Never heard of Women Centered Art? You’re not alone. Tucked away in a ‘60s-era business park off South Tryon Street, this exhibition and gathering space has been under the radar since its founding several years ago. But that is about to change.
Earlier this month, WCA kicked off its first full exhibition season in its rechristened gallery, Artist Space 711. Between now and next spring, the gallery will present shows that reflect WCA’s beginnings as a place for women artists, as well as its evolving mission to serve a greater range of artists.
A space for artists
Shane Agostinelli and Brooke Hofsess founded WCA in 2010.
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Agostinelli and Hofsess, both from Charlotte, met in a low-residency graduate program at Columbia University. There, they hatched the idea for WCA, realizing that they shared a desire to create “a space to work and a place for nonjudgmental and open dialogue about the creative process,” Agostinelli said.
They leased the low-slung brick building at 711 Pressley Road, where they conducted workshops, hosted events and mounted the occasional show.
When Hofsess left to pursue a doctorate at the University of Georgia, Diana Arvanites stepped into a co-leader role.
“I began to take on more responsibility when I saw that WCA might go away,” Arvanites said. “To see this wonderful space disappear left me empty. So I took an active role by designing new programs, refocusing on exhibitions, creating components that strengthened our exhibitions and pushing through with our nonprofit status.”
Arvanites grew up in New England and earned a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Massachusetts. Prior to moving here from Providence, R.I., in 2006 with her husband and son, she worked at the Attleboro Arts Museum in Massachusetts, an intimate place where classes and workshops often happened right in the middle of the gallery. That experience inspired her to become involved with WCA and continue promoting the idea that art is for everyone.
This summer, to prepare for this season’s full slate of exhibitions, the gallery was spruced up with a new wall and track lighting. Arvanites and Agostinelli are now working to secure the donation of wood flooring, which they will install.
Most of the 2012-13 exhibitions reflect WCA’s original mission: Carmen Neeley’s “Illusions and Realities,” paintings about perceptions of the female body; Lori Esposito’s “Reach,” a live drawing performance in which the artist will record her own movements; Allison Luce’s “The Serpent Tree,” ceramic sculptures and monoprints that use the story of the Garden of Eden to explore fragility; and “Feminine Focused,” a group photography exhibition.
But the season is bookended by exhibitions that address WCA’s newer, more inclusive, mission: the current show, “Invisible Cities” and, in the spring, “The Man Show.”
Cities of the imagination
“Invisible Cities,” curated by Arvanites, is a dreamy, literate show. It is inspired by Italo Calvino’s book of the same name, a work of fiction in which the explorer Marco Polo, addressing the Emperor Kublai Khan, describes 55 cities within the aging Khan’s empire.
There are 11 participating artists; all but two created art specifically for the show. Some of the works are inspired by chapters or passages in Calvino’s book, while others respond to its overall spirit and mood. While the works on display reveal different levels of accomplishment, all reflect the spare intensity of Calvino’s slim book.
Arvanites created an entryway for the show – a walk-through installation that is a misty assortment of cool-hued tissues hanging like clouds from the ceiling, with cords that descend to a patch of floor covered in small mirrors and mounds of clay soil.
Appropriately for such a book-driven show, several of the artists are also writers. Jeff Jackson is among other things a playwright. (He co-wrote “Botanica,” which debuted off-Broadway in New York City earlier this year.) For “Invisible Cities,” he created a set of satirical pieces – made from random materials including wads of cat hair and a bar of soap with a bite taken out of it – that seem to be the relics of a faded, irrelevant aristocracy.
Amy Bagwell, who describes her work as “poem-centered mixed media,” is represented by the introspective “Echo,” a poem mounted inside a wooden peep box. Looking through a lens to read the poem, the viewer also encounters a mini cabinet of curiosities, including vacuum tubes, dried vegetation and the image of a swallow.
Two artists were inspired by Calvino’s city of Maurilia, which Marco Polo describes in his own time and as it is remembered in postcards. Molly Wilbanks’ books and postcards combine text from the book and her own responses. Agostinelli’s digital prints, which document her interactions with fiber pieces repurposed from previous installations, represent the phases of life.
Although Phillip Larrimore’s “Sea of Stairs” was not done exclusively for the show, it captures the mystery of Calvino’s book with its depiction of unreachable spaces that exist only in the imagination. Composed of layered aluminum screening painted with enamel, it is dark in color but shimmering.
In the animation “The Queen’s Mirror,” Daniel Allegrucci gets in some pointed local commentary, creating his own mythical city of Carlotta, the site of apocalyptic events involving mega banks, mega churches and mega fast food.
Janet Lasher’s “Towers Tall,” a castle-like structure constructed of handmade paper, hangs from the ceiling. On the floor, Lasher has made an outline/shadow of copper dust that heightens the sense of an ethereal, floating city.
Rounding out the exhibition are a mixed media painting by Taryn Rubin, a tender drawing by Rae LaGrone and a film-based installation by Ross Wilbanks.
Because the artworks in this exhibition address a single theme and tend to be monochromatic – most are executed in black, white or neutral tones – the gallery has a visual unity that allows the viewer to stay with each work and appreciate it on its own terms.
Beyond the gallery
While the gallery is its most visible aspect, WCA has other programming that directly engages individuals in the community, regardless of their art experience.
Circle, a hybrid artist talk/critique program, takes place the second Wednesday of the month. Each session opens with a brief presentation by a guest artist. After that, participants, who can bring up to three pieces, can talk about their work and receive supportive feedback. This program attracts about 12 people per night.
The “Dear President Project” is a collection of 250 postcards that advocate more art. Created by people Arvanites encountered while pushing a mobile art studio during visits to Cotswold, NoDa, South End, Concord and other places, they are on display in the WCA lobby. In conjunction with Autism of the Carolinas, this project will continue on Community Day at McColl Center for Visual Art on Oct. 13.
In addition, WCA recently acquired a printing press on long-term loan from Allegrucci. Artists can rent the print room, and there also will be occasional printmaking workshops and programs.
“Women’s issues will always be at the core of what we do, but we want to provide programming not just for women, but for all those who love women,” Agostinelli wrote in an email.