In their underwear, cowboy boots and a John McCain mask

In an understated building on Hillside Street in North Asheville, a gallerist talks of a prototype for an art space that is very different from most downtown and River Arts District galleries.

“The sale of a painting should translate into materials to make more art, not into a retirement fund,” he says.

This self-described reluctant gallerist is Gary Byrd, director of Semi Public, located at 305 Hillside St. The naming of the space, active in one form or another since 1998, is quite intentional. The space is open three hours a day (from 3 to 6 p.m.), Thursday through Saturday, as well as by appointment. While the gallery does have a website, you won’t find Facebook posts or tweets about the next opening. “You’re just gonna have to pick up the phone and call,” Byrd says.

He is more than fine with how his elusiveness may affect turnout. Openings already range from 50 to 75 people a night in the approximately 600-square-foot space. This changed very little when he attempted more of a push into social media in 2011. “Ultimately, the people who need to find Semi Public will find it,” he says.

These people may include artists who seek critical discourse. Byrd cites a dearth of art criticism in town. Semi Public is a space to receive honest feedback (along the lines of those earth-shattering critiques from college and grad school that sent many home in tears). Artists who appreciate becoming stronger from such dialogue may find opportunity for it on Hillside.

The majority of the artwork shown at Semi Public sells for $600, at most. “I do understand the commodification of the art object,” says Byrd. “And I know that we are not going to attract tourists who can drop five to 10 grand on a painting. Once they realize there is no air conditioning in here, they are certainly not going to bother.” Rather, Byrd tends to show artists who make work at affordable prices, who likely have other means of making a living — which, around here, seems to allow work that is conceptual and challenging rather than furniture-matching.

The Grown Man Naked Project

The current show at Semi Public, the paintings of Larry Caveney, fits this description. Caveney, a North Carolina native, is a painter-turned-performance artist now living in San Diego. Semi Public patrons may recall Caveney’s performance in July 2011, in which he offered free advice to passersby at a table outside the gallery while filming the resulting discussions. Much of Caveney’s performance work attempts to engage the public as participants, and bridge the gap between the art world and the non-artist community.

Caveney based his paintings in this show on a series of videos he created as “The Grown Man Naked Project.” Building upon his interest of the artist as the fool, he finds middle-aged, slightly overweight white males who will dance to music wearing only their underwear, cowboy boots and a John McCain mask. Caveney’s artist statement explains, “As a male in the world, or art world, we have a tendency to maintain our own position of power or that persona of power or youth. I poke fun at my own self and other white men.” The paintings, acrylic on both canvas and felt, are gestural stills from some of these videos.

The paintings are not titled, as they all embrace the same concept. One canvas is painted primarily in pink, a notable contrast to the aging-white-male subject matter. The figure stands within a red circle, representing the rug seen in many of the videos. The brushstrokes are primarily large and urgent; the thick paint is pushed about to reveal slightly finer details of a face. One arm is raised in the air, suggesting victory or release, while large white boxer shorts encasing a round belly seem to undermine the gesture.

The work on felt produces more lush textures and contrast, as the paint varies between melting into the surface in pools or sitting on top in thin accent lines. The felt pieces themselves are cut haphazardly, mimicking the urgency of most of the brushstrokes. One felt piece, based on the “Throw the Shoe Event” video, presents a fully clothed man in a tie with arms raised to the air. The details of his hands and face blur into nonexistence. The stance is reminiscent of both a preacher in the middle of a heated sermon or a man exasperated with the white-male uniform enforced upon him.

Another felt piece engages the viewer with a familiar pose: a male figure from the chest up with American flag on a pole to the left, as seen in portraits of CEOs or presidents. Much of the details of the clothing are soft, muted and fade into the felt, while the face is a conscious mess of primarily white, orange and yellow paints straight from the tube. The message could be taken two ways: the details of any male in this role are unmemorable, or the paint represents the chaos the white-male stereotype creates in the psyche of individual men.

The last day to see Caveney’s foray into fools is Saturday, July 23. The next show is local printmaker Tony Bradley of Sotto Editions, an experimental workplace for printmakers located in Semi Public’s neighborhood. When is the opening? “August, September,” Gary casually offers. He encourages those who want to learn more about Semi Public, the work of Larry Caveney, or upcoming shows to call him at 215-8171. Please leave a message.

— Bridget Conn is an Asheville-based artist, designer and photographer. Visit her website at http://www.bridgetconnartstudio.net.

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