That Occasional Thing: Interview with Aaron van Dyke

Patricia Briggs speaks with Aaron van Dyke about what it's like to run a gallery out of his house in St Paul, and about how curators find artists.


Since 2003 Aaron Van Dyke and his wife Peg Brown have devoted two rooms of their Uppertown Saint Paul home to Occasional Art—a contemporary gallery. Occasional takes its name from two meanings of this word: an exhibition is an occasion and the exhibitions happen occasionally.

Over its four years Occasional has shown the work of local, national and international artists. The gallery has shown painting, drawing, collage, books, and sculpture and installation work of artists from Chicago, the East and West Coasts, and Canada. A show of Dorit Cypis’s work, “Sightlines, part 1,” was later included in the exhibition “Consider This… “ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Currently on view are the works of two Vancouver artists, Jason McLean and Isabelle Pauwels. McLean is represented by a series of wacky, seemingly very personal drawings and obsessively hand-painted sports equipment: a basketball, baseball, hockey gloves and helmet, etc. One room of the gallery is devoted to a powerful video piece by Pauwels that abstractly documents the artist’s trip to a pornographic film theater though subjective description and surreptitiously recorded audio but no visuals. This show will be on view through June 30 (the gallery is open 11:00-2:00 pm on Saturdays and by appointment; call 651.353.2451).

Patricia Briggs: Aaron, what is your background, and what is it that led you to devote a significant portion of your potential living space to public exhibition space?

Aaron van Dyke: I’m an artist interested in critical dialogues and art criticism and writing criticism has also been important to me for quite a while. I have a background in both art and art history. I graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design and then got an MFA from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I also have a MA in art history from UW-Madison.

PB: What kind of writing do you do and why do you do it?

AVD: I have written exhibition reviews. I used to do a regular review for Dialogue Magazine. I haven’t done that for a while because the magazine folded. Since then I haven’t had a regular writing gig, which isn’t all bad. Now I write essays for the catalogues we produce for Occasional. It’s a bit of a stretch to call the pieces we produce catalogues, but I do always write an essay to accompany our shows. This is important to me because the essays offer people an entry into the work and writing is important to me as a way of wrapping my head around the work. Writing offers me another level of understanding. You have to understand the work even better in order to be able to explain it to others.

PB: So as an artist you think it’s important not only to make art but to also be part of the conversation about art. And you do this with your writing and with the gallery?

AVD: Yes. In a sense there is no such thing as making art without being part of the conversation any more. I don’t mean to say that making art makes one part of the conversation. I mean, if you’re not part of the conversation—talking, being part of the community, writing, etc.—you are not really making art. Dan Graham in the 60s said something like this; should we even consider a work a piece of art if it hadn’t been written about in a magazine? Well, on one level you can make an argument that obviously it is art if it hasn’t been written about, but I think Graham makes a very important point. An artwork has to have an audience around it, it has to have a dialogue around it. Without that audience it is problematic. Without the dialogue I just don’t think there is an artwork. There is a thing, but it doesn’t mean anything, like a word that only you know.

PB: This concerns the changing function of art?

AVD: The museum is based on a contemplative idea about art. You encounter the work and pretend nothing else is going on around it (though that’s oversimplifying it, I know). I don’t know the history of how exactly we got to that idea of immersing yourself in this contemplative confrontation with the artwork. But that just isn’t the dominant model anymore.

PB: Well, for some that is still the model.

AVD: Sure, the contemplative model is still there, but it isn’t nearly as pertinent now as it used to be. People talk now about the dialogue that happens around the work. I think it was Seth Price who said, “What happens when the conversation is more interesting than the art?” It was a question he rhetorically asked. I think he was trying to say that there is no problem with that, and I guess I agree.

PB: Yes, today . . . well, ever since the emergence of the public museum, art has been a public thing. So much of it, certainly contemporary conceptual art, is meant to be put in a public space and have people engage with through some sort of dialogue. For me, the discussion that happens is equivalent to writing about it. I don’t think there needs to be a publication to have critical dialogue.

Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of Occasional and why you created it?

AVD: Well, doing the last two shows in a row, and having this one coincide with the end of a semester of teaching has made me forget why I am doing this [laughs] . . .

