Remember Jim Morrison shouting "The West is the best!" from outside an L.A. nightclub in Oliver Stone's The Doors
? He was right, though not just in terms of California. For Chicago gallery owners, heading further west from the lake means more space, more bang for the buck and an overall better viewing experience for large-scale artworks, something Navta Schulz Gallery and Butcher Shop/Dogmatic know quite well.
It's not accurate to say galleries are new to the western edge of the West Loop, as Schopf Gallery on Lake and NAB Gallery have kept shop there since the early '90s, and the seriously successful, but now closed, Klein Art Works and Gallery 312 sat along the western edge as well. But the area is certainly going from spotted to down-right sceney, so I set out to explore on the third Friday in March, when many galleries were hosting openings in the West Loop.
The four-block walk from Randolph and Peoria Streets to 1039 W. Lake St., the home of Navta Schulz Gallery, felt a bit tiresome against a bitter winter wind. But the truly urban locale, with the intense whirr of the Green Line train stopping conversation dead in its tracks, particularly fits for the current show, "Four in Chicago: Work by Chicago-based artists Jonathan Stein, Lisa Kowalski, Keer Tanchak, and Michael Hopkins."
Open since February in a two-floor building, owners Jodi Navta and Ryan Schulz have the space to show the work of several artists at once, plus ample storage and an upstairs lounge. With grand glass doors at the entry, I felt immediately removed from the grunge of the meatpacking houses. The remoteness factor and nighttime walk beneath the L tracks did little to keep away the arts enthusiasts, who commingled with wine in hand among Kowalski's lushly textured abstract paintings on the second floor.
I scaled even more stairs to reach the third-floor Butcher Shop/Dogmatic space, a four-block walk west of Navta Schulz. Beyond a heavy iron door, designed so for security and not aesthetics, I trekked upwards to see the expansive and gritty space, which bears what owner/director Michael Thomas calls a "heavy dose of reality": rickety floors, exposed wiring and built-up paint jobs on the walls. Truly set in the heart of the meat-packing district, Thomas acknowledges that once there was a "bucket of pig heads" present on his walk to the gallery.
For years a group of art students lived and worked in the building, periodically opening the space for shows under the name "Butcher Shop." The city kicked them out due to zoning ordinances just as Dogmatic Gallery-owner Thomas was looking to relocate his space from Pilsen. The space is huge, measuring at least 1,500 square feet. "I can do a lot of things with this space," says Thomas. "Before [at the space in Pilsen] you could never get far enough back from the wall to look at the artwork. And I could never do free standing sculpture before."
And sculpture is exactly what he's currently showing. "Trivial Pursuit: New Work by Michael Rea," is a series of life-size wood sculptures that include an exploded rocket ship, a musical band set, a boat, a fish tank, an interactive machine gun sculpture-station and an astronaut suit. All this and there is still room for people to sit on, touch, and play with these meticulously crafted sculptures, as Rea intended for them to be interactive.
"There needs to be a space like this that allows artists to do what they want without editing," says Thomas. And seeing the space is worth a good walk. Even past some pig heads.