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Gallery Provocateur: Fostering Decadence

Christopher Shy "Origami Ballerina"


Gallery Provocateur 2125 N. Rockwell St.


When viewing art in a gallery, it is traditional for the gallery to provide a neutral, blank space that will not detract from the art on display. This setting is ideal for clean, crisp works but for exhibitions focusing on more alternative fair, a sterile, sparse gallery would contradict the work to its core.  Gallery Provocateur, located at 2125 N. Rockwell Street, is the antithesis to traditional galleries and is quite proud of such distinction.  With a primary focus on figurative artwork, Gallery Provocateur reshapes the typical gallery experience by creating a venue that seamlessly meets the needs of cutting edge, contemporary works while referencing dark, romantic allusions to history.  The ambiance is somewhere between a classy opium den and a 19th century salon in Logan Square and based upon their current show “Celebration of the Dark Arts”, Gallery Provocateur enforces the need for atmosphere in a gallery, not a lack of it.

Vice-President of Gallery Provocateur, Simon Lamb with Founder/Curator Veronika Kotlajic

I met with Gallery Provocateur founder and curator Veronika Kotlajic and Vice-President Simon Lamb for a private showing of the gallery’s current show “Celebration of the Dark Arts”, on display through January 2012.  The instant I turned the corner at Rockwell Street, the gallery set the mood for a dark and sensual evening of art.  Gathered black curtains cut the windows into narrow crescents, while a stone lion head perched above the gallery entrance suggested gothic chambers.  When I entered the womb-like gallery, the dimmed lighting and low, pulsating bass music drew me to the walls, which are brimming with artwork of all mediums.  Cutting through the low lighting of the main room were spotlights trained on each piece that caused the work to glow against the textured walls.  Viewing walls swelling with art, instead of the sparse hanging of pieces perfectly lined up on a wall, draws you closer to each work to inspect the details and craftsmanship.  It also encourages you to notice new pieces during a second viewing.  The first room housed close to thirty pieces from several artists and only then was I informed that the show sprawled out over three more rooms.

While the work on display primarily focused on figures, the genres featured throughout the exhibition were difficult to pin down to a single category.  Traditional figure painting transitioned seamlessly into the genres of fantasy, pulp, surrealism, as well as macabre, horror, and fetish, all along the same wall.  “The mission of Gallery Provocateur is to provide a non-traditional artists’ space,” curator Veronika Kotlajic explained. “[I wanted the gallery] to give back to the art community and to act as a not-for-profit space to show non-traditional work that is at times discounted by other galleries.” Kotlajic and Lamb went on to explain the typical experience of artists who produce art that is based upon subculture.  “It’s harder to get counseling when you are in the fetish or even nude genre,” Lamb said.  “Photographers will do glamour, event, and fashion photo shoots to pay the bills and do fetish and erotica on the side, which is what they love but [they’re encouraged not to] use their real name…nowadays with the market the way it is, people are buying cheap and quick and it is disappointing for artists.”

"Alison as Silk" and "Origami Ballerina" by Chrisopher Shy

Kotlajic and Lamb designed the interior of Gallery Provocateur to be a comfortable setting where viewers would feel encouraged to take their time looking at the artwork, and have a seat to discuss the exhibitions.  From the atmospheric lighting to the wrought iron chairs upholstered in the same deep red velvet as the curtains, Gallery Provocateur does create a mood and milieu akin to the setting of a Tim Burton film.  Over the course of my visit, I never felt as though I was visiting a business establishment, but rather a parlor from a bygone era, which perfectly matches the tone of the work. “White wall galleries can be intimidating, stoic and cold to some viewers. And that’s not the best way to begin a collection of art,” Kotlajic said.  “We want to take underground artwork to greater visibility this way,” Lamb added.

Another Wall Brimming with Art at Gallery Provocateur


Throughout our conversation, it was clear that Kotlajic and Lamb both understood the plight of underground artists over the years.  Kotlajic began modeling for artist friends after graduating from Columbia College Chicago and saw firsthand how artists working in “subversive” subcultures were being discredited by the traditional gallery system.  “It frustrated me,” Kotlajic sighed.  “I worked at another gallery where I steered some artist friends because they occasionally showed non-traditional art.  Through the process I found out that they were not treating the artists properly.  In response to that, I decided to open up Echo Gallery and do things the right way.”  In 2001 she opened Echo Gallery in Chicago to act as a not-for-profit gallery space to exhibit the work of artists who needed to get their voices heard.  Echo Gallery was open for over five years, but when the building was sold, Kotlajic was forced to find a new location.  Nestled at the base of the historic Congress Theater, Gallery Provocateur may have found an ideal new location.  Many pieces in the gallery cater to a rock n’ roll audience, or at least a public that is not threatened by nudity or macabre imagery in art.  “We are always trying to push it,” Lamb explained.  “Art is supposed to evoke an emotion.”