PB: You’re saying it’s hard work and you’re exhausted?

AVD: Yes, in spite of the fact that we try to keep shows as simple as possible. How did we get here? Well, when Peg and I were looking for a house we were fantasizing about a place that had a little retail space downstairs and a living space upstairs. We thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a gallery and a studio downstairs and live upstairs. But we couldn’t imagine being able to afford a place like that.

PB: It sounds like you had an idea about how you wanted to live—with a gallery incorporated into your living space. This is so unusual to my mind.

AVD: We looked at 40 or 50 houses and when we saw this place that had been a duplex at one time, and it was essentially divided like one of those storefront buildings had been and we recognized that right away. We could live upstairs and have the gallery and my studio downstairs.

PB: How long have you been here and doing the gallery?

AVD: We bought the place in November 2000 and got the gallery going in February 2003.

PB: Why did you want to have a gallery? Why a gallery that specializes in contemporary conceptual work?

AVD: In some sense the answers to that question seem dumb. We wanted to show work that wasn‘t being shown in town.

PB: That isn’t a dumb answer.

AVD: But anyone could say that about any art scene. You could be living in the middle of Chelsea and say, well I’m not seeing this and so I’m going to start a gallery to show it. There were lots of models for this, though. There are lots of people who have done this kind of gallery. Chicago used to be filled with apartment galleries.

PB: Really? It’s pretty unfamiliar to me. But I think that what you are doing here is important and pretty inspirational, actually.

AVD: Well, it’s unfamiliar for this city, though even here this has been done. New York and Chicago have had this for a long time. In Munich there was a place like this called Homeroom.

PB: So you have been in a number of homes that have had galleries of this kind?

AVD: Mostly apartments. But I think Bodybuilder & Sportsman was a storefront apartment. Suitable was a very successful gallery in a garage. These are Chicago galleries, and there were many more of them. My friend John Neff, who I have shown here, had a gallery in his apartment in Madison. For every show he let the exhibiting artist(s) name the gallery.

PB: You met him when you were in school in Madison working on your MA in art history?

AVD: Yes, and I showed at his gallery. In some sense it was the smallest venue I had ever shown in but for a long time, up until recently, it was by far the best show I’d had in terms of having an impact. Getting people to see my work and selling my work. Making connections with people.

PB: This is because the person running the galley was able to get people to your show?

AVD: Yes, I met important collectors from Madison there and the curator of the Madison Art Center through that show.

PB: How do you know about small galleries?

AVD: Word of mouth and I read little blurbs in the art press. Also, curating makes me notice galleries like this.

PB: Tell me about curating for Occasional and your objectives here.

AVD: Curating has become a very interesting practice for me…
A big reason for starting the gallery was that there were people I wanted to bring in to show. There were people in town who weren’t getting shown who I thought should get shown. We showed Jonathan Mason, he is a local guy. He just graduated with a Masters in architecture from the University of Minnesota. He was on the fringes of the art world for one reason or another. But his work is really interesting so we put him together with Mark Wagner who is a Brooklyn–based collage artist and bookmaker. And we did Joe Smith who is local, but hadn’t had much exposure in town when we booked him. There are people from out of town who don’t have exposure in the Twin Cities. For example, our first show was Michele Grabner (from Chicago) and Barbara Heath (Minneapolis). Michele Grabner had only shown a few paintings in group shows in the Twin Cities. Her work was showing all over the world but not here. Barbara Heath is a weaver and doesn’t really consider herself an artist but we really like her work and we’ve known her for a long time and so we showed her with Michelle. The combination was interesting in that it brought out ties between domesticity and Modernist painting.

PB: How did the show that is currently on view come about?

AVD: This show is in some ways typical of Occasional. I picked two artists whose work I find interesting. But this show is very new for us in some ways. We found these artist for this show—they were not people we knew already.
… For this show, Peg and I were traveling to Vancouver—where I got my MFA—for a wedding and I decided to do a studio visit with Brad Phillips, an artist whose work I’d seen in a Midway show a few years back. He told me about his friend Jason McLean. So I called Jason and saw the work and liked it. That is how it happens. Jason is sort of the barbarian at the gate of Vancouver art because his work is so bright and illustrative. It’s conceptual but not part of the Vancouver photoconceptual tradition that Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, Ian Wallace, Ken Lum, Roy Arden and other well-known Vancouver artists’ works are.

