The new Basketshop Gallery in Westwood found the perfect icebreaker for its opening: Maker’s Mark with a generous slice of (Home Depot) orange. The bourbon bottle, part of an exhibit titled How to Make Enemies Friends, sits empty now, but gallery founders Eli Walker and Kelly Kroener pledge that they’ll keep the conversation and hospitality flowing in a working-class neighborhood not accustomed to alternative art practices.
The couple moved here in October from Dallas’ rising Cedars neighborhood, where for four years they ran Homeland Security Domestic Gallery in their “shotgun shack” house. Inviting people inside their living room to look at art quickly became a way of life. Now, as they shift to operating in a Harrison Avenue storefront, Walker and Kroener say they want Basketshop (which doesn’t sell baskets) to be as woven into Westwood as the nearby bake shop and Henke Winery.
“There’s nothing really intimidating about art that I know of,” says Walker, a painter and basketmaker. But he and Kroener, who creates art with textiles, understand that other people have preconceived notions about contemporary art and galleries, so they are taking baby steps as they introduce themselves to the West Side and try to fit in in their own way. Recognizing Cincinnati’s traditions of quality craftsmanship, they chose the labor-themed art of Ryder Richards for their first show, which will be up through Sept. 9.
Richards, of Dallas, has combined sophisticated ideas with utilitarian building materials for an exhibit that is contemplative yet doesn’t take itself too, too seriously. His beautifully drawn portraits of orange clamps, vises and buckets rest on sawhorses. The Maker’s Mark bottle sits atop wood-and-foam “cinder blocks.” During a conversation on opening night, Richards explained that as he worked beside builders on various projects, he recognized that he was guilty of making assumptions about their cultural tastes, education and politics, just as they passed judgment about his being an artist. But the common experience of a trip to the hardware store, plus a shot of hard liquor, can help turn foes into friends.
Kroener calls the exhibit a nice lead-in to Basketshop’s programming, which will continue to weave community and craft. “I think art builds up from craft, and not down from style,” she says, adding that she feels at home in Westwood.
She and Walker have exhibits planned into April 2018, when they’ll host Michael Corris, who in the 1970s was a member of New York’s Art & Language collaboration, a conceptual art group that challenged mainstream critics and practices.
“He understands what community means,” Walker says. “He helped us form an idea of how important hospitality is.” Claiming authorship of an individual piece is secondary to everyone being involved in a bigger project.
After Corris’ visit, the couple would like to work with Cincinnati artists. Kroner, who grew up in Lebanon, Ohio, says she had wanted to return to this region and make a difference here. In Walker’s hometown of Dallas, the couple co-founded S.C.A.B. (Socialized Contemporary Artists Bureau) in response to being shut out of white-cube galleries that wouldn’t host so-called “emerging artists.” Members showed one another’s work in living rooms, lofts and even floating in a swimming pool.
The couple, who graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, cite the influence of their instructor Michelle Grabner, who for years exhibited artists from around the world in The Suburban, her 9-by-9-foot garage in Oak Park, Ill. In Cincinnati, they’ve sought out Maya Drozdz, who started Ledge Gallery on a shelf in her apartment before moving it to a windowsill of her shop in East Walnut Hills.
Though Kroener’s studio is in the back of Basketshop, she and Walker say they don’t intend to show their own art in their gallery. To do so would go against their hospitality ethos and the basket-weaving metaphor.
“This is us working as gallerists,” Walker says. “We want to be the gallerists that we would want to work with as artists.”
BASKETSHOP GALLERY is located at 3105 Harrison Ave., Westwood. Hours and more info: facebook.com/eli.walker.director.