An important part of running a gallery is observing people at your shows — reading the room, noticing who is engaged with the work — and talking to them. You notice body language: the way prospective buyers keep circling back to a certain piece while others are there to appreciate the work or simply to use it as a backdrop for socializing. Gallery owners sell art, but also advocate for it. Brian Gibb, owner of The Public Trust, knows this well. It's why he came up with an idea that puts his focus on fostering artists.
In September, Gibb started a new series simply called Soliloquy. His idea was to devote his entire gallery to a single work by an artist. “I see people and they are engaged,” says Gibb. “But they never really spend too much time on any particular thing. They kind of make their lap around the room.” He was wondering how to change this environment when he came up with the idea to devote his entire gallery to a single work of art.
Gibb figured that if a person goes to a show with 10 pieces of art and spends a minute looking at each item, perhaps he would spend 10 minutes looking at a show that exhibited just one. He was taken with the idea of forcing viewers to focus on one item. He wondered how they would feel about the piece and what their level of interaction would be. “This is all we have,” he says, looking at the current installation from Mylan Nguyen. “This boat that was made by hand, with all the purpose that went into it.”
When artists create shows, they often consider the size of the room as they decide how many works to display and what size they should each be. Soliloquy presents a unique challenge — to create a work that can hold a crowd's focus in the room, as opposed to simply filling it. It trades the pressure of making many works for the pressure of making one great work. And as an art dealer, the idea throws out any consideration about how many large and small pieces there should be and how many of each needs to be sold.
“This is not a super economically viable thing,” Gibb admits. “If you own an art gallery, you have to sell work. If you don’t sell work it’s hard to stay open.” But having been an art dealer for over a decade, Gibb has other opportunities to sell work. He is also confident that he will sell the art in this series, which will consist of about a dozen shows exhibited non-consecutively, so the The Public Trust can continue to host other types of shows as well. Gibb has been fascinated to see how artists tackle the challenge of Soliloquy. Now two shows into the series, he seems to know how to pick the right artists for it.
Arthur Peña kicked off the first Soliloquy show in September with a huge oil painting of densely layered squiggles created with single brush strokes. At first glance, it seemed playful. But a closer inspection revealed patterns that shattered just as soon as they appeared, faithfully representing his obsession with death. The painting also radiated an energy that seemed to convey the tremendous physical and mental expenditure Peña subjects himself to in his creative process.
For the second edition of Soliloquy, Mylan Nguyen, an artist who works in multiple mediums, installed a boat in the center of the room that has proven to be another good fit for the series. The boat floats on a blue and white cloth and there is even a ceramic duck swimming beside it and a sea hawk flying over it. She built the frame and elaborately painted it both inside and out. She stenciled a sail and an umbrella for the boat, too. It also has paddles, a lantern, a buoy and a plaque on the stern, with the image of a little girl that says, "NEVER STOP."
There are countless drawings of birds, girls and fish hanging from clothespins. The piece is interactive, as viewers are encouraged to leave a message in a bottle. Nguyen responds to the messages by converting them into drawings that are added to the piece. It’s a way of inviting viewers to participate in the art's creation. The installation is so detailed that you can circle around it several times and still notice new things. Viewers are even welcome to sit in the boat, which offers yet another perspective.
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Nguyen’s installation invokes a sense of adventure and nostalgia, as if a child daydreamed about setting sail on a boat where she could spend all of her time drawing. Nguyen has built houses and boats for previous installations, fun projects she compares to building forts. “It’s like translating my illustrations into a 3-D environment that the viewer can participate in and sort of step into the world of my art,” Nguyen says.
For Soliloquy, she decided to create Ikiru, a single installation composed of many details, ideas and pieces that continue to evolve. “Soliloquy was perfect for this piece because it’s like stepping into a story or one idea made up of a lot of little ones,” Nguyen says.
Gibb plans for Soliloquy to feature work by a variety of artists — whether emerging, mid-career or established — producing everything from narrative to abstract to new media work. Once the series is complete, he's considering putting the work together in a larger space for an enormous group show. Gibb also plans to solidify the series by publishing a book that will document the exhibits with spreads, interviews and essays.
Soliloquy: Mylan Nguyen is on view through December 12 at The Public Trust, 2271 Monitor St.