Local artist Victoria Long has curated and participated in art shows all over the world since graduating from UVA in 2006. Long returned to Charlottesville in 2011, and while she’s actively made and shown work since then, this month’s “Surprise” marks the first gallery show she’s assembled here in many years.
“Surprise” opened on January 3 at The Bridge PAI and features work by Long and fellow local artist Julia Sharpe, as well as erstwhile Charlottesville residents Patrick Costello and Roger Williams, Richmond’s Travis Robertson, New York artists Mike Perry and Lief Low-Beer, and Chicagoan Ellen Nielsen.
Each artist is exhibiting a three-dimensional sculptural object, and a corresponding art print in an edition of 50. The prints won’t be on sale at the gallery—instead, a group of bicyclist volunteers from Community Bikes will travel through the city on January 17-19 handing out sets of the prints to unsuspecting passers-by.
The event is similar to “Bike and Bake,” a Valentine’s Day event organized by Community Bikes members for several years (in which Costello has been heavily involved), but the idea is unusual for a gallery-based art show.
According to Long, “The idea for ‘Surprise’ was inspired by projects that I had heard about, taking place in other locations such as Portland, [Oregon], Croatia, or Berlin, where there were similar bicycle-based distribution of prints happening, and the idea behind those projects was to take art out of the gallery and into the streets.”
She emphasized that the goal of this distribution method is to be unpredictable.
“We want it to reach a variety of communities throughout the city,” said Long. “For example we don’t want to just focus on, say, the University or the Downtown Mall area. The hope, of all us behind ‘Surprise,’ is that handing out, distributing the prints in this way will create an unexpected interruption in daily life that leads to an unexpected aesthetic experience for the recipient.”
Inspired by the Paris Uprising of 1968 in which artists made screen prints for political protest, Long said that, “While ‘Surprise’ isn’t political, in an overt sense, I think that the act of taking art out of a commercial context, and bringing it to the streets, is in some way a political gesture.”
“Another inspiration is the work of the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont,” said Long. Costello apprenticed there in 2009. “Part of their manifesto is ‘cheap art,’” Long explained. “Art that everyone can have, making prints simply, using woodblock technique.”
As for the work itself, Long’s taste as a curator is evident. She favors colorful, simple, and accessible art, that is also conceptually thoughtful and well-crafted.
“Mike Perry is an artist and graphic designer out of Brooklyn,” said Long. “He plays a lot with color and flat, repeated shapes. This assemblage is a series of wooden shingles that are painted in a variety of colors.”
Robertson’s work also features flat, screenprinted woodcuts in a friendly, loose, cartoonish style.
Nielsen’s piece configures a giant pile of colorful yarn, entitled “Mammoth.” According to the artist, “‘Mammoth’ was about making a cute and benign craft object into something grotesque and monumental.”
Long’s piece is also made of yarn, wrapped around her trademark sculptural mountain shapes. “It’s a way of exploring the intersection of craft and fine art,” Long said. “Picking up the thread dropped by feminist artists in the 1970s.”
Costello’s sculpture is a phallic pedestal made out of plastic flowers. “I made it from flowers that I got out of the trash cans at Holly Memorial Gardens,” he said. “They have all those fake flowers on all the graves. I was really interested in how people use flowers to become this more permanent marker of someone who’s passed away; and then those flowers too, have a kind of life, so I was interested in taking them and bringing them back and repurposing them and giving them another life.”
“The work kind of draws inspiration from a number of things, it’s not just about the flowers,” said Costello.
Low-Beer’s work, according to Costello, is “playful, and about form, but it’s also really rigorous. It’s the best work, I love his work.”
As I interviewed the artists, Williams was drilling a hole in a marbled book cover that he had bound, in preparation for the show. He explained, “I’m studying book conservation in school right now [at West Dean College in West Sussex, UK], and so I’m always thinking of these codex objects and their narrative, and their protection.”
Sharpe, one of the best artists currently working in Charlottesville, works in wax and paper, layering thick encaustic wax and ink illustration. Her dark themes and muted color palette may seem like a strange fit for the otherwise colorful show, but the attention to texture and detail make her work at home among her fellow contributors.
Long hopes that the unusual method of distribution via bicycle will help this artwork reach “people who might not feel comfortable walking into an art gallery, or who might not find themselves at The Bridge.”
“I think that’s important,” said Long. “Because I’d like to think that everyone can enjoy something unexpected.”
The “Surprise” sculptures will be on display at The Bridge PAI’s gallery space through January 31, and maps of the distribution routes will be made available at the gallery and through the show’s website at surpriseshow.tumblr.com.