Semantics, the raw, artist-run little gallery on Harrison Avenue in Brighton, turns 15 this year, making it the longest running alternative art co-op in Cincinnati. In 1992, Cincinnati-based artists such as David Dillon (who moonlights as a preparator at the Contemporary Arts Center) and Andy Marko (a visual arts professor at Miami University) came together after they found a space on Walnut Street. They set up shop, exhibiting and selling mostly their own work.
"There was a core group (of artists)," says Dillon. "But soon people started moving on, doing other things."
In 1995 the Walnut Street space flooded, carrying the art and the artists out of the building.
"We were homeless," Marko says. "Everybody thought we were over."
But they pulled together and relocated to the Brighton district, leading the arts boom there. In 1998, the same year they found their new space, the late sculptor Pat Renick added a sense of pride to the area with her work, "30-Module Sphere."
Galleries like the now-defunct SSNOVA and more recent (and active) spaces Junior and Synthetica Gallery have since followed in Semantics' footsteps.
Even though no one was grateful about the artists' departures, or the flood, it did seem to grant the gallery some opportunities. Semantics became less of a place to show the co-op's own work and more of a place to show all kinds of work.
"We're not a commercial gallery," he says. "That gives us the freedom to provide unrestricted exhibition opportunities to emerging and non-traditional artists."
Semantics doesn't sell art, that's not their mission — though most of what you'll find there is for sale. Instead, Dillon says, the gallery throws together the artist and the art collector and wishes them well.
"We want to be very artist-friendly," Dillon says. "Make things easy." He wants artists to have a first show at Semantics and move on to "better places ... Semantics is a springboard for people, perhaps."
Perhaps. I recently stopped by the gallery to watch some installation of the latest exhibition, Angst der Angst (Fear of Fear), co-curated by Cincinnatian Dave Rohs and Tim Lane, an artist from Lansing, Mich. Some familiar faces greet me: Joe Winterhalter, for one, is on the floor installing his piece, "Untitled Titles: A Critique of A Critique of Judgment After Kant."
Winterhalter is a known name in our city, with a much-anticipated upcoming solo show at the Weston Art Gallery opening later this summer.
Tim McMichael was also there. His work has been shown at the Weston as well. He's worked with great artists like Jay Bolotin, Mark Fox and Rohs. His work in the new Semantics show is painstakingly beautiful: lacquered wood strips arranged so precisely that a map of the United States just barely rises from the flat plane.
With artists like McMichael and Winterhalter, it's hard to refer to Semantics as a springboard. They've been to "better places" and come back again. It seems like Semantics follows its own rule — if you can call it a rule in a place where rules don't really apply — to make the artists happy.
Winterhalter has been working with these guys for a long time.
"We start with similar premises (about art)," he says.
Just what those premises are isn't too hard to figure out. Rohs is a guest curator for the Angst der Angst exhibition. He doesn't work with the core group on a daily basis. It doesn't stop him from gushing over the mission of the space.
"It's great," Rohs says, smiling a little, looking off at all the guys installing work. "It's great in that you can come and alter the gallery to whatever you want it to be. ... Artists have flexibility (here), which doesn't happen at other galleries."
Rohs is still looking around. Semantics "might not be as pretty as other places, but the freedom is worth it," he says.
Marko talks about Semantics in a similar way. A fund-raiser he's organizing, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 11, is called Mold.
"It's a play on the building," Marko says, laughing.
True, the floor in the gallery space is broken, uneven. The walls are musty. The steps in the back are crumbling and the entire place smells like mold. But that hasn't stopped the artists and curators who love the space.
"It's been 10 years at this space," Marko says. "If you can't have fun..."
He stops and laughs.
"A little National Lampoon really," he says. "If you can't fuck it, blow it up."
Semantics and the people who have been so instrumental in creating such an artist-friendly space (Marko, Dillon and Julia Ranz) have certainly managed to blow up the neighborhood.
ANGST DER ANGST (Fear of Fear) is on view at Semantics through June 30. Open Saturdays noon-4 p.m. and by appointment. 513-369-3158.