The Art Assassin

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang

Chapter 23: ASSASSINATION: Helen Meyrick, Director of Projects Gallery

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Photograph of gallery owners Helen Meyrick and Sheila Giolitti. Courtesy of Facebook and Lenny Campello.
Margery Amdur: Wisp 8, hand-cut frosted mylar, acrylic paint on acetate, 60 by 41 inches. Courtesy of Projects Gallery.

During February 2009, I had a chance to exhibit one of my industrial landscape drawings for a juried group show called “Guilty Pleasures” at a venue in Philadelphia called Projects Gallery. I was very happy to see the choices of how the theme of love and pleasure being interpreted in so many different ways ranging from the erotic to the subtly psychological. After further research, I had a chance to speak with gallery director Ms. Helen Meyrick and discuss some of the events which were going on at Projects Gallery.

Projects Gallery is a venue that focuses on personal interpretation of figurative expressionism. What is startling to the unsuspecting viewer is that such a seemingly easy theme can have so many variants ranging from the combined glasswork and video art of Tim Tate to the painted and carved phone book portraits of Alex Qureal, which exhibits a virtuosic command of detail similar to that of Chuck Close. This extraordinary gallery, which has received much press within the local Philadelphia area as well as national coverage, is located in the gradually expanding area of Northern Liberties which has exploded with a number of art-related venues.

So if you have any questions about artwork that is being featured at the Projects Gallery in Philadelphia, feel free to contact Ms. Meyrick at helen@projectsgallery.com or at (267) 303-9652.

So now for our feature presentation: here are THE ART ASSASSIN’s details of the “assassination”:

qi peng: How did the Projects Gallery originate in 2004? When the gallery first appeared in Northern Liberties, what were the initial challenges for getting the space off the ground and building up a reputation within the context of the contemporary Philadelphia, and eventually international, arts scene? When you started to search for artists to represent, what was the methodology behind finding the ones whom you chose eventually for full representation?

Helen Meyrick: In 2004 my corporate job in sales and marketing of more than 25 years was outsourced to Asia.  My husband and I had had many discussions about starting our own retail business over the years.  Because we had just renovated our building and built a first-floor retail space, the timing seemed fated.   Since he’s an artist and most of our friends are artists, an art gallery was always at the top of the list.  I was also very intimately aware of how artists were treated and cheated by dealers, curators, critics and clients.  I wanted to do something better.  We asked about a dozen of our friends for some work, hung a show and opened the doors in the summer of 2004.  I knew nothing about running a gallery, knew very little about art and had no idea what I was getting into.  I thought I could just work a few hours a week and things would go swimmingly.  I still remember my husband asking me on the day we had our grand opening, “Where’s your press release?”  I responded, “What’s a press release?”  Soon thereafter one of my artists suggested we do an art fair.  Six months after opening we exhibited in Art Miami, another huge learning experience.  Needless to say, in 5 short years, I’ve learned a great deal; but I’ve been able to maintain my initial precept of representing the artists honestly, fairly and with as much of their own voice as possible.  I feel very strongly that the gallery is not about me but about the art.

qi peng: By focusing on a “personal form of figurative expressionism” as the driving force behind the gallery’s conceptual stance and its appeal to the art world, what was the main aesthetic and philosophical thrust behind that approach? What is your assessment of neo-expressionism within the current practice of art? How does the gallery’s programs relate to the art history context of, say, an Anselm Kiefer? A Julian Schnabel? An Andy Warhol? A Sigmar Polke? A Gerhard Richter? An Amy Sillman?

