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A mural by Layer Cake at Dallas' Psychedelic Robot 2.0 pop-up gallery, which artists say are the "way of the future."EXPAND
A mural by Layer Cake at Dallas' Psychedelic Robot 2.0 pop-up gallery, which artists say are the "way of the future."
Brittany Shaban

Psychedelic Robot 2.0 Says It’s Not an Instagram Trap But a Way to Democratize Art

On a cruel early summer day two weeks before his gallery’s latest show opens to the public, Michael Bivins glides up, down and across the space that will soon become Psychedelic Robot 2.0, the second coming of Bivins Gallery’s wildly visited pop-up. The show occupies two floors of real estate in the heart of the ritzy Crescent, and in between phone calls with clients, Bivins is overseeing several artists’ installations. It’s an impressive array of wild colors, vibrant, immerse pieces and a mishmash of local artists and internationally acclaimed creators.

“It’s an experience,” he says, beaming with pride as he walks through an upstairs room decked out by veteran Dallas graffiti artist Tex Moton. “This is the way of the future.”

Psychedelic Robot 2.0, opening Friday, is a sequel that has a good chance of achieving the unlikely: measuring up to, if not surpassing the original. Bivins Gallery has invited more artists, almost doubling the roster from the first show, and bringing in artists from New York, Los Angeles and Europe. Two artists are coming to the opening from the historic Venice Biennale, and another has a studio in the World Trade Center. Photographer David Drebin, whose collectors include Elton John and Ben Stiller, will also be featured.

As pop-ups, which some call “Instagram traps,” become more popular, Bivins, his wife and gallery co-owner Karen, and their cadre of internationally known artists are seeking to go bigger, to create what they call a “cultural happening.”

“People ask us, ‘What’s the dress code?’ and I always say, ‘Whatever you want,’” Karen Bivins says. “This is a place to experience art, listen to music and just be yourself.”

At first brush, an immersive art pop-up with the word “Psychedelic” in the title seemed about as far from The Crescent’s brand as possible. The real estate complex is best known for its fancy hotel and pricey brands like Stanley Korshak.

“Can you imagine going to The Crescent and presenting this idea, or just saying the word ‘Psychedelic?’” Karen says, reminiscing on the gallery’s pitch for the first show. “The juxtaposition is crazy.”

But the complex bought in.

“I have to give them lots of credit,” Michael says. “They trusted us, they trusted our brand, and they’ve been our biggest supporters.”

The original show was slated for a 10-day run, but the space's popularity, largely fueled by social media, kept the show going for three sold-out months. Bivins Gallery followed the first Robot experience with a show inspired by the year and named “1969,” but they knew a return to psychedelia was in store.

“Because of the success of the first show, we had our pick of the best of the best,” Michael says.

The "best of the best" in this case includes New York artist Sean Sullivan, who also goes by the name Layer Cake. Sullivan, best known for his stencil art, was won over by what he calls the Bivinses’ “classic Texas hospitality.”

“I hear a lot of pitches from galleries, and I’m busy enough with the ones I work with, but they kept after me until I warmed up to them,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan compares the couple with the kind of gallerists who put a spotlight on artists like Warhol and Basquiat.

“Back in the day, the galleries put a lot of effort into helping artists break through; they took them on as real projects. Michael and Karen have their own impressive network, and they’ve built their time and reputation on bringing artists to the world.”

When the duo shared with Sullivan their mission for Robot 2.0, he recommended several Texas artists for the show. Tex Moton, a local graffiti artist, was one of these artists, even though he and Sullivan had never met. Moton’s penchant for bold colors caught the New Yorker’s eye on Instagram, as did the style of muralist Joe Skilz. These connections are one of the key reasons Sullivan believes social media has a positive impact on the art world.

“Artists are skipping the starving part,” Moton says. “Just like YouTube can break a performer, Instagram can beat the system. Because of the internet, I’m selling paintings in Beirut, Kuwait and Mexico.”

Tex Moton is well-aware of the “Instagram trap” critique but strongly believes experiences like Psychedelic Robot are ultimately a good thing for art and artists.

“People may be coming to get the instant gratification that comes with that Instagram post, but they’re seeing great art, and that’s still exposure for the artist,” he says. “This gives a platform to so many talented artists that now have this massive stage to show people what they got.”

Crystal Wagner agrees. Wagner is a multidisciplinary artist specializing in alternative use of materials. Her Psychedelic Robot installation is a colorful structure made entirely of reusable material.

“If they come for the photos, that’s great,” she says. “Because they’ll leave having seen work like this, and maybe they’ll come away inspired, and think twice about the materials we use and how we can all do better.”

Providing platforms for artists like Moton, a local, and Wagner, a rising star on the international art scene, is a key driver for the Bivinses as well. The duo launched Psychedelic Robot with the goal to “democratize art.” This means creating a cultural destination where both acclaimed artists and up-and-comers have an audience, and where the audience can experience the work of the creators. In other words, it merges the prestige of an art gallery with the experience of a pop-up. Local artists like sculptor Nic Noblique are especially grateful for that opportunity.

“One of the first things I asked Michael about the show was, ‘What are my parameters?’” Noblique recalls. “And he said, “‘Do what you want to do.’ For an artist, that’s always the dream.”

As Michael Bivins walked from one artist to the next on that hot summer day, he asked the creatives how they were doing, what help they needed, and if they had met so-and-so yet. This conviviality was one reason Wagner made the effort to squeeze Psychedelic Robot into her busy schedule. After she finishes her Psychedelic Robot 2.0 installation, she is leaving for France to go “wrap a castle” with one of her installations.

“When Michael called, I could see the vision he had to bring these artists together from all over,” she says. “I had to be a part of that.”

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