wink. "The good stuff."

People are drinking, dancing, chatting, coming and going. The art is there, exhibited not as untouchable objects in a pristine setting but as art is experienced -- a special presence in the midst of the squalor of everyday life.