The end of an era

For almost a decade, downtown Asheville’s Zone one contemporary gallery has showcased the provocative and the original in Western North Carolina’s burgeoning visual-arts scene. But now the splash and the magic are coming to an end.

Closing the “Zone” as an active commercial art space will mean that gallery owner Connie Bostic, a painter, will enjoy more time in her studio and with family and friends. She’ll also be able to work more on one of her many causes, the Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center, where she serves as director.

For Zone one’s final show, called Gallery Retrospective 1991-2001, Bostic has chosen 33 recent works by 24 of her favorite artists — all of whom have exhibited at Zone one over the past decade. It’s a fitting tribute.

Yet the announcement of Zone one’s imminent demise has been greeted with dismay and disbelief by many in Asheville’s art community. It’s hard to resist the feeling that the gallery’s absence will leave a tremendous void in Asheville’s cultural scene, although Bostic — with her characteristic optimism — predicts that gap will soon be filled. Zone one has been a magnet, a center, a gathering place for art and people involved with both making and supporting art; it’s been a salon, of sorts. To many, it seems inconceivable that this resource won’t continue to exist as a kind of enlightened ballast in Asheville’s art world — a linchpin for downtown’s lively Biltmore Avenue strip.

For newly arrived artists — whether from Florida, New York City or the West Coast — Zone one has often been the first stop (and the first indication of the seriousness and vitality of Asheville’s art scene). The lucky ones had only to step through the door to become instantly connected, because Connie Bostic knows everyone. Her taste in art is at once educated, specific and truly catholic. She possesses a genuine passion and curiosity for a wide range of human types, as well as a democratic soul. She also rents studio space to artists and has a genius for introducing people. In fact, that practice may be one of her primary art forms.

Flashback (sometime in the mid-1980s): a deserted downtown street in a small American city in the South. Businesses have moved to strip malls and shopping centers. Many buildings are boarded up; even the porn theater has closed. Finding a parking space is never a problem. Artists, seeking the cheap and generous spaces that are a necessity for their work, begin to occupy these downtown buildings. Painter Connie Bostic, who runs a music club on Wall Street, has had to move her studio several times. Her husband, George — who refuses to help her move again — persuades her to buy the building at 37 Biltmore Ave., across the street from the defunct movie theater. Painter/art critic Robert Godfrey (who will later buy the building next door for a studio) and Bostic open the World Gallery, a nonprofit enterprise supported in part by Western Carolina University, in Bostic’s storefront space. For three years, the World Gallery mounts serious exhibits, some with curators from outside the region.

Zone one, which evolved from the World Gallery, opened in 1991. “I wanted to show things that had some meaning,” explains Bostic, “more than decoration. I am proud of the fact that so many artists have wanted to show here. My only regret is about the shows that haven’t happened.

“A lot of work sold out of this gallery has been bought by artists,” she adds.

A look at the 24 artists included in the current exhibit reveals how a focus on regional art expanded to include artists with national and international reputations, putting Asheville and the Western North Carolina mountains on the larger map. Paula Stark, Kathryn Wall, George Hildrew and Margaret Curtis are New York City artists with ties to the area — as is David Dawson, who lived and worked in Asheville from 1993 to 1999. Bill Scott is a Philadelphia painter. Big Al Carter is from Washington, D.C. Object-maker and performance artist Nick Cave, whose 1999 show at Zone one was one of the most phenomenal the gallery has hosted, is based in Chicago. Robert Godfrey, who came to Asheville from Philadelphia, has had his studio on Biltmore Avenue for 15 years. Mary Parker is a nonagenarian painter who has retired to Asheville. It’s Bostic’s particular gift to show regional artists such as Elma Johnson, Richard Craven, Linda Larson, Marie Hudson, Lynne Tanner and her own discovery — Tom Thompson — along with such diverse younger talents as Cathryn Griffin, Ann Ropp and West Coast sculptor Marya Roland, all of whom now live and work in the region. The Zone one aesthetic isn’t easily defined, but it’s never limited in scope. Bostic’s definition of regional diversity is as broad as the universe, and her idea of art is serious — and quite ambitious for Asheville.

The first sight to hit the visitor to Gallery Retrospective is Linda Larson’s gutsy, Elaine-DeKooning-ish double portrait of Connie and George Bostic — in which Connie is nude. Larson’s work keeps company in the main gallery with David Dawson’s pale cosmological oil “Chimera,” and Marya Roland’s “Shell 3: Obsession.” Roland’s sculptures — which frequently project serious whimsy — are made of ordinary materials combined, crafted and coaxed together in unexpected ways. The pieces are intended, she says, to blur the boundary between art and viewer, and to challenge traditional concepts of sculpture. This larger-than-life-size, cocoon-shaped piece on tiny rolling feet — for all its cold steel and black rubber — seems to be a friendly presence, bringing to mind a cyber-tech yurt flying a stone flag. Here, the artist suggests, we will be taking our obsessions and our need for shelter with us, even as technology transforms our sense of space and personal anxiety.

