The first floor studio of Carl Solway Gallery — where for many years artist Nam June Paik created sculptures made of prepared televisions — has been stripped, polished and rehabbed into a slick exhibition space. The contractors have done their job well, meaning that all physical signs of the workshop's past have been removed. In place of woodworking and assembly equipment hang seven large neon sculptures by Keith Sonnier.
The room's transformation is as emotional as it is physical. The 71-year-old Paik was born in Korea and lived in New York since 1964, but Cincinnati became something of a second home due to his long-standing relationship with gallery owner Solway.
When Paik needed additional space to construct his artwork, Solway closed his West Fourth Street gallery, relocated to 424 Findlay St. in the industrial West End and renovated a former spring mattress factory into a vertical arts center. At its opening in 1993, the building housed separate gallery space for Solway and his son, Michael; offices; storage facilities; and studios for visiting artists. But the majority of space was dedicated to a large shop area for Paik and other artists.
The demand for the Findlay Street workspace ended recently when Paik stopped creating new work due to ill health. Michael Solway had already left to curate a gallery in California.
The art factory era was over, and once again Solway decided to actively program exhibitions and reach out beyond the museum administrators, local artists and arts patrons who visit his space regularly. He's looking to promote the classic 20th-century artwork he represents to the general community.
For Solway, 68, the gallery expansion is a return to the West Fourth Street days when a show of new work by Paik would attract sizable crowds to the long, shotgun exhibition space. Solway understands his Findlay Street space is a singular destination, an arts oasis in an industrial stretch filled with beer kegs from the nearby Samuel Adams brewery and mounds of scrap from the Durable Slate Company.
For practical reasons, a parking lot, new entrance and reception area have been built adjacent to the rehabbed gallery. Yet, more than a fenced-in parking area, it's the world-class art that beckons to visitors, whether past buyers or first-timers.
It's a cold weekday evening in late November, and a sizable crowd has come to the gallery to listen to Sonnier speak. He greets the guests affably, making good use of his Louisiana upbringing and sense of Southern hospitality. Solway Gallery comes alive for a few hours, and the effect is invigorating, a hint at art renewal possibilities for the remaining floors of the building as well as the neighborhood.
Surrounded by drawings by Tom Wesselmann as well as a large lithograph by Roy Lichtenstein, Sonnier talks about his work in the adjacent gallery, light sculptures constructed as far back as 1968 and two pieces finished earlier this year. In a small nearby room are displayed works by Kentucky photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, both landscape images as well as personal works. Outside the doorway, in the floor's second large gallery, 19 steel drawings by Wesselmann show off the nude female form with subtle, erotic perfection.
A week later, on an early December afternoon, Solway Gallery is its usual quiet self. Free of the lecture din, the artwork takes priority — and the value of this building becomes clear the moment you enter the hallway.
Past the playful Saul Steinberg ink drawing "Inspector Army Girl;" the sprawling, serene framed Jean Dubuffet silk scroll "Parcours;" and the rich Robert Rauschenberg lithograph, "Kip-Up," you sense immediately the mission of a newly reinvigorated, re-engaged Solway Gallery. It's a museum unto itself, tucked away in an industrial neighborhood, rewarding all who make the effort to pass through the doorway.
The current exhibition featuring Keith Sonnier, Tom Wesselmann and Ralph Eugene Meatyard runs through Dec. 24. A new exhibition featuring Vito Acconci and Nancy Graves opens in mid-January.