“Do you ride?” I was asked this as a casual ice-breaker at the opening reception for “Motorcycles + Art,” a group exhibition at Gallery 788 @ MAP last Thursday. It’s funny how, when attending an opening, these sorts of brief conversations with new people can define the experience of the show. It makes total sense. An opening draws a crowd, often of friends connected by common interests or experiences. “Do you teach here too?” “How do you know the artist?”
“Do you ride?” is the perfect question for a show where all the work of the 30+ artists is linked by a common love of motorcycles and bike club culture, even if the artwork does not always explicitly illustrate it. That’s not the point. This is an exhibition of artists who love motorcycles and bike culture, but is not exclusively about that culture.
Presented by Gallery 788, the exhibition was curated and organized by Mare Distler, Stephanie Murdock, Jillian Erhardt & Maureen Sullivan, “formerly the Mufflers,” per the exhibition announcement. This event grew out of their friendship and a love of riding theme is at the core of the exhibition. Highly varied in content and approach, the works all contain some connection to the ideals and aesthetics of motorcycle culture. Literal or conceptual, flash tattoo art, documentary photos, or welder gear-head sculptures; the commonalities of this particular geek culture permeate.
Of all the eye-candy on-view, the bikes were some of the most memorable. Installed in the space were restored antiques as well as custom-body builds; each seductive and fascinating. Being such a motorcycle-friendly event, the opening drew a heavy rider crowd, who added many more beautiful machines to the event. In this way, the gallery exhibition turned into a rally; a mini Sturgis-on-Saratoga. At the entrance to the space were installed shining racks for visitors’ riding gear and helmets that became an interactive display: worn leathers and glittery helmets greeted visitors and set an immediate tone.
John Shea has two works in the show which are emblematic. First of all, his motorcycle, which I presume is custom re-built. A modern silver and black cafe’ racer with low-slung handlebars, it has an almost robotic cleanliness to it. In contrast, his wall piece is a remnant of an earlier art performance: a framed-out shallow panel contains a series of wooden slats forming rows of inset chevron forms, set tightly to each other and stuffed with fireworks. For the performance, he lit the wired explosives, which scarred and burned the structure with brilliant fire. The wall sculpture still smelled of carbon and implies a connection to the consecutive and continuous series of explosions that drive a combustion engine. These two contributions offer a good idea of the breadth offered by “Motorcycles + Art” and were smartly installed in the front of the gallery space.
Ramsay Barnes’ drawings of intake gaskets, do not instantly read as “bike culture,” although they clearly are. Graphite on paper, these flat graphic diagrams of Vespa gaskets express the engineered beauty of industrial design as much as any sculpted metal of intake valves or polished steering forks. The pencil is dark, velvety and tightly controlled, which allow the drawings to function as formal abstractions to those who might not recognize the designs that inspire his compositions.
Kelly Walker’s faux-finish abstractions embody a spirit of decoration and flash that I associate with custom paint jobs – I could imagine these textures enameled on gas tanks to great effect. The seven panels displayed together in this exhibition abandon the literal connection to historical decoration sometimes shown in earlier paintings. This choice allows the texture, color and interactions of materials and process to imply pictorial depth and compositional complexity that the pattern and decoration had flattened out previously.
Sandylee Triolo’s video piece puts the viewer in the rider’s seat much like a 1980’s video arcade game. The projection consists of a montage of re-purposed footage featuring POV action shots sourced from YouTube. The viewer is posited as a bike rider, the composition dominated by a digitally-imposed faux-front of a motorcycle fork/windshield & gauge assembly, which remains static throughout. However, over the course of three minutes we are transported by the background environment to surfing, running, bicycling and motocross; among many increasingly nonsensical action scenes. Placing the viewer in a specific and consistent position throughout, the piece communicates the thin vicarious excitement we get from such virtual experiences. The environments shift in such surreal and cinematic ways that they offer an absurd romanticism, reflecting the freedom we attach to motorcycle culture.
(You can view this video online here, but seeing it projected five feet tall really is the better experience.)
These are very few of many beautiful and intriguing works shown. I strongly recommend taking the opportunity Saturday (as of this writing, this weekend) to visit the closing reception for this short, wide and vibrant show. There are many different takes on the culture and deeply personal stories on view for only a limited time.
The opening reception itself for “Motorcycles + Art” was an iron horse hootenanny: friends gathering together to make an event art. In addition to the work itself, food was provided by Dangerously Delicious Pies and musical entertainment by Glenmont Popes, JJ Damage & The Bandits, & Tom Turnbull. I had to leave before the music started, but it was clear that a serious party was in the works.
“Do you ride?” My reply was, “No, but I grew up across the street from a biker family, and one of their boys used to terrorize me when I was a kid.” Understandably, that response more-or-less shut down the conversation. But, that happens all the time at art openings. I watch “Sons of Anarchy” for its Shakespearean themes in addition to the beauty of gleaming metal and vicarious thrill of outlaw spirit that I do not possess. That’s what Art is for sometimes, offering an opportunity to briefly fantasize yourself into someone else’s leathers and consider another story.
Gallery 788 has been the project of Eduardo Rodriguez since 2006, beginning in a small storefront in Baltimore’s Pigtown and hopping across different venues until arriving to Maryland Art Place’s original home on Saratoga Street last year. 788 has 2 more shows in the location upcoming: May. 2nd, a “DC vs. Bmore” 2-town exhibition, and following, a show sponsored by What Weekly which includes a wedding in the space on May 19th. Later in the summer, Gallery 788 anticipates re-opening in the former “Chicken, Steak & Chocolate Cake” space in Baltimore’s Rosebank/Govans neighborhood at 5716 York Road. For more information on upcoming events, visit g788.org.
The “Motorcycles + Art” closing reception will take place at 218 West Saratoga St. on Saturday, April 27 from 7-11pm.
Author Ian MacLean Davis is a Baltimore-based artist and instructor.