Helen Meyrick: Projects Gallery works with artists who are primarily figurative expressionists because that’s the type of work I respond to most.  I like color, the unusual use of material and art that is trying to say something.  My husband of 30+ years is this type of artist, so I guess it’s natural that I would lean towards others in this style.  When I see new work, I generally respond to it physically or emotionally first and then intellectually.  There are many styles that I enjoy, but my barometer for choosing an artist is the “wow, I really like that” kind of approach.  There are three criterion for working with an artist 1) I like the work, 2) I like working with the artist and 3) I can sell the art.  The importance is usually in that order.  If I don’t like the work, it’s really difficult to present it enthusiastically.  If the artist is a pain in the butt or not professional, my enthusiasm for the work will probably fade.  Being able to sell helps pay the bills and keeps the doors open but is not the most important point.  Like most galleries, 20% of my artists create 70% of the gallery’s income.

qi peng: What is the most controversial exhibition that you have hosted in the gallery that received a strong response to the artworks being featured there? Who would you judge to be your most provocative artists in your roster? How do you balance presenting artists who play with being eye catching with probing inquiry and those who provoke deep thought subtly? Is there a political or sociological context for what Projects Gallery have been achieving during its years?

Helen Meyrick: The most controversial exhibition may be the one currently in the gallery – Obama-rama, simply because someone keeps defacing the front window every morning.  They must not like Obama.  Seems a little infantile to me.  Provocation is such a subjective word.  I work with several artists who do erotic figurative work, some that question our social fabric and others who tease our assumptions of reality.  I can’t say that any of my artists are subtle.  They all have strong convictions and, therefore, strong imagery.

qi peng: With the architectural layout of Projects Gallery being in a bi-level format, how do you go about planning the curating and the physical layout of each show? Have you found any “unusual” exhibitions that challenged the nature of your space and its constraints?

Helen Meyrick: The front room is the “main” and largest exhibition space and hosts most of the solo and “important” exhibitions.  The rear space contains my office and has a more intimate feel.  The lower space is in the basement; and, because we’re able to totally control the light, we’ve had some rather unusual installations, including a muralist who created a subterranean environment with Day-Glo paint and black lights.  This summer an installation artist will be doing a two-month residency creating another environment.  We’ve also used this space to host a film festival.

qi peng: As the “Obama-rama” group show got put together, what were the pitfalls of having to create a set of artworks that avoided the pitfalls of representing our most iconic president Barack Obama? Do you feel that the over-saturation of his image has been helpful and/or problematic in terms of how the nation deals with its current economic woes?

Helen Meyrick: “Obama-rama” was actually one of the easiest shows I’ve ever mounted.  A simple idea (think of the man and make something [pro or con]), spread the word to your artist friends, have the work in the gallery by a well-defined deadline.  Nothing was edited, censored or declined.  A purely democratic process.  Of the 30 pieces in the show, less than half even contain his image.  It wasn’t about portraiture but rather the idea of the man and what he represents. It’s been so popular, we held it over an extra month.

qi peng: What are some of the most difficult challenges that Projects Gallery had to face during the economic crisis that we are facing today? With the closure of prominent Chelsea and Lower East Side galleries during the past few months, has this phenomenon carried over into the Philadelphia area? Have any of the artists at the Projects Gallery felt the impact of the economic recession and/or responded to it within his or her artwork?

Helen Meyrick: The economy is clearly pandemic.  Everyone everywhere is feeling it. We’ve cut expenses, offered creative financing to our buyers and have rethought our business paradigm going forward.  As I own the building and live where I work, I’m not going anywhere or thinking of closing my doors.  In fact, I’ve decided that we might as well have more fun with what we’re doing, hence Obama-rama.

qi peng: “Guilty Pleasures” was the first juried exhibition that you have hosted within the space. What inspired you for the original idea? With its provocative theme of dealing with secrets, sexuality, and representation of the figure (both landscape and human), the show has garnered many artists from various corners of the nation and received much favorable press. What was it like to be able to feature relatively emerging and/or unknown artists with the rather established artists from the gallery roster? How does it place Projects Gallery within the new context? With its success, are there any future plans for more juried group shows?

