Love for sale

There’s love for sale at Semi-Public Gallery — love in all its edgy and sweet permutations.

And it’s for a worthy case: Gallery commissions on works sold during The Love Show will benefit two printing concerns connected with Semi-Public and its owners, Gary Byrd and Tony Bradley: Sotto Editions (which Bradley now runs out of his house) and a brand-new print center that will give artists a place to create one-of-a-kind prints. Both enterprises will be housed on the gallery’s top floor.

Here’s what love looks like, in part, at Semi-Public:

Byrd’s offerings (oil on board) are studies in bold colors with impertinently tantalizing titles: “Big Red” and “Big Heads/Hard Love” are marked by brilliant shades of red and orange, with renegade tones of fuchsia. Vague human shapes, a Byrd trademark, are embedded within the works

Bradley’s “Letters to B.” (paint/printing on board) consists of four small-but-potent panels that feature violently gorgeous red masses — reminiscent of writhing, chaotic flowers — against stark black backgrounds, overlaid with a filmy, gauzy white.

Robert Godfrey’s “Kisses: Simon Loves Bambi” (charcoal on paper) offers a stylized portrait of kissing male and female figures. We see the old-fashioned-looking couple in close-up, rendered with a sea of dramatic black pencil strokes.

Lisa Colby exhibits “Slave” (painted steel) — a literal ball-and-chain. A deep pink chain-link heart hoists a dangling ball, in a tableau that’s both tender and sinister.

Leslie Shaw’s “Campo Santo” (graphite and acrylic on paper) is a celebration/dissection of the human heart. Translated as “holy field,” the anatomically correct heart in this work — complete with pulpy, visceral veins, arteries and ventricles — hovers above a dark, mysterious mass.

Ron Meisner’s compelling “Tough Love” (transfer on panel) features two contorted, naked male figures, rendered in green against a brick-red background. The work is a gutsy take on the sometimes fine line between agony and ecstasy, pain and pleasure: The distorted facial expressions on the figures could convey either. Are they wrestling or making love? Or both?

And speaking of naked men, Larry Caveney’s “Grown Man Naked” (acrylic on canvas) is a surreal depiction of a bloated, seated male figure with a fishbowl for a head, a blood-red neck drape that seems somehow synonymous with a deep wound, and a word balloon containing indecipherable symbols and the simple word “love.”

Terry Taylor’s tiny “Nino de Atocha” (mixed media) is a silver-framed valentine of sorts, featuring at its center a tiny icon of the baby in question, mounted on red velvet. An impossibly minuscule pair of silver shoes rests at the bottom of the frame.

Wildly divergent works by Russel Biles, Rita Barnes, Eric Baden, Tucker Cook, Linda Larsen, Karen Ives, Anis Crofts and Catherine Murray — some of them previous Semi-Public exhibitors, others Semi-Public virgins — round out the exhibition.

Byrd and Bradley have collaborated artistically for several years both in the gallery and in Sotto Editions — which Bradley has been running for six years, under one name or another. Asheville Working Press, Sotto Editions’ predecessor, was housed in the old Chesterfield Mill in the River District, where Byrd also had studio space. “We had darkrooms, a woodworking shop, a framing shop. We were trying to be kind of self-contained,” explains Bradley. The mill burned to the ground in 1995. Having recently moved his paintings to his studio there, Byrd lost practically his entire body of work. The print shop space was also destroyed. Searching for new art space, the two were unable to find anything that cost less than five times what they’d paid at the Chesterfield Mill. So Bradley moved operations to the basement of his house, and Byrd eventually bought the old corner-grocery-store building at 305 Hillside St., where Semi-Public is now housed For a time, Byrd, his wife and daughter lived in the upstairs space that will house The Print Center.

“We have a totally unique set-up here for Asheville — a neighborhood gallery,” Byrd notes. “We’ve always been in a unique situation here, in that we don’t suffer the rents of downtown , so we’ve grown at a steady pace over a period of time. And the close association with the print shop makes us even more unique.”

“Nobody around here is doing the printing stuff,” avows Bradley. “I want to keep the shop affordable and experimental and interesting — particularly keep it affordable to the artist.”

Byrd calls the combination of the print shop and gallery a “new model for the ’90s.”

