If you saw a sign in a neighborhood storefront window announcing “5 under 35,” you might think you could go in for some little gems at a great price. If the storefront is SemiPublic, a tiny art gallery tucked away on Hillside Street in North Asheville, that’s exactly what you get: five artists under 35 years old showing 30 small-scale pieces ranging from metal sculptures to drawings, mixed-media prints and photographs.
In keeping with its atmosphere as a former corner grocery store in a modest residential area, SemiPublic keeps nontraditional — and decidedly non-commercial — hours. Owner Gary Byrd, an artist himself, likes the doors open when people are out walking after school or work. So check it out on Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons from 2 to 7 p.m.
Byrd and fellow artist Tony Bradley opened SemiPublic in 1996 as what they called “A Space for Contemporary Art.” With the help of Bradley, guest artists and friends, Byrd organized more than 40 exhibitions before putting the gallery on hiatus. This year, he and Bradley, along with artists Dana Irwin, Donna Price and Heidi Zednik, got the place up and running again
For “5 under 35,” Byrd didn’t formally solicit works from the masses of artists seeking shows in Asheville. He sees SemiPublic as a neighborhood gallery, so he quietly put out the word downtown and on Charlotte Street that he was looking for five local artists under the age of 35. He called on friends at Rosebud Video, The Wine Studio and even the upstairs apartment tenant to encourage their friends or patrons to throw work into the mix. What might seem an exceptionally laid-back approach to curating a show, worked.
According to Byrd, the artists — Bridget Conn, Christopher Crabtree, Carley Dergins, Michael Ohgren and Cory Williams — found him. Even without a unifying theme beyond bringing in young artists from his loosely-defined neighborhood, Byrd has put together a show that forms visual connections.
I saw 5 under 35 after getting off work downtown and barely managing to catch the gallery’s final open moments. Turns out I was there at what Byrd declared was the perfect viewing time: 6:30-ish. Late afternoon light flooded through a single, small window in the gallery’s farthest corner. The black painted floor neutralizes any glare, as the light radiates towards each piece and bounces back to the other side of the room. The light and the space are just fine for this monochromatic exhibition. The works are in brownish blacks and gradations of cream and white, with an occasional glimpse of color. Each resonates with the white walls and matte-black floor.
Ohgren’s drawings of comically drawn figures — one is called “Anti-Machiavelli” — bleed hints of brown out of the paper he has ink-washed and drawn on. In the middle of the room, Williams’ curvilinear black, grey and rusty brown metal sculptures resemble geometric spiders or squids sitting on pedestals. Abstracted drawings by Dergins combine dripping blacks and smokey grays that build up mounds accented by single red and yellow lines. Faint colors in Conn’s eight, uniformly positioned square print/paintings are brought out by the darkness of a solitary Ohgren piece hung beside them. Greenish-yellow hues come from the stained tea bags she uses as a print-ing surface, yet they still fall in line with the overall color tones of the group.
Crabtree’s photographs contain the most color of the show but still only a single color or two per piece. His images are saturated with dark, shadowy figures and landscapes that might be photo stills from a haunted dream sequence of a film.
Besides the tonal similarities, there is a documentary quality to the show. Dergins and William make careful studies in line, form, and composition that feel like blueprints or schematics. Crabtree’s photos suggest memories, real or imaginary. Conn isolates individual items — keys, measuring spoons, a wishbone — printed on dozens of dried and flat-tened used tea bags fixed on wooden backings.
Conn’s imagery gives the show another theme: nostalgia and transition. The wishbone in “Good Year,” the keys in “Shelter” and a dead bird in “Quiet” suggest ongoing personal development. Ohgren’s images are whimsical critiques of social norms in public and private settings. He marks transitions in and around clothing styles and advertising by giving his exaggerated characters large heads and grins. Sometimes he swaps their historical environments for New Age settings with a single decorative word hovering overhead.
Byrd fluently combines what might have been a hodgepodge of artists into a cohesive exhibition. His small neighborhood space is a refreshing setting for contemporary art. You feel like you’re in a friend’s home, a very discerning friend who just so happens to have an art gallery where there used to be a foyer.
5 Under 35 runs through September 25 at SemiPublic Gallery, located on 305 Hillside St. in North Asheville. For more information call 215-8171 or check http://semipublicgallery.com/