DOWNTOWN DIGS: The living room at the Apartment At the Mall.
Rhode Island confirmed why it’s the capital of New England art-making with two major developments in 2007: (1) the outing of a group of artists who turned forgotten space in Providence’s flagship mall into a secret hideout and (2) the establishment of an underground museum of mechanical miracles in Bristol. And that was just the start.
1 The Discovery
On September 26, artist Michael Townsend was stopped by security as he left an apartment he and seven collaborators had secretly created inside neglected storage space in Providence Place’s parking garage. And so was announced to the world one of the most audacious and awesome underground art projects Rhode Island has ever seen.
“The Apartment at the Mall” was a delicious, trenchant, outlaw joke that colonized a bit of the mall to reconsider the place of consumerism and real-estate development in our communities. A recreation of the place is on exhibit at 70 Eddy Street through December 31. For those who have only experienced the original via photos or video, it’s an uncanny copy, a kind of proof of the mall apartment’s existence, and simultaneously like walking into a mirage.
What’s next? The artists are creating a book about the project. Townsend says they sold contents of the original apartment — still at the mall — to a Providence collector. The owners of the mall, he says, have made rumblings about suing the artists to seize the intellectual property rights to the whole project and possibly bar them from discussing it. They plan to fight any lawsuit. In the meantime, Townsend hints that he has a couple more off-the-radar spaces under development.
2 The Inventor
Word of mouth has turned the Musée Patamécanique, which opened last fall, into a cult hit. Hidden on a Bristol estate, curator Neil Salley has built a collection of apparitions and marvelously curious mechanical inventions that beg questions about art, science and the very nature of reality. A garden expansion is next.
3 The Woodsman
Providence sculptor Bruce Chao has been erecting temporary sculptures high in the canopy of a forest in Seekonk, Massachusetts, for six years, but photos and videos of his boardwalks, webs, and false tree limbs that were exhibited at Brown University’s Bell Gallery in June were his first public presentation of the work. In Chao’s art, treetops became places of visions and dreams. Other Bell Gallery highlights: Yumi Kori’s bubbilicious midnight installation, Catherine Yass’s video float through the locks of China’s Three Gorges Dam, and Ruud van Empel’s mesmerizing digitally-assembled photos of children haunting jungles and woods.
4 The Rookie
For her MFA graduate show at RISD, Rachelle Beaudoin presented photos of herself wandering Providence in Cheer!Shorts with custom slogans across the butt: “Unusually Wet Pussy,” “Totally Waxed,” “Cock Sucking Queen.” It was funny, rascally, smart, discomforting feminist art that asked essential questions about women, beauty, and sexuality in America.
5 The Foreign Translation
“China seen by . . .” at the University of Rhode Island’s Fine Art Center was a hive-mind portrait of the ancient culture and modern industrial dynamo by 14 Chinese and Western photographers that was bewildering, unnerving, and awe-inspiring.
6 The Visitors
The RISD Museum reopened a renovated main gallery in its Radeke Building and offered quality exhibitions of Henry Horenstein’s honky-tonk photos, Kenneth Jay Lane’s “Fabulous Fake” jewelry, and music videos and early avant-garde films, but the highlight of the school’s public programming was talks by two visiting artists. Chicago sculptor Nick Cave’s autobiographical address was punctuated by a dancer performing in one of his ravishing “Soundsuits,” and David Wilson, founder of Los Angeles’ Museum of Jurassic Technology, gave an astonishing, befuddling speech about miniscule sculptures and mosaics.
7 The New Joint
Stairwell Gallery, which opened late in 2006, came into its own this year as a stylish portal to the city’s underground scene. My favorite exhibition, “Creatures,” featured cute brut art-dolls by Brian Chippendale, Xander Marro, Jill Colinan, Paper Rad, CF, and others.
8 The Power Plant
AS220 continues to pump major energy, resources, and inspiration into the city’s art scene. The big news continues to be the landmark community arts center’s steadily expanding empire downtown. The Project Space gallery opened in the AS220-renovated Dreyfus Building in June, and plans are in the works to redevelop a Washington Street building.