PB: Do you ever have trouble mixing being an artist and a curator?

AVD: Well, it can be a little weird. For example, when I was in Vancouver I set up an appointment at the Contemporary Art Gallery with the chief curator. [With this meeting I had some conflicting roles at play.] I was there to show him my own work, but also to get information from him about what is was going on in Vancouver. He loaded me up with catalogues of Vancouver artists and one of them was a catalogue that they had done with Isabelle Pauwels called Unfurnished Apartment for Rent. It is this odd conceptual book. The premise is that people rent unfurnished apartments because they can’t afford furnished apartments, so they make their furniture out of the walls of the apartment with building materials used in the walls—they cut materials for tables and beds out of the wall. More furniture equals less privacy in this world […] I saw the catalogue and thought—wow, I should look her up. I couldn’t find her for a while but I finally heard she was attending the Art Institute of Chicago where she is getting an MFA. When I approached Isabelle, she was a little skeptical about showing here, you know, in my home gallery, but after I let her know what we were doing she was all on board.

Another reason I wanted to do a Vancouver show was to make a bridge between the Twin Cities and Vancouver. There are so many prestigious artists in Vancouver and there are tons of interesting younger artists. Geoffrey Farmer, Myfanwy MacLeod, Ron Terada, Kathy Slade, Scott McFarland, Brian Jungen. But we never see them in this city. Even the established Vancouver artists are rarely shown here.

PB: There seems to be a link with Winnipeg…

AVD: Yes, but Vancouver is so much bigger and has an enormous pool of really good artists. Stan Douglas has an interesting book about art in Vancouver, Vancouver Anthology, a 1991 book examining the recent history of artistic practices (unfortunately it has been out of print for some time). They have an interesting tradition of intense, critical self-examination. Why not make a connection with Vancouver. …Some Vancouver artists have heard about this show and have been asking if they can send me their work.

PB: Are there any challenges you face that are different because you are showing out-of-town artists?

AVD: Because I went out and found these artists. I feel more pressure to get people in. And I really like Isabelle’s piece so I really want people to see it. I like Jason’s work, obviously, but I am sort of fixated on Isabelle’s. Jason’s work is playful on the surface, but really a bit intense and dark when you examine it. I think they have much more in common than you might think at first. Isabelle’s work is so straight-forward. It is so intense and brave in a way. It is risk-taking work.

PB: Isabelle’s piece is very strong. The way it is set up here, the viewer is placed in a kind of mini movie theater and led into a porn theater with the artist’s words through written text and audio. It really transports you into her experience and it is so intimate even with very few visuals.

AVD: Yes, not having the visuals, or any pronographic images anyway, doesn’t diminish the explicitness of the piece. All the critiques of documentary photography are taken into consideration here. That there is no transparency in the material. She doesn’t just give it to you, through showing it. You can’t just [sit back and have images wash over you]. She makes you make sense of it yourself. I feel like people just have to see this work. I want people to come and see this.

PB: Are you having luck with that?

AVD: Yes, I have had a Walker curator express interest in seeing the show. The turnout on Saturdays has been light, but we have been getting people in to see the show.

PB: I admire your commitment to these artists’ works. Sharing your work and telling other people about these artists work. I like the way your practice is so multi-faceted and involves participating in a community and facilitating community. In some ways being an artist involves connections with others—this is so counter to the image so many people have of what being artist looks like.

AVD: Yes, it gets away from that black-and-white binary. Either you are alone in your studio, hidden away hoping someone will discover you. The other is that you are schmoozing, like a used car salesman who manages to sleaze your way into a gallery.
When in fact talking to people is a part of what makes the art world work. People show the people they know—and they know them because they like their work. No one is going to stack their reputation and put the time and effort into someone they don’t know or aren’t sure they can trust to be on time and to come through with something interesting for a show. In other words, a curator is going to get to know you if they are interested in showing your work.

Aaron Van Dyke’s work can be seen in “Summer Invitational” at Thomas Barry Fine Arts (June 8 – August 10, 2007) and “Printed Space” at Western Exhibition in Chicago (July 14 – September 2, 2007).