"Sacrifice of the Divine" by Christopher Shy

While some of the work may appear off-putting and severe to some viewers, it is impossible to discount the craftsmanship on display.  Gallery Provocateur features several substantial works by artist Christopher Shy, who specializes in classically rendered figurative works that incorporate biblical allusions as well as a healthy dose of erotica.  On my third lap around the gallery, Kotlajic and Lamb followed me to Sacrifice of the Divine and explained Shy’s process that begins with masterful hand drawn sketches that are scanned into a computer and painted digitally.  His painted sketches are then printed onto canvas upon which he hand paints details with tempera paint that he creates from the chicken eggs he raises on his farm.  The painting is then sealed with a glazing technique dating back to the 16th century.  They also mentioned that Shy stretches all of his own canvases, which is nothing special, until they added that he had built the stretchers from the wooden beams of a one hundred year old barn.  While Gallery Provocateur is always accepting submissions for new artists, and receives around twenty submissions a week, Kotlajic and Lamb regularly attend gallery viewings, art fairs, and comic conventions to discover new talent.  Over the years they have established longstanding relationships with several artists whose work is regularly incorporated into the four annual shows at the gallery.

"Petrified Existence" by David Richardson


“The Dark Arts show began everything,” Kotlajic explained about the show circulation.  “It is a staple and the other three shift depending upon what is going on in Chicago.”  The work featured in the show ranges from traditional paintings of nudes to a bronze cast of a Hip-Hop Pope, painting references to famed stop-motion horror animator Ray Harryhausen, and ominous sculptures of a figure with a ram’s skull for a head extending an apple in hand.

"The Seer" by Larkin




When I asked about previous shows, they mentioned an “Anti-Valentine’s Day” show, an annual show that correlates to local comic book conventions, such as Wizard World or the upcoming C2E2 in April, but they spoke at length about their last show, a tribute to the work of Frank Frazetta, the celebrated fantasy artist responsible for shaping the genre of fantasy artwork from the mid 60’s through the early 80’s.  For the Frank Frazetta Tribute show, Kotlajic and Lamb requested that artists submit work inspired by the art of Frazetta or bore allusions to his style.  “The first submission we received in the mail was from a prison,” Lamb smiled.  “You never know where work is going to come from.”  When I asked for more information about Frazetta, Kotlajic and Lamb began citing the artist’s origins in Pre-Raphaelite imagery and impeccable draftsmanship as well as his fondness for mythological allegory.  They emphasized his use of the tradition as a means to reach the contemporary audience of his day.

"See Ya Real Soon" by Malachi Maloney

Subverting history may be an apt description for Gallery Provocateur as well.  Throughout our three-hour discussion, I could not help noting the striking similarities between Gallery Provocateur to the spirit of the 19th century French salons that seceded from the Academy in opposition to the practice of only featuring prominent, established artists.  In addition to presentation style and aesthetic, the two pioneer the exhibition of new talent.  A reference to the 19th century also conjures a romanticism that enhances the relaxed, warm atmosphere of the gallery and encourages discussion of art history.  Many of the featured artists have never shown elsewhere before.

Artist G. Edwin Taylor

Artist G. Edwin Taylor visited during my showing to speak of how Gallery Provocateur provided him with the first opportunity to show his work.  Taylor comes from a Sci-Fi, Horror, Fantasy background and created four new paintings for the show.  Before Taylor began researching galleries, friends were telling him of Echo Gallery.  “A friend recommended Echo Gallery [a few years ago] but I didn’t think I was ready for a gallery show.  Later I found out that Gallery Provocateur was run by the same curators as Echo Gallery and considered submitting work.  I knew that they were the most likely venue to show my work.  My work definitely isn’t for normal galleries.”  When I pressed for him to elaborate, he detailed the frustrating experience of researching galleries where he could submit his work.

"Temptation of the Serpent Spirit" detail by Charles Moesch

“I looked at the galleries out there and couldn’t find a fit for my work; they would dismiss it.  None of the galleries fit, and I kept coming back to Provocateur. Last year I felt I was [ready] to begin showing and submitted work to the Dark Arts show.”  Regarding the work he produced for the show, he briefly detailed the literature of oft forgotten horror grandfather, Robert Chambers and his collection of short stories The King in Yellow.  Based upon the literature of Chambers, Taylor generated paintings incorporating narratives parallel to scenes from the stories.  Three of Taylor’s paintings have already been selected as the cover art for a limited edition printing of the Chambers collection upon which the work is based. “Gallery Provocateur is giving me an opportunity to showcase my work where I normally wouldn’t be able to show it,” Taylor explained. “They are helping me and other artists show work you wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else.”

"Gangsta Pope" by Jason Christopher Hawk

The predicament of fantasy artists like Taylor as well as the stigma associated with the other established artists at Gallery Provocateur brings to light a double standard of genre in art and a caste system within the industry.  Historically, fantasy, horror, pulp, erotic, exploitation, and fetish are all genres that face opposition when new talent presents such work, however prominent artists such as David LaChapelle, Steven Klein, John Currin, Monica Majoli, and John Kacere are not required to defend their work in the same manner.  Their most explicit pieces are deemed collectible rather than lowbrow and break the invisible barrier of white wall galleries.  Many artists have redefined their careers around fantasy imagery and provocation, yet new generations of fetish, pulp, and other “underground” artists continue to be marginalized. The work at Gallery Provocateur underscores the unspoken bias against genre and youth in the industry.  Youth and lack of notoriety may play a role but if so, at what age does provocation in art turn from juvenile to being sophisticated and noteworthy?

"Elf Portrait" by Matt Hughes,

The “dark arts” on display at Gallery Provocateur are attempting to tip the scales of convention with their classical execution of their otherwise coarse or sinister subjects.  Stark walls would ruin the illusion so masterfully rendered in these pieces, and the gallery’s dedication to fostering darkness and provocation is evidenced in the appropriately moody aesthetic trappings of Gallery Provocateur.

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