“There were a lot of artist-run, alternative art spaces through the ’70s and ’80s that had to do with the notion that the artist could organize, become businesslike and participate in the overall economy, with the sole intention of putting money into the pockets of working artists,” relates Byrd. “So we’ve been thinking of the really cool and interesting idea of a new model, being substantially influenced by Andy Warhol.” Warhol, of course, was famous both for his screen-print works and for melding art and commerce in ways that both mirrored and defined pop culture. “It’s really interesting that we’re back around to this point where artists are becoming smart, businesswise; you’ve got to be creative on all fronts,” notes Byrd.

In other words, in the new millennium, the starving-artist stereotype just might be losing its allure.

“We’ve built up a collectors’ network of people who come back and buy more art,” notes Bradley. “And hopefully, we’ll expand on that. The print work has sort of been the bread and butter in a lot of ways. We can sell a $150 or $200 print when we can’t sell a $1,000 painting. … We exhibited an installation artist who had nothing for sale, but she came in to print and we sold some of her prints, so it allowed us to exhibit her work and still pay the bills. … And artists can look at ways of funding these print projects without having to pay out of their own pocket, by getting people to fund — or what we call ‘publish’ — a project.” In other words, a collector who likes a certain artist, can front the money for a print project in exchange for a specified number of resulting prints. The artist, meanwhile, would also walk away with a number of prints. And the publisher could sell whatever prints he or she didn’t choose to keep, recouping all or some of the money.

Don’t let the term “print” fool you, by the way, in terms of what The Print Center will allow artists to produce. We’re not talking about mass-produced poster art here, or even the kind of limited-edition works that made Warhol famous. “Most of the print resurgence that happened [from] the late ’70s into the late ’80s had to do with artists reproducing their work,” explains Byrd. “And that has to do with limited-edition prints — they photograph the painting, they do the color separations. It’s an expensive process. They’re signed as limited editions, and there might be 250 identical ones. Or there might be 2,500.”

The screen prints that will be produced at The Print Center are monoprints of one-of-a-kind, original works of art, created on a type of equipment that lets the artist draw or paint directly onto the screen and/or use stencils they design to manipulate the images created as ink is pulled through the mesh onto the printing surface. Prints can be created on pretty much any surface, in addition to the usual paper. “We’ve printed on metal, glass, wood, plexi, rubber, fabric, every kind of paper that you can think of,” notes Byrd. “There’s no limit, really. And we’ve also done exploration into inks that are capable of enduring the elements, for work that will be displayed outdoors for extended periods of time.

Byrd and Bradley hope to have The Print Center in full operation by June 1. Here’s how it will work: Artists will schedule time on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. There will even be options for artists to spend the night in the space, using it as a kind of artists’ bed-and-breakfast. Rates, according to Byrd and Bradley, will be “affordable,” allowing an artist to expand his or her body of work relatively inexpensively (exact rates have not yet been set). “We’ll do a run-through with them and show them possibilities with their work,” explains Byrd. “We’ll have the capability to work with artists of all media. As a painter, I figured out a way to make prints that closely resemble what I’m involved with in paint. Sculptors could print on all sorts of materials and include it in their work.”

Besides the financial and aesthetic perks that come with creating prints, Byrd and Bradley point out that the process can be just plain fun — which is also how they describe a visit to the gallery. “Semi-Public makes people smile, you know,” declares Byrd. “You’ll leave Semi-Public with a grin on your face.”

The Love Show will be on display at Semi-Public Gallery (305 Hillside St.) through March 25. Gallery hours are 1-5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Upcoming shows include Leigh Miller’s “Photography Thesis Show” (opening April 6); the third annual “Just Kids,” featuring artwork from children who attend the Jewish Community Center daycare (opening March 29); and “New Prints 2000-01” (opening April 13). Semi-Public takes art on the road in June 2001 with “Semi Public 3: The Island Project,” a exhibition of paintings and prints to be displayed in Ocracoke, N.C. and a follow-up to last year’s “Brooklyn Project.” The Print Center is now accepting artist applications. Call the gallery at 253-5048 (Saturdays and Sundays, 1-5 p.m.) or Tony Bradley at 254-3818 for more information.

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