Going underground

The hidden quality of the Providence art scene is a big part of what sets it apart
By GREG COOK  |  October 10, 2007
EXHIBITIONISTS: Gallery directors [left to right] Bert, Shapiro, Purkey, Walsh, Connor, and Smith
provide outlets for Rhode Island’s fertile creative scene.

"Hiding in plain sight: Aping luxury makeovers at Providence Place." By Greg Cook.
The project in which Michael Townsend and seven collaborators created a secret apartment at Providence Place began as an adventure in which four friends tried to live in the mall for a week. Townsend, 36, says he’d stay three to four weeks at a time in the makeshift squat they created in neglected storage space in the shopping center’s parking garage.
The escapade came to an abrupt end when mall security stopped Townsend as he was leaving the living space on September 26. Yet it quickly became clear that the mall apartment was one of the most audacious and awesome underground art projects Rhode Island has seen — part MacGyver, part Robin Hood, part Bugs Bunny, part juvenile delinquent, and part genius philosophical joke.
After watching developers remake Providence in recent years, Townsend and his wife, Adriana Yoto, had imbibed real estate lingo and they saw the forgotten mall room as valuable property that shouldn’t lay fallow. During their initial week in the mall, the group decided, “We have a responsibility to come back and micro-develop that space.”
In a brilliant act of humorous intellectual jujitsu, they turned the weight of Providence Place, a major symbol of consumerism and redevelopment, back on itself to reconsider the place of malls and real-estate development in our communities. At the same time, the secret apartment clubhouse was a thrilling reminder of how Providence remains an inventive and surprising magical artistic place.
Rhode Island’s capital has a national reputation as an incubator of cool art — from designer Shepard “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” Fairey and Barnaby Evans’s WaterFire to the bygone monstery punk cooperative Fort Thunder and the feminist art gang that makes its home at the Dirt Palace. The art collective Paper Rad, which moved to Providence from western Massachusetts in the past year after hovering around the city for years, was listed in Vanity Fair’s “Art Issue” last December as one of the stars in its map of the international art universe. And now we have the nationally publicized The Apartment At the Mall, as seen on CBS, Fox TV, and elsewhere.
Providence’s reputation and the national prominence of the Rhode Island School of Design remain magnets for artists. But even as new art spaces like Firehouse 13, the Stairwell Gallery, and 5 Traverse emerge, much locally made art seems perennially hidden in the mysterious and alluring underground, distanced from conventional galleries.

Seen in this respect, The Apartment At the Mall is typical of the local art scene and how artists here sometimes work in unexpected places, hiding on occasion in almost plain sight. To some, Providence’s gallery landscape may seem underdeveloped, particularly in comparison to the city’s zesty creative reputation. Seen another way, though, the partially hidden quality of local art is part and parcel of what helps to make it happen.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Bugs Bunny, Judith Tannenbaum, Sara Agniel,  More more >
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