In a raw interior space downtown that used to be a J.C. Penney and was then an antique store and now has a health club two floors above, Josh Vaile and Ken Bartlett have been spackling and nailing for six months during what would normally be their off hours. Their paint-splattered jeans, work boots, and classic rock playlist say “licensed contractor.” Actually, they’re architects. With Queen and Pink Floyd in the background, they’re transforming this couple-thousand-square-foot former retail space they’re borrowing into a one-night pop-up gallery.
Vaile explains that he and Bartlett accepted long ago that architecture wasn’t necessarily the “free-flowing, creative” discipline he’d once hoped it was. On the bright side, a couple of combined decades in the profession navigating endless rules and constraints has yielded them a wealth of building techniques, materials know-how, and a warehouse-sized cutting-room floor of creative ideas they didn’t want lying dormant any longer.
So they asked themselves how to transition into a fine arts career and decided to jump headfirst.
“We thought, ‘Let’s go big. Let’s do a lifetime of art in six months,’” recalls Vaile.
He and Bartlett took an anything-goes approach to materials, using rows of mirrored bathroom cabinets they’d scavenged from a construction site as sculpture materials, gluing army men to the floor, and smashing pumpkins so they could include indiscernible chunks of the desiccated orange gourd in a collage and name it after the Billy Corgan-fronted alt rock band from the ’90s.
They constructed a survey of their collective fascinations: process art from the ’60s, installation art from the ’70s, graffiti from the ’80s, and a process/installation/ graffiti hybrid à la Mr. Brainwash, the Los Angeles videographer-turned-cult-celeb documented in the 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop. (For Vaile and his son Brendan, 10, who’s planning a performance for the one-night exhibit, this is actually their second art show. They installed an art piece in a Mr. Brainwash show in Los Angeles in 2011.)
With the wide-eyed, unjaded perspective of art-world newcomers and the adept craftsmanship of people who’ve been designing large, 3-D things for years, Bartlett and Vaile wedged in references to current events, such as a memorial to the 2011 Reno Air Races crash. They sprinkled in personal references and in-jokes, some entombed in the artwork and nearly impossible to see—they buried collared shirts, a symbol of constraining office work, in layers of joint compound within a huge abstract painting—and some right in front of you. Plot spoiler: You are allowed to sit on the red thing that looks like it could possibly be a bench.
Then, they hid most of their work behind wood frames and drywall.
The exhibit is called Focus, a response to the cultural phenomenon of our widespread scatteredness.
“Basically we’re taking you and holding your head and focusing it on what we want you to see,” Vaile says. Most of the exhibit is visible only through “view holes,” long, square, cardboard tubes that provide a sliver of a view through a false wall onto part of a painting or an installation.
Some of the pieces are large and far away. Some are small and nearby. Some are embellished with lighting tricks or mirrors. It’s process art meets interactive art.
Then there’s the performance, which will turn into a conceptual sculpture.
“I graffitied this,” explains Brendan, gesturing to an architecturally perfect stack of cardboard boxes and Styrofoam. He’ll roll an LMFAO song, bust through the structure, and put his signature on the resulting pile with spray paint.
“We want everybody to get on our mothership and experience how we see art, and fly away with us,” Vaile says.