Another compelling sculpture installation, Elma Johnson’s “Grey Babies,” also powerfully bridges the conceptual and the real. These beautifully crafted doll-babies — each tightly swaddled in clay “cloths” — seem to stand as statistics that remind us how our material culture, obsessed with fertility problems, also exploits and is in conflict about children and childbearing. This sculpture — with its simultaneous appeal to touch and its chilling sense of isolation in numbers — powerfully reflects our refusal to examine such issues as the environmental implications of infertility, or the sociological causes of infanticide and the exploitation of children.

Several smaller conceptual pieces are equally provocative. Richard Craven and Martha Bezing’s collaboration, comprised of daisy petals with an aspirin bottle encased in vitrine, is titled “She loves me / she loves me not / she loves.” And Rick Melby’s glass-paged ex-voto object, “Loteria,” is a kind of dreidel, which seems to suggest that the symbols for our spiritual searching are interchangeable, even as they are precious to us. In the same room, Ann Ropp’s powerful “Body of Water Series WC399N” floats up to us like a fragmented memory of intimacy: It’s a “Veronica’s napkin” image of the way the body, as an undifferentiated site for our projections, is simultaneously human, nongendered and deeply mysterious.

Robert Godfrey and Tom Thompson are artists working with powerful content. Thompson’s works in oil and encaustic remind one of a more colorful Edwin Dickinson — as if Dickinson’s ability to give us the image on the retina, a complicated amalgam of memory and imagination, has been adjusted for 21st-century reception. Godfrey is one of the region’s most accomplished and important artists. Here, he is represented by “Nineteen out of Forty Kisses,” part of his latest series of paintings of what — at first glance — appear to be freeze-frames of the kind of screen embrace Hollywood has iconized into our popular consciousness. You know the image: The music swells, the close-up of the lovers fills the screen, the credits roll, and — blissfully conjoined at the lips — the two live happily ever after. Or do they? In Godfrey’s work — endlessly replayed in frame after frame, with what appear to be only slight variations — John and Martha, Abelard and Heloise, Lucy and Ricky re-enact and represent heterosexual variations on the age-old ritual. It is testament to the sophistication of Godfrey’s painterly language that he is able to handle such sentimental subject matter without resorting to the maudlin or trendy. The brush gives only the barest of details, and the cool 1950s-inspired colors keep us at a precise distance from these relationships — just enough to sustain the surface possibility of the idea of romance. The paintings would be interesting enough if Godfrey were commenting on our wish to believe in a romantic ideal and the ways that our fantasies fail our realities. But on closer inspection, these paintings are thick with more personal details, reminding us of Godfrey’s ongoing ability to use personal narrative as painterly inspiration. Taken together, these 19 panels seem almost like an incantatory spell to keep alive his belief in the romantic as a life-giving act. Our wish to couple — part of the collective consciousness, like our dreams of living in harmony with nature or our hopes for world peace — is held up by Godfrey in the face of contemporary cynicism and irony.

More than anything else, the work Bostic has chosen to exhibit at Zone one reflects her goal to “show art that had some meaning.” As Tom Thompson says: “It is not clear who will fill this void. Connie has certainly shown the most adventurous stuff, but she, by her own personality, could also draw people in and make [the art] accessible.”

“I think Connie cut her own throat thousands of times, financially, by refusing to show more commercially acceptable work,” notes Asheville’s own fin-de-siecle symbolist, Marie Hudson. “It’s important for her to know how grateful we are to her. Most artists are so self-centered. The greatest things Connie has done is to encourage and promote and accept other artists.” And David Dawson adds: “Connie Bostic has been a real driving force for the art scene in Asheville, by showing work that was not the prevailing craft image available elsewhere in the region. Hers is a very generous spirit.”

All of the artists I spoke with for this article confirmed one impression: Bostic’s own creativity feeds off the inspiration of other artists. Asheville art aficionados will be waiting to see what she’ll be up to next, glad to know that the force is still with us.

For those interested in art and ideas, the Asheville Art Museum has also mounted a millennial survey — Endings and Beginnings, Western North Carolina 2000-2001. The content and effect of the two shows are quite different (Marjorie Hellman’s beautifully crafted acrylic abstractions are the only overlap between these two groups). And it’s a clear measure of Asheville’s artistic maturity and rich regional diversity that these exhibits are available for comparison within a block of each other. Western North Carolinians should not miss the opportunity to see both shows and draw their own conclusions. And remember: Zone one closes out its decade on New Year’s Eve.

Zone one contemporary gallery (37 Biltmore Ave.) is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Gallery Retrospective 1991-2001 runs through Dec. 31. Zone one will permanently close its doors on Jan. 1, 2001.

[Patricia Bailey is a painter and art critic who has recently moved to Asheville. She has written for Art and Antiquesand Art World in New York City, and she serves on the faculty of Western Carolina University.]

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