Helen Meyrick: February is one of our slower months.  The winter doldrums, post-holiday malaise seem to weigh on our psyche.  February is also the month of love, which started a discussion in the gallery about the different types of love – of another, of food, of animals, etc.  We did the first call-to-artists as an attempt to reach outside of the Philadelphia area and perhaps stimulate and expand our artist pool.  We received entries from a nice cross section of artists with quite a variety of works, some very surprising in their interpretation of the theme.   The work was selected purely from the thematic relevance and quality of work and not whether they were emerging or established.  We decided to expand the show to two exhibition rooms and include some of our gallery artists.  In the end, it was an interesting exhibition that was well received by the public and press.  We even picked up a new gallery artist from the entrants.  The hard part was selecting work solely from digital images, which has it advances and disadvantages for some artists’ works.  The other hard part was staging both Guilty Pleasures and Obama-rama simultaneously.  My associate director, Sequoia Medley, is currently curating another call-to-artist exhibition.  This one is for artists in the Greater Delaware Valley region and is based on the idea of “Summer in the City”.  It’s open to all levels of artists, including high school kids.

qi peng: As Projects Gallery has a very strong history of attending art fairs ranging from the Red Dot in Miami and New York, the Bridge Art Fair in Miami and London, Art Miami, and the Nova Art Fair in Chicago, how do you perceive the importance of these events for the gallery’s development and growth? How did the artists respond to the “annual ritual” of having their work presented in a context that isn’t part of a regular solo or group exhibition? Do you feel that art fairs are antithetical to carefully crafted shows based on a driving concept? Also, do you feel that there is a pecking order to art fairs where certain fairs allow galleries to have a higher level of visibility in the art world? Or do art fairs have a more democratic focus in showcasing work that isn’t necessarily from the two largest art markets in the United States, New York and Los Angeles? What are some sneak previews of your goodies to be featured inside your upcoming booth at the 2009 Bridge Art Fair in New York?

Helen Meyrick: As mentioned previously, art fairs have been an integral part of Projects Gallery’s exhibition schedule almost from its inception.  Art fairs present an opportunity for several thousand people to see our artists in a very short period of time.  As a marketing tool, the fairs often work better than advertising, even in the national publications.  The results are more readily discernible; and after many years of participation, people look forward to seeing us from year to year.  In my opinion, the fairs present an even playing field for the galleries.  The little white booths (or even the hotel rooms) are the same for everyone.  At a glance, the public can’t tell whether you are a small gallery or a moneyed gallery, if you have a large space in an urban setting or a small rural gallery, if you work with 6 artists or 60.  What they can see is the art, and they’re there to look at art.  They’re not passing by as they shop for shoes.  My artists enjoy doing the fairs.  Who wouldn’t want their work in the public eye?  The other thing fairs allow is viewing a vast variety of work, often on an international level.  Sort of like one-stop shopping.  I tell artists that they should attend art fairs.  It’s one of the best ways to see what is actually going on in the art world.  You can’t always get a real feel from looking at art magazines.  Of course there’s a pecking order to the fairs.  Basel Miami is at the top of the list in the U.S.  What has happened with the large fairs like Basel Miami and the New York Armory is that quite a number of little fairs have sprung up around them.  In Miami this past December there were something like 25 auxiliary fairs that weekend; New York in March there were 6 or 7.  It makes the whole thing a cause de celebre and gives the public more viewing options.  I have often heard people say they like the “little” fairs better because they’re more down to earth and accessible.

qi peng: Do you have any favorite art blogs and/or magazines which you enjoy reading on a constant basis? How do galleries respond to the ability to have a quick, visceral response to the artwork after the opening reception is over for a show? Do you feel that art criticism has changed a lot in its tenor since a few decades ago when Clement Greenberg was on the scene writing about the Abstract Expressionists?

Helen Meyrick: My most frequently watched art bloggers are Roberta Fallon/Libby Rosof (The Artblog) [disclaimer here – they have curated and exhibited with Projects Gallery], Joanne Mattera (Blogspot) and Lenny Campello (Daily Campello Art News [another disclaimer – he shows with us and is curating one of our April exhibitions]).  They do a pretty good job of covering the national art scene.  I think the term “art critic” has become somewhat of an oxymoron.  It’s more like art describing.  Gone are the days when a critic actually said something was good or bad.  We’ve all become too politically polite.

qi peng: With the growing respect of art blogs covering the Philadelphia arts scene, particularly Roberta Fallon and Libby Rossof’s Artblog (both got invited to curate a show at Denise Bibro Fine Art recently), how do you think that technology especially that through the Internet can help the gallery grow and interact with the viewing public at large? How do you think that collectors respond and attempt to enter into the dialogue with both the artwork and artists on a personal and philosophical level? Are there any pitfalls in how technology is used within the gallery system?

Helen Meyrick: The internet is vital to the gallery in terms of sales and marketing.  Many of my artists are not from the Philadelphia area.  Electronic transmission allows them to send me work, have it mounted on our website, presented to clients from around the world and placed in collections.  We are placing work neither the client nor I have physically seen.  Our website is constantly being updated with new works, news about the artists, upcoming events and current exhibitions.  All of our exhibitions are mounted on the website, both individual pieces and installation shots.  You can visit the show and the gallery without leaving your home.  The only drawback to electronic transmission and digital imagery is getting a real feel for the work.  Work that looks great in photos may not fare as well in person and visa versa.  As many of my artists work with mixed media and three dimensionally on a two-dimensional form, their work does not read well electronically.  The good news is it usually looks better in person.  I’ve curated shows solely from digital images for convenience and practical purposes.  Nothing beats viewing the actual work.

qi peng: On a lighter note, who are some of your favorite artists? Any cool exhibitions that you have seen recently? What are some favorite music, movies, books, and cultural artifacts that fans of your gallery ought to know about? Also, what are some recommended tunes that you play during gallery hours or First Friday receptions?

Helen Meyrick: Have to pass on this one.  I see so much art and there are many artists I enjoy, but I can’t think of any favorites.  It’s more about the individual pieces.  I recently saw Vincent Desiderio at Marlborough Chelsea and had a “wow” moment.

qi peng: How would you place the contemporary arts scene within the context of the international art scene/market? Do you believe that globalization has an impact on the visual arts and if so, what do you think this effect is? What is your opinion of the rise of the fledgling art markets popping up in the Middle East, China, and India?

Helen Meyrick: I think globalization has had a positive effect on the art scene.  We’ve become more of a community rather than disconnected.  Whether its Asian, Latin, African, New Age, Cutting Edge (what exactly is cutting edge any way?), art has always been a base human need.  Now is easier to be exposed to more, again thanks primarily to the electronic age.

qi peng: Do you have any memorable or humorous stories that you wish to relate to us about the times at Projects Gallery?

Helen Meyrick: The business of art is often unpredictable and surprising.  A couple of years ago we hosted a solo show for an artist that ran through June and July.  He had been asking for a show, and we kind of threw it together at the last minute.  Although I thought it was a beautiful exhibition, I didn’t expect anything to happen because the summer is often slow in the city.  However, we did have one sale off the wall and some press.   Because the gallery is closed for August, I told the artist to just leave everything for a couple of weeks so I could take some time off to spend with my children in our summer home.  I received a phone call from someone who was opening a restaurant in two days and wanted to look at a couple of pieces.  I met them at the gallery and made arrangements to bring all the pieces in the show to the restaurant the next day so they could see them in situ.  The artist and I loaded our two vehicles, drove about an hour outside the city, placed everything here and there and back again and did the normal “dog and pony show”.  The artist took a smoke break while I finished the negotiations with the owners.  I went outside and told the artist I had some bad news.  He deadpanned, “They don’t want anything and we have to take it all home.”  No, the bad news was we had to go back to his studio and get two more pieces.  They purchased the entire show – 15 large and mid-size paintings!  The month we were supposed to be closed. Who could have predicted?

qi peng: Is there anything else which you would love to share with fans of the gallery and the readers here?

Helen Meyrick: Projects Gallery is not the same gallery it was when we started 5 years ago, and it will be different 5 years hence. However, our core values will remain the same…to present talented artists and quality work honestly, fairly and professionally.  I ask our audience to engage in a dialogue with the gallery.  It’s easy to talk to some one who likes what we’re doing and the work we present.  It’s sometimes more interesting to have a conversation from opposite poles.  I always ask our visitors if they have any questions or if I can explain anything to them.  The common response is “No, I’m just looking.”  I guess they’re afraid I’m trying to sell them something.  I’m not.  I always have lots of questions, and I assume other people do too.  They’re just afraid to ask.  Don’t be.

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at qipengart@gmail.com
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Written by qi peng

May 12, 2009 at 1:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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